In this set of articles we will explore embodied attunement and empathy as key qualities for working mindfully in the present moment.
All content is adapted from a talk given by Margaret Landale at the BACP Universities & Colleges Conference 2014, with her permission. Thank you Margaret! If you’d like to hear more from Margaret, please see this interview and attend our workshops on Mindfulness in Psychotherapy. Also visit Margaret’s website.
Mindfulness in counselling
Previously, we looked at the issues of compassion and empathy.
We shall now look at how mindfulness and psychotherapy interact.
Mindfulness skills are increasingly recognised as a resource for psychotherapists and counsellors. A group of therapists, who took part in a study by Cigolla and Brown, saw mindfulness as: “A way of being” which permeated the therapeutic relationship and happens implicitly by “modeling and embodying it in the therapeutic relationship and explicitly by encouraging a present-centered and accepting attitude”. (7)
We might say that mindfulness skills support the therapist’s ability to be present, and to pay attention to the many facets of their own and their client’s experiences and interactions. Through this we cultivate empathy and our capacity to tolerate and engage with a broad range of affective or emotional states, especially dysregulated emotions.
The process of mindfulness
Mindfulness has been banded around so much in recent years that is important for us to pause here for a moment and clarify how it might fit within this context. First of all mindfulness is not a state but a process. Shapiro and Carlson define this as: intention, attention and attitude (IAA). (8)
Intention, attention, attitude
As therapists who practice mindfulness, we have the intention to deepen our understanding of the workings of the mind and to expand the field of our awareness. We pay particular attention to verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, using our senses, including the felt sense as well as our observing and contemplative faculties. And at best we notice what appears in the field of our awareness in the present moment. Importantly we cultivate these skills with an attitude of curiosity, openness, non-striving and non-judgment – acceptance.
This is easier said than done, which is why the importance of practicing mindfulness both formally through a regular meditation practice or informally in our daily living is emphasized by all mindfulness traditions.
Traditional therapy practices based on mindfulness
Of course most of us are already familiar with working in the present moment. Concepts and processes such as ‘here and now’ transference, embodied counter-transference, free association, phenomenological tracking and relational attunement could be seen as processes based on mindfulness. This was put well by Seeth back in 1982 when she wrote:
All therapists, regardless of their theoretical orientation must draw essentially on the same raw sensory data. As a therapist I have what I can see, hear, or otherwise sense outside me (the client’s words, postures, gestures, tones of voice, patterns of breathing, etc.), and what goes on inside me (my own proprioceptive sensations, feelings, thoughts and associations, hunches and intuitions etc.). (9)
One of the challenges for integrating this ‘raw data’ mindfully is the traditional and cultural bias towards thinking and talking as a way to resolve problems. As these problems are often rooted in deeply held emotional dilemmas or complex trauma the thinking root has its limitations. (10)
As Shapiro and Carlson point out:
Mindfulness teaches us to let go of this habitual intellectual problem solving mode (at least temporarily) and bring our awareness to the difficult emotions underlying our experience and to the felt sense of these emotions in the body. Through this process we are able to stop and attend, centering ourselves in the body instead of automatically reacting. (11)
Mindfulness and psychotherapy are natural partners
There are natural overlaps between mindfulness and psychotherapy. The processes of enquiring may differ, but many qualities such as paying close attention, raising awareness of the phenomenological or subjective nature of our experience, working with what’s present and cultivating acceptance and insight are shared. (12).