This post is the final post in my blog series Five Key Factors of How Therapy Helps.
TRY THIS AT HOME. Therapy will often quite naturally stimulate people to apply what they’re learning about themselves between sessions. People also frequently have insights between sessions, and some will write them down. But sometimes, particularly during periods in therapy when the client is dredging up complicated feelings, there is a tendency to lock them in a box until the next session. While sometimes this gives the client a needed break, I mostly encourage clients to continue to work on things at home. Therapy “homework” is the follow-through phase of how therapy works.
Mindfulness. Mindfulness is one of the main things I recommend for clients to practice between sessions. What is mindfulness? David Gelles wrote a New York Times article on meditation that is very helpful for those curious about mindfulness meditation. (See NYT-How to Meditate https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/how-to-meditate?auth=login-email)
Gelles quotes Tara Brach, a prolific mindfulness teacher saying,
Meditation is a training of our attention. It allows us to step out of distracted thought, and helps us arrive in the present moment in a balanced and clear way.
Gelles explains that many forms of meditation and that most religions have contemplative traditions. He quickly adds, “there are plenty of secular ways to meditate [and] mindfulness meditation has become increasingly popular.
Mindfulness meditation is the simple, but not easy, practice of paying attention to the present moment with a kind, accepting, noncritical disposition. “The goal,” writes Gelles, “isn’t to stop thinking, or to empty the mind. Rather, the point is to pay close attention to your physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions to see them more clearly, without making so many assumptions.”
It can yield profound results with practice, making room for more kindness and equanimity, even in difficult situations. With patient, regular practice starting with as little as 1-5 minutes a day, we can begin to escape the trap of our ruminating minds. As one who finds meditation challenging because I easily get caught up in the future and worries, I have benefited immensely despite not being very good at it—now there I go and judge myself! (See, I told you I’m not very good at it.)
A teacher at the Buddhist Center in Baltimore pointed out that mindfulness practice is not the moment where we are in the present. It is the flow of being in the present and then wandering off into thought and then recognizing this and gently returning to awareness, like a gentle dog trainer who herds a mischievous puppy back to its spot. Tara Brach emphasizes that a desire to return to the present and the act of returning exercises the mind’s muscle to stay in the present. With clients, I often use the analogy of working out regularly to stay physically fit. It’s important to note that the goal is not to become a “good meditator,” the goal is to be more mindful in the present moment throughout the day, and by staying with it, this will happen.
My biggest challenge is not to avoid the present moment because of intense and difficult emotions like fear and sadness. Therefore, I was particularly drawn to the writings and presentations of the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. The foundation of Buddhism is the problem of inevitable suffering. Born and raised in the United States as a woman prone to anxiety, she became a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
When Things Fall Appart. As a fellow anxious person, I particularly love her book, When Things Fall Apart. She jumps right into the hard stuff in her first chapter, Intimacy with Fear. It occurred to me that the psychological purpose of fear is to get our attention—to become aware of something that it is vitally important to be aware of. Fear provides the emotional/physiological alertness necessary for survival.
While this evolutionary trait has been successful (we’re still here after all), it has also saddled us with millions of years of conditioning. Unfortunately, because of this evolutionary residue, we tend to overreact greatly, to fight or to flee, when simple alertness and attention are what we need. The goal of mindful practice is alert awareness. With true awareness and the space to breathe, we can face what we fear without fighting or fleeing it. Practicing mindfulness develops a “beginner’s mind,” a mind open and free of conditioning. In one sense, mindfulness is a process of unlearning the conditioned responses of anger and fear.
I find that sometimes all it takes from me is a little guidance for my clients to make mindfulness exercises a valuable “try this at home” practice. In this way, clients contribute significantly to how therapy can help by helping themselves.