A teacher once asked her students to imagine standing outside on a dark, starry night. “Imagine you are with a friend, and your friend is trying to show you the moon. ‘Look!’ they might say as they lift their index finger toward the sky; ‘There’s the moon!’ Imagine how your eyes would follow their finger as it guided you to look at the moon hanging high in the night sky. Without your friend pointing you in the proper direction, you may have missed the moon completely.” The teacher then wisely concluded, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.”
When I teach mindfulness to my psychotherapy clients, I am attempting to point at the metaphorical moon of mindfulness. Pointing at mindfulness is one thing, but supporting my clients’ capacity to follow my words all the way to their own direct experience of mindfulness is another thing altogether!
So how do I point my clients toward mindfulness? I rely on the foundational “pointing” practices of presence and proximity.
Presence can be defined as making direct contact with the present moment. Presence is practiced in a formal way when one uses an anchor or contact point that is consistently available in the present moment. When first starting out, the more tangible the anchor, the better.
The classic way to cultivate presence is by using the physical sensations of breathing. The breath is a handy anchor because you carry it with you wherever you go. However, when in session with a client, it is also possible to focus on the physical sensation that is most “alive” in the moment. It may mean paying attention to some tightness in the chest or the feelings in one’s hands. It is important to find a tangible, and safe, anchor to the present moment before working with a painful sensation.
As a client begins to steady their presence on an anchor, they can begin to study their experience. The capacity to study one’s own experience is sometimes referred to as metacognition. Metacognition is your “thoughts about your thoughts” or your “knowing of your knowing.” It is one of the primary skills developed by the practice of presence.
Metacognition can be an incredible skill for clients to cultivate in the therapeutic setting. At first, the therapist may do the majority of the metacognition for the client, using techniques such as offering back what the therapist heard the client say, or observing movements in the client’s body and noting them in a verbally descriptive way. The therapist observing the client and offering these observations creates a metacognition loop for the client. In time, the client can learn to do this work of self-observation in session as well as in their day-to-day life.
An Example of Metacognition
If you would have met me 15 or so years ago, I would have said to you, “I am an angry person.” At the time, this thought felt truer than true! But as I began to steady my presence in meditation, I began to be able to study my own thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Consequently, I was able to test my thought about anger against my everyday experiences.
Much to my delight, I observed that even on a horrible day, I experienced anger less than half of the time! My thought, “I am an angry person,” was inaccurate! I formed a new, more accurate thought that sounded something like this: “Sometimes I experience anger; but most of the time, I am not angry.”
In his book, Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Gunaratana describes how presence gives a person the capacity to be both “a participant and an observer” of their life. Cultivating the skills of participation and observation is another way to parse out the process of metacognition.
Although metacognition is a powerful and healing skill, a near miss of metacognition can be too much space in the observing of one’s moment-to-moment experience. This is when metacognition can shift toward disconnection or dissociation. The antidote is to help a client cultivate the skill of proximity.
Proximity is when a person consciously chooses how close or how far to be from their present moment experience. Most of us use proximity quite automatically in the form of distractions, such as scrolling social media, binge-watching a show, or working too much. However, combining intentional proximity practices with presence practices can create incredible resilience for the healing journey.
I am excited to dive deeper into the practices of presence and proximity when I teach the 4-hour Introduction to Mindfulness for Therapists workshop in January! Through presentation and leading experiential practices, I will point you to pointing your own clients toward a direct experience of mindfulness. (That’s a lot of pointing!) Sign up today!