Psychotherapy and Meditation: Sitting with What Is

Girl sitting on couch smilingSitting in meditation means sitting with what is. The challenge, of course, is that a lot of “what is” doesn’t feel very good: we experience fear, restlessness, grief, anxiety, shame. For many of us, these experiences are enough to send us fleeing from the cushion, convinced that meditation isn’t for us or that we’re doing it wrong. Others convince themselves they’re meditating when they’re actually engaging in spiritual bypassing, a term that refers to the use of spiritual practices to avoid facing pain. When these things happen, a therapist can help us return to the present moment and stay present with what we find there.

When I sit with a client, I pay attention as closely as I can to what I receive through the six sense doors. I consider all of this material relevant, even my own thoughts and emotions. Therapists in my orientation talk about “the field”, which is the space between two people, the place where we throw our unwanted, unacknowledged feelings and experiences. My job is to notice these things, setting aside material that’s clearly about my own personal life, and paying attention to all that remains. In this way, I am focusing on the present moment and trying to stand in the midst of it all, even if it’s painful, frightening, or confusing.

When it seems helpful or relevant, or when what I’m noticing is persistent and strong, I reflect the experience back to the client. This is done as an offering, a pointing to what’s happening now; it’s an invitation to the client to check their own experience to see if it matches what I’m noticing. In this way, I invite the client into the present moment. This doesn’t mean that events outside the therapy room or experiences from the past are never discussed. On the contrary, these topics are the heart of therapy. But as they’re explored, the invitation is offered to step back into the present to see how it feels to be talking about these things now. And as we do this, we face the pain that’s there in the present moment together, seeing that it is possible to stand in the middle of it all, even if it’s just for a moment or two.

As we engage in this work of coming back to what is, the client begins to recognize the pain as their own cast-off experience. And with this recognition, compassion arises and healing begins. In this way, the relationship between a therapist and client mirrors the relationship we have with ourselves when we meditate. For those of us who struggle to face what is, working with a therapist can help us find our way back.

© Copyright 2009 by Anne Ihnen, MA LMHC, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Roose


    September 11th, 2009 at 5:14 PM

    This is very interesting indeed… Concentrating on the present moment and all that is influencing us is a sure way of relieving the pain withing ourselves. Discussion and reflection on past events helps us in recognizing our short-comings and differences and also helps us in rectifying those very mistakes in future life and also in curing us.

  • Beth Patterson, MA, LPC

    Beth Patterson, MA, LPC

    September 13th, 2009 at 11:09 AM

    I too practice meditation and bring it into my practice of psychotherapy, both for myself and for my clients. For myself, I practice “touch and go” — touching on what I’m feeling in my client’s presence, and letting it go so I can truly be with him or her. I also teach clients mindfulness techniques for feeling their thoughts/emotions on a body level. When clients are stuck in their thoughts, there is a sense of claustrophobia. Bringing those thoughts to the level of the body creates spaciousness and workability.

  • themuse


    September 13th, 2009 at 4:12 PM

    Anne, thank you for the article. I find how you work very interesting. I’m empathic and can feel how another is feeling no problem. It can be overwhelming how hard their strong emotions can hit. How do you manage to do that all day long? I find even an hour or two with some can be very emotionally draining and I don’t have an ounce of energy left. I steer clear after that when I can.

  • Nathaniel


    September 13th, 2009 at 4:38 PM

    Meditation can be a little unnerving for beginners. When you don’t know to expect feelings to arise that may well have been put aside for a very long time, your initial reaction is agitation. Knowing to simply go with the flow during it is advantageous. When you know that before rather than after attempting meditation especially for the first time, it’s not so unsettling anymore.

    I tell folks to relax, expect the unexpected and not let unusual feelings, sounds or visuals perturb them. Meditation brings such a sense of wellbeing everyone should experience it at least once.

  • Holly


    September 14th, 2009 at 10:02 AM

    I have decided that my therapist is like my favorite pair of jeans- it always feels right to talk with her just like those jeans always seem to be my favorite wardrobe staple! That may sound a little quirky but she has given me the tools to make meditation a part of my daily life and has helped me to learn how to really make the most out of seeing things for the way they are and for appreciating the simple things in life. Like those jeans always leave me feeling a little better about myself, my therapist always has just the right words to make me feel better and gives me the confidence that I need to make it.

  • Anne Ihnen MA LMHC

    Anne Ihnen MA LMHC

    September 17th, 2009 at 8:52 AM

    I like the idea of “touch and go” – practicing staying with what’s painful and difficult for just a minute or two. It’s a gentle way to come into the present moment, staying there only as long as you can stand it. In session, it can be like a dance in which we talk, tap into the present moment for a minute or two, and then return to talking about the presenting issue. Not only does this cultivate affect tolerance, it shows the client that he/she really has some power to manage their experience.

    I agree that meditation can be too much for many people and needs to be eased into over time. Taking a few minutes to focus on the breath during the day and tapping into the present moment are ways to start cultivating mindfulness which can eventually lead to sitting meditation practice. I think that walking meditation and body-oriented meditation practices are often more appropriate for people who are new to meditation and are overwhelmed by sitting practice.

    It can be especially draining for empathic people to sit with another who’s experiencing intense emotions. While self-care is important for all therapists, it’s especially important for sensitive, empathic therapists. I try to give myself multiple 30 – 60 minute breaks during the day to recharge and let go of anything I may have taken on. It seems to help a lot. Karla McLaren’s CD course “Energetic Boundaries” (available from Sounds True) has also been helpful for me.

    It’s so heartening to me that mindfulness and psychotherapy are coming together more and more!

  • Elisa


    September 24th, 2009 at 8:58 AM

    Have you ever tried meditating while listening to Binaural Beats? No idea where they got that name from, because I hear no beats at all :p
    These Binaural Beats are brainwaves that are to set your brain for something that you wish to achieve (e.g. success or so).
    Ever since I use these brainwaves my meditation has become so much better.

    Anybody else having experience with this?

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