In every blog post thus far, I have focused a lot on the past by discussing first memories, life stories, and genograms. Indeed, exploring past experiences and seeing how they affect the present is an important aspect of psychotherapy. Such explorations can also be more comfortable for certain individuals who are new to therapy or a particular therapist. Talking about the past can be more intellectual, and therefore less vulnerable feeling, than exploring the embodied, unpredictable present with a virtual stranger. But I cannot emphasize enough the extent to which mindful contact with the present moment facilitates true healing. For many people, the therapy session provides this kind of contact for the first time, and is a practice ground for mindfulness.
Resisting the Here-and-Now
One widely accepted definition of mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s. He describes it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” So I invite you to ask yourself this question: To what extent do I really pay attention to how I am feeling in the present moment?
More often than not, most of us instantly react to an emotion, usually in order to get rid of it, or sometimes (if it’s “good”) to ensure it won’t go away. Rarely do we take the time to see it and feel it for what it is. We blame others for “making us” have a certain emotion, and we lash out at them in aggressive or passive-aggressive ways, without ever turning towards our pain to see what it needs from us. We subconsciously believe, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” thereby judging our emotional experience and essentially invalidating it. Some people go through their entire lives like this. And the scariest part is that they don’t even realize they’re doing it.
Ways to Practice Presence
Various therapeutic modalities facilitate in-session present moment processing. My three favorites are Contemplative Psychotherapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and the Hakomi Method. All of these approaches involve facing our defenses or resistances head-on and experiencing firsthand how conditioned we are to avoid the tenderness and expansiveness of the present moment.
Contemplative Psychotherapy is grounded in Buddhist philosophy and also incorporates psychodynamic and humanist counseling theories. For all of 2016 I trained intensively in this modality, and the most important skill I learned was how to sit with clients in their pain, without trying to guide them out of it and into the next moment. Again and again, I was amazed by how subtly I could steer the conversation away from suffering and toward problem-solving or rationalizing. Sometimes I would latch on to a certain piece of content in a client’s narrative, when really what needed attention was their process. I was not meaning to do this, but in watching session footage week after week, I became more conscious of my tendency to guide clients away from painful material.
Into the Fire
Most of us do this sort of thing with ourselves and our loved ones all the time. When someone cries we usually say, “Don’t cry. Everything will be okay.” Or we ask how we can make them feel better. But usually what feels most nourishing in times of distress is to have someone simply acknowledge our pain. They might say something like, “I see that you are suffering, and I am here. Tell me where it hurts. Tell me what it feels like.” With this type of inquiry, we feel seen and understood. It validates our experience and begins a process of true healing.
I still receive biweekly supervision in the contemplative approach to counseling and have become more adept (with a lot of room to grow!) at guiding clients “into the fire” of their own pain. Together we explore its nuances and uncover its sacred messages. We track when the urge to turn away from it takes over, and we bring the focus back to the experience at hand. Too often we are told to “move on,” “get over it,” “let it go.” But if we can just stay with our experience and let it be, our understanding of it will deepen and it will become less frightening. Less fear means more clarity and a deeper trust in our own brilliant sanity.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
ACT (pronounced “act”) is a hardcore behavioral therapy whose ultimate goal is greater psychological flexibility. It focuses on strengthening six different domains: values, committed action, self-as-context, cognitive defusion, acceptance, and contact with the present moment. The last of these domains is obviously most relevant to the current discussion.
One rule of thumb for many ACT therapists is “When in doubt, first get centered!” Becoming more in tune with their present moment experience ensures that they will not be acting from an unconscious, problem-solving mode of mind with clients. Rather, they will be utilizing what ACT refers to as a “sunset” mode of mind. When you look at a sunset (or gaze at a painting or listen to a nice piece of music, etc.), you are not trying to fix it. You are simply noticing and appreciating.
Therapists can foster the sunset mode of mind in-session with clients by inviting them to focus attention on their breath and other bodily sensations. Notice what areas are tight or relaxed, hot or cold, tired or energized. Addressing each of the senses can also encourage real presence: “Tell me what you’re hearing right now. What do you smell? How does the pillow feel against your arm?” From this centered and embodied place, we can approach problem-solving in a more mindful way, suspending judgment of our experience. Or we might realize that problem-solving won’t even help in this particular situation. Sometimes all we can really do is acknowledge that life has wounded us, and go about tending to that wound.
Another ACT technique involves slowing down the pace of the session. Sometimes clients come in with a long list of worries and a palpable sense of urgency to address them all at once. The sooner we can eliminate those worries, the sooner they can feel better. But life will always give us things to worry about. So rushing through the worries at hand just means we’re rushing towards the ones awaiting us. At some point it all becomes the same experience: worry.
ACT therapists can help clients see their worry for what it is (not what it says it is — a problem that must be eradicated) by picking one item from the worry list and saying it very slowly, in a very gentle tone: “I… won’t… be… able… to… meet… my… deadline.” They will do this a few times, tracking with each repetition what is going on somatically for the client, and inviting them to breathe into those sensations and simply notice any tensions that arise.
The Hakomi Method
“Hakomi” is a Hopi Indian word meaning, “How do you stand in relation to these many realms?” Like ACT and Contemplative Psychotherapy, this method uses a lot of somatic (body-based) interventions to facilitate a deeper connection to the present moment. Its founder, Ron Kurtz, developed some ingenious ways to help clients stay with their difficult experiences and tap into the body’s innate wisdom. Two of my favorite Hakomi techniques are verbal probes and “taking over.”
Verbal probes are a great way to experience profound, conscious contact with our own defense mechanisms. Such mechanisms typically operate on an unconscious level, where they are more likely to control us. In my counseling practice, I see a lot of defenses arise in the realm of self-compassion. People resist the concept of offering themselves compassion because they believe it is selfish. Other people have it way worse and they should therefore suck it up and be grateful, damnit. They equate self-compassion to self-pity and wallowing.
If I sense that these beliefs are active in a client, I will invite them to get centered. Plant both feet on the floor and tune into your breath. I will ask them to simply notice what happens in their minds and bodies when I say something like: “Your pain is real and deserves loving attention.” Most people are surprised by the reactions they observe themselves having to such a statement! They become aware of a physical aversion to it. Voices in their head immediately start yelling in protest. People realize that on some level they’ve actually been resisting what they need in order to heal themselves. This awareness alone is often enough to shift things dramatically and catalyze the healing process.
Supporting the Defense
“Taking over” is a technique I sometimes use in conjunction with verbal probes. It works when a discreet somatic response arises to something I’ve just said. A common example is when clients report their shoulders tightening. In this case, “taking over” would involve my physically squeezing their shoulders up for them as I repeat the same verbal probe that initiated the tight sensation. Or clients can exaggerate that tightness themselves by bringing their shoulders up to their ears. They can give themselves a similar experience by using their arms to represent the wall that they feel coming up in response to a certain probe. With the defense thusly supported physically, their psyches are freed up to receive information in a less defended way. They can then take in the nourishment of my words. And they can contact the vulnerable part of themselves that believes it needs protection.
Accepting What Is
In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle says that we have three options for dealing with a given situation. We can accept it, attempt to change it, or attempt to get out of it altogether. Any other response is just resistance, and resisting what is, according to Tolle, is simply insane. This makes sense if you really think about it.
At various points in our lives we will all be faced with situations we’d like to escape or change but cannot. In those moments we have one option: acceptance. This does not equate to settling, giving up, or being happy with a given scenario. It just means we’ve stopped resisting. On some level, however subtle or energetic, we’ve relaxed into it. Instead of clinging to the rocks while the waves crash down upon us, we’ve loosened our grip and learned to ride the waves. We can say without judgment and without taking it personally, “This is how it feels to be alive right now.”
The interventions used in Contemplative Psychotherapy, ACT, and the Hakomi Method are just a few among many that can assist us in cultivating mindfulness and acceptance. Both skills are necessary for contacting the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. Of course, one can cultivate presence at home via meditation, yoga (these YWA videos are my favorite), and bringing bare attention to activities like cooking and washing dishes. With practice we see that in refusing to accept what’s happening right now, beneath all the defenses and distractions, we’re resisting life itself.
Hayes, S.C., Stroshal, K.D., Wilson, K.G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Tolle, E. (1999). The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. Novato, CA: Namaste Publishing and New World Library.
Weiss, H., Johanson, G., Monda, L. (eds.). (2015). Hakomi Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy: A comprehensive guide to theory and practice. New York, NY: Norton Publishing.