Virginia Tech University is using a progressive method to help train students to be emotionally present during therapy sessions.

The university is integrating mindfulness meditation into its Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program curriculum.

According to Eric McCollum, professor of human development at the university, “Mindfulness meditation helps students improve their ability to be emotionally present in therapy sessions with clients. It helps beginners, who can sometimes feel overwhelmed, stop focusing on themselves and think more about others.”

Although most extensively described in the Buddhist tradition, McCollum teaches mindfulness as a secular practice, compatible with all religious beliefs.

Mindfulness meditation involves deliberately focusing one’s attention on present experience – thoughts, physical sensations, emotions — and doing one’s best to stay present with those experiences without judging them or avoiding the difficult aspects.

Extensive research on mindfulness in health care points to benefits to be gained from the practice. For novice therapists, another advantage is that mindfulness meditation helps them to switch out of problem solving into being more present, more empathetic, and more compassionate, all important aspects of the therapeutic process, said McCollum.

Rachel Cramer, an MFT student from Arlington, Va., explained how mindfulness meditation has helped in her interaction with clients.

“Thinking back on starting out in the therapist’s chair, one of the hardest things for me was to learn to be quiet. Although I thought I understood active listening intellectually, the actual practice of listening without trying to form a response or a counter-argument or an intervention, and just to sit and take in what the other person was saying peacefully, was a huge challenge for me.

“I think that is where the practice of mindfulness was the most helpful to me. Just having the experience of quieting my inner cacophony in a disciplined way gave me an experience to draw on when sitting with a client.

“In a strange way,” Cramer continued, “mindfulness practice helped me get to the point where I could be most quiet and centered when hearing the most difficult things. Without the exposure to mindfulness practice in my first techniques class, I’m not sure I could really have learned to ‘sit with someone’s pain’ just as a witness, without trying to fix the unfixable.

“This experience also shaped my use of mindfulness, or at least quiet and measured breathing, as a way to help clients slow their own processes down. Slowing them down made a lot more sense to me after I had experienced the value of this myself.”

Source: Virginia Tech