Psychoanalysis and mindfulness may seem to have little in common. They both involve the mind and are often focused on taming disturbing thoughts and feelings. But their methods seem to be completely at odds with each other. Or are they? Let’s take a look at mindfulness and see how it may be an excellent adjunct to psychoanalysis.
Try, for a minute, to do nothing at all. Don’t talk or move around or think about anything. Just be. For a full minute. What happens? If you’re like most people, you’ll find this to be harder to do than it sounds. Your thoughts may wander. “What’s the purpose of this?” Thoughts or images of the past or future may emerge. “What do I need to do tomorrow?” “I wonder what he meant by that?” . . .
The mind easily gets lost in endless thinking. Thoughts create emotions and emotions generate more thoughts, and so on. This may be fine when these are positive and pleasant thoughts and emotions. But often they are not. And often they’re not about the immediate present. Instead, they’re likely to be about past upsets or future worries. You may lay awake at night because you worry about what might happen tomorrow. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about that mistake you made last week. You may constantly be busy with the things that need to be completed.
Mindfulness teaches how to bring more balance to this tendency, by focusing the attention on the here and now—attention to the things that are happening in this very moment, in a non-judgmental way. Thinking about and learning from past mistakes, planning for the future, and acknowledging sorrows and worries are all important. But people often get lost in thoughts about the past and future, to the detriment of experiencing life in the present.
Note that acceptance plays a key role in mindfulness. Mindfulness is not turning off the mind. Mindfulness does not restrict, deny, or inhibit thoughts or feelings. Instead, through mindful attention and acceptance, you allow every feeling, emotion, sensation, or thought to be there. Instead of fighting against them, mindfulness fosters willingness to acknowledge, allow, and accept these internal states.
By letting go of this struggle, you may come to realize that many thoughts, worries, and feelings fade away automatically, and probably sooner than if they’d been fought against. Emotions come and go and thoughts, worries, and feelings often fade away automatically if allowed to. By letting go of the struggle against them and giving them room to exist, unhappy thoughts and feelings can be experienced as temporary and less overwhelming.
Mindfulness helps you create a different relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. When you become an observer of your own inner states, you are no longer identified by them or completely lost in them. You can still experience the emotions or feelings, but now have the choice of being fully taken by them or not.
What I’ve just described for mindfulness is actually similar to the stance of the psychoanalyst. Inviting you to say whatever comes to mind without censoring your associations. Helping you become aware of the thoughts, feelings, and patterns that arise. Helping you make sense of them without judgment, until they can be dealt with instead of battled against.
Mindfulness practices are helpful tools for bringing a person back to the present moment. By allowing thoughts and feelings to be present without judgment, a person may also become more aware of the internal states, of recurring patterns of thoughts and feelings, and of issues that seem repeatedly to cause distress. This self-awareness can be very helpful in therapy.
Resistances to meditation—boredom, distraction, sleepiness, etc.—are also common complaints in mindfulness practice. They can be useful signals that outside guidance—as in psychoanalysis—may be helpful in removing barriers to further insights. And yes, now we may need to delve into transferences from . . . the past . . . But only so that the person can be freed from the past.
This brings us back to the question of whether psychoanalysis and mindfulness have anything in common. The more experience I have with both as a clinician, the more excited I am about how they can be used together in practice, to facilitate a person’s self-understanding for a fruitful life in the present.
To learn more about psychoanalysis, see Classical Psychoanalytic Theory. To learn more about the theoretical foundations of mindfulness, see Mindfulness Meditation Training: Introduction, Attention, and the Present Moment, or for its applications, see Mindfulness Meditation Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices.