Mindfulness in a modern therapeutic world
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
In 2019, I was in Newark Airport in New Jersey, staring across at the New York skyline knowing I was not going to experience the city before I got on my connecting flight to Nashville. I was filled with frustration, a little anger at the airline who had left me waiting all day in the airport only to cancel my flight at a time that was too late for me to explore the city. After a Chinatown hotel mixup (getting one small bed instead of two) I ended up sleeping on the floor while my travel companions took the bed. I hadn't slept for over 30 hours and still I found it difficult to sleep. I thought about what had gone wrong so far, not just on that trip but that year to date, which had been a series of disasters. I allowed myself to be brought into the present. I considered the sounds and smells of the strange city, just outside of the window, as the warm June air drifted in. I acknowledged my negative thoughts and let them float off, with the air, back out the window. I smiled and considered the funny story that the start of this trip could be.
Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans by way of Mississippi had always been the plan. The road trip through the birthplaces of Jazz, Country, Southern Rock, Americana and Blues. It did truly end up being the trip of a lifetime with a (now) funny story to start it off. I have been a musician most of my life and I have found it's been a very good companion to life as a counsellor. Music is what grounds me, I find a sense of peace in music, I can be truly mindful as I write, play, listen, create and I bring that peaceful feeling into the therapy room.
I often say to clients, What things in your life help you relax, make you smile, give you a sense of distraction, relief, centeredness, make a long day a little more bearable? Some clients say baking, for some it's gritty crime podcasts, maybe an evening curled up in front of Netflix. Others are more active; going for a run, playing a sport, walking the dogs at the beach. For some students I have worked with, it has been planning and filming those next Tiktok videos. I use these things to introduce the concept of mindfulness as well as use them as cultural resources in Pluralistic Therapy (Cooper and Mcleod, 2011).
Mindfulness, traditionally, is rooted firmly in Buddhist meditation practices but it was Jon Kabbat-Zin (Medium.com) that brought it to the modern world and more specifically the therapeutic world with the introduction of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It has been shown to be very effective with presenting issues like anxiety and depression among others.
I like to take mindfulness out of the box a little. More specifically bring it into the world of Pluralistic Counselling, where it fits so neatly. In Pluralistic Counselling you can tailor the therapy to the client from a therapeutic toolbox that you allow to grow and develop as you learn through your life as a therapist. Sometimes Mindfulness is the tool of the day.
John Mcleod (2005) talks about cultural resources being useful tools to use in helping with the journey in therapy. Mindfulness goes hand in hand with this. At its essence, Mindfulness is being present with a task, being aware and focussing on that task. While we are aware of the world around us and accepting our thoughts and feelings in that moment, the act of being present in that task is Mindfulness.
One of my clients told me recently that they loved the idea of mindfulness but that mindful breathing didn't work for them. They did however, really enjoy their cycle to work. I asked them what they did on their cycle to work and they said that they 'just concentrated on the road'. 'That's mindfulness', I said. We explored how they felt when they did their cycle, and other activities they did that they could possibly do in the same way. While it wasn't the centre of the therapy it allowed the client some coping mechanisms that they didn't know they already had, it allowed me to introduce some mindful grounding exercises such as the senses exercise (Positivepsychology.com).
It is very important to note here that like any practice you can bring into a pluralistic counselling session, it's important to feel comfortable bringing it to clients and to be sure that the clients are ready for it. While it can bring clients peace it can also be a space they are not comfortable with and if that happens then perhaps it's not the right thing for them.
If you are a therapist thinking of using Mindfulness in therapy, I have a small guidebook that might be useful:
If you are not a therapist, or even if you are, and want to be mindful while you do that favourite activity; put down the phone, turn off the radio or TV and do just that activity. Concentrate on it and be in the present. If you're baking, consider the dough as you kneed it, How does the flour feel on your hands? What sights, smells, tastes are in the room around you? Acknowledge the thoughts of the world around you but let them drift on, like I did in New York, out the window and into the night.
McLeod, J. (2005) Counseling and psychotherapy as cultural work. In L.T. Hoshmand (ed) Culture, psychotherapy and counseling: critical and integrative perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cooper, M., Mcleod, J. (2011) Pluralistic counselling and psychotherapy. London: London : SAGE.
https://positivepsychology.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Five-Senses-Worksheet.pdf (Accessed 19/11/2020)