Mindfulness in the context of psychotherapy is more than just a technique or a theoretical perspective; it is a way of being with and relating to experience. Regardless of whether or not you choose to incorporate formal mindfulness practices in your sessions with clients, having your own mindfulness practice will positively inform your work.
In his book, Mindfulness Meditation in Psychotherapy: An Integrated Model for Clinicians, licensed clinical social worker Steven Alper emphasizes the importance of clinician embodiment of the practice; that is, your clinical work should be an authentic extension of your own mindfulness practice.
Of course, in order for this to be true, you must first establish a formal practice.
First, here are a few quick tips to keep in mind before we delve into the list:
1. The keys are repetition, consistency, and developing a routine.
2. Meditate at the same time every day.
3. Committing to practicing first thing in the morning may make it easier to be consistent and establish a routine. But be sure to get a good night’s sleep if you want to minimize the struggle to stay awake.
4. Consistently and regularity are more important than how long you meditate during any single practice period.
5. Keep a mindfulness meditation practice log. Looking back at the entries is self-reinforcing.
6. Set aside a space just for meditation. A whole room, a small area, or even just a corner or a cushion will do.
The following eight practices are a great place to start if you’re not sure how to begin, or if you’re still looking for a meditation that really resonates with you. Alpers recommends choosing one or two that really resonate with you, and practicing them daily.
1. Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is often used as a way to introduce clients to mindfulness, and it can be a great way for us to deepen our own understanding of the nature of the practice. Something as simple as eating a raisin with mindful awareness dispels stereotypes about the practice by bringing it in to a regular, daily activity.
As you eat your food, simply pay attention to each moment with curiosity and interest, without expectation or judgment, and without striving to get somewhere or accomplish anything.
2. Breath-Awareness Meditation
The breath grants us access to the present moment whenever we choose to tune in to it. Because it is so exquisitely sensitive to emotional reactivity and stress, attention to breathing has the potential to reveal a great deal about the breather.
For example, when we experience fear we may hold our breath. Or when we feel anxious, we may constrict our breathing. How we relate to breathing is an embodied metaphor for how we relate to living. This is part of what makes focus on the breath through mediation so useful and important.
In breath-awareness meditation, posture is key. A relaxed, upright, erect posture will allow the breath to flow freely while embodying the quality of awareness that supports the meditation practice. Unlike rigidity, slouching, instability, and other less-than-ideal postural attributes which tend to reinforce qualities like sleepiness, inattention, irritation, and agitation, a proper posture will lend itself to a clear, relaxed awareness.
3. Body Scan Meditation
The term mindfulness is often misunderstood as being purely “mental.” But Alpers says mindfulness meditation is fundamentally a somatic, or body-oriented practice.
Focusing our attention on bodily sensations, one moment after the next, allows us to anchor our awareness in the physical, lived reality of physical sensations in the present moment.
Through the body scan, we can investigate the mind-body connection. We may begin to notice how conditioned, reactive judging, and muscle contraction, stiffening, and bracing happen simultaneously. The judging and aversion and the tightening and contracting of the musculature are the same movements of the mind, inclusive of thoughts, emotional reactions, physical reactions, and sensations in the body.
With the body scan, we can also experience letting go as an integrated mind-body experience—and experience of emotional and physical release at once.
4. Mindful Movement Meditation
Practices like hatha yoga, chi gung, tai chi chuan, and dance are also methods for formal mindfulness practice. In the west, there are many styles of yoga that emphasize the achievement of particular postures. This is not mindful movement. In fact, it is the lack of orientation toward goals, and the practice of not valuing or weighting one moment as more important than any other, that make any given movement mindful.
Practice sustaining awareness of the sensations of movement without judging, striving, or conferring greater or lesser importance on one or another. Do your best not to judge, especially when it comes to moments that mark the beginning or end of movement, or intense sensations within a movement.
5. Sitting Meditation
When meditation is mentioned most people recall images of a Buddha-like figure sitting cross-legged, upright with a straight back, hands in lap, eyes closed, with a subtle smile. And rightfully so! The upright spine promotes energy and wakefulness, while the crossed legs and bottom on a firm fusion on the floor provide a solid, stable foundation for stillness.
Within the stillness of this posture, the continuously changing body sensations, perceptions, mind states, thoughts, emotions, and moods within the changing landscape of awareness are more palpable and clear. In this way, the sitting posture is like a still, transparent container within which the movements of the mind-body process become clear.
Sitting meditation practices move systematically through focus on breath sensations; other body sensations and the body as a whole field of sensations; noticing hearing and awareness of discreet sounds and the soundscape as a whole; awareness of thinking, emotion, moods, and mind states; and finally opening to choiceness awareness, in which the present moment as a whole is the focal object.
“Because the sitting posture creates the potential for strong, powerful stillness and choiceless awareness of the full range of experience in each moment, it is unparalleled as a meditation practice. For this reason, whatever you choose as your primary formal practice, I still strongly recommend incorporating some sitting meditation practice as well,” says Alper.
6. Walking Meditation
The moments in which we first learn to walk are for most of us moments of sheer triumph and exhilaration. But soon enough, walking becomes instrumental—a means to an end, a way to get from place to place. We rarely fully experience walking because we are most often so focused on where we are going and what we will do when we get there.
Walking meditation is the antidote to “sleepwalking through walking.” It involves reawakening to the sensory experience of walking as it unfolds in each moment.
In life, transitions between activities are often when we tend to lose focus. Moving meditations, like those mentioned above, as well as mindful walking, are particularly helpful in cultivating and strengthening the ability to sustain mindfulness when moving through life, from one activity to the next.
7. Loving-Kindness and Compassion
Loving-kindness meditation focuses on developing radical acceptance, or open-heartedness, which requires us to be equally partial to each moment, whatever its contents. This is typically done by concentrating on a particular object, repetition of phrases, and visualization.
The object becomes completely absorbed in the experience and expression of the intentions stated in the phrases, while focusing on the energies of loving-kindness. Part of the practice also involves noting physical or emotional sensations that indicate resistance, including contracting, tightening, or bracing in the heart space.
Radical acceptance allows for maximum clarity of perception in each moment because perception isn’t distorted by conditioned judgment, aversion, or grasping. Seeing the present moment clearly allows for optimally skillful response in the next moment, which increases the likelihood of creating adventitious suffering. In this way, loving-kindness, or radical acceptance, is actually extremely practical.
Loving-kindness is particularly helpful for people who struggle with agitation, restlessness, obsessive self-judgment, rumination, or worry during mindfulness meditation.
8. Sitting Mountain Meditation
The sitting mountain meditation incorporates visualization as a means to cultivate the capacity to remain fully present and undisturbed in the midst of change, disruption, chaos, or strife, also known as equanimity.
In addition to encouraging stress-resilience, equanimity involves trust in yourself and life; embodied wisdom and impermanence and change; skill in relating to change; and the ability and willingness to let go of attachments to things we cannot control. It involves taking a perspective of spaciousness, and the understanding that we are all participants in the vast, unimaginable complex and interconnected being of the Earth.
In the sitting mountain meditation, we intentionally set out to develop an embodied, experiential metaphor for equanimity through visualization. You may find that through practice, you are able to access the mountain image whenever it serves you to reconnect with the experience of equanimity. Visualizing the image of sky may also be similarly useful in cultivating a sense of spacious awareness.
For more about all of the mindfulness practices above, and access to free guided meditation recordings exercises that accompany each, check out Alpers’ book, Mindfulness Meditation in Psychotherapy.