Lecture on observation of breath, body and mind

BREATH: flowing or stopped; long-short, deep-shallow, rough-smooth, deep-slow

BODY: urge, impulse, act hunger; tension, pressure, ease, peace ... what is it trying to do?

MIND: feeling, emotion, mood; image, thought; alert-dull, agitated-calm ... what is it full/empty of?... what state or process is it in? what is it chasing after?

There is a static aspect and a dynamic aspect to what is observed. The body and mind can be observed in terms of body-scan, mind scan, with awareness of the present state, but they can also be observed in terms of awareness of process. What is the body trying to do - what act hunger is present - what is the mind doing. In therapy both static and dynamic aspects yield important information and also provide the basis for clinical judgements. One experiences an urge to hug the client - one then has to decide (a) to act, and hug him (b) to not act but vocalise, to not move but to say, I feel and urge to hug you, or (c) to neither act not vocalise but to keep one’s observation in mind as the interview continues. In addition, one observes the dynamic of the client. One observes that the client wants to hug me, or wants me to hug him. Again one has to make a judgement whether or how to facilitate this. Often the dynamic in one person is simply a reflection of the dynamic in the other, so that the urge that one feels in oneself may well have originated in the client.



- What we have been discussing is a kind of "conversation meditation" but really it is more a matter of using the things we learn through meditation to enrich our therapy practice. Therapy is an art and requires creativity, not merely technique. We can learn important principles and useful ways of thinking, but the art of therapy is a co-creation in the encounter between counsellor and client.

- Is it possible to learn therapy? Certainly it is not possible to learn it as a set of procedures or merely a protocol. One gradually picks up the spirit of the art. Simply copying what an experienced therapist does will not bring good results. The work has to be grounded in the real process of the actual therapist and client, so one has to come to trust in spontaneity.

- Is empathy possible? Perfect empathy is probably not possible because we are different people, but by imaginatively entering into the conditions of the client we can enable a parallel process to run in ourselves. When we practice awareness of body and mind we observe things passing through - arising, persisting, fading away - and if we are in empathy with the client there will be a resonance such that what passes through the therapist is a reflection of what is passing through the client.

- Is there a difference between being empathic and feeling the same thing as the other person? The difference is that in empathy one knows that although this feeling is in oneself it is not of oneself, that it is a mirroring of the other. We say that one feels as if one were the other without losing touch with the fact that it is only "as if". Simply feeling the same thing, one takes the feeling as one's own. This is an important matter in therapy. The therapist in empathy notices what arises in her and takes an interest in it but does not identify with it. Thus if the therapist were to feel irritation, if she identifies with it and takes the irritation as her own, she may simply conclude that "This is an irritating client" but if she is in empathy and such a feeling arises, she observes it thinking "I notice a feeling of irritation in me, what is happening? perhaps this is what the client is feeling."

- What can one do if the client triggers one's own issues? Perhaps the client reminds one of somebody who once did one harm. Just seeing the client reactivates one's past hurt. If one recognises that this is happening, one may be able to contain the feelings and tell oneself that although this client is triggering me, the client is not the same person as my oppressor and deep down may actually be completely different. On the other hand, there may be times when the feeling is so strong that it seriously impedes one's work with the client, in which case it may be better to refer the client to another therapist. There is also a clinical decision to make about whether it is helpful or not to tell the client what is happening. If one does so it may be therapeutic, bringing a powerful reality into the interaction. At the same time it carries risks. The fragile client may not cope well with such self-disclosure by the therapist. Also, there is a risk of role reversal, with the client taking care of the therapist rather than vice versa.


INPUT - On mindfulness, etc

The phrase "ardent, mindful and aware" occurs in the Satipatthana Sutta. In contemporary commentaries, "mindful" and "aware" tend to be taken as synonyms. This is probably incorrect. Mindfulness is not really immediate awareness, it is remembrance of what one has received in the past. The Satipatthana Sutta can probably be better understood not as "The setting up of mindfulness" but rather as "What mindfulness sets up." In a context of mindfulness, awareness pays dividends, leading to a fuller and deeper understanding. Mindfulness in Buddhism usually means mindfulness of Dharma. If one is mindful of Dharma one acts with love, compassion, joy and equanimity. In other words one does things in the best possible spirit. It is important that the right spirit be established first. Then one can develop and emply skills. Skills alone without the right spirit may be unproductive or even do harm.

Mindfulness is a factor of enlightenment because doing things in the right spirit is vital. Awareness is not a factor of enlightenment, it is merely a skill that amplifies whatever spirit it is used in the service of.  As a facotr of enlightenment, midnfulness works with investigation. Mindfulness brings forward what one has already learnt in the past. Investigation takes that forward into the future. Mindfulness is thus associated with the past and investigation with the future. In Buddhism we talk about the three times, present, future and past, we do not talk about now-only. The past is, in a sense, fixed. It is form. But in the present it is form becoming emptiness. The future is empty, it is as yet unformed, but in the present the future is emptiness becoming form. Past, present and future all exist and condition each other, but they exist in different way.

In therapy it is important to have awareness skills and to observe what is happening in the present, but it is also important to understand this in the context of the whole trajectory of the person's life. Also, it is vital to do it in the right spirit - to be full of Dharma - which is mindfulness (or heartfulness). With a heart full of love and compassion one will benefit the client. This benefit will be amplified if one also has good skills in awareness, but awareness alone will not do.


In three groups. In each group a counselling session. Then counsellor moves to second group and clients continue with new counsellor. Then counsellors move to third group and same client continues with new counsellor.

For feedback: A group of all the counsellors, a group of all the clients, groups of observers.



Students had been particularly struck by how clients are different with different counsellors. It is not simply a case of the client being a fixed entity with a fixed problem that different counsellors try to solve in different way. It is, rather, that clients are different with different counsellors and so a different interpersonal process emerges.

Students shared various personal learnings that had come out of the exercise.


At the request of the students, they went back into their original three groups for further feedback on and discussion of the extercise, and especially for that the observers could interact with the clients they had observed.



In pairs reviewing what has been learnt today.

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Replies to This Discussion

It is very interesting the idea of the client changing depending on the therapist. It suggests that spontaneity and flexibility are so important . But I think this is not easy, as foolish beings we need control. If our mind, as therapists, grasps to different  rupas we tend to be fixed and desconnected, but if we are mindful of the Buddha or the Dharma, we are open to the encounter and in contact with Life and I think we can move more freely inside that container which is Nirodha… But, again, it is not easy, we need faith, that is why I think mindfulness is so important…

Thank you Dharmavidya


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