Clinical Meeting: The compassionate self-observer

by Nili Sigal, art therapist &clinical meetings coordinator at The London Art Therapy Centre

Based on the works of Jon Kabat Zinn and the principles of meditation and compassion, mindfulness is becoming an increasingly popular therapeutic intervention. Consequently, there has been a growing interest in the ways art therapists might be able to use mindfulness in their own work. Joss James and Nicky Roland, two art therapists who work with clients at the London Art Therapy Centre and who have their own personal meditation practice, have developed a new model of integrating art therapy and mindfulness, and will be offering this in their weekly group starting in May 2014. In this month’s clinical meeting they talked to us about the thinking and the theory behind this exciting new way of working, Art Therapy and Mindfulness and gave us an experiential ‘taster’ session.

Both Nicky and Joss have a long-standing interest in this field: Nicky has been practicing meditation and mindfulness for ten years and has recently completed a Mindfulness Teacher training programme, with Mark Coleman (Teacher at Spirit Rock centre in the US) and Martin Alywald (Director of Moulin de Chaves Meditation Centre in France). Joss has over 25 years of regular mindfulness practise, starting with Vedanta (yoga), moving to Buddhist (Insight) and discovering mindfulness 5 years ago on the Tibetan Buddhist Holy Isle in Scotland. She continues to practise, study and train with teachers and practitioners from the Insight tradition and the Aberdeen & Sussex Mindfulness Centres, keeping abreast with the latest research and development in art therapy and mindfulness and developing this emerging practice with colleagues.

At the start of the meeting Nicky led the group through a sitting meditation practice, gently encouraging us to be aware of our bodies and of the ways our thoughts try to escape to different places. We were asked to conscious of the activity in our mind and to softly bring it back into the room, grounding ourselves in our chairs and in the group. We were also encouraged to develop awareness about the kinds of thoughts and distractions we become preoccupied with and to observe ourselves during this process, with kindness and compassion.

Following the group meditation we were asked to make art in a mindful way, which involves being aware and present in the room. The resulting artwork evoked powerful feelings which resonated with many of us. Several images explored the ways we often struggle to be present and to ‘be’ in our bodies, as we spend much of our daily lives in our minds. The relaxed atmosphere of compassion and acceptance in the room made it possible for the group to discuss the experience openly and to contain the feelings which emerged through the art-making.

Joss and Nicky then talked to us about their reasons for developing this particular model and the theory behind it, expanded on in Nicky’s article Mindfulness and Art Therapy. Towards the end of the meeting we did a mindfulness exercise called the three-minute breathing space. This brief meditation connects us to our direct experience, and can be used at any time of day.

At the end of the meeting many of us said we felt lighter and more relaxed. Starting the process with a mindfulness exercise brought the group together and helped us leave our daily stresses behind, clearing the mind and making it easier to focus on the ‘here and now’ of being in the session. Clinically, this seemed to allow the work to start from a deeper place, by removing the immediacy of minor annoyances and concerns which can distract us from facing ourselves. Equally, ending the session with a mindfulness exercise helped contain the session and make the transition from a place of being and sharing back into our everyday lives. There was a real sense of transition in and out of a very personal space within a group, at the same time as feeling accepted by others, which made this a powerful and effective therapeutic experience.

The Art Therapy and Mindfulness Group will be held on Thursday evenings at the London Art Therapy Centre, and is a therapeutic group for deepening mindfulness practice and enhancing wellbeing, and for those who wish to incorporate mindfulness and creativity into their lives. More details can be found here.

Further reading:

    • Rappaport, L. (2014) Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies. JKP, London.
    • Smalley, S. and Winston, D. (2010) Fully Present. Da Capo, Philadelphia.
    • Hick, S. and Bien, T. (2008) Mindfulness and the Therapuetic Relationship. Guilford Press, London.
    • Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full Catastrophe Living. Piatkus, London.

This blog was first posted on the London Art Therapy Centre Website: