Mindfulness and Psychotherapy
Mindfulness has become a buzz word in modern society, but it has been an important practice across cultures for centuries. John Kabat Zinn provides a beautiful and succinct definition: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” 1 By purposely directing our attention to the present moment, we begin to experience our internal and external worlds from new perspectives. “A curious and non-judgmental approach allows things to simply be as they are without trying to change, resist, or find fault,” says Christine Menna, LMSW and associate therapist at Gateway to Solutions. This can be easier said than done – our minds are often conditioned to want people, circumstances or ourselves to be another, “better” way. Thoughts may proliferate on everything that seems wrong in our lives. When we surrender to what is and accept things as they are, we can begin to create sought after, healthier patterns. This somewhat paradoxical outcome is not a forced goal, but a natural result of befriending our mind. With practice, we can literally create new neural pathways that reflect more adaptive ways of being.
This focus on awareness and attunement to the here-and-now coincides with the ethos of psychotherapy. As Christine Menna explains, “Nothing can change without awareness of what is, so regardless of the therapeutic model at work, cultivating an understanding of the patterns that play out in our lives is essential.” In the therapy room, therapist and client work through what comes up and how these patterns have informed existence. This work supports clients on their journey to lead more balanced, value-driven and fulfilling lives.
Paying attention to our thoughts and behaviors in new ways is the cornerstone of this process. It can admittedly be challenging at times – sometimes what we are experiencing is not particularly pleasant. It may be feelings we’ve resisted, thoughts we’ve tried to deny, or emotions that seem too overwhelming. However, the practice of observing, allowing, and feeling teach us that emotions (those we deem pleasant, unpleasant and everything in-between) are temporary. We have to give them space, to work through them, in order to move beyond them. “When we treat maladaptive thoughts as reality, we create negative stories about the way we are, about our lives and expectations. These messages play on repeat and we unconsciously subscribe to them. Once we know what is there, we can gently and responsively create new, nurturing dialogue that serves us. Mindfulness is a catalyst on this path,” comments Christine Menna, LMSW.
Interested in incorporating mindfulness in your own life? Experiment with the following suggestions. Identifying a physical anchor of attention is a helpful and effective tool to ground in the present moment. For instance, this could be witnessing the inhale and exhale of each breath. Your mind will naturally wander, and that should be expected. Try to bring a sense of curiosity to what comes up when you notice thoughts enter in and allow them to simply drift by (a common analogy is to imagine them as clouds passing by in the sky). And, when you catch yourself in thought, gently bring yourself back to the breath. “The simple yet profound thing about mindfulness, is that you can return to it at any moment of your day by gently bringing your attention to the here-and-now. It is always available to us,” says Christine.
1 Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go there you are. New York, NY: Hyperion.