By Terry Helbick
The joy of mindfulness and mindful breathing has grown in my life from a "spiritual" practice reserved for meditation to a practice I use in all areas of my life. It is an essential element in my work as a clinical psychologist essential for me so I can be present with clients and essential for my clients to learn as they heal and change. All those practicing in the fields of healing come to appreciate how important it is to be centered, fresh, and present with clients or patients. An effective helper must be in touch with her own still center so that she can focus clearly on and listen deeply to the person who comes to her for help. She needs to have space enough inside her to see and accept whatever the person brings, without judgment. Empathy, understanding, and acceptance are the basics of a therapeutic relationship. Mindful breathing makes it possible for me to realize this type of openness and awareness with clients.
A therapist must also monitor her own thoughts, opinions, and emotional reactions as they arise. I use mindful breathing to contain and release my own "stuff' as it arises in therapy sessions. I can then act as a container for the client, reflecting their suffering and holding it with love and acceptance. I have found that my ability to be useful to others depends intimately on my ability to be still and spacious in mindfulness. Mindful breathing is the tool I use to center myself in that stillness. It is also the tool that can hold, protect, and release the mental formations that may arise in me as I work with my clients.
Using mindful breathing, I am better able to observe what is happening with my clients. I am more apt to notice that slight change in their breathing as they tell a certain part of their story, or that fleeting look of fear that tells of a feeling they didn't mention. As my breathing keeps me calm and open, it helps my clients look at their own thoughts and feelings with less need to deny or defend themselves. This helps them get to the root of their suffering much quicker.
Learning mindfulness practices of various sorts is an important part of therapy for many of my clients. I teach mindfulness of breathing to help them overcome their suffering and realize peace. I teach it first as a means to calm body and mind. It is the ideal tool as it will always be there for them, anytime, anyplace. Many clients have symptoms that stem from chronic over-arousal of their nervous systems. Whatever the cause, the body simply cannot tolerate this state of affairs for long without becoming ill. In addition to various physical diseases, chronic over-arousal is responsible for symptoms related to mental maladies such as anxiety and depression. Many people find that with practice, mindful breathing is quicker and more effective than a pill for calming down, with the added bonus of no unpleasant side effects.
Mindful breathing can create a safe place from which one can learn to nurture oneself and to observe mental, emotional, or physical states. Mindful breathing is an act of loving kindness towards oneself. It is literally feeding oneself, as well as allowing oneself to be fed by the universe, moment by moment. That safe place of calm and stillness is also the starting point for productive self-observation- an important skill to learn as an agent in one's own healing. Many types of therapy assume a client can do this. I find that many cannot because they do not know how to stop reacting in unhelpful ways to the contents of their own mind.
Mindful breathing gives the client a means to stop the flow of habitual thoughts and feeling in response to an external or internal stimulus. To be able to stop and generate a feeling of calm is critical to being able to observe the content of one's mind without judgment or attachment to the thoughts and feelings arising. Clients can use mindful breathing to stop their thinking, calm their feelings, and then, to create a space in which a new attitude, behavior, feeling, response, or even insight can be realized.
Much of my work involves helping people transform suffering from severe trauma, victimization, and loss. Mindful breathing has been invaluable for containing the intense emotional pain that arises in this type of healing. It can be the anchor in the storm that keeps a person from losing themselves in the intensity of an emotion, or to the terror of being out of control. Conscious, slow breathing can give back the self control and self nurturing they need.
The development of concentration and focus is important for numerous reasons in therapy work, just as in spiritual practice. I often give my clients instruction in meditation for its calming effects and for the additional skill it brings in concentration. Lastly, conscious breathing can be taught as an exercise that increases available energy and support. All too often, I watch clients actually stop breathing as they struggle with their issues. They cut themselves off from life support and as a result have no energy to cope. I simply teach them to monitor their own breathing so that they can notice when they stop and can get back on-line with life-breath by breath.
Terry Helbick, True Original Land, is a member o/the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California.