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By Steven G. Mehta

For some time now, I have tried to practice the concept of being mindful or meditation before starting a mediation.  I started thinking about meditation and mediation about two years ago as a result of hearing how some people viewed it as the reason for their success.

I have frequently written about how being mindful in mediation can help resolve problems.  Recently, I saw some research in the field of marriage and family therapy that bears directly on the profession of mediation.  That research advocates the teaching of mindfulness in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) training and classes.

In fact, Virginia Tech is one of few universities to integrate mindfulness meditation into its MFT program curriculum, according to Eric McCollum, professor of human development and MFT program director in the National Capital Region. “Mindfulness meditation helps students improve their ability to be emotionally present in therapy sessions with clients,” he explained. “It helps beginners, who can sometimes feel overwhelmed, stop focusing on themselves and think more about others.”

This concept is one that our mediation and legal ducators should include.  MFT training is very similar to some of the concepts applied by mediation practitioners.

According to McCollum,  mindfulness meditation involves deliberately focusing one’s attention on present experience — thoughts, physical sensations, emotions — and doing one’s best to stay present with those experiences without judging them or avoiding the difficult aspects.

For novice therapists (or in our case mediators), another advantage is that mindfulness meditation helps them to switch out of problem solving into being more present, more empathetic, and more compassionate, all important aspects of the therapeutic process, said McCollum.

It is interesting to see some of the comments from students in McCollum’s program.  If we simply changed the people from therapists to mediators, the results could be quite transforming to our profession.  Here are some of the comments.

Rachel Cramer, an MFT student from Arlington, Va., explained how mindfulness meditation has helped in her interaction with clients. “Thinking back on starting out in the therapist’s chair, one of the hardest things for me was to learn to be quiet. Although I thought I understood active listening intellectually, the actual practice of listening without trying to form a response or a counter-argument or an intervention, and just to sit and take in what the other person was saying peacefully, was a huge challenge for me. I think that is where the practice of mindfulness was the most helpful to me. Just having the experience of quieting my inner cacophony in a disciplined way gave me an experience to draw on when sitting with a client.

“In a strange way,” Cramer continued, “mindfulness practice helped me get to the point where I could be most quiet and centered when hearing the most difficult things. Without the exposure to mindfulness practice in my first techniques class, I’m not sure I could really have learned to ‘sit with someone’s pain’ just as a witness, without trying to fix the unfixable. This experience also shaped my use of mindfulness, or at least quiet and measured breathing, as a way to help clients slow their own processes down. Slowing them down made a lot more sense to me after I had experienced the value of this myself.”

In McCollum’s program, mindfulness meditation begins in the first year of clinical training. As a course requirement (but not graded), students keep weekly journals which are read by the instructors over the course of the semester and then returned to them.

Thirteen students gave permission for McCollum to use their journals for a research paper.  According to the paper, several themes arose from these journals.  Again, as a mediation practitioner, these themes were directly  relevant to mediation.

The study and research found that, just as with Cramer, mindfulness helped students be present in their sessions.  This was commonly referred to as being “centered.” The students felt that they were calmer in general and specifically in their therapy sessions. Some of them used brief periods of formal practice to allow themselves to set aside thoughts and feelings associated with the previous session or with their lives outside of the clinic and focus their attention on what was happening in the current client session.

Others results were that the clients appreciated the student’s enhanced “presence.” Not surprisingly, the students reported explicitly experiencing a sense of compassion and acceptance. As they came to accept themselves in the therapist role, they were better able to accept their clients.

“Our findings suggest that mindfulness meditation may be a useful addition to clinical training,” said McCollum.  Interestingly, the study also interviewed actual practitioners after they commenced their careers.  Here is what one had to say:

“When I first thought back about the mindfulness experience, I wasn’t sure how much it still applied. I thought, ‘I don’t practice daily, and I don’t use it as often as I should.’ Then I realized that I was wrong. I do practice daily and I do use the experience often. However, it’s no longer a conscience practice. It’s something I’ve incorporated into who I am and how I deal with the struggles and frustrations I face every day. When I look back and who I was before the mindfulness experience, I realize how I ‘became’ the stress I experience. I would think about how stress had affected me in the past and how it would affect my future. I would get more frustrated and more irritated… Now, while I experience as much stress as I did before, I am more aware of my present experience and the stress seems outside of who I am. I worry less about how I have experienced it in the past and how it will impact my future. I am also not negative about the experience. I’m aware of it, I notice it, and for the most part, I’m able to let it go.”

This practice could and should be something that can be incorporated into every mediation training program. Mediation practitioners, just as therapists, undergo a lot of stress.  Just yesterday, one lawyer thought that my role as a mediator was both that of a facilitator, negotiator, and therapist.

So at the end of this, I would like to call all mediation and legal practitioners and trainers to consider incorporating this concept into their daily lives and their practice.  I have seen it work in my practice, and from direct research, it appears to have worked in the therapy setting.  Of course, additional research from the client’s perspective might be helpful.  But why not just take a moment and think about it.

Journal Reference:

Eric McCollum et al. Using Mindfulness Meditation to Teach Beginning Therapists Therapeutic Presence: A Qualitative StudyJournal of Marital and Family Therapy, (in press); See also, ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 9, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100407144705.htm

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