What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness refers both to a state of mind and the psychological process of introspection or self-reflection.
As a state of mind, mindfulness refers to you ‘being present’ or ‘being in the moment’. As a psychological process, it refers to your use of introspection to observe and understand your lived experience & mental processes.
Mindfulness is a foundation of emotional well-being. For this reason, the facilitation of mindfulness is central to many psychotherapies. It fits quite naturally with those therapies based on empathy and introspection such as psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic self-psychology.
I utilise the psychotherapeutic relationship as well as meditation, breathing practices and body awareness to support the development of mindfulness. The therapeutic relationship fosters mindfulness through encouraging an attitude of curiosity about and acceptance of our issues, relationships, thoughts and feelings.
The approaches I use are tailored to the person I am working with. For example – when using these tools, you may prefer to close your eyes. However if you have suffered childhood sexual abuse you may be unable to close your eyes. Instead you may prefer to focus on your breath or bodily sensations or on sounds or visual images.
When we are in a psychotherapy session we practice adopting an attitude of curiosity to our own thoughts and feelings. Outside of psychotherapy sessions we can use formal or informal meditation practices. In formal meditation we set aside a regular period each day for meditation and mindfulness, whereas informal meditation practice involves frequent attention to being mindful in the midst of everyday life. In this way we increase our capacity to work on ourselves everyday.
Mindfulness and Classical Psychoanalysis
A fundamental principle of contemporary psychotherapy is that we practice observing our thoughts and feelings. This is very similar to what happens in meditation and mindfulness. This principle goes back to classical psychoanalysis and the technique of ‘free association’. In this technique, patients were instructed to observe whatever thoughts come into their mind, as well as to observe the different ways they are censoring these thoughts. They were then instructed to stop censoring their thoughts and to talk about whatever comes into their mind. This can take some getting used to as we usually don’t behave this way in everyday life
Using the practice of ‘free association’ we find that emotions, thoughts or intentions that we habitually dismiss as ‘unimportant’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘nonsensical’, or ‘unacceptable’, are actually the opposite. As we allow our thoughts to flow without censorship, we become clearer about these thoughts and the sources of our distress and suffering.
One of the tools I use in psychotherapy is psychoeducation about epistemology – or ‘how we know what we know’. A useful distinction can be made between ‘facts’ or what we observe with our own senses and ‘stories’, the usually unseen and unexamined interpretations that we use to make sense of these ‘facts’. Often we ‘live inside of stories’. We think of these stories, which are unconscious, as the truth. In any case, when we utilise mindfulness to disentangle facts from stories this can be illuminating and freeing. We discover that some of our stories directly cause our suffering.
An example of a fact could be that we have just observed an acquaintance twitching their nose. We could interpret this in many ways – for example ‘they don’t like me’, ‘they think I smell’, ‘they have an itchy nose’. These kinds of interpretations, which are all possible interpretations, are made quite unconsciously. Mindfulness allows us to be more aware of the facts we observe alongside the interpretations made by our minds quite naturally .
Traumatic memories interfere with mindfulness
Traumatic memories are memories that are not experienced as memories.
They are experienced as strong unpleasant feelings and we often have no recollection of the life-events related to these feelings. They are particularly distressing because they make no sense to us.
When traumatic memories are triggered the consequent emotional over- or under-arousal disrupts our ability to pay attention to our lived experience and be mindful. Instead we are ‘lost’ or ‘buried’ in this experience having in these moments lost the capacity for self-reflective awareness.
In addition, our body deals with traumatic memories by interrupting the flow of the breath. When we feel bad we automatically and unconsciously hold our breath or breathe too deeply or shallowly. This dys-regulation of our breathing causes a physiological imbalance in our bodies. We may notice symptoms of muscle tension and anxiety as a result of this.
In psychotherapy as we observe this happening to our breath, we practice breathing naturally again. This helps us to become mindful again, reconnect with ourselves, restore some sense of personal well-being and deal with trauma.
The regular reliable setting of psychotherapy together with the developing therapeutic relationship, trust and safety, are the aspects of psychotherapy which facilitate emotional calming, mindfulness, deep understanding and decreased suffering.