Teaching Mindfulness? Avoid These Common Traps for Therapists

While it’s certainly not a requirement, many who are drawn to become mindfulness facilitators are trained psychotherapists. And many of the skills of psychotherapy, such as managing the group dynamic and building rapport, are assuredly useful in facilitating a mindfulness group. But a number of specific skills of psychotherapy can cause interference with skillful mindfulness group facilitation—where old learning, in this case psychotherapy skills, interferes with the acquisition of new learning. Whether you’re in the early stages of planning, have recently begun, or are well underway in teaching mindfulness, you’ll want to watch out for these common pitfalls that mindfulness facilitators who are also psychotherapists encounter.

Lack of embodiment. A skilled mindfulness facilitator will embody kindness, accep­tance, and courage to face whatever the present moment brings, drawing from her own ongoing mindfulness practice.

Confusion around appropriate disclosure. In some psychotherapeutic approaches, clinicians may care­fully attend to disclosure and boundary issues to maximize the opportunity to observe any projection or transference phenomena. Some psychotherapists have been trained to have a more neutral stance in their work—to observe their own internal phenom­ena as part of the work of psychotherapy. A mindfulness facilitator, on the other hand, models full engagement with his or her own life. Each experience is met in the moment with kindness, and this is all embodied for the class to see.

Hierarchical framework. Another common pitfall for psychotherapists is the per­ception of a hierarchy when facilitating a mindfulness group. In some psychotherapy models, the therapist holds the expertise or specific knowledge that creates a gradient in the relationship. (Admittedly, in many other models, this is specifically not the case.) A mindfulness facilitator is as human as everyone else. We work with our own painful physical sensations and difficult emotions just like everyone else. We teach from a stance of owning our humanity fully—particularly our challenging parts—and modeling how to do this with kindness. The saying in mindfulness is to be a “guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.”

Confusing group practice with group process. Psychotherapists starting as mind­fulness facilitators can inadvertently turn a mindfulness practice group into a group process. It is understandable that you are drawn to facilitating a mindfulness group since you are passionate about the practice yourself. When group members become passionate about it as well, it is easy for the group to veer into sharing experiences about the practice and how it is changing their lives. Some group process is helpful to normalize the experiences of learning mindfulness. But a skilled mindfulness facilita­tor allows the practice to be the teacher and doesn’t allow the group to be hijacked by excessive process, however interesting.

Interpreting a participant’s experience. Another related pitfall for psychotherapists is interpreting or commenting on each experience a student shares. The goal here is not to “make that which is unconscious, conscious,” nor is it to elucidate and explain every experience. It is always a good habit to allow the learning to unfold and, again, let the practice be the teacher. Many comments from students don’t need to be reframed or expanded upon. Provide support and understanding. That’s enough.

Being too “shallow” while leading a formal practice. Another pitfall is leading a practice from a script rather than from within your own present-moment experience. This is what we call being too “shallow” in your practice and not deep enough in your own experience. The words alone are insufficient to lead a practice. It is the facilita­tor’s felt sense of the practice that is conveyed from the “middle” of his or her prac­tice.

If you’re just getting started as a mindfulness facilitator, these pitfalls may seem daunting, but keep in mind that as a psychotherapist you also have many skills that will serve you well. If you’re just beginning, you may need to consciously shift from the therapist role to that of the mindfulness facilitator as appropriate.

For more resources for psychotherapists who wish to teach mindfulness, check out A Clinician’s Guide to Teaching Mindfulness Meditation.

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