One aspect of psychotherapy has always interested me. Most (all?) spiritual systems say we humans are in a bad condition. We are “fallen” (Christian) or “asleep” (Gurdjieff) or in “samsara” (Buddhist) or “maya” (Hindu yoga). An important aspect of that is we are not fully aware of who we really are, including our spiritual side, and so we perceive and act in partial ignorance, and consequently do a lot of things that cause suffering to us and others. We also so have attenuated and distorted perceptions of what is going on around us.
Systems that teach mindfulness are ones that let you become at least partially aware of the fuller range of yourself, and so decrease suffering because you stop doing things that you can now see are obviously maladaptive. An example I like to use, e.g., is hunching up your shoulders, or other unnecessary muscle tensions. People can do this all day long without being particularly aware of it. If you do something like this consciously, though, you immediately relax. “This hurts and is on no use, why do it?” Similarly with mental and emotional habits.
On the way to learning to be more mindful yourself, having a therapist who tells you about what it looks like you’re doing, thinking and feeling, is like being more mindful yourself. That “auxiliary mindfulness” function is, I believe, one of the reasons psychotherapy can help us. You still need to learn to become more mindful from your own efforts and skills, but meanwhile having this outside help makes things much better. “You seem to have an attitude, a chip on your shoulder, about such-and-such.” Oh? Let me look – yes, you’re right, let me relax…..When a therapist or counselor further helps you uncover reasons behind such behaviors that’s even better, but you start by becoming more mindful of what you’re actually doing – which may be quite different from what you think you’re doing. One of the ways I teach mindfulness to students at ITP is to have them work in pairs, with one person being the observer while the other actively does some specified exercise. The observer is enjoined to give no responses at all, but pay attention, hopefully while being mindful themselves. The active person can do something as simple as describe ongoing body sensations or as complex as talking about something of great value to them. Students routinely report they are much more mindful than usual when there is an observer, an “auxiliary mind,” as it were.Having the observer give no responses at all is crucial to this method of training, as it keeps the observer in an auxiliary mindfulness role, rather than having the active person get involved in interpersonal games with the observer. And yes, it’s very difficult for the observer not to nod, smile, laugh, or otherwise respond, but that’s good training too…..