have had two beautiful dogs; a retriever, and a big German Shepherd cross. Along with food and companionship, they care a lot about territory. Whenever a cat comes in the yard, for instance, there is a lot of excited barking and chasing, and within seconds their territory is a cat-free zone again. I am pretty sure they enjoy the chase, but I’m pretty sure also that they don’t know what they are doing. If a neighbourhood dog barks, they bark, each and every time. I am pretty sure they could not stop themselves (even if they wanted to). They are acting out something automatic, and they are not being mindful.
Mindfulness means paying attention – sometimes exquisitely close attention – to our experience, as it happens, right now. This is the experiences of our thoughts (“I am thinking about my dad”). It is the experiences of our feelings (“I feel sad”). The experience of our body sensations (“My chest is a bit tight and I feel kind of heavy; my energy drains”). There can be images and memories (“I am remembering myself standing next to him in the living room when I was 12”).
If we bring this kind of awareness into a therapy session, it immediately catapults therapy into the present moment. And this is powerful because this is where therapy actually happens. We heal in present moments. This is why I use mindfulness as part of therapy so much.
Even if we are talking about some event in the past, the only reason it matters is because it somehow touches our lives now. So we pay attention to now and see how it shows up. Now is when we can make some change or make a new choice. The past has already flowed out of reach down the river. So how are we reacting or feeling now? To realize this means paying attention.
If we don’t pay attention to our thoughts, images, feelings, impulses, body sensations, and changes in energy as they happen, we will feel and will act automatically. As with my dogs, old programs or conditioning will play out they way they usually do, and we’ll have a very familiar experience.
The saying is that life is one damn thing after another…but if we are neurotic it’s the same damn thing over and over again.
This isn’t because life is out to get us. Life, and experience, are there to teach us. We are shown, daily, hourly, the consequences of our reactions, our choices, and our outlook. It’s in our face all the time actually. But none of this will make a bit of difference until we look for the teaching, and we look for the little moments where we can do something differently. Otherwise old, conditioned responses will lead us down the same path. No surprise we end up in the same place!
In a therapy session, paying mindful attention to our experience in ‘real time’ means that we can notice those automatic reactions, impulses, and beliefs as they arise. This gives us the amazing chance to do what my dogs, for example, don’t seem to be able to do – to observe our reaction and choose a response.
Pretty profound. But if you think about it, most of the time we are too busy, and probably don’t pay much attention. We are on autopilot. So we do what we usually do. We withdraw from intimacy when it gets too close. Or we cling out of fear. Or we brush off a compliment. Or we go it alone. Or we take charge. Or we get dramatic and emotional. Or we go all rational. Or shut down. Or have a beer. Or work overtime. Or pick on someone. Or pick on ourselves. Whatever our conditioning is, we do it, and so we create the same kinds of experiences. My dogs always chase a cat if it comes into the yard, and always excitedly go eat when someone comes into the house. It’s automatic, and they don’t have a choice.
Most people come to therapy because they are tired of the same old experiences, like anxiety, inhibition, depression, isolation, or confusion. Or they are tired of the same old reaction or habit, like an addiction, or anger outbursts, or holding back, or retreating. In the end this is going to mean that they want more choices.
This might not always so clear at first. Rather than thinking about ourselves, lots of times we just want the world to be a different place. Then we’ll feel more comfortable, then we’ll have more options. If my spouse would just be more reasonable; if the winter were not so long, if people would just leave me alone, if my boss were more understanding, if I had more money…
Sure, our circumstances affect us. But how do we respond? And how can we learn to respond out of our adequacy, not inadequacy; out of confidence rather than fear; more out of love and not so much from containment? How do we respond when we are disappointed, when someone is critical? When we are on our own? How can we learn to respond effectively and creatively when the going gets rough, not ineffectively or habitually?
Therapy, and mindfulness, help us to answer these questions. If we are paying mindful attention to our experience while it is happening in a session, we will see the old stuff playing out right in front of us, right here and now… and we can interrupt it and try something new. So this time, we accept a hug, or take a rest, or go into relationship, or whatever is called for. And then by mindfully trying out some new response , and moment-to-moment seeing what comes up (feelings, thoughts, beliefs, impulses and so on), we get to see where we stop ourselves from living, feeling, behaving as fully as we might.
And then, unlike my dogs, we get to consciously move beyond limiting feelings, beliefs, and habits. So the next time a cat comes into the yard, we can decide – is this the best time to chase it? And if it is, we get to really enjoy it, without having to hold back somehow!
Brian Grady, Ph.D.
Dr. Grady is a psychologist and Certified Hakomi Therapist. Hakomi is a psychotherapy method which relies on mindfuless as described in this article.