Guest post by Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, REAT
My working definition of mindfulness is rather simple: The practice of coming back to awareness.
When I began a formal mindfulness practice I experienced self-doubts similar to what our clients may share with us. “I can’t meditate,” I protested, “I am not exactly that still of a person.”
Like many of my clients, I wallow on these doubts when stereotypical images of mindfulness like the pristine Buddhist monk on retreat enter my mind. Images capturing the modern mindfulness movement (like sitting in a perfect cross-legged position underneath a tree on a beach while clad in the latest yoga clothing trends) are no better because they all portray this idea of mindfulness as total peace, relaxation, and stillness.
The reality of the practice is much more complex and rich…
A sea of thoughts, images, emotions, and distractions will come at me both as I meditate and as I engage in other activities of daily living. The challenge is in learning how to stay present and aware with whatever life may bring me, good, bad, or indifferent.
By regarding mindfulness as the practice of coming back to awareness, I recognize that my attention will drift and wander. I acknowledge that I may become prone to reacting destructively instead of responding gracefully when triggers or unpleasant emotions emerge. Neither this wandering nor these reactions make me any less of a person. They make me human. And thus I continue to practice…
I acknowledge that the modern world in which I live is ripe with distractions and expectations that battle for my presence, attention and focus. Mindful practice is not about making those distractions and triggers go away because—they are always going to be there. To be a practitioner of mindfulness I do not have to strive to be that Buddhist monk or that perfectly still meditator under a tree somewhere.
One of the gifts of mindful practice for me…
…is that I can better recognize when my attention is going offline or when my visceral responses are flaring up in my body. It’s little wonder that mindfulness teachers often explain the practice as one in which we exercise our metaphorical awareness muscle! The clinical value cannot be understated.
In 2004, I began my master’s level clinical counseling internship at a residential hospital for children and adolescents. My initial intention was to work with young people because serving as an English teacher in post-war Bosnia-Hercegovina from 2001-2003 sparked my interest in the helping professions.
A very wise American social worker mentored me while I was in Bosnia, helping me to identify how unhealed trauma impacted the lives of my students. I learned how unhealed trauma affects functions like concentration and motivation. Thus, when I became acquainted with standard model mental health care in the United States during my internship, I was surprised to encounter just how many children carried diagnoses like attention deficit disorder, operational defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and the ever-popular Bipolar disorder.
“Why isn’t anybody looking at trauma?,” I asked.
Some variation of, “We’re not set up for that,” was the usual response.
These responses triggered the parts of me naturally inclined towards fairness and justice. I found it very difficult to stay present at my internship site. In addition to this style of dismissal about trauma, I also found myself becoming highly disturbed by how I saw the kids treated by doctors, staff members, and even many members of child protective agencies who were entrusted to advocate for them.
One story from that internship experience exemplifies the treatment of these kids that made me cringe. The director of the residential championed the cause of turning an old restraint room into a meditation room for the residents. One of my few bright moments during that internship was working with the residents to get the room, which would be open for them to use for time out and quiet reflection, painted and decorated. The residents were truly excited to have this special space.
Shortly after the room opened, I overheard a residential staff member chide, “I don’t know why they made that room all nice for the kids. That room should be a punishment, not some kind of oasis.”
“You are totally missing the point of what healing is all about!”
I screamed inside, yet could not muster the courage or the words to voice my protest aloud. I simply shut down and then zoned out, a common dissociative response elicited by these types of comments I heard all too often at the hospital.
At that point, I was in a pretty standard talk therapy course of treatment with the third counselor I’d seen in my lifetime and I’d been working a 12-step recovery program for the better part of two years. I was also active in a church. I didn’t know what else was left to “do,” yet it was clear I needed more help if I was going to survive in the field.
Through some networking, I was referred to a lovely therapist in my area known for doing the “outside the box” therapies. She promptly recommended eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, an approach created in the late 1980’s by Dr. Francine Shapiro, a psychologist who was also a cancer survivor and mind-body practitioner.
For the first time since getting sober, I experience a hopeful sense of relief, simply by hearing that there were other approaches to be tried. And I didn’t care how weird… I was up for just about anything that didn’t involve the standard techniques and questions like, “How does that make you feel?,” and “What is the thinking error there that needs changed?” and “How can you change the reality of your present situation?” The reality was that I felt so immovably stuck in the present situation that was my life, I couldn’t muster an answer to any of these questions.
What amazed me the most about EMDR therapy…
was how insights would just pop out of nowhere. These insights helped me to connect so many of the proverbial dots in my life, revealing a complete picture that I was unable to see before. For the first time, I was able to accept, at the deepest levels of my heart, my body, and my soul, that I am fundamentally a loveable person full of positive qualities and traits. Rather, a series of nasty things happened to me that adversely impacted my self-esteem and my view of the world.
As a result of being silent and reflective on certain parts of my experiences as the stimulation moved back-and-forth (in my case it was the tactile stimulation machine), I noticed how the whole puzzle started to come together. I experience what I’ve been fortunate to hear many clients describe since about EMDR: The process allowed what I knew to be true in my rational mind to finally make sense in my heart.
EMDR allows for some talking and asking of questions, which I still value as important in human relations. However, I was very impressed as a client and even more delighted as a clinician by the level of silence and mindful introspection that the approach promotes. This silence, generally experienced during the application of bilateral stimulation allows us to go within and just notice our internal experience, a process that allows clients to arrive at their own insights and solutions, instead of relying on the “expert” therapist to unveil the answers.
Although one could argue this process happens in other forms of psychotherapy…
I have personally never experienced it as powerfully or as rapidly as it does in EMDR therapy. Lastly, I resonate with EMDR as my primary approach to psychotherapy because of the manner in which EMDR views the impact of unprocessed or unhealed traumatic experiences on human behavior.
The underlying assumption of EMDR therapy is that human suffering results from physiologically stored, unprocessed memories. The adaptive information processing model, the model Shapiro presents as a framework for explaining EMDR, gives us a roadmap for how we can help individuals alleviate their own suffering by reprocessing these memories. The methods and mechanisms that EMDR therapists learn to apply can facilitate this healing. EMDR therapists (including myself) can constantly learn new, more artful ways to apply these skills within the context of the therapeutic relationship.
I think back to the question that I posed at the hospital during my clinical internship:
“Why isn’t anybody looking at trauma?” a question informed by my own experiences of suffering in life and the insight I developed working with people in post-war Bosnia. Where the hospital could not provide me in the way of answers to my challenge, the EMDR approach beautifully responds.
In the EMDR approach to psychotherapy I am not looked down upon, rather I am celebrated for my willingness to ask, “What role is unhealed trauma playing for this person who is coming to my office with this specific problem or problems?” With EMDR I am empowered with a set of skills to help my clients reprocess traumatic memories and essentially heal themselves, reducing the impact of suffering in their own lives and in the lives of others around them.
Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, REAT travels internationally speaking on topics related to EMDR therapy, trauma, addiction, expressive arts and mindfulness while maintaining a private practice in her home base of Warren, OH. She is the developer of the Dancing Mindfulness practice (www.dancingmindfulness.com). Jamie is the author of four books, including the popular EMDR Made Simple. She is currently working on her latest book (in collaboration with Dr. Stephen Dansiger) EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma Focused Care.