President's column

Mindfulness in Psychotherapy and Love as the Healing Balm

In these times of divisive spirit and polarized politics, remember the basic notion that love is all you need…and all there is.

By Donna Rockwell, PsyD

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need.

—The Beatles

As a capstone to my presidential year, I am happy to bring the heart of "One Love," as described in Caribbean culture, to greater APA through our Div. 32 convention theme: Humanistic Psychology: How One Love Informs Psychotherapy, Inclusive Community and Multicultural Innovation.

Urban Dictionary defines One Love as "the universal love and respect expressed by all people for all people, regardless of race, creed or color." One Love denotes inclusion. In these times of divisive spirit and polarized politics, it is important to remember the basic notion that love is all you need.

It's not only true when the Beatles sing of love's truth in the medium of music. We need to hold to that truth in our milieu as well as psychologists, teachers, mentors, scholars, students and peers. It is critical to become aware of ways in which a client is experiencing a "love deficit" and be able to address it because that is the broken place. Helping and guiding clients back to an experiential container in which they can feel love — for themselves and from others and then reflect it back as a more wholesome love — is perhaps the most valuable contribution we make as clinicians.

Love as the Healing Balm

The self-help movement promotes improvement through an unrelenting attack on the self, a form of inner violence reinforcing the "I'm not good enough" mindset plaguing our society and ballooning advertising budgets. In contrast, I believe it is time for something more akin to a radical self-love movement and an appreciation of an evidenced-based science of love. Loving the self as the first step in a "One Love" philosophy is not self-indulgent but rather is permission to dance our own dance, to be true to our own nature and embrace our particularized self-actualizing path. Self-love is self-knowing; a humble conscientiousness that frees us from an ego that thinks everything is about "me," pointing instead to the part we play in the larger production; a capacity to connect to community, to touch and be touched emotionally, to be a part of both local and global healing; to be co-creators of a more expansive and inclusive "we."

Love.

In the mainstream of today's psychotherapy theory, practice and research, more emphasis could be placed on love as a healing balm, in the ways humanistic psychology has insisted from its inception in the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s. Without so much as saying so, we have undertaken a new, present-day re-visioning of human potential, averting scholarly attention to love, honoring the sacred and unique nature of lived experience in qualitative research is love. Holding as sacrosanct philosopher Martin Buber's I-Thou in the therapy room is love. Offering people with whom we interact unconditional positive regard, as Carl Rogers taught, is love. Edmund Husserl's descriptive phenomenology is love. Humanistic psychologist Clark Moustakas's notions of being-in, being-for, being-with are love. Self-compassion is love, as researcher Kristin Neff discovered in her groundbreaking work. Dedication to human rights is love. "Justice," said Martin Luther King, Jr., "is really love in calculation." The Buddha's focus on right view or clarity was also arrived at through a mindful awareness of primordial love existent beneath the layers of discursive mind. Holding a space for the experience of "the self" and of "the other" in all walks of life is love. And finally, embracing inclusive community is love: by natural extension, this expression of love enriches all of the world's societies through the brilliance made possible only through multicultural innovation.

Mindfulness is extremely useful and efficacious toward this end. It is a self-directed mental exercise that helps quiet neurological excitation in parts of the brain that habitually recycle negative messaging and instead makes a habit of returning the mind to present moment awareness that love is all you need, or more poignantly, that underneath it all, love is all there is.

Mindfulness in Psychotherapy

When I was a young girl growing up in New Jersey, I would spend hours in the woods behind our house. Watching bugs march this way and that and seeing flora and fauna in all its splendor, I learned the woods were a great refuge from childhood emotional wounds. And it was there, more than fifty years ago, I discovered the magical healing power of mindfulness, quite naturally, in nature itself.

Exploring further, because of those childhood hurts and pains, I also developed empathy for the natural world and so became a humanist, or maybe better said, a being-ist. These days, when a bug is trapped in my house, for example, I carry it outside to reunite it with nature. It's the least I can do, I reason, and I can't stand watching the bug suffer. Maybe I wish someone had cared that much about my suffering when I was small and helpless.

In those early years in the woods, mindfulness and humanistic ways of being became intertwined, curated in meaningful, somewhat transcendent, youthful, beginner's mind moments, discovering compassion for the animals, minerals and vegetation of the wood, and through that experience, much needed compassion for myself. In my 30s, I began formal meditation practice and ardent mindfulness training, committed to more completely understand the workings of my mind. As a result, many years later during my studies for a doctorate in humanistic and clinical psychology under the mentorship of Clark Moustakas, a nagging voice kept whispering at my ear during class, writing papers, in my dreams: "Mindfulness is psychotherapy. Mindfulness is psychotherapy."

Research with doctoral students who took a Mindfulness in Psychotherapy class I designed and taught, does, in fact, point to the value of teaching therapists-to-be (or any provider in the mental health field) how to practice meditation and suggests ways to develop uniquely tailored mindfulness practices for each individual.

I think it would be of personal and professional benefit if mindfulness practice were considered part of lifelong, skill-based training for all mental healthcare providers. By understanding through experience the core aspects of mindfulness, therapists could better embrace a mindful presence with clients, embodying through practice a particular quality of listening. This is because through meditation and other mindfulness exercises, by necessity, we have first learned how to listen to ourselves.

This quality of mindful listening is like allowing oneself to immerse without goal in the symphonic sounds of birds or the strains of traffic or even the swirling of words and ideas in our minds or to empathize deeply with clients' emotions during sessions, beyond needing to fix. This way of mindful (or heartful) listening becomes the most important element in psychotherapy, the most effective tool in our toolbox.  It creates an environment of love and acceptance (at long-last in many instances), as modeled in the unconditional regard of a mindful therapist for his or her client.

The subsequent cultivation of mindful presence in the client is instrumental to the client's healing, integral to readiness for behavior change and invites a capacity for an authentic and lasting ability to feel (and generate) compassion for oneself, experienced originally as compassion and care from the therapist. Borrowing from Buber, the client experiences this I-Thou encounter as mindful presence laced with a much hungered-for empathy, a delicious blend, which when shared over the course of the therapeutic relationship, contributes to the capacity for clients to ultimately take responsibility for their own emotional nurturance and empowered to practice a whole range of self-care applications: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

As a result, clients experience growth in inner resilience, clarity of mind, ability to "perspective-ize" in the moment (i.e., assume an observer's stance in order to gain a healthy view of the situation) and an increasing capacity to apply skillful and wise discernment to everyday decision-making. After all, the definition of karma is nothing more than holding mindful awareness that every intention-and-action creates its after-effect; in other words, if we choose our actions with skillful discernment, considering the wisdom gleaned through practicing mindfulness, our lives will reflect this karmic shift.

Mindfulness encourages clinicians to work toward our own self-actualization and then to share this potential path with our clients. Since compassion means to suffer with, self-compassion allows us to suffer with ourselves initially — developing both frustration tolerance and then affect control so that we can help turn client issues like experiential avoidance into more fully present, mindful living.  Buddhist psychology describes mindful awareness practice as first developing awareness through meditation, and then the ground is set for insight.

This approach encourages a mindful happiness, rather than a consumerist happiness. With this understanding, clients can develop an informed relationship to universal and existential truths rather than societally-generated, unhealthy, outsized and hollow expectations. When applied with intellectual curiosity and keen awareness, in its most pristine sense, mindfulness becomes psychotherapy, and clients come to see they are good enough, after all.

The client knows; the therapist guides. One can only hope the guide is a mindful one.

Humanistic Applications of Engaged Mindfulness

The core tenants of humanistic psychology are in close, philosophical fellowship with mindfulness, where suffering and stress are seen as part of the experience of being alive and inherent in the human condition. No one can avoid the First Noble Truth of Eastern wisdom, which states that life contains experiences of suffering and as a result, stress is a constant. Yet, hope for transcending suffering is reflected in foundational psychological writing. In Man's Search of Meaning, for example, Victor Frankl, described his Tragic Triad as, at the end of the day, surmountable. Carl Rogers declared that a lack of congruence, nonetheless, can be reconciled. Erich Fromm espoused that an escape from freedom need only be acknowledged as primal fear. And Rollo May found the solution to human suffering is in the courage to create.

Offering attentionUniversal truths, core humanistic values, self-responsibility, unconditional regard, being-with: these are all themes that dovetail humanistic and mindful ways of embracing the life each of us is living right now. There is a firmly-stated aversion in both like-minded approaches to top-down, power disenfranchisement and an emphasis instead on helping ourselves and others make sense of why we are here and how to engage meaningfully with the precious time that we have. This is an engaged mindfulness, a mindfulness that acts as a deterrent to the more destructive and dangerous forces that can cloud the human mind and lead to frightening, and unloving consequences.

Mindfulness looks at various ways to cultivate a more enlightened engagement between and among people, exemplified in the emphasis on such considerations as mindful speech, mindful action and mindful effort, among others. Such temperance cools angry minds and can mend dichotomous divides.

Times are ripe for mindfulness, love and a more inclusive heart space for which our clients and society at large are in desperate need. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff recently predicted that due to heightened hyperbolic rhetoric, our country will see more hate speech and hate crimes. "We're going to see, I'm afraid, a rise in extreme right-wing and left-wing violence because…as you dial up the rhetoric and you use violent imagery and language that's aggressive and hateful, that empowers a certain segment of the society to act out," Chertoff said, "I'm afraid we're going to start to begin to see an uptick of things we've seen, for example, like in Charlottesville."

During these precipitous times, in the absence of "universal love and respect expressed by all people for all people," and as wealth disparity, hopelessness, confusion and delusion are contributing to epidemics of anxiety and depression worldwide, it may be wise to embrace the power of mindfulness as a highly effective tool in psychotherapy and earnestly promote love as a vital humanistic agent of change and elemental healing balm.

While we cannot capture the peacefulness of the woods, we can carry its space of mindful presence and love into the contemporary world.