About Bill Gayner

Bill Gayner
Photo by Jim Craigmyle

Bill Gayner, BSW, MSW, RSW, is a clinical social worker who has worked as a mental health clinician in Psychiatry in the Sinai Health System, Toronto, since 1998, where he provides individual psychotherapy for people living with HIV as well as emotion-focused mindfulness therapy (EFMT) groups for HIV+ gay and bisexual men and psychiatry outpatients, and emotion-focused mindfulness training for hospital staff. Bill is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. He has trained and mentored mental health professionals, residents and social work students in mindfulness for fifteen years.  

Bill initially learned to meditate in his early twenties by reading books on Buddhism, sitting on a cushion on his bed, and focusing on the breath. This was so practical, helpful, and intriguing, he went on to train in a mix of Tibetan and Theravada Buddhist practices primarily with George Dawson (Namgyal Rinpoche), Cecilie Kwiat and Tarchin Hearn from 1984 to 1994, including attending a Buddhist teacher training program, the Kinmount Seminary and Academy at the Dharma Centre of Canada, for a year and a half.

Bill received his Batchelor of Social Work from Carleton University and his Masters at the University of Toronto. In his initial social work training, Bill was trained and supervised in a blend of person-centred therapy, social work systems theory and structural social work. As a mental health clinician, Bill was trained and supervised in psychodynamic therapy, group psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and emotion-focused therapy. He attended the Emotion-Focused Therapy level 1 and 2 workshops with Les Greenberg, and Antonio Pascual-Leone supervised him in emotion-focused therapy for trauma (EFTT; Paivio & Pascual-Leone, 2010). He attended a four-day workshop in emotion-focused couple therapy with Les Greenberg and Serine Warwar with some additional couple therapy supervision from Serrine. These days, he operates primarily from an integrative emotion-focused therapy perspective, informed by the values of the social work profession.

Bill was awarded the Joel Sadavoy Community Mental Health Award in 2007 by his department for outstanding contributions as co-principal investigator of PHA ACCESS, a community-hospital knowledge exchange project in which front line workers and volunteers in AIDS service organizations were trained and supported in providing brief narrative, art or mindfulness interventions. He was the second person presented this award. He was also awarded the Karen McGibbon Award of Excellence and Seymour Schulich Honorarium that year by the hospital for outstanding effort and commitment in advancing the values of the hospital.

Bill started teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction groups (MBSR) for gay men living with HIV at Mount Sinai Hospital in 2001. His MBSR training included introductory and teacher development intensive courses through the UMass Medical School Centre for Mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Saki Santorelli, Florence Myers and Melissa Blacker; attending an MBSR group led by Bill Knight at the University Health Network; and consultations with Toronto mindfulness pioneers such as Zindel Segal and Paul Kelly. He also attended regular vipassana retreats primarily at the Insight Meditation Society taught by a variety of teachers, most memorably Rodney Smith, Narayan Helen Leibensen, and Michael Grady, including a Forest Refuge solo retreat.

Bill led a randomized-controlled trial of MBSR for gay men living with HIV that was the first to indicate psychological improvements for a mindfulness-based intervention in this population (Gayner, Esplen, DeRoche, Wong, Bishop, Kavanagh & Butler, 2012).

Before choosing to focus on developing EFMT, Bill collaborated for years with his close friends and colleagues Kate Kitchen and Kirstin Bindseil in teaching a six-day course for mental health professionals, Mindfulness-Based Group Practice, initially through the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work’s continuation education program and then through the Mount Sinai Psychotherapy Institute. Kate and Kirstin now offer the program with Steven Selchin through Sunnybrook Mindfulness.

Stream with logs in it, reflecting a clear blue sky and trees. Taken on retreat near San Diego, CA.
Photo by Bill Gayner


Two lines of inquiry led Bill to developing emotion-focused mindfulness therapy. On the one hand, he was exploring how to adapt mindfulness to help gay men living with HIV suffering from difficult emotional and behavioural patterns associated with internalized stigma, such as harsh self-criticism, difficulties in generating self-warmth, and self-isolation, as well as unfinished business from the adverse childhood events so prevalent among them.

On the other, Bill had long been concerned with the incongruity of how so much effort was put into taking mindfulness out of a Buddhist context and into clinical and professional-training contexts and, then, after the introductory course is over, people are told to find a Buddhist teacher and attend Buddhist retreats. He felt it was time to create contexts where people could develop mature mindfulness practices fully integrated into the secular form in which they had learned to meditate. Still, out of deep respect for the Buddhist roots of clinical mindfulness-based interventions, he decided to find a Buddhist teacher to help him deepen his own meditative practice and to mentor him as a teacher so he could transpose this learning into secular contexts.

Bill approached the Buddhist teacher Jason Siff in August 2010 with this project in mind. Jason taught Bill his approach, recollective awareness meditation (RAM; Siff, 2010; Higgins, 2009), which allows people to more fully engage in thinking and feeling in meditation. By the fall, Bill had decided to explore using it for his clients as a way of integrating self-compassion more deeply into mindfulness practice. Jason mentored Bill as a meditation teacher from January 2011 to April 2016, while Bill integrated this approach into clinical and professional training contexts using an emotion-focused therapy (EFT; Greenberg, 2015 [2002]; Elliott, Watson, Goldman & Greenberg, 2004) perspective, but without yet including all of the EFT marker-oriented tasks.

Since then, Bill has fully integrated emotion-focused mindfulness therapy (EFMT; Gayner, 2019) into emotion-focused therapy and deepened his understanding of similarities and differences between EFMT and its Buddhist roots through the writings of contemporary Buddhists and scholars such as Stephen Batchelor (2012, 2015, 2017), Winton Higgins (2009, 2012), Ron Purser (2015), Robert Sharf (2015), Dale S. Wright (2016), Ville Husgafvel (2018), and Evan Thompson (2015).