Presence is the Foundation of Connection

 
In the introduction to the series, the role of connection to ourselves and others was offered as an essential practice to live out the philosophy of therapeutic jurisprudence that underpins treatment courts. But, how do we stay connected to ourselves and others?  
 
Connection requires us to make conscious choices. Active listening, asking questions for understanding, and identifying a participant’s strengths are all examples of choices that can help us stay in connection with others. What keeps us from making these choices? How do we notice when we are in connection, and how do we sustain it? How do we notice when disconnection happens, and then, how do we take steps to reconnect?
 
The answers to these questions—and ultimately making deliberate choices—first relies on our capacity to notice what is happening in the mind and body. The quality of that noticing—how we do the noticing—is also important to balancing both effective communication with others and taking care of ourselves. The skill that supports us in this is called mindfulness. 
 
What is Mindfulness? (And, What It is Not)
Mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening in this moment, without judgement or reaction to the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that arise (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). The practice invites us to adopt an attitude of openness and curiosity about what we are experiencing, with kindness towards ourselves, so that we are able to respond, versus react, to not only what is happening in us but also around us in the environment.
 
Said another way, mindfulness involves five A’s: attention, acceptance, allowance, attitude, and action (Lee, 2020, 2021):
  • Attention: intentional focus to the present moment
  • Acceptance: recognition of the truth of what is happening in the mind and body (note: this is not resignation, simply acknowledging what is true at this time)
  • Allowance: making space for the full experience of what is happening without pushing it away (unless it is skillful in the moment to have such boundaries)
  • Attitude: bringing qualities of curiosity, non-judgment, openness, and kindness to witnessing and holding the inner experience
  • Action: choosing deliberative responses (rather than automatic, habitual reactions) that are grounded in awareness of the present moment
 
Discussion of mindfulness is increasing culturally, which has resulted in the increased accessibility of learning and practicing opportunities. Yet, with the rise of attention to the practice comes, at times, misconceptions. These misconceptions include:
 
  • Mindfulness is about escaping, emptiness, zoning out, or “nothingness.” In actuality, mindfulness is about “falling awake” to the life that you are actually living, versus escaping, numbing, or erasing parts of it (Kabat-Zinn, 2018). Instead, mindfulness is the gentle noticing and befriending of all of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that make up our inner world.
 
  • Mindfulness is “woo-woo” and is only useful for certain people. Mindfulness is not woo-woo; it is a tradition that spans thousands of years and a variety of traditions. Over the past 40 years, a vast body of research has emerged and bares out the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions for wellbeing in a number of ways, including related to common experiences such anxiety, depression, and chronic pain (Khoury, Sharma, Rush, & Fournier, 2015). Mindfulness has been introduced in healthcare, clinical, educational, business, and legal settings to explore its usefulness; and research shows benefits for both clinical and non-clinical populations (Visted, Vøllestad, Nielsen, & Nielsen, 2015). The vast majority of people can potentially benefit from paying attention to their experience without judgement and with kindness, and the scientific community continues to explore mindfulness-based interventions.
 
  • Mindfulness involves having a blank mind and no thoughts. The mind wanders, and this is completely natural—even during formal mindfulness practices like meditation. The practice of mindfulness is actually about the steady, consistent practice of bringing the attention back to the present moment when we’re lost in or overidentified with thinking. Overidentification is when we merge with our thinking in such a way that we don’t recognize thinking is happening. For example: “I am a terrible worker” is an example of being fused with a thought. A more mindful approach would be the observation “I am having the thought ‘I am a terrible worker.’” This observational stance can be incredibly helpful de-intensifying the impact of that thinking. Observation creates a pause that makes space for the awareness that thoughts aren’t facts.
 
  • Mindfulness requires you to meditate. Formal meditation is the practice of concentrating on an “object;” examples can be the breath, sounds, thoughts, the body, or even the entire field of whatever arises in awareness. Formal meditation is an incredibly helpful approach to support your capacity to practice mindfulness in everyday moments of living. However, formal meditation is only one mindfulness practice. Any activity can actually be engaged in mindfully—driving a car, walking down the hallway, giving a friend a hug, or brushing your teeth. Bringing non-judgmental attention to any moment is a practice that is always available to us.
 
  • Mindfulness will erase stress and discomfort. While it is true that the practice of mindfulness may at times result in less stress or discomfort, mindfulness is not centered around “arriving” to any particular state of being (e.g., calm, stress-free, happy), though arguably the practice does cultivate a greater overall sense of wellbeing over time. The practice is truly about being with whatever is here, which paradoxically can, in fact, help us experience the transient nature of all thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Yet, it is helpful to avoid beginning a mindfulness practice attached to particular outcomes; such an expectation to lead you to think you’re “doing it wrong,” if certain experiences are not different. Mindfulness will not erase stress and discomfort; mindfulness will support you having a different relationship with stress and discomfort.
 
  • Mindfulness is a “cure-all.” Though the practice has become increasingly popular in various settings, it is important to note that mindfulness is not a panacea, and further research is needed to better understand where, how, and with whom it can be most helpful. While there is strong evidence to support its use, certain practices may be unhelpful or in need of modification if someone is experiencing certain symptomology (e.g., trauma symptoms). More research is needed about the mindfulness-based interventions and certain populations or mental health concerns (e.g., schizophrenia) in service of prioritizing safety and effectiveness with those with whom we are working. Facilitators of mindfulness-based interventions also do need to be trained in the intervention, and education about trauma-sensitive mindfulness practice is helpful regardless of the nature of the intervention (i.e., clinical or non-clinical).
 
Why Mindfulness?
Research suggests we spend approximately 50% of our time lost in thoughts about the past or future (Killingsworth, Gilbert, D. T. (2010) instead of the moment-to-moment experience we are having.
 
Consider the consequences of not paying attention to at least half of the moments in your life.
 
  • What does that mean for how much energy you have to create the life you want?
  • What does that mean for your wellbeing?
  • What does that mean for your relationships?
  • What does that mean for how you engage in your work?
  • What does that mean for staying in connection with those you serve in your work?
 
While practicing mindfulness does not guarantee a particular “state” of being, noticing our experience with kindness and without judgement does position us to make more conscious choices. Those choices, if intentional, can better embody our values, meet our needs, reflect our knowledge, and allow us to exercise our skillsets.  
 
So, What Could Mindfulness Look Like at Work?
We can practice mindfulness using formal practices (e.g., meditation) or informally through everyday activities. The purpose of formal practice is actually to support us carrying over what is learned to everyday life, both in personal and professional contexts. Everyday activities could include, for example, drinking your coffee in the morning at your desk. Using all your senses to bring you to the here-and-now, you may take time to notice its color, smell its richness, hear any noise it may make moving in the cup, and experience it through touch and taste when taking a slow sip. And, you can practice mindfulness when you interact with others.
 
Consider the following scenario: a participant has missed three sessions of a group treatment program you are running. What could be some of the automatic, habitual thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise for you?
 
Let us say the following was your experience:
Thought: He doesn’t event care. So disrespectful. Why do I even try? I’m tired of working harder than he is.
Feeling: frustration
Sensations: heat in the body, increased heart rate
 
Now consider what reactivity to this internal experience might look like, remembering reactivity is not intentional, deliberate behavior but rather more automatic and habitual reactions.
 
Reactivity might look like:
Reactivity: assuming your thoughts are “true,” complaining to a coworker about the participant, being short the next time you see the participant, or failing to see the participant’s strengths due to ruminating on the “disrespectful” behavior
 
Were we to consider taking a mindfulness approach, how might you relate to the experience of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations outlined above? This might look like:
 
  • Attention: intentional focus to the present moment:
    • “I am having the thoughts that ‘He doesn’t event care. So disrespectful. Why do I even try? I’m tired of working harder than he is.’ I notice I feel frustrated. I can sense heat in my body and my heart rate rising.”
  • Acceptance: recognition of the truth of what is happening in the mind and body (note: this is not resignation, simply acknowledging what is true at this time):
    • I don’t like it, but judgement, frustration, and internal heat really is around for me right now.
  • Allowance: making space for the full experience of what is happening without pushing it away (unless it is skillful in the moment to have such boundaries)
    • giving permission for judgmental thoughts, the frustrated feeling, and the bodily sensations to exist; letting them be here instead of trying to push them away through distraction or busyness
  • Attitude: bringing qualities of curiosity, non-judgment, openness, and kindness to witnessing and holding the inner experience
    • “It’s interesting I’m having these thoughts;” remembering judgment, frustration, and an activated physiological response are all normal; noticing with as much kindness towards yourself as you can
  • Action: choosing deliberative responses (rather than automatic, habitual reactions) that are grounded in awareness of the present moment
    • deliberative responses such as taking a short walk before interacting with anyone, reminding yourself you do not have all of the information about the participant’s absences, reminding yourself of the participant’s strengths and the difficulty of the change process for all of us, active listening and asking questions to see understanding when meeting with the participant.
 
Certainly, many factors influence our automatic, thoughts, feelings, and sensations in response to the world around us. Perhaps our mood is low that day, we were just in an argument with a loved one two days before, the participant reminds us of a friend with whom we have a challenging relationship, or we have a pattern of interpreting participants’ absences as disrespectful to us personally—just as some examples.
 
No matter the explanation, we will experience automatic, habitual thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The key to being able to stay in connection with ourselves is to not abandon the experience we are really having. Connection with ourselves positions us to be able to take care of ourselves.
 
The key to being able to stay in connection with others is also not to abandon the experience we are having. Connection with others position us to make connective deliberate choices like listening, asking questions, and displaying empathy.
 
There is no greater sign of respect, no deeper signal of appreciation, no better gift than you can give yourself or others than you attention.
 
Each article in the Connection: The Essential Practice for Therapeutic Jurisprudence in Treatment Courts series will conclude by offering two features: Connection Questions to
Consider and Connection Calls to Action.
 
Connection Questions to Consider:
  • When are you most mindful at work? What helps that to happen?
  • When are you least mindful? What gets in the way?
  • When in your day could you commit to pausing for a short meditation? (e.g., when you first sit down to your desk, when transitioning between meetings, before potentially stressful interactions)
 
A Connection Call to Action:
This week, you are invited to engage in a connection call to action to try out using mindfulness practice to connect with yourself and others.
 
  • Connecting with yourself:
    • Engage in 5 minutes of formal meditation per day. If you are new to meditation, guidance is very helpful. A wealth of free resources exist online, and you can also choose to explore guided meditations using apps (e.g., Waking Up, Headspace, Calm).
    • Engage in an “everyday practice” of mindfulness per day. Choose an activity that you regularly do—brushing your teeth, walking the dog, washing the dishes, etc. As best you can, try to notice the experience of the activity (versus thinking about the activity), choosing to anchor your attention on physical sensations. When the mind wanders, as it will, gently escort your attention back to the body. Use your senses to connect to the raw, direct sensations of the experience.
 
  • Connecting with others:
    • Choose one conversation per day to practice mindfulness. You do not need to mention you’re practicing to the other person. As best you can, focus your attention on the other person—what is being said, their body language, the emotional tone of what is shared. Notice when thoughts arise (e.g., planning what you want to say), and gently bring your attention back to the speaker. When you notice a thought, you might practicing “noting;” that is, simply saying to yourself  “thinking,” which helps to avoid getting lost in the narrative the mind if creating.  After noting, return to listening when the other is talking. Practice pausing and considering your words carefully.

References: 

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hyperion.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2018). Falling awake: How to practice mindfulness in everyday life. Hachette UK.
 
Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S. E., & Fournier, C. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 78(6), 519-528.
 
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.
 
Lee, J. J. (2021, May). Education for Emotional Rigor: The Pedagogy of Mindful Self-Care. Presented (oral presentation) at International Teaching and Learning Cooperative (ITLC): Lilly Online Conference. Virtual. 
 
Lee, J. J. (2020, September). What’s in Your Backpack?: Mindful Self-care and Emotional Rigor of a Crisis. The New Social Worker.  https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/your-backpack-mindful-self-care-emotional-rigor-covid19-crisis/
 
Visted, E., Vøllestad, J., Nielsen, M. B., & Nielsen, G. H. (2015). The impact of group-based mindfulness training on self-reported mindfulness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 6(3), 501-522.
 

Written by  Jacquelyn Lee, Ph.D., LCSW 

Associate Professor, School of Social Work, UNCW

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