Mindfulness as Therapy for The Self
By David A. Peters, MFT
How many times have you heard a counselor or therapist ask the question, "How do you feel?" I have asked some variation of this question countless times. Interestingly, the majority of the times I ask "How do you feel," my client responds with a report of what they think. And others are limited to reporting that they feel "bad" without being able to explain further. In fact, many of us are often very unaware of how we feel. Is this important? Yes, it is very important! Because quite often, humans are motivated to act based upon emotion rather than reason. Most of the times that we act foolishly, it is because we are reacting to our hurt, anger, lust, fear, shame, or other powerful emotion. And so, if we don't know how we really feel, we can't know what is really motivating our actions! In my practice I find that this frequently leads to very destructive trends in the lives of my clients.
So, then, what is "mindfulness"? We all know what it means to live "mindlessly". But how often do we practice living mindfully? Mindfulness, simply put, is paying attention. It is paying attention to what is happening inside of ourselves. Mindfulness requires that we stop, calm ourselves, and pay attention to the emotions at our core. "Is that frustration I feel? Or has it become anger? And what's behind the anger? Am I hurt? Have I been more vulnerable lately?" The more we know what's motivating ourselves, the easier it is for us to act on our most mature and noble intentions.
How do we begin to practice mindfulness? With any new skill, practice improves our ability. And so it is with mindfulness. We must take time to practice. Take a half hour every day to sit alone, in silence, without any distraction, and look inward. Pay attention to your breath. Try to merely follow your breath. Your mind will wander, naturally. Notice that your mind has wandered, and gently return to your breath. Over and over again, repeat this process. Cultivate an attitude of compassion toward yourself. Open your awareness to the feelings that arise inside. You will notice them; the irritability toward someone in your life, the stress from thinking you mustn't waste time, the worry that you are "not doing it right", perhaps an unexplained sadness, or the creeping loneliness that you usually avoid with alcohol or food.
And here is where the benefit comes. You don't run from the feelings. You don't distract yourself with television, alcohol, or food. Instead, you face the feelings head on, accepting that these feelings come and go naturally. While some may be difficult to tolerate, you learn that uncomfortable feelings don't have to be overwhelming. You learn to not react to the uncomfortable feelings. Non-reactivity is powerful practice to use in the difficult times of our daily lives. In practicing non-reactivity, we may be angry, but we choose not to act on the anger. Someone may have hurt us, but we choose not to react to the hurt. We may be afraid to look at our faults, but we look anyway, not running from the fear. We may feel loneliness, but we don't hide out in a bad relationship just to avoid that loneliness. In essence, we are no longer ruled by our need to avoid uncomfortable emotions! This practice can make us quite courageous, and hence, more powerful in our lives.
In my therapy practice, I am commonly awed and inspired by the courage my clients show in facing painful memories, intimidating challenges, and overcoming great obstacles. I help them do this by teaching mindfulness techniques. The mindfulness techniques are integrated into the therapeutic process. The result is significant improvement in personal power, self esteem, and relationship skills. Mindfulness is a practice, that can be taught and learned. If you find yourself limited by your fear, anxiety, shame, or other uncomfortable emotions, therapy can help. And if you find you act in irrational ways that you cannot explain, mindfulness practice can open your eyes to the source of the problem.