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Caution and Advice in Teaching Mindfulness

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

In EMI’s free online mini-course, Psychotherapist and Mindfulness teacher Ron Seigel and EMI’s training director Fleet Maull discuss tips for working with individuals with a history of trauma.

They discuss methods of mindfulness instruction with an eye on trauma-sensitive practices. They discussed how to know if someone is ready to begin practicing mindfulness. Fleet talked about a recent prison class that our EMI team facilitated. Two participants were quite articulate about their experience of mindfulness, and they claimed that they never experience anger or sadness anymore.

Ron replied that it is essential first to determine how much a person can be friends with (or sit with) the contents of their own heart and mind. He suggested that one can find this out by talking to the person and noticing if they are pushing away emotions such as feeling sad, angry, or anxious. They likely experience these emotions, but they simply push them out of their awareness.

Pushing away feelings could be due to trauma or being raised in an environment where emotions weren’t nurtured or permitted. Shutting down emotions might hint that the person isn’t at ease with sitting with the contents of their hearts and minds. In these cases, one should exercise caution.

Certain mindfulness practices may open people's hearts and bring them in contact with thoughts and feelings they have ignored. Working with the breath might be one of those practices since placing the attention on the breath can be an intimate, internal, and bodily experience that might trigger anxiousness and proliferation of thoughts if shortness of breath ensues from the anxiety.

TIP: Start with More Distant Objects of Awareness

Ron continues talking about how we can understand this more deeply by looking at where we experience feelings. When you ask someone where in their body they are carrying their anger, anxiety, or tension, they usually answer “in the eyes, throat, chest, or belly.” Ron calls this key body area the “Axis of Feeling.” One approach he suggests here is to first start with things more distant from this axis. When instructing people to bring awareness to the present moment, they might have more ease if we suggest feeling the feet or the feet on the ground. They also might be more comfortable focusing on hearing an external sound. Another suggestion might be to focus on a tree (or another still object).

In other words, they are choosing an object which is not inside the Axis of Feeling.

For more tips and advice from Ron Siegel on teaching mindfulness, join his FREE mini-course on the EMI community site

Ron Siegel, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and long-time student of mindfulness meditation. He teaches mind-body medicine and the application of mindfulness practices in psychotherapy and other fields internationally. Dr. Siegel’s clinical career consists of working with low-income children and families, treating adults with stress-related disorders, and providing mindfulness-oriented psychotherapy. He currently maintains a private practice in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Learn more

Suggested Books: The Mindfulness Solution by Ron D. Siegel. A good resource guide for using mindfulness practices to help people with anxiety, depression, interpersonal conflicts, and the like, written for laypeople.

Sitting Together Essential Practices for Mindfulness Based Psychotherapyby Susan M. Pollak (Author), Thomas Pedulla (Author), Ronald D. Siegel This practical guide helps therapists from virtually any specialty or theoretical orientation choose and adapt mindfulness practices most likely to be effective with particular patients, while avoiding those that are contraindicated. The authors provide a wide range of meditations that build the core skills of focused attention, mindfulness, and compassionate acceptance.

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