The incorporation of a Westernized and decontextualized version of mindfulness into psychotherapy over the last two decades has been a significant trend, while for a hip segment of the popular culture, it has become nothing less than a rage. Although not yet as ubiquitous in the marketplace as yoga, it is certainly nipping at its heels.
Mindfulness has long outgrown its original nest in psychology, which was limited to humanistic and transpersonal psychologists. It has broken through to attract the attention of large numbers of those identifying with the dominant cognitive-behavioral approach. The explosion of neurological research, academic studies and cognitive-oriented therapies including some form of mindfulness is something that none of us in the early years of transpersonal psychology ever imagined or predicted (Hendlin, 2016).
As an antidote to scattered multi-tasking, mind-numbing cell phone obsession, time-pressured stressors, and violent assaults reported by the news on a daily basis, mindfulness practice offers a self-regulation strategy (Shapiro, 1980) that helps us find personal meaning and satisfaction in the experience of our moment-to-moment senses, images, and cognitions. It encourages us to reflect and monitor our behavior by thinking before acting, watching our speech, observing moral principles, and noticing our habitual responses, such as how quickly we tend to judge others and ourselves. It facilitates managing our emotions and learning how to face our lives honestly with a growing non-attachment and equanimity in the face of what at times appears to be a maddening and thoroughly insane world.
Here are seven ways to be more mindful that may impact both your personal life and work as a psychotherapist:
1. Choose one form of purposeful sitting practice, or, if you already practice, increase the time practicing.
If you are serious about mindfulness meditation, it is not enough just to read about it in a textbook or manual. Nor is it enough to listen to calming online meditative sound tracks or colorful videos that promise to relax you. All of these may attract your interest but they will not substitute for the actual practice of sitting meditation.
If you do not already practice some form of on-going contemplative sitting practice, choose one and learn how to do it. If you do already practice, consider increasing the time period you spend engaged in it.
It doesn’t matter whether you choose a traditional Buddhist form, such as Vipassana, Tibetan, or Zen, or the popular Westernized versions that shed the traditional trappings of Eastern spirituality. All will steadily make you more mindful, although each will place differing degrees of emphasis on the depth of concentration as the object of meditation.
Augmenting everyday use of the senses to keep you present-centered with a consistent sitting meditation practice is perhaps the single most potent thing you can do to deepen your mindfulness.
A few minutes of quiet sitting in your consulting room chair, while a nice refresher between therapeutic hours or free time during the day, is not going to take you to the deeper level of stillness and insight that only longer, structured periods of sitting meditation have to offer. If you want to “take it to the next level,” you will find resistance surfacing in the form of a thousand reasons as to why you should be doing anything rather than just sitting and doing nothing.
Relaxation is not meditation. But consistent meditation practice will certainly teach you how to fully relax. And this means it will help you learn to be more present-centered in the consulting room—less distracted, less fidgety, a better listener, a stronger sense of contact, and more able to let go of the previous hour and be fully present with the next patient sitting across from you.
If you are willing to take your sitting practice deeper, there is a self-transformation over time that is possible that far transcends any quick-acting “feel good” method. A Zen master I spent some time with (Hendlin, 1979) who lived to be 107 and had a reputation as a very rigorous and demanding teacher, put it like this:
“In Zen we are engaged in self-transformation. We are not involved in some sort of juvenile meditation practice, aiming to sit for a little while and then feel good. If we are only interested in subjective feelings of well-being, we don’t need to engage in a practice such as this. The absolute tranquility of Buddhism is that which arises when our wisdom comes to maturity” (Sasaki Roshi, 1979).
While serious commitment to deeper levels of formal practice that Sasaki Roshi is talking about is certainly not for everyone, some form of consistent sitting practice will help bring you to personal insights that will surprise you.
For psychologists who want to understand the workings of their thought process more deeply, meditation is one of the more powerful tools you can employ.
For those who have no interest in confronting the trials of sitting meditation, you may still increase your mindfulness by working with the following exercises.
2. Become attuned to your senses, particularly that of taste.
Let the immediate sights, sounds, touch, and smells in your everyday life bring you back from inner reverie to the here and now. Taste is also powerful, which is why meditators on retreat are taught to slow down their eating and, with eyes closed, pay close attention to the process of chewing and tasting.
At lunch, when you are not hurried, try taking twice as long as you normally would in chewing and tasting your food.
For at least some of your bites, close your eyes to help you more easily focus on your chewing. Notice the tendency to chew too quickly, not fully masticating your food, and then sometimes swallowing larger pieces of food that may not go down easily. Do you notice tasting more when you slow down your chewing?
Pause between bites long enough to be aware of lifting the fork to your mouth for the next bite. Notice how easy it is when socializing with others while eating to lose touch with your actual process of eating. For this reason, if possible, make it a point to at least occasionally eat alone. If it can’t be a full meal, at least make it a mindful snack.
3. Notice in a non-self-judgmental way each time during the day you are feeling some attraction or repulsion to a person who crosses your path.
Do this exercise with strangers rather than people with whom you have already established some opinion. Notice how quickly the appearance and/or behavior of some people bring up a quick, almost automatic, negative judgment.
Or, conversely, how physical attraction to the person grabs your attention. See if you can identify precisely what it is that brings on such quick judgments.
This is a good exercise for noticing how the process of judging, as well as attraction and repulsion, have a mind of their own, occurring without a sense of purposely making a judgment. These used to be called “snap judgments.” This, of course, is exactly what prejudice is all about.
For example, many of those who came of age in my generation of the ’60s find it easy to make a quick critical judgment when we see someone whose body is covered with tattoos. We need to consciously “see through” the ink-covered limbs to go beyond our initial prejudice.
Being mindful of these judgments means simply noticing them without a self-critical judgment on top of the original judgment of the other. It does not mean that these judgments will necessarily vanish. But our awareness of them means that we will be on the lookout for our habitual prejudices and can then attend to and possibly neutralize them more mindfully.
4. Pay attention to each step you are taking as you walk through your day.
As your heels make contact with the ground, notice the hardness or softness of the surface under your feet. Notice how the bottoms of your feet feel in your shoes and any other sensations as your feet touch the ground. Paying attention to your feet touching the ground while walking is far preferable to having your eyes glued to a cell phone, where you are missing the sights and sounds occurring in front of you, as well as how you are literally (as young people are fond of saying) grounding yourself with each step.
Because the touch of your feet against the ground walking is usually solid and substantial, it is often easier to use walking as a focusing device than tuning into the more subtle sensations of the breath.
5. Begin to trace how feelings and stronger emotions are preceded by thoughts.
Thoughts often precede feelings/emotions in the form of internal dialogue, even though they may be only fleeting and difficult to identify. Long term meditators will confirm that while thoughts may be subtle to “hear” and the process of following a train of associations something that requires focused practice, dealing with the power of emotions may be even more challenging.
The strength of emotions, especially when they seem to come up out of nowhere, makes us doubt whether thought has anything to do with emotion. But one of the things which results from deeper sitting practice is the growing awareness of how internal dialogue, images, and bodily sensations precede emotion, even when we can barely decipher them.
See if you can identify what you are telling yourself that brings on some feeling associated to it. You may notice an image or sensation that accompanies the internal self-talk.
If you find it difficult to identify this preceding a feeling, try identifying it after one. For example, if you notice feeling sad, ask, “What was I thinking just before I felt sad?” There will typically be some short story or self-talk that relates your sadness.
All of this is, of course, well within the typical cognitive approach for understanding the power of our thoughts in shaping how we feel and behave.
6. Pay attention to self-critical thoughts in whatever form they may arise.
For many, it is nothing short of astonishing to realize how many self-derogatory thoughts of every conceivable variety sneak in to undermine their daily sense of ego strength, well-being and self-acceptance.
A share of these self-critical thoughts relate to our concern with what we imagine are the negative judgments others are making about us. Simply notice each time you are concerned with whether a friend, colleague, patient, or partner gives indications of liking or disliking you.
Notice how easy it is to judge your own actions as not measuring up. A large degree of unnecessary mental and emotional energy is expended in simply keeping track of these critical self-judgments regarding appearance, intelligence, competence, skill, lovability, worthiness, and goodness.
What mindfulness has to offer is a suspension of caring about these critical judgments. As we invest less energy, we care less and become more accepting of ourselves just as we are. Our self-criticisms may remain but we are less identified with them.
7. Pay attention to “right speech.”
In the Buddhist tradition, one of the aspects meditators are taught to pay attention to is “right speech.” (For a summary of the “Eight-fold Path,” go here: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/8foldpath.htm. For more on “right speech” go here: http://buddhism.about.com/od/theeightfoldpath/a/rightspeech.htm
Notice when you speak to friends, strangers, patients, or loved ones that some words are spoken with little or no monitoring as to their impact on the other. While therapists are taught to be more careful in their responses to patients, it is easy to lapse into being critical of others in your speech rather than complimentary or simply to say nothing.
Being mindful of speech means pausing before speaking to notice if what you are about to say is judgmental, hurtful, or unnecessary, being spoken only to elevate your own status in the eyes of the one to whom you are speaking. Although it is often said that gossip is what makes the social world go around (and may even have some social/community benefits), you have a choice how much you gossip about others.
Fritz Perls used to consider gossip anything that was said to another about a third person who was not directly in front of you. But a more liberal notion of gossip might be to simply view it as you and I speaking critically of someone not in front of us. If we simply tried to curb our gossipy critique of others who are not present, that is challenging enough for most of us.
So, being mindful of “right speech” means stopping before we gossip or tell a partial or full lie. This includes lying by omission, where we knowingly withhold a vital piece of information.
Summary and Additional Resources
If you want to take these 7 areas (and others) of mindfulness a bit deeper, follow the links provided in the text and listed below.
As good an anthem for mindfulness and the observing witness as you will find in rock music is the song, “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. It’s a catchy tune from 1983. Listen to it with your attention on the lyrics pertaining directly to mindfully observing your own behavior. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMOGaugKpzs.
Be Here Now Network: Podcasts with some of the senior “heavy hitters” of mindfulness meditation, including Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and the chanting of Krishna Das. www.beherenownetwork.com
Ram Dass app by Gaiapublishing, for the iPhone. Free. New app that includes old and new articles, podcasts, videos, and thoughtful quotes from Ram Dass and other spiritual teachers. When you have a few extra minutes, try one of these for a mindful snack. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ram-dass/id531737614?mt
If you would like to see Sasaki Roshi in an ordination ceremony, here is a video from 1999: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbZUepWhWkg
Here is a short video of the poet, singer, and song writer Leonard Cohen on his study with Sasaki Roshi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-BIp7yeJ94