Therapy as Mindfulness

By: Patricia McGuire, MA, LPC

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

We often come to therapy because we want to feel better.  Perhaps we face a situation or emotion that feels impossible to overcome.  When we encounter challenges in our lives, we may seek support, insight, and relief from therapy and the therapeutic relationship.  Sometimes our experiences can feel like an endless ambush of overbearing waves, crashing over us and pulling us out to sea.  Within the therapeutic relationship, we can learn how to mindfully ride these waves. 

At the Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness, mindfulness is defined as “paying attention in the present moment to thoughts, feelings and body sensations with full acceptance.”   In therapy, the relational dynamic between therapist and client is a mindful space. Therapy itself could even be described as a mindfulness practice. Both therapist and client come together in mindful non-judgment to gain greater awareness and understanding of the client’s experience.  Being open, curious, and accepting of one’s experience in the moment can often be difficult, if not completely foreign.  With the guidance and presence of a therapist, this process can become easier and more familiar.

For those in therapy, questions like these may sound familiar:  “Where do you feel that emotion in your body?” or “Can you label what you’re feeling right now?” or simply “What do you notice as we talk about this?” A therapist may ask these questions frequently.  The repetition of these questions increases awareness and allows for a mindful break –a brief meditation—during the moment-to-moment experience in the therapy hour.  These questions can cultivate mindful awareness throughout the week as well.

This act of noticing emotions and bodily sensations is significant.  Because noticing is often the opening in which we create space and attend to ourselves in healthy and authentic ways.  Between checklists, appointments and endless errands, we are invited to be present.  To be mindfully, intentionally aware in each moment.  In this process there’s an invitation—in our flaws, our humanness, our beauty—to just be.   

Mindfulness is a practice – it is not perfected or completed.  It is a way to engage with every experience throughout our day and throughout our lives.  When we feel those overbearing emotional waves, mindfulness is like a surfboard and we are surfers, riding the waves.  Mindfulness allows us to ride the waves of our emotional experience (joy, pain, sadness, anger) without judgment and without the waves overtaking us.  The waves will come and go as they always do; but our mindful surfing allows us space to choose our responses and feel free.