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GSCBlogPic Dec 2, 2019

Integrating Mindfulness into Counseling: Foundational Information for Counselors-in-Training

A seminal definition of mindfulness offered by Jon Kabat Zinn is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Common evidenced-based programs that integrate mindfulness- and acceptance-based strategies into counseling include mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness-based relapse prevention for addictive behaviors (MBRP). Considering the increased popularity of incorporating mindfulness skills into counseling services, the growing empirical research studying the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions in healthcare and academic settings, and the utility of contemplative studies in cultivating compassion for self and others, this rapidly expanding area of practice should be considered by graduate students enrolled in counselor education programs.

The Buddha taught that feelings, thoughts, and perceptions are known as they arise, as they linger, and as they come to an end. Mindfulness allows individuals to carefully pay attention with thoughtful regard to what is happening in their present experience. There is a common misconception that mindfulness is designed to relax the mind and body. Although this may be a potential benefit of its practice, mindfulness is actually the disciplined process of exploring how the mind works and developing the ability to receive our experiences in an open and compassionate way. Mindfulness meditation skills are taught by instructing clients to nonjudgmentally observe arising feelings, thoughts, and physiological sensations while not becoming entrenched in the content. The cultivation of mindfulness strategies consequently allows people to recognize that painful conditions are fleeting, which can lead to a greater sense of control over their lives and ultimately lessen, if not alleviate, suffering.

Mindfulness includes both formal and informal practices. Formal meditation involves training the mind to sustain attention as the practitioner observes and learns how the mind operates. This type of meditation is typically associated with completing a body scan exercise or sitting in a fixed posture for an extended period of time while focusing on the breath, a mantra, or sounds in the environment as they develop and fade. Using any of the available senses, such as mindfulness of sight, is also a method to anchor the mind while promoting moment-to-moment awareness of our internal and external landscapes. As the mind wanders and gets caught up in its content, the meditator gently notices and then returns focus to the object of meditation. In contrast, informal mindfulness practice involves directing attention in everyday life to any event, emotion, sensation, or action while simply being aware and noting the present moment experience (i.e., mindfulness of daily routines or activities). Examples include labeling feelings, noticing sounds, or being aware of physical sensations and smells while walking, eating, or washing dishes.

Cultivating mindfulness requires skill building, practice, and commitment like any other counseling intervention adopted by clients. Because of these expectations, incorporating mindfulness in the counseling setting represents a potential concern if unsystematically used. While mindfulness can simply be practiced by maintaining full awareness of moment-to- moment experience without requiring special equipment and costly resources, it has been found that some individuals may become easily discouraged and quit if they do not quickly experience results. This may be especially true for individuals who encounter multiple life stressors that may hinder devoted daily practice outside a structured setting. In addition, research informs that mindfulness may be particularly risky for people experiencing psychosis, severe depression, suicidal thoughts, or those who have trauma histories. Because mindfulness involves concentration, focused attention, and has the potential to arouse painful memories and emotions, it is recommended by prominent researchers and practitioners that severe behavioral health symptoms be stabilized and chronic conditions resolved before mindfulness training begins with any client.

When effectively practiced, mindfulness offers a deep investigation of oneself through the process of paying attention to your own experience through the lens of an “impartial witness” (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, p. 33). Despite the benefits that mindful practitioners may gain, there is no universal remedy that will remove the various problems that are encountered throughout life. However, intentionally and insightfully “learning to work with the very stress and pain” (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, p. 2) that is inherent in life may well fortify the mind, body, and spirit. With the integration of mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions in practice, counseling professionals may help wake clients to the freedom that is offered by being with and accepting whatever is happening during each transient moment of their lives. When this approach is taken, clients may advance their capacity to actualize healthier outcomes through authentic living.

Recommended Seminal Text:

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990).  Full catastrophe living. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.


      Contributing Author

Dr. Reginald W. Holt is an Assistant Professor and Clinical Coordinator within the Department of Counselor Education and Family Therapy at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). He completed a Ph.D. in counseling/counselor education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, a M.A. in clinical psychology at East Tennessee State University, and a two-year post-graduate training program in advanced psychodynamic psychotherapy at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute. He is licensed as a professional counselor in Connecticut (LPC), Illinois (LCPC), and Missouri (LPC) and credentialed as a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). In addition, Dr. Holt is recognized by the Connecticut Certification Board, Inc. (CCB) as an Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (AADC) and by the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC) as an Internationally Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICAADC). He is a member of several national and state professional associations, which includes holding leadership positions as the 2019-2020 President of the Connecticut Association of Counselor Education and Supervision (CACES), serving as a committee member of the American Counseling Association (ACA) Graduate Student Committee, and co-leading the development of a special interest group in addictions counseling for the Connecticut Counseling Association (CCA) that received a "Best Innovative Practice" award from ACA in 2018. His extensive clinical career includes work conducted in behavioral healthcare hospitals, the correctional system, a Fortune 500 managed care organization, as well as operating his own private practice. Prior to his appointment at Central Connecticut State University, he held academic positions at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Webster University. As a core faculty member in the Department of Counselor Education and Family Therapy, Dr. Holt oversees the addictions recovery specialization within the CACREP-accredited Clinical Professional Counseling program and provides graduate level instruction with a special emphasis on mindfulness-based strategies for mental health and addictions counseling, which coincides with his research interests and published works. Additionally, he is the primary faculty advisor for the Chi Alpha Mu Chapter of Chi Sigma Iota, the International Honor Society in Counseling.

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