I began the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blog on Psychcentral.com over 5 years ago now. Since then I’ve written hundreds of posts on the intersection of mindfulness and psychotherapy. Recently a new book has been published called Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy. While this is a wonderful and practical guide for therapists, someone who is not a therapist would also benefit from the guidance and exercises. Today I have the benefit of interviewing the authors of Sitting Together; Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and president of the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy, Thomas Pedulla, LICSW, faculty at the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy and Ronald Siegel, Psy.D., author of The Mindfulness Solution and also faculty at the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy.
Today Susan, Ron and Tom talk to us about introductory practices we can use when feeling overwhelmed, when Lovingkindness is best practiced, the critical importance of equanimity and when not to use mindfulness.
Elisha: What do you find to be the most effective introductory practice(s) for a client who is feeling overwhelmed with the stresses of life?
Susan, Ron and Tom: We’ve found a number of “entry level” practices that are effective ways to introduce mindfulness to clients. The first is “Simply Listening.” This is a direct and accessible way to come into the present moment by bringing attention to the sounds around you. In this practice, we listen to sounds as they come into our awareness, without grasping, without pushing them away, without needing to name them—just letting the sounds come, letting them go. If the mind wanders, no problem, just bring it back to the sounds around you. It is a practice that can be done anywhere, anytime, in almost any situation.
Another excellent introductory practice is “Touch Points.” In this practice, which involves the entire body, the client brings awareness to places where the body comes in contact with itself or something else—such as noticing the eyelids touching, the lips touching, the hands touching, the sitting bones touching, and the feet touching. For many clients, this is a grounding and integrating practice that helps anchor them in present moment awareness and in their bodies.
The third nice introductory practice is “Walking Meditation.” We recommend this for clients who want a more dynamic practice or who might find it challenging to sit still. With this practice, you bring attention to the soles of the feet while walking, noticing any sensations in the feet and feeling the connection with the ground with each step. When the mind wanders, simply return attention to the soles of the feet. Try bringing an attitude of awareness and acceptance to the act of walking, something we usually do on automatic pilot. This works well both as a formal meditation practice—where we set aside time for it—and as an informal practice whenever walking during the day.
Guided audio versions of these practices are available for free on our website, www.sittingtogether.com. By the way, when trying these practices with clients who are new to mindfulness, we suggest keeping them enjoyable and short – not more than three to five minutes to start.
Elisha: Where do you find the lovingkindness practice to be most effective when it comes to mental health?
Susan, Ron and Tom: Lovingkindness and compassion practices can be helpful ways to work with depression, anxiety, trauma, eating disorders, shame, addictions, chronic pain and difficult relationships. However, these practices are more effective when the client has learned to establish some concentration or focused attention first. The skills of lovingkindness and compassion can be transformative. By learning to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion, and then extending this to others, we can find new ways to be in relationship with ourselves, our suffering, and with that of others. These practices are also available on our website.
Elisha: Can you speak a bit to the importance of developing equanimity in daily life?
Susan, Ron and Tom: Equanimity is rarely mentioned in the psychological literature. However, in meditation training, it is a foundational practice. It can help us stay balanced in the face of the stresses of daily life, from a child’s tantrum to traffic jams or an argument with a co-worker or a family member. Equanimity practice is enormously helpful when dealing with difficult circumstances, such as illness, job loss, cancer, or the death of a loved one. It is a way to maintain perspective no matter how challenging one’s circumstances. These practices are stabilizing while helping us gain a larger perspective on our suffering, so that we learn to hold all that life sends our way, what the Zen masters call the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.
Elisha: I know that there is an important distinction around emotional stability or instability in practicing mindfulness. Can you speak to that?
Susan, Ron and Tom: While mindfulness can help with a wide variety of disorders, it is not a magic bullet or one-size-fits-all remedy. Clinicians need to exercise sound judgment in introducing mindfulness to clients. As always, it is important to take a careful history and establish a trusting alliance first. If a patient has been wrestling with psychosis, a major mental illness, or is very fragile, waiting until there is some emotional stability is advisable. Once this has been achieved, practices of focused attention or concentration are a good place to begin. Learning these skills can help clients develop and maintain self-care, and can help guide healthy choices. Our book includes a chapter called “Making Mindfulness Accessible,” which is a good reference when introducing mindfulness to vulnerable clients.
Elisha: Thank all three of you so much for your wisdom!
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Two women talking image available from Shutterstock.