For many people, the word ‘mindfulness' still has a mystical connotation; i.e., something that could not easily enter the daily lives of most Americans. Things are changing, though. As one example, Congressman Tim Ryan has published the book A Mindful Nation extolling the practice of mindfulness. Ryan's publisher calls him an “all-American guy from the heartland,” suggesting there is a growing opening for mindfulness in mainstream America.
But what is mindfulness? Often the word is associated with meditation, or more specifically, sitting meditation. While there is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with sitting meditation, this view is limiting. It limits the benefits of mindfulness to a specific practice, as opposed to emphasizing its broader functionality. By functionality, I mean: What is it that makes mindfulness good for us, and in what way?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical School, has proposed just that sort of functional definition. “Mindfulness,” he says, “means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” In his preface to Congressman Ryan's book, Kabat-Zinn shares his perspective in a way that SE® practitioners can resonate with: “Instead of losing our minds just when we need them most, with the help of mindfulness we can integrate all the dimensions of our experience— emotional, somatic, cognitive and social.”
In other words, mindfulness can be defined as our ability to override the default mode of impulsively reacting to events from a fight-or-flight mode. Having access to all the dimensions of our experience, and integrating them, allows us to see whether or not the situation is as threatening as it first appears to be. This gives us the power to react in a way that is appropriate to the present moment.
We could say mindfulness is the process of shifting from a reactive mode to a proactive one. We move past reactivity (sympathetic activation) through self-regulation that uses awareness of body as a gateway to the experience of self-awareness. And in this process, Somatic Experiencing® can be seen as skillful means to enhance mindfulness. You may already see the connections, which leads me to ask a favor …
I am writing an essay about SE as a mindfulness practice, and would love to hear from my fellow SEPs their experiences in this regard. I am happy to mention contributors by name or anonymously— whatever you prefer.
The essay is focused on the transformative effects of paying attention to somatic experience in the context of developing our ability to self-regulate. So this is different from writing about SE as a way to heal trauma. And it's different from exploring SE as a tool that therapists can integrate with other modalities as they conduct therapy. In this essay, I am not examining pathology, but rather the potential for personal development in the practice of SE.
I hope to hear your experiences in this respect. For instance, here are just a few thought-starters:
- Can you describe how you explore difficult (but not traumatic) situations with the tools of SE?
- Share your experience, in ordinary situations, of the moment-by-moment attention that reveals (as if in slow motion) what we normally don't even notice?
- Describe a moment where you realized you were reacting to a situation without a sense of fight-or-flight. What was it like to experience it in that way?
- With your clients, do you notice changes over time, not just in terms of healing trauma, but also in overall reactivity?
- Have you ever imagined the sessions you conduct, as an SE practitioner, as a ‘mindfulness practice' in the ways I'm describing?
- In your sessions— through tracking of the client as well as self-tracking— do you notice the interplay of reactivity and regulation in the dyad as well as inside each of you?
Would you share your experiences below? Simply mention if you prefer to keep them anonymous and they'll come to me without publishing here. I would appreciate your perspectives as fellow SE practitioners.
Author Serge Prengel is an SEP in New York City. He hosts SEPtalk.com, a podcast of 30-minute conversations with different SE practitioners. Each new conversation explores how SEPs integrate SE into their practice.
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