In my last post, I talked about the difficulties people face in working through emotions. Whether it be new clients to therapy, or novice meditators it is difficult to convey the importance of exploring the felt sense of anger, hurt, rejection, guilt. It is tempting to stay in the story, retreat to the head – because that is what we know. However, as hard as we try, we cannot think our way back to emotional health; it is my belief that we need to feel our way there.
There are many forms of therapy that help people explore the bodily held sensations underneath powerful emotions. The so-called ‘experiential therapies’ believe that change comes only once we have accepted our experience, and that experience in its totality – the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions. My own approach relies upon two such streams – Gestalt and Focusing – and I have found them very powerful in opening up and processing emotions in the safety of the therapy room. However, what about the 6 days between therapy sessions, what can people do to work with the waves and not feel in danger of overwhelm?
Working with a therapist will bring useful insight as to the root of the problem the client is facing; Meditation, or simply sitting in stillness allows the client to give space to the feelings. This is how meditation and therapeutic counselling form a formidable duo. I will spend more time on this topic in a future post, but for today I wanted to introduce a useful practice that can help ‘compost’ emotions: the acronym of ‘RAIN’.
RAIN is a four step process that gives structure to emotional processing. I think structure is vital to give people confidence to turn toward the emotional rapids – like a life raft in the stormy sea.
The first step of RAIN is to recognise what is arising in experience. Take yourself back to an argument with a loved one – were you able to feel the anger or hurt as it was coming on? Maybe you could feel tension in your facial muscles, increasing warmth, a knot in your stomach. Can we be present enough to notice the bodily changes we are undergoing while in the moment of the experience that is gripping us? Maybe you can tune in the to commentary in your head, “I am noticing that comment upset me; I am noticing I want to cry”. The key here is observation not reaction. It would be easy to focus on the story – “He has hurt me, look how he treats me”. The ‘recognise’ step is to name simply what is present, dropping the story. I have found it useful to encourage clients to change their language around emotion. Look at this progression as we learn to work more skilfully with our emotions: “He has made me angry” to “I am angry” to “I have anger” and finally to “There is anger arising”.
The next step is to acknowledge the experience ‘as it is’, even if it’s terribly unpleasant. The key is to stay with it – to allow it, not push it away, not try to change it. This is a hard step because it requires self-compassion rather than self-criticism. I often point out to clients that it is our resistance to the pain in life that brings the suffering. We have a choice to not add to the difficulty of an already tough situation – but it does take practice. Open up to the physical sensations – to be with the knot in your stomach, the tightness in your chest. The physical reactions in a time of stress are simply the body’s way to protect against threat. If we allow the physical sensations to arise, just sit with them, they will subside in about 60 to 90s. Again, this takes practice – we have learnt to suppress emotions, so to allow expression of them goes against our survival logic.
Having allowed the emotions some space, we can now bring an attitude of inquiry and investigation. We can become interested and curious. This can be a confusing step. Typically, we look for any chance to understand our experience by going to thinking mode. However, this step is not asking for intellectual analysis – that can detach us from what is actually happening. Instead we are looking to go in to our experience. Tara Brach, a psychotherapist and meditation teacher gives some great examples of how we might engage in a gentle exploration:
“What most wants attention?”
“How am I experiencing this in my body?”
“What am I believing?”
“What does this feeling want from me?”
This is such a powerful step, as it allows us to soften to our experience. For example, we may become aware of the feelings of hurt under the brittle armour of anger.
The final step calls for us to not-identify with our experience. Undoubtedly, we ARE having a feeling, a thought, an emotion but it is NOT who we are. If we have been able to sit with the arising emotion or physical sensation long enough, we will see how it falls away. With time and experience of this, we begin to see that the various parts of the experience are fleeting aspects of the totality of who we are. In the Buddhist teachings on meditation, we are encouraged to see our minds and our experience as the clear, blue sky. The clouds are passing weather, the blue sky remains even if we cannot see it. Like the changing weather, sights, sounds, thoughts, and other contents of mind, arising and passing away often have nothing to do with us.
Whether a formal practice, or taking the time to slow down in everyday life, RAIN is a great way for us to fully experience what is going on for us on all levels – our thinking, our feelings, our emotions yet to refrain from taking it too personally. Be careful here though – it is not a way to side-step or avoid: Rather than detach, we are training to be non-attached. It can help if we view all experience as energy – if we can allow this energy to flow, emotions will come and go (like white fluffy clouds); and that opens up a sense of spaciousness and peace.
“I don’t want to feel this way anymore”
“If I let myself cry, I don’t think I’ll ever stop”
“I want the pain to just go away”
It is common for a person starting counselling to spend the first few sessions recounting the stories that have brought them to see me; why they feel stress, anxious, depressed; who are the key players in their issues; what is causing the obstacles they are encountering. And then, the words dry up. It can often feel like a ‘make or break’ moment in the counselling relationship – it is as if having told me their story they wait in anticipation “so, what next?”. Maybe they want the answers from me, maybe they want me to take the problem away: but what they probably don’t want is the invitation that I offer – to go beneath the stories, under the words and rather connect with the feelings and emotions.
It is important that we have the chance to tell our story. It is important to feel heard. Very often, clients find a lot of relief in just sharing their load. One client of mine recently told me I provided them space to ‘scream and shout’: as no-one else would be able to tolerate it. In my experience though, long-lasting change comes from being able to go beyond the words and touch the feelings underneath – as Fritz Perls used to say, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.” For every story we can tell about someone making us angry, underneath there is pain, hurt or rejection.
As the client and I discuss the issue and their attempts to talk and think themselves out of it they come to understand how retreating in to their heads (and ruminating on the story) isn’t moving them anywhere – in fact it can get them more entrenched as they start to believe the stories are actually true (of course, they ARE true to them, but there is a truth for each and every person on the planet and we can’t ALL be right!). Re-telling the story tends to solidify the situation, and in the worst cases we can over identify with it – very often the reason depression sneaks up on people. But even when there is an intellectual realisation that they need to do things differently, there is always* resistance to questions I pose such as “so how does that feel as you tell me that? where can you sense it in your body?” Very often I see the tears well up, the hand may move to the chest – but almost immediately the silence is broken with the words “I think I feel”…commentary re-commences, it is just too painful to stay with the feelings and the intellect comes in to protect like a white knight.
I connect with this struggle on a personal level. For many years I relied on my ability to think my way out of pain – but actually I now see that my thoughts were a layer over the hurt inside. Historically, thinking kept me safe; but it also kept me living on a knife edge. It is stressful trying to stay safe, and it stopped me from living, I mean truly experiencing life. I didn’t want to live a numbed out life anymore. Therapy helped me see that the very strategies that once kept me safe were now out of date and were the shackles that held me back.
“You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human.”
― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
If to feel is to be human, what stops us wanting to feel? Where have we learnt that feeling is inferior to thinking? Plain and simple, feeling is painful – why wouldn’t we want a smooth ride, why wouldn’t we want to pad ourselves with cotton wool and keep the hurt out? When I talk with client’s about their experience of pain, the main resistance to turning toward the feelings is one of fearing it will catapult them in to an abyss. “If I let myself feel that, the emotion will overwhelm me”; “If I let myself cry, I’ll never stop”. Crying will break open the dam, an irreversible experience of pain. There is fear of paralysis; and ultimately a fear of annihilation and oblivion.
Have you ever tested this out? Have you allowed yourself to be touched by something sad and allow it to take you over, to truly sob? Chances are if you have found the courage to turn toward your experience, fully, you will have noticed that the crying, the sobbing doesn’t last forever…and in fact great relief can come.
Now this will sound strange for me to reveal this, as I am a purveyor of mindfulness meditation – but the first reaction I had to starting a meditation practice was falling in to depression. For the first time in my life I connected to my inner world on a deeper level – and it froze me. I lived in a fog. However, this was the first step I needed to go through – my hopelessness turned to sadness**. When I started therapy, I learned to connect to- and understand the hurt. My mediation practice at this time was a great bedfellow to the therapeutic work – as it allowed me to sit with the emotions – to feel the pain and learn that I COULD survive it.
“To be free, to come to terms with our lives, we have to have a direct experience of ourselves as we really are, warts and all.”
― Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
The Buddhist teachings (as with many Western therapeutic models) reveal that true liberation from comes from deep acceptance of ourselves – and I mean the full range of who we are, the dark the light, the happy the sad. Gestalt therapy (which is said to have received input from Zen Buddhism) in fact speaks of the “paradox of change” – clients will come to therapy often wanting change; but relief eventually comes from the acceptance of ‘what is’. When we turn towards our pain, the struggle stops. Pain is not the problem, the struggle is.
Someone who writes a lot about pain – and turning towards rather than away from it – is the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. She suggests:
Feel the feelings and drop the storyline. And this is where a meditation practice helps us’compost’ our experience. In an environment of relative safety (away from the reactive situation that caused the pain) we can sit and just let the sensations flow through us
And it is this allowance of ‘flow’ that brings the healing. Ordinarily, we get caught up by the emotion, or ‘hooked’ (Chodron uses the Tibetan word ‘shenpa’). Emotion is simply energy – if we let the energy rise – and trust it won’t last forever – it will subside. We only get ‘hooked’ when that energy becomes solid, when we make it ‘real’. Linking this with what I say above, it is often the words and story that lock the energy down and stop the flow.
Of course, we all experience pain in many different ways. And, I certainly wouldn’t recommend turning on the feeling tap in extreme states such as trauma***. The ‘turning toward’ processes of therapy and meditation need to be approached with caution. With care and a compassionate attitude to ourselves, we can un-learn the ‘speaking over’ our experience. To drop the words and feel what is underneath; to feel the richness of this human life.
*I rarely generalise, but I have yet to work with a client who gets excited about my offer to explore the felt sense!
**Yes, that IS progress. Wrongly, people confuse depression with sadness – the former is listlessness, the latter a much richer emotion
***Trauma is actually a quite sensible strategy the body has adopted – it is the detachment of the event from any feeling. Re-uniting the narrative and feelings to re-enact the event needs to be a carefully monitored process under the supervision of a trained professional.
How mindfulness meditation helps me be a better therapist to my clients
In the coming months I am delivering mindfulness workshops to practitioners within the counselling and psychotherapy profession. It is incredible to witness the growing interest to mindful living generally; I am especially pleased to see my profession placing value in the practice of meditation. There are benefits in teaching our clients how to use mindfulness: certainly there is a lot of research emerging as to how meditation may combine with therapy to produce more effective and long lasting change and / or symptom management. I am sure I will return to this topic in a future blog post. For today however I offer a personal perspective as to how I think my meditation practice (as therapist) benefits my clients.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought towards what (up until now) have been my two paths – those of my meditation and my therapeutic paths. I say ‘up until now’ because I am witnessing a merging: personally and professionally. I remember sharing with my own therapist about 5 months ago that I aspired to “truly being a Buddhist” and to have that cradle everything else in my world. That vision is coming to fruition: I see how my meditation practice underpins my values and way of being in the world; and that provides the support of my work as therapist (as well as other roles such as partner, daughter, friend).
My home retreat a few weeks back gave me the opportunity to reflect on living one, common path. I used the time and space to formulate my intentions, specifically as to how I can help others. What really came through to me is how important the actual practice of meditation is (aside from the ethics and compassion practices that are central to life as a Buddhist).
Stabilising the mind
The essential practice in my meditation ‘diet’ is that of breath-awareness, or ‘shamatha’ (sanskritfor ‘calm-abiding’). Using the breath as my object for my mindfulness, I sit and bring single-pointed attention. The phrase ‘calm-abiding’ doesn’t mean a goal of peace and tranquility (or that would mean I ‘fail’ 8 or 9 times out of 10!). Nor is the measure of the practice how well I hold on to the breath. Rather, I direct my attention to the breath as an anchor to the here and now, and if when I get distracted I label it with ‘thinking’ and I come back to the breath. Some days it is relatively straightforward and my experience is quite peaceful and easeful; on other days my mind is distracted and it feels a struggle – I lose the breath, I bring my mind back to it. The ‘calm-abiding’ is the attitude to the oft the tug-of-war. I practice ‘equanimity’ or non-judgement of my experience. Whether easeful of requiring constant effort ‘to come back’, through sitting (over time) my mind slows, gaps between each successive thought appear and lengthen. A period of mediation is often likened to having a jar full of muddy water which settles as we leave it to rest. Letting my mind settle, having my thoughts slow down allows clarity (the mud rests at the bottom with clear water on top). In this space I find that insights relating to my own process emerge. I start to make links between my state of mind, feelings, emotions and events in my life.
Developing the watcher
Another critical practice for me has been that of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In shamatha, the object is thebreath: in the Four Foundations 1) I begin with the object of the body noticing any physical sensations; 2) I move my attention to the feelings that come up and labelling them simply pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; 3) next my mindfulness is directed to the mind itself, watching the thoughts that arise; 4) finally mindfulness of the contents of the mind asks for a linking of the arising thoughts within aspects of Buddhist teachings. It provides a methodical way to practice applying my mindfulness across different processes that ordinarily I’m not aware of (because they are going on all the time underneath daily concerns). When I teach this practice to others, I describe how its a bit like watching our experience unfold on a screen from a seat in a cinema. It is a beautiful analogy because it implies an ability to stand-back: to be fully contacted with our experience yet not enveloped by it. Developing the movie-goer or ‘watcher’ (without entering the drama being played out on the screen / in the mind) helps build the quality of equanimity (upeksha in sanskrit). This is probably close to what Freud referred to as “evenly suspended attention”.
How often do we really take time out? My 30 minutes each morning is a very personal space, real ‘me-time’. Simplysitting still without an outcome is one thing that helps me keep my batteries charged. OK, each meditation is not all peace, calm and tranquility – it is not an easy practice: yet with time, the effects are become clear. Since I have been meditating (five years now) I sleep better, I understand more what is going on behind my feelings and emotions, and I am less reactive in relationships. Life takes less out of me when I make the time to meditate.
Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.
― Eleanor Brownn
putting-on-your-own-oxygen-mask-firstThese first three aspects are really about ‘me’ – how meditation aids Helen as a person. In a modern day interpretation of the Buddhist teachings is the example of the oxygen mask – we can only help others once we have seen that our own needs are met. This is not some narcissistic statement – we have to be in sound health (physically and emotionally) to serve others. This is especially true in the helping professions. When seeing a number of clients per week and helping them with difficulty emotional struggles, my meditation keeps me grounded and ‘fit to practice’. Counselling and psychotherapy is known to be a profession with a high rate of burnout.
Adding value to the therapeutic relationship
Having stabilised my own mind and taken care of my self, I am ready to enter the room with a client undistracted and ready to be there for them, totally. Much of the therapeutic literature (especially the research of the Humanistic approach) speaks of the importance of ‘presence’. Therapeutic presence involves being fully in the moment with a client on a multitude of levels – physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. It is presence that helps me be fully open to the client’s world yet remain in touch with my own experience. Therapists rely a lot on their congruence – the ability to detect what is going on internally and to then be able to express this in real time to the client. Much feedback about a client’s way of being can be generated if a therapist is able to tune in as to how that client is impacting on them. The key for me is how mindfulness meditation (alongside my personally therapy) helps bring clarity to my own process and enables me to separate out my stuff* from the client’s.
Daniel Siegel writes beautifully on the topic of how mindfulness can enhance the therapeutic process, and I have found what he offers with the acronym of PART speaks to my experience with clients:
- My presence is a way I remain grounded in myself. I am able to locate my own needs and be undistracted with a client
- Settled, I am able to attune with the client’s internal experience and their world
- There is alignment, two people in a room opening to each other brings resonance – we recognise our shared humanity and begin to influence each other’s state of being**
- My client feels fully heard, fully felt – trust between us is nurtured which as Siegel explains is the starting point for true interpersonal integration
Neuroscience is establishing the changes in brain structure and function that come with regular mindfulness training – and this scientific basis is one reason why the health professions (including therapists) are keen to use meditation for themselves and reassured in recommending it to patients and clients. I certainly find it invaluable for my therapeutic counselling work. However, I would urge some caution: I believe we (the practitioner) need a strong personal mindfulness practice before we attempt to use it in our work, or indeed teach our clients to use it. As I mentioned earlier, whilst it is a straightforward practice, it is not an easy one. Having our own experience of the pitfalls and challenges is vital if we can attune to the client’s attempts. I have also found that meditation can bring up ‘stuff’, which while useful material for therapy it is again advisable to have experienced a version of this ‘stirring up’ ourselves so we can truly get alongside our clients.
*Stuff – technical term in the trade meaning baggage, personal history, unresolved issues. For example, if I am sitting opposite a client and notice sensations of anger, I need to be clear whether it is my own anger or that anger is in the room possibly coming from a client’s process.
**Maybe to the degree where the therapist-client experience Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” or what is called “relational depth” in some psychotherapeutic literature
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