Most people are now familiar with mindfulness as a meditation practice, but how does mindfulness in therapy work? How is it that the mindful presence of another in a therapeutic or just humanly intimate setting can facilitate the emerging and potentially healing and integration of the wounding within us? What is it about the presence of a compassionate witness to our suffering that carries such potential potency?
I find myself returning to the statement repeated any number of times in my Core Process mindfulness based psychotherapy training that we are ‘relational beings’. Another significant thing from that training that struck me powerfully and seems integral in the exploration of this inquiry into mindfulness in therapy is the three fundamental human needs identified by Frank Lake, namely Recognition, Acknowledgement and Unconditional Acceptance. I see Recognition and Acknowledgement and Unconditional Acceptance as integral components of a mindfulness practice as both a meditator and therapist.
For me the practice of mindfulness meditation is relational, it is a spotlight on our relationship with ourself. It is a form of relationship that requires time and commitment and one that can then yield great benefits in both physical, mental and emotional health. While these are very real and desirable benefits that can lead to significant degrees of healing and integration. Yet no matter how effective the practice or how diligently applied there is still something different that occurs with the presence of a witnessing other. In my own experience part of this is the creation of a sense of vulnerability in myself.
Where there is wounding there is often shame and we tend to hide what we are ashamed of with denial and defenses. In this context I do not consider this sense of vulnerability as a hindrance or inhibition, rather I see it as a place of authenticity, where the robust boundary of the ego self is more permeable and soft. Obviously this vulnerability can most readily and fully arise in the presence of trust, acceptance and compassion from the witnessing other.
Even though these qualities and a strong and systemic focusing on spaciousness exist in mindful meditation practice, having them held by an external other allows a different quality of relating to the interiority and arising experience in the relational field of mindfulness in therapy. As wounding and its possible shame arises in the therapeutic relational field, the fact that the feared judgment and condemnation does not follow is in itself healing. The physical response to fear of stopping breathing comes to mind, when the fear abates and a breath is finally taken that seems to also hold the quality of relief.
A mindfulness based psychotherapist when holding us in a being to being relational field and a conscious intent to orient to our inherent wellbeing can serve as our guide and fulcrum as we descend into the inner world of our feelings. This holding can keep us resourced and afloat as we navigate the flows and eddies emerging from the unconscious. An important aspect of this is the holding in mindfulness of the present time consciousness of the client. Very often the emerging of the deep held unconscious past is immersive and it is easy for a client to lose this contact to the self in present time in the therapists room. The therapist holds in the relational field the qualities of mindfulness, which are then present for the clients to be held in, and experience.
This means that when previously uncomfortable feelings arise for a client in therapy, that the therapists acceptance and openness to them is at some level perceived by the client and mirrored in their own body-mind. The accumulative effect of being met in our hidden places of wounded separation is an increase in our own acceptance of, and capacity to be present with them. We might call this learning through resonance. This is particularly pertinent in Core Process Psychotherapy which differs from other mindfulness based therapies in that the therapist does not usually formally teach clients mindfulness meditation. Rather the emphasis is placed on the therapists own capacity for mindfulness in therapy to connect with a client at a being to being level and hold the client in this deeply resonant and healing holding field.