Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy

Canopy of a Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Preserve, Sonoma County, CA
Photo by Bill Gayner

Emotion-focused mindfulness therapy (EFMT; Gayner, 2019) welcomes into meditation and therapeutic encounters the processes that weave consciousness and deepen experiencing, including perception, bodily and sensory experience, feelings, imagery, thinking, needs and action tendencies. Meditators cultivate gentleness and participatory curiosity, exploring how to navigate experiencing oriented to their values and what they find works for them. People are free to feel inclined, consider the future, remember, and reflect on experience while meditating. From an EFMT perspective, the only time we have to experience and reflect on planning and remembering is the present moment and to not include them in meditation and therapy would be to exclude central aspects of being human.

Most of us spend a lot of time alternating between being in our heads disconnected from feelings or being too immersed in and buffeted by stressful emotions and thoughts (Gendlin, 1981; Teasdale, 1999). In contrast, mindful experiencing brings us alive to our implicit feelings in a way that transforms our relationship with experience (Teasdale, 1999). This enables meditators to turn toward and decentre from difficult thoughts and feelings. “Decentering” means being able to experience thoughts and feelings as events in consciousness rather than as direct, unmediated truths about self, others and the world (Safran & Segal, 1990).

Photo by Bill Gayner

Mindful experiencing creates optimal conditions for experiential and emotional processes that enable us to arrive at and make sense of our feelings, integrate feeling and thinking, resolve internal conflicts and unfinished business, and better navigate our lives, cultivating growth and a fulfilling life. However, mainstream clinical mindfulness neither specifies nor encourages experiential and emotional processing in meditation, emphasizing instead staying in touch with implicit feelings (Kabat-Zinn’s “bloom of the present moment” (2010 [1994]), while decentering from and letting go of difficult thoughts and emotions. In contrast, emotion-focused mindfulness therapy (EFMT) uses emotion-focused therapy (EFT; Greenberg, 2015 [2002]; Elliott, Watson, Goldman & Greenberg, 2004; Elliott & Greenberg, 2007) to provide meditators with the option to not only open into the ‘bloom of the present moment,’ but also to make deeper sense of it and respond differentially, integrating experiential and emotional processing into mindfulness meditation and therapeutic encounters.

EFMT emerged out of exploring how to integrate self-compassion more deeply into mindfulness to better help gay men living with HIV suffering from issues associated with internalized stigma such as harsh self-criticism, difficulties generating self-warmth and social isolation, as well as the related effects of adverse childhood events so prevalent for them. It is based on the view that “wise compassion is empathic, involving not only feeling moved by suffering.., wishing it be alleviated… and wanting to help, but also the ability to follow thoughts and feelings in oneself and others with kindness. Empathy is a fundamental relational skill and a key aspect of emotional intelligence (Elliott, Watson, Goldman & Greenberg, 2004, p. 103)” (Gayner, 2019).