How Mindfulness Makes Therapy a Sacred Space

Jack Kornfield on Practicing Mindfulness in the Therapy Room

Rich Simon

Therapists are seekers by nature. Research shows that as a group, we’re driven less by the prospect of material reward than many other professions and more by curiosity about new ideas, the hope of acquiring wisdom, and the desire to achieve deeper self-understanding. No doubt this inclination toward exploring new dimensions of experience has fueled the growing popularity of mindfulness among therapists in recent years. But what exactly is it that mindfulness helps bring into focus that our other theories and methods of therapeutic practice haven’t already addressed? For an answer to that question, we asked Jack Kornfield—Buddhist teacher, psychotherapist, and someone who’s been at the forefront of those helping Westerners grasp Eastern spiritual concepts and practices since the 1970s.

Kornfield himself first went to Southeast Asia to study Buddhism after graduating from Dartmouth in the late 1960s. There he underwent traditional training in the Theravada tradition. In 1969, he was ordained a monk. After his return to the West, he founded the Insight Mediation Center in Massachusetts and later Spirit Rock in California.

In this interview, he describes how ritual—what he calls the experience of the sacred—and a concern with the larger mystery of our lives can deepen the therapeutic encounter.

Most therapists shy away from spiritual language, but you like to talk about the importance of creating a “sacred space” in therapy. What exactly is a sacred space, and why do therapy clients need one?

Jack Kornfield: The deep work of the soul requires that we create a place of safety where people feel “Here’s where I can be listened to. This is where I can be held.” Therapy should be a place where they can experience deep repair, forgiveness, and an opening to greater wisdom. When I work as a therapist, I usually start sessions by just saying, “Let’s sit quietly for a few minutes.” I don’t even call it meditation. If people ask for more instruction, I say, “You can feel your breathing, but mostly just be present.” If you don’t help them make some separation from the state in which they walk in, you often just get the road noise: “Somebody cut me off in traffic,” or “I just got a nasty email,” and it’s all superficial. But if you sit together for five minutes and just let things settle, the conversation starts at a much deeper level.

What does recognizing the importance of the sacred and ritual add to the experience of psychotherapy?


Kornfield: Human beings are meaning-making creatures. We need to find meaning, or we’re lost. Part of what I mean by the sacred is that there’s an innate impulse in us to look at the mystery that surrounds us and try to honor it in some deep way. One way to do that is through the ancient language of ritual. That’s something that can get lost when therapy becomes routinized and medical.

When you shake someone’s hand, or when you bow to someone in India and say “Namaste”---which means “I honor the divine in you”---you’re enacting a ritual that goes back to showing that you don’t have a weapon in your hand. It’s a gesture to say, “This is a safe encounter.” Even more, it’s a gesture to say, “I see you. I really see you.”

How can therapists bring more of this dimension of ritual and recognition of the sacred into their work?

Kornfield: Most of us work in offices with fluorescent lights, in a setting that reflects the roots therapy has grown out of. After all, clinical psychology grew primarily after World War II because so many soldiers were coming back shell-shocked, or with what we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder. The response to them originated in the medical model: “Here’s our diagnosis; here’s our treatment plan.” But in fact, our work is probably closer to the tradition of the healers and shamans of every wise culture.

You have a wonderful way of describing the “mystery” that surrounds our existence. Please talk about how you see that mystery.

Kornfield: You can create a sacred space by hanging a picture, lighting a candle, sitting quietly, or reading a few lines of a prayer or a poem. And sometimes we can invite clients to create rituals as part of their own healing process. It might be the ritual of writing a letter to a dead mother telling her everything they’d wanted to say while she was alive but weren’t able to. Whether you call it inviting a sense of meaning, timelessness, or the sacred, including the gesture of some form of ritual begins to bring back the shamanic element of what we do.

As somebody who’s been instrumental in bringing Eastern traditions to the West, what do you think of the way mindfulness has achieved such remarkable popularity in mainstream culture?

Kornfield: The popularity of mindfulness today is far beyond what any of us original teachers of mindfulness in the West imagined. When I go to major therapy conferences, mindfulness is everywhere. Western psychotherapy is learning a lot from the ancient traditions, but Eastern practitioners are learning from modern trauma work. I see this as a really fruitful wedding. I trust the whole spread of mindfulness, that it’s good medicine that will help many people find the deeper dimensions of life.

This blog is excerpted from “A Doorway to Mystery.” The full version is available in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>

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Topic: Mindfulness | Trauma

Tags: add | clinical psychology | conversation | ED | HEAL | learning | meditation | mindful | practices | psychology | psychotherapist | psychotherapy | separation | SPECT | stress disorder | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | traumatic | traumatic stress | traumatic stress disorder | stress | Jack Kornfield

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