Book review: Mindful Counselling and Psychotherapy
I’m probably not alone in feeling somewhat hysterical about the extent to which “Mindfulness” is being talked about. My employer is “a mindful employer” (they must be they have a logo telling me as much!), and apparently one can increase both business and combat productivity by making use of these techniques.
As someone who works in the field of psychological therapies, I have become increasingly aware of the interest in Buddhist meditation techniques and how they might be incorporated within models of practice. Given that I was a meditation practitioner long before I became a therapist, I have watched this evolving symbiosis with deep interest.
Often the information available regarding these developments is viewed through the lens of a particular therapeutic approach (e.g. Kabat-Zin’s “Full Catastrophe Living”), and it is therefore of great benefit to have an overview of these various explorations, provided by Meg Barker’s Mindful Counselling and Psychotherapy (Sage Publications, 2013).
Meg Barker subtitles their work “practicing mindfully across approaches and issues” and it is this focus on both practice and solid research that in my mind makes it such a rich and rewarding book.
Meg brings to this book not only solid credentials as both a researcher and practicing therapist, but also some grounded (and often humorous) insights born from their own mindfulness practice. Meg states from the outset that they are aiming to write from a mindful perspective, and the book definitely has a sense of spaciousness about it both in terms of the reflective writing style and the helpful exercises, vignettes and cartoons that intersperse the text.
The book is keen to stress that mindfulness as an approach encapsulates a breadth of both concepts and techniques: “there is no one true version of mindfulness”. As we seek to mindfully “lean in” to the work of therapy, we need to account for not only the impact of these techniques on clients, but also how they might soften ideas that the therapist might hold regarding their power and the certainty of diagnostic labels.
Meg provides us with a great over views of the life of the Buddha, the major therapeutic models that use mindfulness and how these insights might be used in treating specific mental health issues. While most of the mainstream presentation of mindfulness based therapies focuses on Cognitive Behavioural approaches, this work also incorporates vital insights from both existential and psychodynamic perspectives. I found this incredibly helpful as it seems to integrate the philosophical dimensions of the dharma more effectively.
Much criticism has been levelled at therapeutic models that seek to divorce these techniques from the social and ethical dimensions that seem innate to the contexts from which they arose. Barker is incisive in challenging practitioners to include these dimensions within their therapy and wonders what it might mean to “turn outward” as well as “tuning in”. What will it mean for us to cultivate lovingkindness and to exercise “Compassionate Mind” (cf. Paul Gilbert) towards both ourselves and those to whom we are interconnected?
I loved Meg’s attempt to incorporate “shy stories” regarding mindfulness rather than getting seduced by some of the positivistic, success driven narratives that currently surround much of the marketing of mindfulness. In keeping with their aim to question medicalised certainties that seek to create distance between ourselves and the client as some distant “other”, Meg spends much of the book focused on issues that connect to the whole of human experience.
Difficulties such as depression and addiction may well become problematic to a degree that they are deemed clinically significant, but there is also the shared experience of isolation and longing that often underlie these problems. If mindfulness has value it needs to address how we experience pain, how we eat, have sex and how we sleep. Meg is highly skilled at illustrating how much of our suffering around these issues is compounded by the expectations and scripts that we often inherit from the societies in which we live. If we seek to develop “open, curious attention”, we may notice that some of these stories can be questioned and that new stories can be written.
I had the good fortune to take part in a conference that Meg convened to coincide with the launch of this book. Much space was given to the “shy stories” of mindfulness that I’ve already made mention of. What if our mindfulness makes us more aware of our pain or becomes yet another driver towards perfectionism? What if our mindfulness challenges our notion of “productivity” and the concepts like “full employment”? Many of these discussions mirrored the concluding chapter of Meg’s book and their wondering about the dimensions of social reform that were core to the Buddha’s message. The practices of mindfulness were originally located within a community dedicated to societal and philosophical reform, and I would question whether they can truly be disconnected from each other.
It was a great conference and this is a great book – highly reccomended.