Mindfulness is a trending buzzword. While everyone has heard of it, not everyone understands what it means, how to practice and integrate this discipline into our work — or why we would want to.
There are many ways to define what mindfulness is, and as many different ways to practice it.
For our purposes, we are going to explore its application in the profession of massage therapy, with consideration of how it applies to and can improve our experience for ourselves and for our clients.
A search online for “mindfulness” brings up standard definitions across many sites: The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something; a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique; and the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.
I define mindfulness as being vigilant over the chaos of the mind.
When introducing and discussing this practice, we have to consider the nature of the brain. This organ is automatically in charge of our reactions to life. We can, however, have some limited control over our thoughts. We can sometimes choose what we are thinking in response to the events of our lives, as opposed to having no discipline with our thoughts at all.
Practicing mindfulness is an attempt to be present and aware from an unbiased perspective. While life can be chaotic, and we are often moving very quickly to stay on top of everything, we can be completely derailed from living in a state of reflective self-awareness. This happens to everyone. In these less than conscious states, the challenge of a mindfulness practice is to reel it in, to recognize when we are not present, and bring ourselves back to the moment.
Normal stressors in life, such as traumas and disorder, can prevent us from operating from a mindful state. As long as we are human, this can’t be avoided; but, we do have options for managing our internal mental state amidst the external stimulation. We can decide how we are going to think about and respond to the external influences.
One benefit of this practice is gaining the skills to navigate the stressors of life in the least harmful way, to ourselves and those with whom we interact, by a disciplined regulation of our thoughts and subsequent behaviors.
Another way to explore what mindfulness is, is to explore what it is not. Mindfulness is not being self-absorbed with, distracted by or indulgent with the incessant chatter of our mind, but seeing that and choosing to change that way of thinking in a particular moment. Often referred to as monkey mind, this term has been used to describe internal chatter that prevents one from being present; as if monkeys are throwing banana peels at you when you are trying to focus.
This internal chatter can distract our minds with thoughts of fear, worry, guilt, shame or some random thinking. It can lead to assumptions, attachment to an agenda or outcome, judgment of others, perfectionism and negative self-talk. All of this can prevent us from experiencing a state of peace and true presence, and can harm the people we are in relationships with.
The great thing about the practice of mindfulness is anyone can do it, and we are all great at it sometimes and horrible at it other times. It is important to know that it would be extremely unrealistic to expect anyone to operate from a continually mindful state. Having a state of pure mindfulness is not a reasonable expectation while operating in our everyday lives.
Mindfulness does not discriminate. It is a diet of the mind that everyone can choose and utilize to improve perspective and reactivity. Perspective is reality, and so shifting perspective can shift the impact of some experiences.
Mindfulness is a practice. Like practicing an instrument, yoga or massage, one can practice it and the learning never ends.
Benefits for Therapist and Client
Practicing mindfulness offers many benefits for massage therapists. If the therapist is self-aware and present in the moment while they are performing a treatment, they will be more inclined to notice and correct improper body mechanics. They will be more inclined to have a drink of water when they recognize they require hydration, and they will be more thoughtful of their breath.
Massage from a focused and present therapist is better than treatment provided by a therapist who is not focused. Mindfulness will produce a higher level of professionalism, more satisfied clients, and career success due to the quality of the work.
When a massage therapist is present for their clients, they are able to show up for them fully, which will naturally result in the most excellent execution of the massage or bodywork session. With a mindful approach, the therapist will listen to their client’s requests and needs with precision during the interview and intake. They will be prepared to deliver on those requests.
Practicing mindfulness during the intake will create a rapport where the therapist will not only hear the words the client is speaking but will also be able to perceive subtle cues in the client’s posture, breathing, voice inflection and facial expressions.
Listening from a place of mindfulness is vastly different than listening with monkey mind. If the therapist can truly hear what the client is requesting, they will be in a more empowered position to deliver on the client’s specific needs.
There are several ways to practice mindfulness. You can bring a higher sense of awareness and presence to almost anything you do. The simplest and quickest way to connect to mindfulness is to connect to your breath.
It is easier to embody a state of mindfulness with optimal health. Someone who is well rested, hydrated and nourished can watch the nature of the mind with more ease than if the chemistry is off balance. Sugar, caffeine and other mood-sedatives or amplifiers can make a mindful state more challenging to achieve. Hormonal fluctuations can also play a part in one’s ability to remain mindful and present. Meditation is not mindfulness, but you can be mindful during meditation. To meditate is a way to understand the nature of the mind, and this knowledge will support your mindfulness practice.
Meditation is, on a fundamental level, complete focus in the current moment on any specific thing that holds your attention. With that, we have all been practicing meditation for our entire lives. Playing music, building with clay or baking with focused intent is a meditation. Exercise, walking, gardening, animal care, taking a bath, receiving a massage, creating art, being in nature, guided visualization, singing and yoga, to name a few, can all be forms of meditation.
Most massage therapists have experienced meditative moments within their bodywork sessions. Unconditional positive regard is a concept developed by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Within the context of client-centered therapy, this approach allows the practitioner to fully accept and give their support to the client regardless of their words, actions or culture. Every client we work with deserves unconditional positive regard, and you can guess at this point how we can achieve that: mindfulness.
A mindfulness practice supports vigilance over the massage therapist’s responsibility to hold space for the client at the highest level of therapeutic potential. With this approach, we can make the most of our opportunity to work with our clients while practicing self-care for ourselves.
About the author
Jill Berkana, BCTMB (berkanainstitute.com) is a massage therapy school founder, a curriculum architect, a National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-approved continuing education provider, a board-certified massage therapist, and the dean for the Berkana Institute of Massage Therapy.