When clients resist mindfulness

By Daniel J. Moran, PhD, BCBA

While many clinicians have embraced mindfulness in their own lives—and as a therapeutic approach—clients might not always come to therapy eager to take on a meditation practice. Over the last twenty years of doing acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and supervising therapists in ACT, I’ve heard many clients resist the idea of regularly doing mindfulness exercises. Recently, while doing supervision for novice ACT therapists, I heard recordings of clients discussing their resistance to starting such a practice. One of my supervisee’s clients said, “I’m a Christian, so I don’t really want to start doing Buddhist stuff.” Another said, “I’m coming to you for weight loss issues. Do you really think I can sit cross-legged on the floor for hours on end?” And one of my supervisees had a client who was particularly surly and groused, “I don’t want to do any hippie-dippy nonsense.”

The common theme among these complaints—and many other people’s oppositions to mindfulness—seems to stem from misconceptions of what mindfulness practice is all about. My experience has shown there are three important considerations when introducing clients to practicing mindfulness.

1) Be cautious with the Eastern philosophy ornamentation. I’ve supervised many therapists who have yin-yang symbols on their business cards, and Zen gardens in their office. While I personally think these traditional symbols are interesting, some clients may be put off by these accouterments. We can introduce mindfulness as a secular skill that helps people pay attention to the current moment, and lends the client an ability to more adequately handle their own troubling thoughts and feelings.

2) Mindfulness practice can be done without codified postures and actions. Clients do not need to sit in lotus position to do a sitting meditation. In fact, a sitting meditation can be done in an easy chair or an airplane seat. While yoga exercises can help people establish better contact with their body and the current moment, clients can also come in contact with their body and the current moment while mowing the lawn or folding the laundry. The traditional methods of meditation are great, but aren’t critical. Work together with clients to discuss what actions can be done mindfully, rather than prescribe certain rigid regiments.

3) Remember that therapy is a shaping process. In psychotherapy, we’re trying to help the client develop stronger and more functional repertoires. Start small with clients. Invite them to do one-minute mindfulness exercises if they resist the idea of doing five-minute exercises. They can slowly work their way forward if it suits their treatment.

Overall, the idea is to assist the client in seeing the value of mindfulness, and encourage ways to build up such a practice that suits them so they'll continue to do the exercises often enough to be beneficial in their therapeutic endeavor.

"ACT in Practice" Book CoverDaniel J. Moran, PhD, BCBA received his doctorate from Hofstra University in 1998. He began his training in acceptance and commitment therapy in 1994 and founded the Mid-American Psychological Institute in Joliet, IL in 2003. He is the director of the Family Counseling Center, a division of Trinity Services, where he trains future clinicians and practices clinical behavior analysis.


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