As a professor of counseling, I am invested in helping students develop the necessary and sufficient skills to become effective psychotherapists. There is a plethora of evidence to support mindfulness as a tool for fostering these skills. Integrating mindfulness training can:
- Improve how counselors-in-training relate to self and others with more acceptance, genuineness and empathy
- Help counseling students develop a deeper connection to clients’ experiences and be more present to clients’ suffering
- Help decrease stress, negative affect, rumination, and state and trait anxiety, and increase positive affect and self-compassion
- Help students become more aware, patient, mentally focused, empathic, compassionate, attentive, responsive and able to handle strong emotions
- Help students cultivate therapeutic presence
With all of the good data to support mindfulness in counselor education, I chose to describe a few of my favorite mindful interventions and how I implement them in my counseling courses.
Breathing techniques and guided mindfulness practices are among the key interventions I include in all of my counseling classes. The interventions are secular; therefore, I do not use terminology that would be considered religious or unusual for the university context. I ask students to close their eyes while I guide them through a mindfulness practice of attending to a specific focus for several minutes, such as paying attention to each breath or sending out positive energy to self or others (i.e., stress breath and compassion meditation).
The movement, breathing and mindfulness components of the class are designed to enhance the students’ capacities for sustained attention, promoting greater awareness of cognitive, physiologic and bodily states and how to regulate those states. In addition, I include a brief period of discussion prior to the guided mindfulness practice in which I offer didactic information about such topics as identifying stressful events, using mindfulness techniques to respond to difficult people, cultivating positive relationships with others and keeping one’s mind and body healthy. This information is often woven into subsequent guided mindfulness practices (e.g., using the breath to relax if something stressful has happened). Students are encouraged to practice these skills outside of class and reflect on their experiences in writing.
I often receive positive feedback from students participating in mindfulness practice. Among the reflections I have received are:
- “I felt relaxed.”
- “Calming … I wish we could do this every time.”
- “Tired in a good way.”
- “It helped me to feel something different.”
In some cases, students may experience open displays of emotion during meditation (i.e., crying, runny nose, shortness of breath). The generalizability for students happens when they can use these techniques outside of class time. Examples reflected by students using the stress breath technique include:
- “I used it before seeing my client”
- “I use it all the time now”
- “I never knew I didn’t know how to breathe!”
- “I catch myself using it before tests or presentations.”
Many students acknowledged that the “stress breath” was one of the most useful interventions they learned in class.
Although the majority of student reflections have been positive, some students struggle with the concept of mindfulness:
- “I don’t know how to clear my mind.”
- “How do I stop thinking?”
- “I can’t think about nothing.”
Comments such as these need to be explored, and extended discussions on barriers to mindfulness can offer clarification. Before every practice, I give students the option to “pass or play,” meaning they can choose whether to participate in the mindfulness activity. If they chose not to participate, they are asked to sit and engage in a quiet activity.
Integrating mindfulness training
One of the biggest challenges I face in implementing mindfulness training is believing in myself as an experienced practitioner and qualified teacher. Although I have practiced mindful meditation for almost a decade, I am not certificated in yoga or meditation. For all intents and purposes, I am an ordinary professor with a personal practice.
The majority of researchers and practitioners agree that teaching mindfulness requires a dedicated personal practice. In fact, Jon Kabat-Zinn advised, “Don’t turn mindfulness into a commodity.” He believes that mindfulness needs to become a way of life, not just a skill, an intervention or an outlook.
In a 2012 article (“Teaching mindfulness to create effective counselors”) for the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, Jennifer Campbell and John Christopher described it as the sort of teaching that cannot be done from a manual. Instructors must be able to dive deep and connect with themselves through a kind of altered state. The authors recommended that those who do not yet have years of personal experience co-teach with experienced meditation teachers.
Another challenge is finding time during class or in the curriculum for mindfulness training. Time constraints and the pressure to cover course material is an ongoing concern in higher education. At times, implementing mindfulness practice can feel like an indulgence or an overwhelming addition rather than a useful tool. Taking time to implement mindfulness requires discipline and planning. I chose specific times throughout the semester to implement mindfulness training (i.e., before role-play activities, midsemester wellness day, finals week). Every course is different, and the needs of the students vary. Choose what works best for you.
The greatest challenge and best motivator for implementing mindfulness is helping students understand how mindfulness can be used to manage emotional reactivity. Incorporating research literature to support mindfulness as a tool for emotional and mental health is necessary to gain students’ trust. Mainstream information about mindfulness can be overwhelming and confusing. My job as a professor is to clarify the facts and demonstrate the tools.
I choose to incorporate mindfulness practice in my courses based on positive outcomes relevant in the literature. Many of the students in my counseling courses have never practiced mindfulness or had any training on how to breathe. I find it both humbling and exciting to introduce this practice to students. I am humbled to share the art of meditation and excited to introduce mindfulness to students for the first time. The insights and changes that come with studying and practicing mindfulness carry over into life and work.
My self-efficacy as a mindfulness educator stunted my motivation and confidence to do this kind of work. I erroneously believed that I lacked the qualifications and information required to help others learn to meditate. In essence, I was standing in my own way. Therefore, I conclude this article by appealing to the reader for brazen courage. If implementing mindfulness practice is your intended goal, commit to your own practice, align with like-minded and experienced faculty, and get out of your own way.
Allison Buller is a licensed professional counselor and an assistant professor of counseling and psychology in the Department of Arts and Sciences at the University of Bridgeport. She is also a staff counselor for the university’s counseling center. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.