Two Faces of Mindfulness

two faces of mindfulness

Mindful-symbolMindfulness is in the news and on people’s minds, but I hear some confusion about whether it is about intellectual awareness or something more emotional or even spiritual. In my view, the answer is that mindfulness is both, but each aspect serves a different purpose. One is, indeed, about conscious awareness and the other is emotional and spiritual. Both are essential for achieving serenity.

Conscious Awareness

At least in the Western world, the goal of mindfulness is to heal distressing emotions. For this to happen, they first have to be in our conscious awareness. This principle is clear from the healing of trauma. It is only when feelings are accessible to conscious awareness that they heal. As long as they stay buried our feelings don’t change. Even when they are in the twilight zone where we have a vague awareness but have not consciously focused on them, feelings don’t heal. We have to feel them and be aware of our feeling. Traditional healing for trauma starts with telling another person. In the telling, we become aware and begin to feel. In exposure therapy, the same thing happens. Exposure to reminders of the trauma brings feelings to conscious awareness where they can heal.

The reason probably has to do with brain circuits. Healing happens when the group of neurons (neural network) representing that specific pain or fear is activated at the same time as there is activation of neural networks representing peace and safety. The two networks become welded together as one. The process was first described in 1949 by Donald Hebb with his famous words, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” When feelings are not in our conscious awareness, presumably the groups of neurons that represent them are not firing, or at least not the ones that need to be joined with those that represent safety.

Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “the calm awareness of one’s body functions, feelings, content of consciousness, or consciousness itself.” Thus, part of mindfulness is conscious awareness. To achieve this part, we need to focus on what is going on in our mind. This is what drives descriptions of mindfulness in a more intellectual direction. Becoming aware of our own mental processes is about focusing our conscious intellectual attention. This is what leads to those descriptions of mindfulness that sound more like seeking intellectual awareness.

The Emotional and Spiritual Aspect

But the other part is the healing itself. In order for distressing feelings to heal to the point where they no longer overwhelm us or trigger our primitive brain into a fight/flight reaction another condition must be met.  As described above, for healing to take place, we have not only to feel our distress but simultaneously to find a  feeling of calm and safety. Doing that has nothing to do with intellect and everything to do with feelings and spirituality.

What I have found in working with trauma survivors is that the sense of calm and safety needed for healing is best achieved by building a therapeutic relationship that feels accepting and safe. However, the process goes deeper than the therapeutic relationship itself. What gives the relationship with a therapist its power is that it re-awakens previous experiences of calm and safety along with the present one. This is much harder to do with people who have never known calm or safety, but most of us have experienced “good enough mothering” at some point in our lives. Perhaps even before memory, at an age when, even in dysfunctional families, infant care was simpler and easier, most of us have had some experience of feeling safe.

From our earliest years, we look to our primary caregiver for calm and safety. When toddlers fall, they look to their mother, make eye contact, and take in her sense of calm and perspective. When mother smiles and waves, the toddler’s distress melts away and she goes on playing. Sometime around age three, under good circumstances, this feeling of safety becomes internalized as part of our being. It becomes what I call our “Internal Rechargeable Battery Pack of Connection.”

The mechanism of healing for all distressing and painful feelings is basically the same. We must consciously be aware of distressing feelings and simultaneously in touch with our inner sense of calm and perspective. One way to do this is to share our feelings with an empathic other. Another is meditation. In meditation, we seek to quiet the noise of distress and in doing so find calm and perspective.

In my view, the way this actually works is that, as the noise dies down, we reawaken that same internalized sense of everything being OK. Importantly, though, some of us have easier access to this inner calm than others. The reason is that our “basic trust” is actually not inborn but acquired. Under good conditions, in the first years of life we experience the emotional attunement of our caregivers and come to rely on it to calm ourselves when we encounter distress. Around age three, we begin to internalize the experience so that it is available even when Mom is not actually present. Even so, under stress, we may lose touch with our internalized sense of connection and safety. I am insisting on this, because many people, especially those with traumatic backgrounds, will naturally have more trouble getting in touch with a core sense of safety. They may need more help from the actual presence of an attuned other person, or may even have to build an internal feeling of connection from the ground up. 

What I am suggesting, then, is that the other part of mindfulness is the need to get in touch with a feeling of oneness with others and deep safety. There a number of different ways of doing so, but I think they all boil down to finding something within ourselves that was hopefully internalized a long time ago, something that we got from those who cared for us, telling us that someone big was in charge and that everything is going to be OK.

Thus, in my view, mindfulness has two, quite different components. First we need to be consciously aware of our distress, then we need to find an inner sense of connection, peace and perspective. The first part is more intellectual, while the latter is more interpersonal or spiritual, where spiritual means connection to something greater than ourselves. 

I’d like to hear your comments on this interpretation of mindfulness, since I am coming to it more from the perspective of trauma therapy than from the point of view of Buddhist practice.



  • Thank you for this post. Until now, I knew noting about mindfulness except that people mentioned it from time to time. I didn’t pay attention.

    I was in therapy last year and took a break, returning just last week. While on my break from therapy, I tried to understand more deeply how therapy works, or could work for me, and also what I could expect from it.

    Your observation that “what gives the relationship with a therapist its power is that it re-awakens previous experiences of calm and safety along with the present one” has given me new insight and new hope.

  • Dr. J.S. – your thoughts on Mindfulness click for me as I see meditation as the the calm logical part of the brain listening, non-judgementally, to the part of the brain that is emotional. My belief is that as we are able to listen to’it’ – ‘it’ gets calmer and moves closer to seeing and accepting reality as it really is. Very enjoyable website – thank you.

  • This is the most to the point and the easiest to understand description of mindfulness. I’ve read a good few articles written by you, and they are all brilliant.nI’m going to start Counselling and Psychotherapy course this year, and so I read a lot on the subject, and your the info presented in your articles are by far some of the easiest to comprehend. Thank you.

  • Thank you for your interesting post. How can ‘mindfulness’ not play an essential part in psychotherapy regardless of modality and in many ways it does but with different terminology and methods that suit the personality and psychology of the individual practitioner. You and readers of your blog may find my resource page of interest, which is full of posts and films on psychotherapy from a spiritual perspective. Here’s the link:

    Warm wishes Howard

  • Well, you have described it very well and very clearly pointed out the things to avoid any confusions. Counseling and Psychotherapy is not just about understanding but what more important is to how you deal it with people having contradictory mindsets.

  • The important thing here is how you take it or from what point of view you are taking the mindfulness because that can make a difference and the confusion arises but in a broad term you can take it as a combination of common sense, awareness and spiritual.

  • Dear Dr,

    In this article by using the word”trauma”, how do you define it? Are all traumas connecting with the lack of feeling safety?

    I enjoy the way you put mindfulness very clearly~ Thanks.

    • Definition of Trauma: Take a paper clip and straighten it out. Hold it hanging over the edge of a desk and push down on the end. With a small push, it will come back to its original shape. That is stress. Push a little harder and it won’t come back all the way. That is trauma. Trauma means that our ability to cope has been overwhelmed and damage is done. Healing is the opposite: Something changes for the better in a way that is permanent.

  • Are you familiar with Healing Developmental Trauma of Laurence Heller? He combines techniques from mindfulness with attachtment therapy. His insight in how the therapist/cliënt relationship might cause retraumatisation is very powerful.
    Els from Amsterdam

    • Looks interesting. I’m sorry he doesn’t give any examples to get a feel for the approach. I’m reading Love Sense by Susan Johnson, which is about EFT couple therapy, probably along similar lines. Very good stuff. JS

  • I found this article very helpful. I have a significant trauma history but I have also practiced contemplative prayer for twenty years. Given the current research on mindfulness I have tried to practice mindfulness as well. Because of my trauma history I have found it difficult to find the place of safety in which mindfulness works however if I pray (opening myself to the love in the universe) I find the safety regardless of other thoughts or feelings that might be present. I think for me, the unifying point of the article is the awareness that having trauma might impact my ability to find safety in mindfulness but combining the practice with contemplative prayer doesn’t make it wrong (that’s my leap or inference). It doesn’t diminish the practice. There aren’t many articles that lend themselves to putting all three pieces together!

    • Dear Lori, Thanks for your comment. I said it in the post, but can be more explicit. I think that serious trauma often, if not always, involves a powerful feeling of aloneness. I think this can become internalized as part of the experience. Thus, going back to the traumatic experience, means going back to a state of great isolation and aloneness. Returning to the trauma alone in meditation may make it hard to access a sense of connection and safety at the same time. That is why I think the physical presence of a therapist is sometimes required for the healing of trauma. That said, whenever you can gain access to a relationship with God, or some other state of connection, that can create the juxtaposition of safety and trauma that I believe is needed for healing to happen. JS

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