When Psychotherapy Meets Mindfulness

The mindfulness movement has gained many fans in recent years, and with good reason. This nonjudgmental, suspended state of attentiveness can be remarkably helpful. What may at first blush seem like an extraordinarily simple proposition – be still, note your thoughts, and “live in your body” – turns out to have some lasting positive effects on mood and clarity. But is it therapy? One of the foundational practices of analytic therapy is an emphasis on free association – letting the mind forge and find connections without interruption. If this sounds a bit like mindfulness to you, you’re not alone. Both practices share an emphasis on following your thoughts where they might lead.

But the differences are important. Mindfulness demands frequently returning to the present and the literal – note your breathing, dismiss ruminations as they arise. Psychoanalytic therapy is more interested in nurturing tangents and distractions to discover what complex insights they might yield.

Both mindfulness and psychoanalytic psychotherapy have a place in easing the burdens of anxiety, depression and obsessional thinking. Indeed, it’s not unusual to find analytic therapists using a mix of both techniques, sometimes beginning with mindfulness to achieve clarity, and then discussing what surfaced in greater depth. As with most of psychotherapy, the art lies not in dogmatically clinging to one modality over another, but in carefully determining which tool is most likely to unlock the mysteries of the moment.