Using Mindfulness to Connect with Therapy Clients

Meditation Exercises Soothe Clients and Build Rapport

Jerome Front

It's only 9 a.m., but the coastal haze is already dissolving on this cold December morning in the Malibu hills. In the spacious room where I'm leading a retreat on relational mindfulness, several dozen therapists sit with their eyes closed, silently attending to their breathing. Some relax in chairs, while others sit cross-legged on the floor, pulling blankets around themselves for warmth.

This scene may call to mind the opening moments of any mindfulness workshop---the inviting silence, the attentiveness to breathing, the catching oneself in the midst of a familiar story line. But the therapists in this room for a daylong retreat are here for something more: to explore relational mindfulness---qualities of presence, receptivity, empathy, and attunement---and to learn a process for directly kindling these qualities to life in our encounters with clients.

Renowned meditation teacher and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of moment-to-moment experience." Many people understand this process as a path toward individual growth and healing, and it is. But the paradox of mindfulness meditation is that in cultivating a more attuned and loving relationship to ourselves, we nurture our capacity for a more resonant connection with others. Particularly in the therapy relationship, mindfulness has a pay-it-forward momentum---for when clinicians are more attuned to their clients, they, in turn, can more readily move forward into greater awareness and kindness toward themselves.

Gaining Some Respect

Indeed, until the early 1990s (or later, depending on your geographical location), many still equated meditative practices with New Age thinking, the kiss of death for therapeutic legitimacy.

Then science discovered meditation. In the last 15 years, scores of research findings on the salutary physical, emotional, and spiritual impact of meditative practice have emerged from the fields of psychology, medicine, education, and neuroscience, eliciting widespread interest from clinicians. Most recently, these disciplines have begun to explore the ways in which mindfulness can enhance relationships.

In his 2007 book, The Mindful Brain, psychiatrist and brain researcher Daniel Siegel describes how relational qualities may be inseparably intertwined with mindful awareness, even at the level of brain structure. He observes, "By exploring the notion that mindfulness, as a form of relationship with yourself, may involve not just attentional circuits, but also social circuitry, we can then explore new dimensions of the brain aspect of our mindful experience." Further, "If mindfulness promotes the development of resonance circuits, then we can imagine that we will become attuned to the internal lives of others as well as to ourselves."

Mindfulness has the potential to become a foundational element of our work. This is because mindfulness meditation can rescue some of our most vital therapeutic qualities---receptivity, empathy, presence, and attunement---from the realm of intellectual construct and provide a powerful, experiential method for awakening them within each of us.

Whole-Body Listening

To begin our cultivation of relational mindfulness, we start with the body scan. Adapted from the MBSR program, this is a detailed, sensuous process of getting in touch with the moment-to-moment nuances of bodily sensation---feeling tones and subtle mind processes that we often take for granted, or fail to notice at all. This experience of rich, embodied awareness rebalances our customarily, head-first style of relating by including the body as a source of intelligence. Since the body speaks to us in the language of sensation and movement, a mindful attunement to these bodily "voices" can help us listen better to what's going on inside us---a vital prerequisite for truly hearing and feeling empathic with others.

I ask participants to prepare for the body scan by lying down on their blankets. Stretching out on my own blanket, I begin by asking participants to simply bring receptivity to their moment-to-moment experience. "Locating your breath by how it feels in your belly or lower back," I say. "Just softening and becoming receptive. If you like, you might experiment with your attention as though it was a satellite dish, directing it to the region of your belly and patiently waiting for sensation to arrive into awareness."

I ask everyone to remain open and curious, noticing what, if anything, moves across their mind, and then to bring their attention back to the place where they feel their belly or lower back moving. Pausing for people to practice this step, I'm awed, as always, by the sense of focus and aliveness that permeates the room.

Widening Ripples

It's my hope---and expectation---that relational mindfulness will wield an impact far beyond the therapy room. Already psychotherapists and meditation teachers are beginning to customize mindfulness practice for larger systems.

I was invited recently to provide mindfulness training for a Fortune 100 company whose IT department had just built a national management team and hoped to ground its interpersonal culture in more open, empathic communication. Schools, too, are beginning to catch on to the potential of mindfulness. As teens learn to meditate and become more familiar with the tones and rhythms of silence in their bodies, they're gradually able to bring more mindful reflection, concentration, and relaxation into their music and their daily lives.

Of course, whatever kind of mindfulness-grounded therapy training or teaching we might choose to do, we can be effective only to the extent that we're willing to walk our talk. Luckily, there's no shortage of opportunities to respond with more awareness and compassion to the challenges of our daily lives.

This blog is excerpted from “A Quiet Revolution."Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Mindfulness

Tags: brain structure | Daniel Siegel | empathic communication | empathy | learn to meditate | mbsr | meditate | meditation | mindful | mindful brain | mindfulness meditation | neuroscience | practices | psychiatrist | psychology | psychotherapists | psychotherapy | relationships | science

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