Articles - Individuals

Here is an article about individual therapy that might interest you. 

Mindfulness in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Rob Fisher, MFT

The single most effective tool in psychodynamic psychotherapy is the use of Mindfulness. Mindfulness  involves turning one's attention inside to notice, from a curious and  nonjudgmental point of view, the flow of one’s internal experience. While  a number of contemporary therapies have embraced mindfulness as a means  of calming down emotional activation or reducing stress, it can also be  used with dramatic results in psychodynamic psychotherapy. 

Example:  For example, a client, Erin, was talking about how hard it was for her to be emotionally open. I  noticed that her face, shoulders and upper chest were slowly turning  red. When I commented on this she was surprise and said, “Yeah, it feels  hot there, but I don’t know what that is about!” I asked her to let the experience of the warmth be there and notice where it took her: “OK, so let yourself just linger with that feeling of heat. Feel it in your face and neck and upper chest. Really  take your time so that you can notice the details of your experience,  the thoughts, feelings, sensations, tensions, impulses, memories, images  that might go along with this. Let me know what comes up.” She remained silent for a few moments and then said, ”I am ashamed. I remember a time when I was very open at school and told my friend how much I liked her. She  looked at me with disgust. I never wanted to be open again” She bowed  her head in shame. Simply by leading her more deeply into her experience  and asking her to pay careful attention, a memory spontaneously  occurred. Insight emerged from immersion in her present moment  experience.

In  this example Mindfulness is used by client and therapist alike. By  asking Erin to be aware of her experience and to stay with it, letting  it unfold, I was asking her to be mindful. By  noticing the details of what was happening with her in the present I  was being mindful myself. Mindfulness for the client involves the  turning of his or her attention inward without judgment or preference to  notice the experience of the moment. Mindfulness  on the part of the therapist involves turning one’s attention outward  towards the present moment experience of the client. It is a state of welcome, curiosity and wonder about the inner world. It  does not involve forcing, thinking, figuring things out, trying to  change one’s experience, but just allowing it to be there and noticing  how it changes. Without interference, and provided a safe environment,  experiences have the same tendency to unfold as does a bud that knows  how to become a flower. As therapists and clients we simply need to  create a container in which that can happen. A  plant needs sunlight, earth, water and safety from predators (and human  beings with big shoes!). A client needs warmth, attention, enthusiasm  for their experience, acceptance, a sense of safety and connection with  the therapist. In this context the psyche tends to reveal itself. It is a matter of inspiration. How can we as therapists create an atmosphere that inspires a client to explore inwardly? 

Mindfulness is a primary tool that enables a direct connection between the client and her or his psyche.

History: Mindfulness is, of course, borrowed from Buddhism where it is used as a  method of meditation to help people to develop an internal place deeper  than identification with their momentary experiences. According  to Dharma Teacher Will Kabat-Zinn, MFTI, mindfulness is used in  Buddhism to explore what we are beneath our ideas and preconceptions  about ourselves, a doorway to discovering who we truly are. Sustained  mindfulness can lead increasingly to an internal freedom that is not dependent on any internal or external conditions. In psychodynamic psychotherapy we are more interested in resolving the experiences themselves. Both applications are beneficial.
In  the 1980’s Mindfulness was applied to the realm of psychotherapy by Ron  Kurtz who went on to found Hakomi Experiential Psychology which is now  taught internationally. He now refers to his approach as “Mindfulness Assisted Self Study”.

In  psychotherapy we use it to explore the details of one’s experience “ in  vivo” instead of “in vitro”. The essence of many therapies is an  attempt to change the client’s experience in relation to their self, the  world and others – a rewiring of the neural networks deeper than  cognitive insight can achieve. In psychoanalysis, the heart of therapy is experiential event - that is the exploration of the transference/countertransference relationship. It is not just the analysis and interpretation of this relationship that causes change; it is the actual felt experience. In Gestalt Therapy, one focuses on awareness of the moment. In Structural Therapy, Minuchin would encourage a couple to have a fight rather than talk about it. Neural patterns change throughout our lives as a result of new experiences. While  talking about events can help clients unburden themselves and reduce  the sense of aloneness around them, we need to generate new experiences  for long-term change to occur. Mindfulness orients the client around the experience of the moment as an entryway to core models of their world. 

When Jack left the office, stooping to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe, he shook my hand. A  powerfully built man, his handshake offered me a set of limp fingers  that stood in sharp contrast to his otherwise imposing physical  structure. By paying attention  to this little hologram of his presentation, and in a future session  repeating it in mindfulness, his whole relationship to power became  crystal clear. As he shook my hand I asked him to carefully study what  he did and did not do with his hand and the accompanying thoughts,  feelings, images, memories, impulses, etc. He was instantly clear how he  had decided never to use his power again after beating up Jonnie Smith  in 6th grade. This  decision, evident in his handshake, plagued his relationships ever  since. By exploring the moment of the handshake carefully and slowly in  mindfulness he was able to become aware of his relationship with power  and begin to experiment with new beliefs and behaviors starting with me.  

Assessment: Mindfulness can also be used for assessment. To assess what is  happening in a client’s internal world, one needs details before  theories. From details hypothesis can be generated. Most  of communication between client and therapist is not verbal. When a  client comes in with a slow gait and sits down with a sigh, she is  communicating to us, not in the language of words, which can be easily  disguised, but in the language of experience. The unconscious speaks in many languages (Ron Kurtz in private conversation). It is important that we hear it. By  noticing in any moment, not only the content of what is being said, but  what the client is doing, how they are doing it and what, at any given  moment they are experiencing, we add a dimension to therapy that results  in a journey into the depths, not just of the neo-cortex, but into  deeper parts of the brain where more fundamental issues are available.

There is a limit to the effectiveness of conversation in psychotherapy. 

Mindfulness in Psychodynamic Interventions: 

How then is mindfulness actually used in therapy? Here is an example with a couple: Jon and Karen had a terrible fight that led them to therapy. She complained about him, “Whenever I want he says, ‘No’. I ask him to go to lunch, he says ‘No’. I ask him to go to the movies, he says no. I ask him to make love, he says no.” I have had it!” While  I could have reflected back the content of what she had just said, I  reflected back her present experience, “That’s really frustrating, huh?” Smart therapist that I am, I had a pretty good idea of what was going wrong here: she was probably asking in an alienating way. Following my own lead, I thought I would test my hypothesis. “So go ahead and ask him for something right now and lets see what happens”.

One can obtain much more information from the present than the past.

Contrary to my idea, however she was sweet and inviting in her presentation. I still knew better, of course. I was sure that at home she was not on such good behavior. Then I looked at him. He said, “See, she is always trying to push me around!” Clearly he experienced her offer as coercion. My hypothesis was wrong, but I had at least checked it out experientially instead of relying on my misplaced interpretation. Appropriately chastened, I asked them to repeat the interaction in mindfulness. “So,  lets try that again, Karen, why don’t you just say one sentence again  asking him to go out to a restaurant, and Jon, notice what ever comes up  hearing her. There may be that  feeling of being pushed, there may be images or memories, sensations in  your body, anything even if its not linear. Let me know. Let her know when you are ready and she will say it to you again.” This time he studied his experience instead of just reacting. Mindfulness assisted self-study. He  noticed that he was having images of all the people who had pushed him  around in his life, from his parents to the Bible to the multinational  corporations. He was fighting all of them. The  good news was that when he refused to make love with her, it was not  just her in bed with him, it was all the people whom he felt had  controlled his life. By asking for mindfulness, much material became available that was not readily accessible in ordinary conversation.

Protocol: Here is a brief protocol for using mindfulness psychodynamically.§ The therapist must be aware of what is happening in the present in addition to content. This  includes noticing the immediate actions of the client, her or his style  of doing, and his or her moment-to-moment experience.

 It  is also important for the therapist to notice the details of his or her  own internal experience moment to moment (countertransference).

  • The client can be asked to study any element of their experience in mindfulness by saying the following. It is best to select an element that is of interest to the client and in line with the theme of the session: 
    • “Lets take a moment to really explore that. Would that be OK?”(Asking permission) 
    • “Let your attention go inside so that you can notice the details of your experience.” (Orienting inwardly) 
    • “Notice  the thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, memories, tensions,  relaxation, changes in breathing, impulses that occur as you pay  attention.” (Providing a menu of possibilities frees clients from the  usual limitation of looking for either thoughts or feelings. Internal experience is quite multidimensional. Stay away from emphasizing only feelings and thoughts.) 
  • “Nothing has to happen”. (Take the pressure off. People generally try too hard. This interferes.) 
  • Wait and wonder. (Your internal state is crucial here. It is important that you slow down you r internal pace. This can limbically affect your client who will follow you inside.) 
  • It is also important that you are curious and enthusiastic about their experience. (While you do not need to put on a miniskirt and wave pom-poms, your interest in what happens can be inspiring to them. If you try to be neutral, you de-humanize the relationship. I  realize that is a controversial. You can test this out by trying to  interact neutrally or with enthusiasm and warmth and note the results.  Clients are tracking us like hawks, and are taking in tremendous amounts  of information about us whether we try to be neutral or not.) 
  • Notice what you can tell about their new present moment experience from the outside and ask for a report as well. 
  • Connect  with them on this level. By reflecting back, not just content, but  their experience, you will deepen the relationship and the therapy  exponentially. Examples of this might be, “You’re sad, huh?” Everything just got still”, “You just tensed up a bit, huh?” Unless you want to engage the neocortex, keep your sentences short and simple. 
  • Ask them to stay with their experience and let it unfold to the next experience. For example, Jane was disconcerted that her excitement about buying a new car seemed clouded. As  she stayed with her experience of excitement mixed with something else  emotionally darker, what was unclear started to take form. By staying  with the experience of the dark spot, she became clear that her European  parents would have looked down on her choice of an American car. By  then staying with the image of her parents’ disapproval, she began  naturally to sympathetically feel their hardship as immigrants. Allowing  herself to stay with this feeling led her to a sense of herself as  being separate from their values and more connected to herself. 

Conclusion: Through the use of mindfulness in psychodynamic psychotherapy a number  of important therapeutic elements become immediately available. It  encourages people to “act in “ instead of “acting out” Rather than take  action based on internal events; they can take a step back to study  them. Exponentially more information becomes available in mindfulness than in ordinary conversation. 

Mindfulness Exercise: Try this mindfulness exercise applied to your internal organization as a  psychotherapist: Take a moment to first let your attention go inside. Notice  your present moment breathing, the sensations in your body, your  thoughts, your feelings, hopes, impulses, memories, images, decisions,  beliefs, songs, colors, anything that comes across your consciousness. Take your time doing this. Now imagine you are preparing for a client to come to your office. Notice how you start moving from Jane or John Doe, human being, to Jane or John Doe psychotherapist extraordinaire. Do  you get more open, more formal, straighten your clothes, hide your  grief, become more cognitive or emotional, more generous or more rigid?  Watch this all as if you were watching an internal home movie in slow  motion so that you can pick up even the subtlest of changes you undergo.  Notice your own way of becoming a therapist – what you like as well as  what you do not like.

It  is empowering for a client explore their own experience as opposed to  relying on a therapist to explain what is happening inside. It helps people become more connected with themselves. It takes therapy to a new depth that goes beyond the cognitive into the experiential. The level of therapeutic impact is substantial. The  difference between mindful exploration in therapy and conversation is  the difference between wolfing down a Big Mac and fries while driving to  your office vs. sitting comfortably in a French restaurant where you  are served on small portion of a finely prepared dish. You sit and savor  every morsel, noticing how the rosemary mixes with the garlic in the  entree, and the particular confluence of raspberry and chocolate in the  warm, fragrant desert. One simply notices more in this state. One notices the substrata of the psyche. (Analogy courtesy of Kathleen Dunbar, MFT.)How would you like to conduct therapy?

Rob Fisher is  an MFT and training consultant in private practice in Mill Valley where  he specializes in training other therapists in working with the present  moment. He is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, and the book Experiential Psychotherapy with Couple – a Guide for the Creative Pragmatists (Zeig/Tucker 2002). He teaches at JFK University and CIIS. He  is a Hakomi Trainer who teaches trainings in mindfulness based  psychodynamic psychotherapy internationally for the Hakomi Institute,  and frequently through the Hakomi Institute of California which provides  trainings in therapeutic skills in locations throughout California.. He  appears at national conferences such as the Psychotherapy Networker  Conference, the USABP Conference, and as a master presenter at annual  CAMFT Conferences.  

Contact Information: To contact me please call me at  415 389-6340 or e mail me at