Problems get ahold of us from the moment we arise in the morning.
- What will I eat?
- What time is it?
- When do I need to leave for work?
- What will my first task be upon arriving there?
- What projects need finishing?
- What meetings do I need to attend?
- Do I need to pick the kids up after work?
- Are there piano lessons or soccer practice?
- Do I need to stop for groceries?
- What will I make for dinner?
Problem solving is our most prevalent mode of being. It’s no coincidence that literature is filled with exhortations of carpe diem. We very often seem to be carried without much awareness from one task to the next. And at what cost, this inattention?
Even figured against the events of our workaday lives—picking up the kids, doing the filing, raking the leaves—mindlessness can be quite dear. So what might the cost be of a lack of focused, present attention during that rare hour each week we spend with a client? What details might go unnoticed? What unproductive habits might be reinforced? What opportunities might slip away?
Here, we’ll explore the ways in which mindfulness and its lack can help the course of an ACT intervention.
Sometimes life conspires to wake us from our sleep. Death of a Salesman is a classic literary study that considers the possible endpoint of a life filled with one task butted up against the next.
The life of Willy Loman, the salesman in the story, ends tragically. Willy’s son, Biff, speaks to his father as if to rouse him: Willy! I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped, do you hear me? And in the middle of that office building, do you hear this? I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw—the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. I saw the work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And, I looked at that pen and I said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can’t I just say that, Willie? (Miller, 1967, 128)
Is Biff alone in this? Biff finds himself living a life disconnected from his values. But even when we’re doing things that are consistent with our values, we’re prone to lose a sense of appreciation for those values.
How often do work, marriage, and parenting occur for us as burdens? Disconnection from values and from life is available at each and every moment. This is certainly true walking into a session. We, along with our clients, are carried into session by the pace of our day. The rapid succession of tasks and the often-frenzied pace at which we engage with them can easily determine the tempo of our interactions with our clients—often to both their detriment and ours.
Mindfulness is a great way to start a session. It’s a way to take intentional control of the pace and pitch of life—at least during this time we have set aside for our work.
We want to ensure that we have the pace rather than the pace having us. Moments of mindfulness are likewise usefully interspersed in a session. A bit of mindfulness will slow us down and slow our clients down. No matter what activity we plan for a session, there’s little doubt that focused, present attention—on both our part and our clients’—will be an asset.
Coming into a session we’re often busy. We may be thinking about the last client, about the client we’re about to see, about the contents of our last session with this client. Our minds fast-forward to what we might accomplish with this session, about a colleague we need to speak to, about some administrative detail, and so forth.
Similarly, our clients may be trying to remember what they did during last session. They may be worrying about whether they did their session homework or even trying to remember what those assignments were. They may still be caught in the hustle and bustle of breaking away from some activity to come and meet with us. However you look at it, there is abundant opportunity for inattention and distraction offered up to our clients and to us before the start of each session.
Mindfulness is a way to disrupt these patterns of distraction and bring us rapidly into the here and now.
See Mindfulness for Two, by Kelly G. Wilson, PhD, for mindful moment exercises.