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sky blue

The language of instruction
Thoughts in development for a book (Springer Publishing, 2016) on mindfulness in mental health practice.

Feel the sensations of the breath.  If you notice that you’re not feeling the breath, feel the breath, right away.  The breath is always happening, right now.”

The clinician’s use of language in describing the technique and leading mindfulness practice in the therapy session is very important, as it is becomes internalized and used by the client. I have found it helpful to simplify the language used in providing instruction. My comments here do not represent my opinion about what is correct, but rather what I have found to be useful when working with a broad range of clients with different conditions, characteristics and levels of function.  This very simplified view of instruction language has been inspired by teachings of Dzogchen, which is truly virtuosic in its nonconceptuality (e.g., see T. U. Rinpoche et al.,1994).

     In particular, I have found it extremely helpful to keep to language that minimizes any call to exertion, imagery, or abstract conceptualization, as it is easy for these to become “hooks” for obsessiveness and anxiety. For example, a commonly heard instruction is “return (or come back) to the breath.” This gives an impression of the client having gone somewhere and needing to travel back – an image that I believe tends to unhelpfully and inaccurately solidify the “realness” of thoughts. This may seem a fine point, but in my view it is an entirely unnecessary complication that can interact negatively with clinical vulnerabilities. Words like “concentrate on” or “focus on the breath” are evocative of special effort (and thus opportunities for failure), and are best avoided: I find that clients are all too ready to turn mindfulness practice into a strenuous and exhausting activity. Even talk about “placing attention,” which is useful in didactic explanation, is too abstract and conceptual for use at the point of instruction, and is best avoided when leading practice. Another unnecessary piece of imagery is “let go of the thought” – why introduce this idea of physicality? In fact one need not engage in the operation of letting go of anything – one need only feel the breath. Instead of all these possibilities, I simply and consistently say “feel the breath”.


Rinpoche, T. U., Kunsang, E. P., & Schmidt, M. B. (1994). As It Is, Volume 2. Rangjung Yeshe Publications. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=23OQ9ozpYgsC&pgis=1