Siobhán McGee explores Mindfulness and why it is such a fundamental aspect of our training.
Contemplative practice is at the heart of most spiritual and healing traditions. If presence is inherently healing, then how is mindfulness a bridge to depth awareness and transformation in the psychotherapeutic process?
The Buddha said, if people were to question him on the topic of Mindfulness for 100 years, he could respond without repeating himself and they would never come to the end of his answers. The topic is that large.
An essential element of Core Process Psychotherapy focuses on establishing mindfulness which is learning and practicing how to rest into and notice the moment. Resting into the vast presence of silence. Mindfulness is not the study of theory, but rather an embodied exploration of how we organise our experience.
So before you launch right into reading, I want to firstly invite you to begin with some silence and to spend a few moments just feeling into the silence… settling into yourself, maybe just taking your seat and feeling into that. How is this for you? What happens?
When clients come to therapy they come with very real issues and suffering that often runs very deep … this suffering may have begun in our earliest environments of prenatal life, birth and of course at our most vulnerable and earliest relationships. This suffering can be recapitulated throughout life and become our habituated patterns and way of relating.
In MBCPP we are not using mindfulness to spiritually bypass suffering, but rather the invitation is to fully immerse into and through the experience and the therapeutic relationship becomes a vehicle for deep transformation.
Mindfulness comes from an ancient culture and most spiritual traditions have these deep roots which focus on some form of contemplative practice.
When I first started meditating, my experience was not terribly serene. I didn’t find silence easy or comfortable. I experienced a lot of tiredness, boredom, wandering thoughts, pain in my body and I needed to move about a lot and often times, I still do.
It was frightening to sit in silence, because as W.B. Yeats intoned, “a fire was in my head’. Silence put me in touch with deep suffering, anger, shame and longing.
Perhaps this might be one of the reasons therapists have been so busy during the Covid-19 pandemic: as distractions are removed, we are left to face our own suffering and to be with another’s.
Mindfulness is an important part of developing our attunement as therapists and this is why we place such importance on mindfulness practice throughout our training.
So …What is Mindfulness and where does it come from?
It’s important to say that In Core Process Psychotherapy whilst we don’t require trainees or anyone to be in any way a Buddhist, we do link Mindfulness with its original teachings and have a deep appreciation of and interest in these roots. In our training we explore and practice mindfulness within the context of the Buddhist psychology and teachings.
The Four Noble Truths
The Buddha understood and taught about the nature of suffering. He has been called ‘the great healer’; physician or the ‘original therapist’ because he taught so directly about suffering and the path out of suffering. The foundation teaching is on the four noble truths which are:
- There is suffering and it must be understood – Ceaseless nature of impermanence
- There is a cause of suffering – Craving, clinging and aversion is the root of our suffering
- There is a way out of suffering – There is a way to break the chain of suffering
- This way out of suffering is called the Eightfold path – an integrated ethical path to unbinding and freeing ourselves from suffering and the delusion of a separate sense of self or I, me and mine. Mindfulness is the foundation of this path.
The Three Fold Way
This eightfold path is sometimes shortened into the threefold way:
- Sila –Ethics – this is commitment to an Ethical path which of course links to the ethical therapeutic holding, to do no harm and to practice right speech, right action.
- Samadi – Concentration & mindfulness is part of this. We know that Freud suggested therapists should have ‘evenly hovering attention’ and Horney called this ‘wholehearted attention’ – Mindfulness helps us to really have this sort of wholehearted attention.
- Panna – right wisdom and insight which arises from sitting into the co-arising enquiry of mindfulness in relationship. An embodied ‘knowingness’ that arises from the wellspring of presence and a natural bubbling up of compassion and warmth.
So it is an ethical path of heart, insight, wisdom and compassion.
Whilst the foundation of the path is mindfulness this is not separate and all are integrated.
In Core Process Psychotherapy, we hold the Buddhist understanding that at our core there is inherent health and we are all inherently awake – everything is essentially empty, luminous and interconnected like water in the ocean…the process is to penetrate into what obscures this.
What did the Buddha say about mindfulness
The Buddha taught through discourses known as Suttas and the main discourse on the foundations of mindfulness is called the ‘Satipattana Sutta’
The word Mindfulness comes from a translation of the Pali word Sati which means to ‘remember’ and most frequently this is a remembrance in the present moment. So it is a call to be aware of and open to presence. Re-membering… bringing together all the disparate parts of ourselves.
Mindfulness is the foundation and the beginning of becoming aware… it has also been likened to a sentry ‘guarding the mind’.
Unbinding is how the Buddha described mindfulness. Bringing mindful attention to the breath, body sensations and the mind we can begin to really see our patterns and unbind them. This is an internal journey to freedom.
The Buddha gave very clear teaching and instruction for how to practice mindfulness;
“This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of liberation – namely, the four foundations of mindfulness” Sattipatana Sutta
Four Foundations of Mindfulness
The teachings in the Sattipattana are related to the Four Foundations or contemplations of mindfulness and the instructions are to immerse ourselves fully and keep noticing and watching these:
- The contemplation on the body Staying with body sensations, contractions etc. Noticing does my body feel open and warm. What is my breath doing as I sit here. Where in my body do I hold vigilance/contraction where is soft. What is happening in my jaw etc. Where is resistance and what does this feel like.
- Contemplation of feelings Paying attention and noticing if feelings are positive/Negative/Neutral as this tells us about our craving and aversion
- Contemplation of Consciousness This invitation is to become intimate with the workings of the mind, perceptions, our thought patterns etc – to really sit into the process of thought making, watching and observing the mind and how we can make up stories.
- Contemplation on Dhamma (mind objects in the mind objects) This last foundation of mindfulness, is an invitation to really rest into and understand the nature of the process of becoming, in Buddhism there isn’t a fixed notion of a separate sense of self or I – Of course have continuity of being, but there isn’t an idea of a separate self… in fact it is the illusion of and grasping to self that creates suffering.
Nothing exists separately everything is interdependent and co-arising
Mindfulness is a deeply relational, embodied and experiential practice. We are coming into relationship and deep intimacy with ourselves. We bring present moment awareness to arising process internally, externally and as a whole – relationally.
Mindfulness then is the path to deeply contemplate, name and be in our experience in the body, feelings, mind… to deeply penetrate our experience as it arises. This offers us the possibility of creating space in the body, unbinding from our conditioned experience so we can releasing old patterns and create different choices.
When I was looking to embark on a psychotherapy training I wanted a journey that would integrate a spiritual approach with depth psychology and I found that at Karuna Institute.
I qualified as a Core Process Psychotherapist in 2003 and have been practicing for over 20 years working with individuals, organisations and offering supervision. For the last 15 years I specialised in providing psychological consulting to organisations on aspects of trauma, resilience and recovery both in the UK and Europe.