KC Mindfulness


Here’s a guy I met at the Nelson Gallery recently, a man who lived several thousand years ago; when I saw his marvelous marble bust, I felt as if I knew him. He reminds me of my law professors… not any one in particular… well, that’s not entirely true. He strikes me as a composite of Mr. Fratcher and Mr. Covington, actually… Those guys, my law professors (at MU from ’74-’77) were very formal, and austere, and harsh, and very effective. During those days at MU, during our entire first year, no professor ever spoke to us outside the classroom. We were treated as non-persons throughout the whole first year. We worked like Missouri mules, I swear, and about one-third of us who started each class, during those days, either dropped out or flunked out in the first year. Those of us who made it into the second year were (only then) treated (thanks, Prof. Joan Krauskaupf!) to a formal “welcome to the legal profession.”

A few days ago I had dinner with a friend who is both a mathematics professor and a Zen teacher. She said: “I can’t teach effectively if I have to worry about whether or not my students feel affirmed.” Oh, yes. This is so true. Adjunct professors, in particular, are vulnerable to taking the easy way out, feeling threatened when students complain, because they want to get good scores on their course evaluations, so that they will be hired, again. They tend to comply with the demands of contemporary students that each student be validated and affirmed (even praised), regardless of the quality of his or her work. [UPDATE: here’s a link to a good article about the “most-praised” generation.] And the desire to be popular with students can mean that they don’t want their courses to be perceived as “hard courses.”

When I began working as a psychology professor (as an adjunct, at first), I quickly became (in)famous for loading a lot of heavy work onto my students. One evening in class, a student ventured to inquire whether or not I was aware that there was another section of the same course, taught by another adjunct professor, in which the reading and writing requirements were considerably lighter than they were in my section? I took a deep breath. I said “No,” I had not known that. Nor did I (much) care. What I cared about then (and now) was preparing students to become competent, confident professionals. So I gave the class, for the first time, what became one of my standard speeches about the teaching and learning of counseling psychology. If you embark on a career in which you hold yourself out as a person who can treat and alleviate emotional and behavioral problems, do you not want to get the best possible training? Do you not want to seek out the most rigorous training? And, if you (or a family member) should be a patient, would you want to go to a doctor who went to the “easiest” school?

As it turns out, nearly all the counseling psych students I taught indicated that they appreciated (eventually!) being held to high standards, being challenged, and (and I think this is part of the equation) having their intended careers taken seriously enough to acknowledge that it takes hard work to learn the things they need to learn, in order to succeed.


Thoughts about teaching, and about learning.

One of our law professors at MU School of Law was fond of saying: “There is no teaching. Only learning.” We thought that was a cop-out. Law school pedagogy could be pretty brutal. The amount of information we had to absorb and try to make sense of was huge, and the professors, during our first year, acted as if they couldn’t care less about us. We lived in fear of being “called on” in class to present a case and answer unanswerable questions about the appellate court’s decision. I don’t remember ever feeling as if I had done a good job in one of those grillings. My contracts professor (Joe Covington), in fact, once simply shook his head at one of my (apparently) wrong-headed conclusions, and announced to one and all that I would never make a lawyer. That wasn’t true, of course; I ended up being a pretty good lawyer. In fact, he helped to “make” me a lawyer, and, of course, he knew it.

Back in law school, we said that the professors played “hide the ball,” meaning that we thought they had actual answers but refused to give them to us. Later, we found that it wasn’t about answers and information. It was about getting deeply involved in the material so that we could see the complexity, so that we could see both sides (many sides) to every important question.

Now that I am working with graduate students in Avila’s MSCP program, I sometimes feel the pressure coming from my own students, pressure to somehow make it easier for them. When that happens, I question myself and I question them, too. How much “help” should I, can I, give them. If I give them “study questions,” it helps them to make good grades on quizzes. But it also inevitably causes them to miss whole chunks of text material so that they can focus on the right answers to potential quiz items, and get an “A.”

My instinct, based on my own experiences in getting educated at the hands of many, many professors, is to resist the temptation to make it easy. I ask my students if they would rather go to a physician who went through a tough training program, or one who went through an easier program. The truth is that our students will be entrusted with helping people who are really suffering; and our field is incredibly complex, and changing fast. You can’t master this field (and if you are seeking a “Master’s” degree, then you are expected to demonstrate Mastery) unless you really deeply take the task as your own. The task is to cultivate your intellectual curiosity and critical thinking skills, to engage in wide-ranging reading of the literature in your field (as well as assigned texts), and always ask for more work. Even when you really want less.


My friend Stephanie West Allen asked me if I would write a “letter to a young lawyer,” to become a possible piece of an anthology of such letters she is working on. Great idea! Mine is below, very timely in that in the spring, law schools everywhere give birth to their new litters of baby lawyers. And I’d say the words are mostly pertinent to the new ones in any profession (including those among you who are my own newly graduated counselors!).

To a young lawyer:

You probably already realize that law school has taught you very little, if anything, about the practice of law. You are trying hard not to let anyone else see how frightened and inexperienced you are. Although those days were 30 years ago for me, I remember them very clearly. I remember that I sweated profusely and hyperventilated every time I went into a courtroom on my own, and that I was terribly confused by half of what the other lawyers and judges were so casually saying to each other.

The confusion about how to practice law, what to say and do without looking like a fool, will pass fairly quickly; but other aspects of the practice of law are just as important, and sometimes more difficult to learn and remember. It is these non-technical matters I would like to address for you, in the form of a set of guidelines that have served as a personal code for me throughout my professional life. These guidelines were given to me by other lawyers, mentors, and judges who taught them to me by their example. Sometimes they were difficult to follow; in fact, many lawyers follow them very rarely, if ever. You will know these lawyers when you run across them, and I am sure that you will know that you do not want to be like them.

If you have told someone that you will do something, move heaven and earth to get it done; if you cannot get it done, apologize and make it right. Never blame anyone else on your failure or inability to make good on a promise. Make sure that you become the kind of person who can be totally relied upon to make good upon any assurances given.

Your reputation is everything. If you have a reputation as a good, solid, honest lawyer, then you can survive any other kind of loss. If you lose your good reputation, then it doesn’t much matter what else you may have gained or retained.

Communicate with your clients, colleagues, retained experts, and opposing counsel. Communicate clearly, and often. With your clients, make sure that you are up-front about what can (and cannot) be accomplished. Put it in writing, because they will remember what you said through the distorting filter of their own hopes, wishes, and expectations.

Act like a grown-up. Be on time; be five minutes early for court (and for appointments), always. When you fail to do so, you are telling everyone else that you believe that you and your problems are more important than everyone else’s.

Whatever may befall you and your clients: Don’t take it personally. When you win, do so graciously, and do not gloat. When you lose, do so graciously. Congratulate your opponent.

When it comes time to give back: Give back. Someone will teach you the ropes when you are starting out, and s/he will do so without any extra compensation, and probably without even expecting to be thanked. And later, sooner than you expect, younger lawyers will show up in your life, and they will need a hand. When that happens, you will realize that it is faster and easier to do something by yourself than to teach someone how to do it; but you have incurred a debt to those younger lawyers, in that you received help from those who mentored you. When you accepted help from your mentors, you implicitly promised that you would take your turn by filling the shoes of a mentor, when your time comes. You will find your life greatly enriched by having done so.


Today there’s a short article in the New York Times written by a psychiatrist who trains psychiatric residents who are learning to do psychotherapy. Why is it that psychotherapy patients often want to know whether or not their therapists have, themselves, been in therapy? Here are some excerpts from the article:

  • [The] question… made me wonder whether one could be a good therapist without having been in psychotherapy. If the answer was no, it would appear to be at odds with what we do in the rest of medical practice.
  • After all, we don’t require neurologists to have a spinal tap or cardiac surgeons to have undergone bypass surgery before performing these medical procedures.
  • But there is something special about psychotherapy, I think, that sets it apart. Of course, the doctor-patient relationship is important in any clinical encounter. But in therapy, the relationship is the very instrument of the treatment.
  • One way to think about it is that a therapist should not start exploring a patient’s mind without really knowing what is in his own. Therapists, just like their patients, bring their own life experiences into treatment, which influence their feelings about their patients — a process called countertransference.
  • Therapists who do not understand their own countertransference run the risk not just of misunderstanding their patients, but of confusing their own hang-ups with those of their patients.

Becoming a psychotherapist carries challenges that are different than those confronted by trainees in other professional fields. Becoming a dentist, for example, requires (among many other things) the mastery of instrumentation and techniques that involve manual dexterity. Becoming a competent psychotherapist requires the capacity to reliably and accurately recognize, tolerate, and manage all kinds of thoughts and emotions, both one’s own and also those of one’s client/patient. When I am teaching counseling practicum students and interns, I tell them that they must take on a task similar to that of a detective: they must become “emotion detectors,” and “thought detectors.” Some people are already good at this when they enter training in psychotherapy; others are not.

If one is not “naturally” good at reading and responding to emotions, is it hopeless? Is there any way to get better at this task? One way to do so is, as the article points out, engaging in one’s own psychotherapy, as a patient. These days (unfortunately, I believe) few therapist trainees take this route. This leaves them at a disadvantage, in some ways, to those who have been in therapy; for one thing, despite their academic study of psychotherapeutic schools and methods, they remain essentially ignorant as to how psychotherapy is really “done.” The beginners tend to remain convinced that what they will really be doing, as therapists, will consist of dispensing advice; seeing where people are engaging in counterproductive behavior, and telling them to “stop doing that.” They tend to skip over the part about emotion, other than perhaps asking the terribly clichéd (and usually unproductive) question: “And, how do you feel about that?” They tend not to really understand the power of our thoughts (and, especially, our belief that our thoughts represent TRUTH) to influence our emotions and behavior (in part because they probably have spent little time observing their own thoughts).

Another way to get better at reading and responding to emotions and thoughts is to engage in the practice of mindfulness (or Vipassana) meditation. Dan Siegel has written about this practice as a way of becoming “one’s own therapist,” in that one treats one’s own phenomenal world as a therapist would: with accurate awareness and labeling; and with compassionate responding. In the Practicum program I designed and ran, the practice of mindfulness meditation was an essential component. That seemed to work very well, for nearly all of the students who went through that program (and, more importantly, for their clients).

But what if one does neither of these things, and is not naturally good at dealing with emotions and thoughts? This is where we, as teachers, might need to gently point out that becoming a counselor is not for everyone. And we hope that the aspiring student will be able to shift gears into another area, one in which s/he can succeed. This is a very difficult aspect of the task of training psychotherapists, because no one that I know of has yet devised a fair, accurate, and objective way to measure a person’s capacity to recognize and effectively work with emotions (one’s own, as well as the emotions of others). Moreover, there is today a sensibility within the training of counselors and psychologists that frowns upon, or even forbids, the requirement of “experiential”-type exercises that might involve self-disclosure. Certainly, students today cannot be required to engage in psychotherapy as a part of their training. The practice of mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, does not necessarily involve uncomfortable self-disclosure (to others, anyway!) and so is probably permissible. However, one might question whether meditation undertaken solely as a course requirement (and thus, arguably, under “duress”) might not sometimes be ineffective, or even counterproductive. That is, as we say in science, “an empirical question,” and it awaits exploration. Certainly, the requirement that one read books and write papers is a form of duress that is apparently beneficial to students, without causing irreparable harm. How could a little bit of silent sitting, in compassionate awareness, be any worse than reading Freud, or (God forbid!) Otto Kernberg?


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