There’s a reason that what we do is called “talk therapy.” From the heyday of psychodynamic practice to the present, therapy has almost always consisted of a lot of talk. In the field’s primordial past (the 1940s and ’50s), the pace of the talk was slow and reflective–a measured, leisurely, story-telling amble through the landscape of the client’s past. In more recent times, the pace of therapy, like that of everything else in our society, resembles more of a dead run. Economic pressures now drive clinicians to specialize in fast-talk/make-it-happen-quickly therapy. Therapists who want to get the job done in the requisite 6 or 10 sessions can’t let many minutes pass without actively doing–which generally means saying–something.
Therefore, it’s all the more astonishing, if not downright perverse, that one of the fastest growing trends in therapy is the increasingly widespread use of meditation and mindfulness techniques. Meditation and mindfulness are about, if they’re about anything, achieving a certain kind of inner and outer silence, a deeply attentive, resonant, empathic kind of silence–but silence, nonetheless. How on earth can the talkiest profession in the world do any good by expecting its practitioners to put a sock in it, and even encouraging clients (gently, kindly, compassionately) to put a sock in it as well?!
For many years, using meditation techniques in sessions was regarded in mainstream professional circles as New Age-y to the point of malpractice. Now, as Jerome Front reports in his cover story, mindfulness has “permeated the psychotherapy universe,” not only because it helps clients achieve a state of relaxed concentration conducive to effective therapy, but because, in the past fifteen years, a blizzard of research findings have demonstrated its benefits throughout the whole range of mental and physical health care. Apparently, we’re discovering, there’s almost no physical, spiritual, or psychological suffering that mindfulness training can’t soothe or repair.
Just as important as what it can do for clients is what it can do for therapists. As Front writes, neuroscientists are beginning to describe how meditation can help develop the neural circuits that close the old gap between body and mind, and between self and others–the foundation of psychotherapy. “In my own work as a therapist,” he writes of his introduction to meditation during the 1980s, “I was often aware of how challenging it was to stay fully present with clients, especially the ones who pushed my buttons. Might the practice of mindfulness–that is, a direct, full-bodied experience of the present moment–help therapists develop more attunement to, and empathy with, clients?” In fact, mindfulness did just that. “This experience of rich, embodied awareness can help us listen better to what’s going on inside us–a vital prerequisite for truly hearing and empathizing with others.”
Not that mindfulness is easy, even for trained therapists who’ve been practicing it for many years. In his luminous and moving article about his own bittersweet quest for inner peace and self-acceptance, David Treadway describes what every mature, honest meditation practitioner knows only too well: “[Meditation] is incredibly hard. The mind is so out of control–beset by fears and fantasies, reliving the past, projecting onto others, making up dreams, in constant, restless motion. Just being isn’t natural to the human mind. That’s the blessing and the curse that makes me different from my cat.”
There’s an ironic sense of coming full circle in the profession’s love affair with mindfulness. Notwithstanding all the mean things that have been said about the old psychoanalysts, maybe they got something deeply right–the importance of quiet, nonintrusive, nondirectional listening–the power not just of silence, but of genuine presence, that more often than not, transcends words.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.