A Process of Relational Mindfulness: Afterword to Defining Moments For Therapists

This is the afterword to Defining Moments For Therapists, written by co-editor Serge Prengel.

A Process of Relational Mindfulness

What happens when people are mindfully engaged in a relational process? They are affected by it.

That psychotherapy has the power to change clients is basic to the “talking cure”. But, for a long time, it was considered just as basic that the therapist was not affected by this process.

Of course, it was deemed absolutely necessary that analysts have their own analysis, i.e. that they be changed by the process. But the idea was that they would reach a point where they could be neutral in their clients’ process.

Of course, Freud himself kept evolving his theory of what it is to be human as he kept learning from his interactions with his clients. But he would not have described his evolving narrative of the human psyche as a journey of personal transformation. He saw it as scientific observation similar to what other scientists were doing in other fields.

What has changed in more recent times is the sense that therapy is an intersubjective experience: It is not just that interacting with a client happens to affect the therapist; it is actually very much part of what makes therapy work.

There is a parallel process going on. On the one hand, the therapist is tracking the client, which, for many of us these days is not just about words, or content, but also involves attention to felt sense, movement and body language. On the other hand, we are also tracking ourselves: Our felt sense of the experience, how we resonate, or are otherwise affected by the client.

This is a mindful process, contemplative but not passive at all. Moment by moment, the therapist is making micro-assessments and micro-decisions, paying attention to what happens with the client, as well as paying attention to what happens inside. This could be described as “applied phenomenology”: Each micro decision influences what happens next.

This is an active process, where our attention is fully engaged. But it is not the kind of hyper-vigilant attention that occurs when our sympathetic nervous system is engaged. The pressure of imminent danger brings out knee-jerk reactions that are based on instinct, or fear conditioning. In this mindful space, we have room to go beyond reactivity. We can effectively face the situation as it is, and be responsive to it.

It is not always easy for therapists to do this, nor do we always do it well. We are not striving for perfection. Our intent is on mindfulness. Our attitude imparts a certain quality of roominess to the interaction, making it easier for clients to enter a mindful space. A space where change is possible.

As we live and breathe in this space, we too are affected. Through the phenomenological interactions of therapy, we pursue a background dialogue with our “model of mind”. This is not just an abstract construction about this specific client, or the human mind in general… It is also very much about “who I am”.

To put it more simply: As we are immersed in the process of therapy, we are very much in process. Hence the “defining moments” that we experience in our work.

And, as we inhabit a space where it is possible for us to change, we contribute to making it a space where clients can change.