Cultivating Mindfulness and Introspective/Empathic Attunement


Cultivating Mindfulness and Introspective/Empathic Attunement

“Mindfulness”, “introspective attunement”, and “empathic attunement” are big buzzwords in psychotherapy right now.  Slightly strange, considering that these states have been around as long as mammalian life has been around.  They got lost in the shuffle as mental health practitioners learned layers and layers of theories and techniques, but their relevance to the process of therapeutic change never wavered.  Now that neuroscientific advances have rediscovered their fundamental significance, it seems everyone wants to jump on the “mindfulness” and “attunement” bandwagon.  I hope they will never jump off, as to do so would be to give up a diamond in favor of a cubic zirconia.  This bandwagon has also interested a larger audience in the contributions of art therapy as an equal player on the mental health services scene, and I have no complaints about that!


But I do want to register a complaint against non-art therapists who ask their clients to engage in artmaking during sessions and don’t make introspective art themselves.  Is it ethical to promote self-exploration via means with which you have no personal familiarity?  Of course not.  Therapists who operate in this manner are depriving themselves and their clients of opportunities to develop mindfulness and attunement, which doesn’t serve the purpose of therapy very well.


Mindfulness is a natural byproduct of the creative process.  It integrates scattered mental activity and redirects it into something purposeful and novel—two of the basic conditions for promoting neuroplastic change.  This change can register at the somatic level as well; it’s not uncommon for people in physical pain to report feeling relief following engagement in the creative process.  Mindfulness and the creative process are about cultivating an alert state of relaxation that allows an individual to be fully present in her or his experiences.  Per Dan Siegel, MD, mindfulness is the key ingredient of successful therapeutic endeavors: it bolsters a clinician’s resilience against compassion fatigue, ensures a clinician’s enthusiasm for mental health service provision, and paves the way for attunement to self and others.


Attunement, in turn, increases the likelihood that a therapist will be aware of both her or his internal state and the internal state of the client as well.  Operating from this vantage point is subcortical; it goes beyond words to processes in the brain that are nonverbal and symbolic…like the processes that are activated by image making and by looking at the images made by others.  The therapist who doesn’t make introspective art is likely to miss subtle cues in the client’s art process and art products that give information about shifts in the client’s internal state.  Learning how to catch those cues doesn’t happen through lectures or reading material.  It happens through experiential familiarity.  Cultivating this experiential familiarity allows the therapist to shift along with the client and thus maintain attunement and an appropriate level of support.  Not surprisingly, the presence of a supportive, nurturing other is also a key factor in promoting neuroplastic change.  So no matter how supportive and nurturing you already are, get out those markers and colored pencils and dive into introspective artmaking.  If you can’t manage to do that, then please don’t ask your clients to do it either.


With appreciation for the important work you do,

Megan September 2011

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