Saving the Fire: The Theory and Practice of Mindfulness and Meditation in Social Work

Yael Shy, founder and director of the NYU Mindfulness Project, skillfully led a group of 50 social work practitioners and educators in an understanding of mindfulness and its personal and professional value. The June 13 seminar was extremely dynamic, providing the audience with multiple opportunities to engage in the application of the practice. The goal of the session was to integrate meditation and mindfulness—the practice of being aware and present, even in life’s most difficult moments—into what is often turbulent practice situations.

As means of introducing the practice, Shy, who is also the co-director of external relations at the NYU "Of Many" Institute for Multifaith Leadership, used the image of a woman being chased by a lion, clinging to a vine to save her life, while mice gnaw at the vine and the lion roars from above. On another vine nearby her she sees a strawberry and is able to reach it. She comments that the strawberry is sweet. So, mindfulness and meditation are the sweetness in the midst of turbulence that social workers and others experience within themselves and in response to chaos in their agencies. Shy presented mindfulness and meditation as liberating practices that provide the opportunity to drop into one’s body and somatically experience life.

When lack of self-care becomes yet another conduit to feelings of guilt, Shy advocated mindfulness and meditation as structured exercises that act as strong self-care exposure. She demonstrated a practice called R.A.I.N:

R = Recognize. Stop and realize feelings of fatigue, pain, and sadness to recognize where the locus of the feelings exist.
A = Acceptance. Understand that pain can occur in a moment, it is not illicit or radical, and there is no better use of that moment. Acceptance means that the feeling is happening; it is okay to allow it to happen and to then soften into it and accept it.
I = Inquiry or investigation. Focus on answering the question: What am I facing, fearing, and what is underneath the experience of discomfort or trauma? This phase yields insights.
N = No identification. Accept, drop in, and be open around the experience.

Shy emphasized that the first step in mindfulness meditation is to recognize that there is a space between the individual and the story and that the stories are not us. It is important to stay with the act (i.e., walking down the street) and then go to the thought instead of allowing the thought to interfere with the natural act. By focusing on the body the person can create an anchor, such as one’s gait, one’s breath, or one’s pulse. Shy went on to suggest that when one is impacted by something at work or in her personal life, one should honor the feeling: take a moment to recognize it and allow for the feeling to continue. Shy also emphasized the value of visualization as a way to come to an awareness and center on an alternative step toward mindfulness.

Shy described how R.A.I.N. can be applied in the case of a person experiencing extreme pain. In such a scenario, the social worker can guide the client towards a place of safety without pain, whether that is a part of the body devoid of pain or an image of something positive and possible. Shy suggested that the social worker is in the position to lead the client in the process of recognition and acceptance. If leading is difficult for the client, then the social worker can lead the person back and into a place of comfort. She also suggested other helpful images such as a child who is in pain running to you for help, thinking what to say, and what help to provide. She offered the suggestion of leading the client to identifying the favorite sense (smell, touch, taste, etc.) as another way to back down in the face of resistance. She offered that helping the client engage in mindfulness exercises is just that: an invitation to do something that might at first be scary but is not a prescription such that it must be done.

The seminar also featured a discussion on the use of mindfulness and meditation with both groups and individuals experiencing mental illness. Shy underscored that in the latter situation, feeling words would not be acceptable and that breathing together might be difficult. She emphasized that loving kindness, an aspect of mindfulness, would be a useful tool. Loving kindness is being totally present and accepting, being non-judgmental.

Shy underscored the importance of breath, learning, feeling, thoughts, and “being aware of being aware” as integral elements of mindfulness and mediation practice.