Parallels Between Psychotherapy, Mindfulness Practices and Spirituality

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW





Awe is about the wonder that we experience when we stand still and observe reality closely enough to really take it in.


Contemporary spirituality, mindfulness practices and experiential psychotherapy all encourage this kind of stillness; they help us to focus on and experience the richness of the present moment and the fullness of our possibilities as people. Much of what unites experiential psychotherapy with contemporary spirituality is this emphasis on leaving room for awe by remaining receptive to what the present moment offers.  



Spirituality and the Present Moment


More than any of the other positive spiritual emotions, a contemporary spirituality is, at its essence, about awe–about using mindfulness meditation and other practices to help us to wake up from the sleep of unconsciousness and begin to experience the richness in the present moment. Just like psychotherapy, contemporary spirituality is about leading an examined as opposed to an unexamined life, but the emphasis is somewhat different. From the Buddhist perspective, the danger is that we remain lost in our ordinary level of consciousness and end up living like robots, as if in a dream from which we may never wake. When we are lost we are out of touch with ourselves, with our possibilities, and with the real truth about who we are and what is out there in the world.


The problem, as many spiritual teachers might explain it, is that we lose touch with the mystery or magic of life because we resist being in the moment, in the “now.” We fail to realize the basic truth that the present moment is all we have, that we will never be living anywhere but in the present. That is why mindfulness practices emphasize the “pause,” the importance of consciously deciding to make the time to be in touch with whatever is real for us in the particular moment, no matter what type of moment it is. Without pausing, how can we take it all in, examine it and begin to appreciate or understand it?


Yet it is very human to resist doing this. So much of the time we experience a kind of restlessness or vague sense of dissatisfaction that we would just as soon run away from. Focusing on the past, thinking about the future, or taking actions to help move us forward in our lives usually feels more promising or productive. Particularly for young people who have most of their future ahead of them, the pressure to create the right future would appear to be a higher priority than lingering in present moments that are far from “awesome.”


Our modern lifestyles contribute to the problem by offering the luxury and the curse of endless distractions that appear much more enticing than sitting on a meditation mat. But these pursuits can become counterproductive when we seek from them a level of gratification that they cannot ultimately provide, leaving us to assume that we just need more. Whether it is an updated kitchen with granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances or career success or a shopping spree or a better body or more money or more food, alcohol or drugs, the “highs” that these activities offer are often followed by “lows” if we are not finding other reliable sources of sustenance in our lives. As a culture, our quest for “more” may be better addressed by learning to find the “more” in the richness of the present moment.



The Attitudes of Mindfulness


“What is required is a willingness to look deeply at one’s present moments, no

matter what they hold, in a spirit of generosity, kindness toward oneself, and

openness toward what might be possible.”


Jon Kabat-Zinn from Wherever You Go, There You Are



So how do we go about finding this “more” and rekindling the sense of awe in our lives? The answer may be that what is needed is a type of spiritual practice where we redirect our attention and our attitudes so that we begin to experience our present moments differently. The mindfulness practice that we are most familiar with is meditation, where we are instructed to sit quietly for a certain amount of time each day and disengage our minds from the normal pursuit of thoughts. While we would all welcome the opportunity to be struck to the core with a sense of limitless splendor and awe, the goal of meditation practice is more modest: to gradually build up a subtle but meaningfully different way of being with ourselves and with the world.


But mindfulness in the broader sense is not just about a meditation practice where we sit and let go of thoughts. It is also very much about self-observation and truly being in touch with where we are—and in order to do this, we need to adopt certain attitudes. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” We commit ourselves to taking on a different perspective—one that is open and free of our usual preconceptions and expectations.


While this takes some courage, it is also meant to be a heartfelt experience, not just a cold and analytic assessment. And because being present with ourselves in this way is hard work, it requires considerable motivation and may be something that we can take on only at a point in our lives when we are fully ready for it.



The Contribution of Pema Chodron


We see these same themes and attitudes described by other spiritual writers when they discuss the practice of mindfulness. Pema Chodron, another prominent voice in the world of contemporary spirituality, is an American Buddhist nun and director of a Tibetan monastery in Nova Scotia who is known for her fresh, honest and often counterintuitive views, particularly when it comes to making room for the pain and suffering in our lives. She makes it clear that meditation is not about trying to get rid of our egos or even trying to change or improve ourselves; in fact, the essence of the practice is just the opposite.


In her book Awakening Loving Kindness, she explains how people often tell her how they wanted to contact her earlier, but that they felt they should wait until they were more “together.” And she is thinking, “well, if you’re anything like me, you could wait forever!” She says: “So come as you are. The magic is being willing to open to that, being willing to be fully awake to that.”


For Chodron, the path of meditation and “the path of our lives altogether” is ultimately about curiosity and inquisitiveness. And the ground that we are here to study is ourselves. She describes the basic attitude or approach to meditation practice in much the same way as Jon Kabat-Zinn, with an emphasis on paying close attention in the present moment but doing so in a way that leaves us open to possibilities while maintaining a spirit of kindness.


In her words, the path of meditation involves three attitudes: “being gentle, precise, and open.” She defines these attitudes as follows: “Gentleness is a sense of goodheartedness toward ourselves. Precisions is being able to see very clearly, not being afraid to see what’s really there, just as a scientist is not afraid to look into the microscope. Openness is being able to let go and to open.”


So we begin with where we are right now, just as we happen to be. As Chodron explains in Comfortable With Uncertainty: “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.” That means that we want to develop our curiosity, “not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet.”



Spirituality, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy


It is not a big leap to see parallels here with psychotherapy. There is a great similarity between psychotherapy as it is practiced today and the approaches and attitudes described by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chodron. Just as mindfulness practices like meditation provide a structure for creating the opportunity to be quiet, listen and experience oneself in the universe without our endless mental activity, psychotherapy is a type of ritual we have devised which creates a structure for quieting our normal thought process and making the time and space to look honestly and precisely at our inner reality and to do so with kindness, respect and an openness to what we might discover. 


You would not expect to see the word “awe” appearing frequently in psychoanalytic journals or academic books or articles assigned to students of psychology, yet the concept of awe has tremendous significance in the psychotherapy world. It is not so much that we establish a goal for our clients to experience more awe in their lives, although that would be a desirable outcome. The emphasis here is more on the need to make room for awe in the psychotherapy process.


As with contemporary spirituality, psychotherapists attempt to stay receptive to what the present moment offers. What is different is the way that we are receptive. In mediation we are encouraged to witness and let go of thoughts, feelings and sensations, while in experiential psychotherapy we are encouraged to express and explore them, but the focus of attention for both practices is on what is possible when we pause and let ourselves fully experience what is real in the moment. 



The Mystery of Our Inner Lives


We are most accustomed to thinking of awe as a feeling that we get when we glance up at the night sky and are reminded of the limitless universe beyond the world that we know, or when we ponder the mystery of the tiniest particles and how there appears to be no end to how small life can be. In psychotherapy we are dealing with a somewhat different dimension of the mysterious, but one that is equally worthy of inspiring awe—and that is the mystery of our inner lives and the infinite possibilities that our inner worlds offer. This same infinite more that we see in the night sky and in the smallest particle can be said to apply to our inner worlds as well. We are part of that mystery. The realm of who we are beneath the surface is infinitely intricate and never reaches an end.


Part of what we are doing as therapists is setting up the conditions to experience the moment with the client in its fullness, to help uncover the “more” within the client and in the moment between client and therapist, and finding that “more” helps the client move forward. It should not be surprising that the structure that we create and the attitudes we adopt in psychotherapy for bringing out the “more” within us are similar in some ways to spiritual practices for finding the “more,” the awe, in any given moment. And of course there is no end, no limit, to what we can find and explore. We will never have enough time to fully fathom ourselves and to capture all that exists in our conscious and unconscious minds.


But the infinite aspect of our inner lives is not the only thing that should inspire awe. After all, we are not just receiving an endless number of random feelings and sensations from within ourselves. There is real meaning there as well. We know when something becomes meaningful to us. When we hear beautiful music or go to a museum or read poetry, we know when our full being is responding. And if we are writing or speaking with someone, we know when our communications carry real meaning and reflect something of importance to us that truly resonates. So much of what is awe-inspiring about psychotherapy is that we are establishing ideal conditions for clients to make contact with their inner worlds and to witness first hand these moments of meaning.