Updated: Nov 5, 2022
Mindfulness practice can help us be better therapists and help clients reap most benefit from the therapy. Art therapy setting is particularly conducive to learning and practicing mindfulness. #mindfulness #therapeuticpresence #arttherapy
The benefits of mindfulness practice are gaining vast empirical evidence, and the list of the conditions where mindfulness can offer measurable positive results is growing: depression (Teasdale et al., 2000), anxiety (Baer, 2003), pain management (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1987) are just a few of many. Mindfulness has been getting more and more implemented in private as well as clinical setting (McKay, Wood & Brantley, 2007). More and more therapists are seeking training in mindfulness and for a good reason. #mindfulness
Mindfulness is instrumental in developing an attuned relational presence in psychotherapy, it may aid the therapists in safely bringing more of their genuine selves into the therapeutic space and at the same time in building the therapeutic relational space of acceptance and non-judgment. Further, teaching mindfulness to the clients may have a profound effect on the clients’ psychological flexibility, adaptability, empathy and a sense of well-being.
Mindfulness can help us be better therapists
“The client-therapist relationship is the key determinant in the positive therapeutic outcome and is rooted in the therapists attuned self-presence as well as presence of the client” (Thompson, 2018).
What constitutes therapeutic presence and how is mindfulness helpful?
Geller and Greenberg (2012) define therapeutic presence as the therapists’ internal and interpersonal stance involving the therapists sensory, emotional and cognitive attention to themselves and the client in the present moment. This definition has a lot in common with the definition of mindfulness: “the ability to be aware of your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and actions – in the present moment – without judging or criticizing yourself or your experience” (McKay, Wood & Brantley, 2007, p. 64). The difference is that in mindfulness there is no judgment or criticizing of self or experience.
I suggest that, apart from the obvious enhancement in the ability to be aware in the present moment, it is the practice of non-judgment that offers potential enhancement to the attuned therapeutic presence. Not judging and not criticizing does not mean being indifferent, it means accepting something as it is, seeing it as a whole, without rejecting any part of it. I believe it is this stance of acceptance that is the key determinant of effective therapeutic presence. I believe we all can benefit from a little more acceptance, but in therapeutic setting, it is the foundation upon which the practice of letting be and the possibility of change grows.
As a therapist practices mindfulness, their self-acceptance grows, and this in turn enables them to bring more of their genuine self into the therapy space. Through the prism of post-modern theories of psychotherapy this can be seen as a way to a better therapeutic relationship. Being fully present in the therapeutic space allows us, as therapists, to be better attuned to our own emotions and thoughts in response to what the client brings into the therapy and also to be able to better process them, thus decreasing the risks of unprocessed vicarious traumas, unrecognized counter-transferences, and burn-out. Robbins (1998) writes how his therapeutic stance evolved naturally over time from keeping certain more personal aspects of himself outside of the therapeutic space to being fully and genuinely present. Robbins suggests that this fuller presence allows the therapists to use more of their creative energy, and “with this full engagement with our patients, therapy has far more energy, play and spirit” (p. 11).
By clearing their own mental chatter and by increasing their own awareness through mindfulness the therapists are able to develop more attuned therapeutic presence.
Through mindfulness self-judgment and judgment in general decrease and therefore the therapist is able to be more receptive to themselves and to the client, at the same time offering the atmosphere where the client feels more accepted and is therefore able to explore own issues more freely and is able to let go of rigid thoughts more easily.
Why teach mindfulness to clients?
Most of the empirical research has been focusing on the benefits of mindfulness practice for the individuals. At this point, a brief scan of a database of peer-reviewed journals will offer articles about positive effects of mindfulness in groups, in individual practice, and in a multitude of populations. There is now a neuroscientific base of research, showing how practice of mindfulness is able to re-wire our brain and offer measurable positive effects (Siegel, 2009; Ives-Deliperi, Solms, Meintjes, 2011; Kong, Wang, Sing & Liu, 2016).
I find it fascinating that mindfulness has been praised and practiced for thousands of years and passed on through religious teachings and now it is finding it’s way into the secular main-stream use and is finding scientific evidence of it’s effectiveness. So why an art therapist should consider implementing teaching mindfulness to their clients in their practice?
There is deep connection between art-making and mindfulness. So many artists have shared that their artistic energy flows best when they are in the moment, in the flow, where their ordinary self and their inner narrative quiets down or steps aside. There are art forms that are based entirely on mindful presence, such as in Zen Buddhism, the art of monochrome ink painting and the art of poetic word is based on deep mindful presence.
There is a beautiful synergy between art and mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us to be present to our creative flow and art invites us to connect deeper to ourselves.
Through this presence and deeper connection to themselves, the clients gain fresher, wider perspective on their thoughts, emotions and behaviours and therefore gain more capacity to be psychologically flexible, to adapt, to empathize and gain a sense of well-being.
Art therapy and mindfulness
Art therapy offers a unique opportunity to implement mindfulness into the therapeutic setting and is of particular value in introducing mindfulness in a relaxed and non-intimidating way.
In art therapy individuals are able to engage the senses (tactile, visual, auditory and even olfactory) in the present moment through mindful exploration of the art materials and art making.
Through gentle guidance clients may practice the awareness of the immediate experience by simply paying attention to the senses in the process of exploring the materials or making art.
The practice of acceptance and non-judgment can be explored through facilitating dialogues between the client and the artwork. The emotional awareness can be explored through creating art representations of an emotion, and many other directives. Equally thought awareness and more advanced mindfulness skills can be introduced through the medium of art-making, offering a multi-sensory learning environment, which can ensure deeper understanding and better retention.
Masha Andreeva, 2018, An art response to Rumis’ poem “The Guest House” – a reflection on how all emotions we experience are to be welcomed and treated with respect and equanimity, as they may carry lessons, wisdom and blessings.
Drawing both from the empirical evidence as well as from personal experience of practicing and teaching mindfulness, I would like to say that it is certainly worthwhile for anyone working with other sentient beings to seriously consider implementing mindfulness practice into their life, and introducing it to their clients. By learning to be more aware and present with ourselves we learn to be more present and attuned to others. By learning to release judgments and criticism we learn to let go easier and to live happier lives as a result.
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Ives-Deliperi, V. L., Solms, M., & Meintjes, E. M. (2011). The neural substrates
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Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., Burney, R., & Sellers, W. (1987). Four-year follow-up of a
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Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & Distress Tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
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