Mindfulness and Psychotherapy: Complementary Practices

Mindfulness is a powerful technique and therein lies its dangers. People may find psychotherapy greatly helps their practice.

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Mindfulness is rarely out of the news right now, and one theme that is doing the rounds is whether it can be dangerous. Projects such as The Dark Night are investigating the adverse effects of practice. Alternatively, the research upon which the efficacy of mindfulness rests is being questioned: does the research conceal as much as what it illuminates about the impact of meditation?

As a committed practitioner of mindfulness myself, I suspect there's something important to understand in this examination. And I think insights from psychotherapy greatly assist. To summarize what I think's going on: there's a growing realization that mindfulness is a powerful tool but what is harder is to accept that this very power can mean things go wrong. Psychotherapy helps because it offers a complementary set of tools for finding a way through what meditation brings up.

Consider one common experience when individuals start meditating, one with which they can then struggle for a long time. It's the basic business of sustaining a practice. Often, I suspect, there's an initial buzz when beginning that, at first, keeps an individual returning to the cushion. There's a "quick win" of peacefulness that comes with even a few minutes of silence in the midst of a life that is, otherwise, mostly distracted. That sense of calmness discovered is likely to last throughout an introductory course: research shows that attrition rates at this stage are low. But after the 8 weeks, the going gets tough. So what's going on?

Psychodynamic thinking suggests that the practice might be putting an individual in touch with what's known as their "secure base". And it may be beginning to highlight the possibility that this is not quite so resilient as an individual had taken it to be. Developmental psychology assists here.

Research such as that based upon John Bowlby's attachment theory shows that we form a sense of security within ourselves that arises from the experience we had in our earliest months and years. Feeling grounded is feeling that our bodily sense of things can basically be trusted. Feeling restless, detached, agitated when trying to sit still is perhaps an echo of our early experience. It has left us with a barely conscious feeling that, in our vulnerability then, we did not feel so well held. It's the kind of fundamental, somatic insight into our experience of life that mindfulness unveils. It's something that, I suspect, most people will encounter when they try to practice.

A mindfulness teacher will, of course, encourage you to sit with it, perhaps stressing that shorter periods of practice time are better than attempting unsustainable marathons. But psychotherapy can offer complementary help. In a way, to be in therapy is to meet with a therapist who can hold things for you whilst you, first, become more aware of the deep insecurities and, second, learn to relate to them differently. Sitting, in time, becomes more possible too. It's one area in which mindfulness and psychotherapy can work together.

A second area concerns another key issue in mindfulness practice, that of being kind to yourself. The cultivation of compassion is so crucial because, again, mindfulness is so powerful. It can highlight not only your restlessness but also your inner judge - the voice that relentlessly criticizes and picks holes in others. A mindfulness teacher will stress that compassion directed at yourself and others is crucial if this dynamic is to be negotiated. They are right.

But psychotherapy offers possibly invaluable assistance here too. In psychodynamic terms what is being encountered is the human tendency to project difficult feelings into oneself and onto others. It's a pervasive tendency that goes on all day everyday, such as when we spontaneously and instantly make judgments about others. The stillness of mindfulness brings up the fact that these projections are so widespread in one's life. That can be deeply disturbing to observe.

Psychodynamic therapy helps because it is an approach that works directly with projections, in the form of transference. Therapists are trained at not getting sucked into them, but rather staying with, thinking about, and working through them. It's compassion by another name. Therapy can, therefore, greatly facilitate nurturing your own compassion too.

A third critical issue in mindfulness practice has to do with integration. One of the risks with discovering the potential peace offered by meditation is that you attempt to cultivate that calmness as an escape from everyday life. This is very different from cultivating it as a place to which you can bring the hassles of everyday life. Once more, it's a tricky business to get right, particularly because many of the conceptual ideas in the mindfulness lexicon - such as emptiness, stillness, allowing - can seem straightforward enough when, in actuality, they are tremendously subtle.

Psychotherapy refers to this third tendency as splitting, the inadvertent bid to keep a good experience of peace away from nastier feelings of discontent. It's something everyone does to some degree: sometimes it's necessary. The danger in mindfulness is that a practice beds down as "the moment in the day when I can relax", or as a kind of peace-battery that's charged up in the morning in the hope that its effect will last the day.

Think of it like this. There's a difference between safety and safeness. Safety is when you feel protected from the world, under the duvet, as it were. Safeness is when you feel resourced to be able to face the world - to be open to it without being overwhelmed by it. Psychotherapy can help to discern the difference, with the result that mindfulness becomes a support that enables you to enter the darkness, rather than a retreat into an ultimately false source of imagined perpetual light.

So mindfulness is powerful. That's why it's been a core practice in spiritual and therapeutic paths for millennia. But I suspect that many, perhaps most, modern day practitioners need modern day help. My suggestion is that psychodynamic psychotherapy can assist.

Mark Vernon

Psychotherapist, teacher, author

Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer and teacher. He's written books on friendship, love, wellbeing, belief, spirituality, and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. His articles and reviews on religious, philosophical and ethical themes have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. He leads workshops and groups for professionals interested in exploring the dynamics of transformation and inner life, and also regularly contributes to radio programmes and discussions, notably on the BBC. He has degrees in physics, theology and a PhD in philosophy. His psychotherapy practice includes working with individuals privately, in family constellation workshops, and at the Maudsley hospital in south London.


Go to the profile of Clemens Frede
about 6 years ago
Hi Mark, excellent post. I agree that some trends need to be considered with care. Mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools that shouldn't be taken out of context. Sadly many people just want a quick fix without considering the bigger picture. It's great to see that some people do study the context and ask the right questions. Thank you for sharing! Clemens