Q&A with Martin Wells, author of Sitting in Stillness

1. What is SITTING IN THE STILLNESS about and why did you write it?

The book is about freedom. Freedom from the personal story. It is a collection of stories from my psychotherapy consulting room and from mindfulness courses which show our potential for liberation.

Each story invites the reader to go beyond individual personal accounts to the universal – beyond the agitations of the mind to an infinite stillness of being.

The conversations in the book speak to the essence of mindfulness and psychotherapy and to the every day living wisdom of non-duality.

It would me more accurate to say the book wrote me. It started as one story which was going to be an article for a journal. This idea sowed a seed and the stories came flooding in my conversations with patients, supervisees, course members and in groups.

2. How do you incorporate stillness and mindfulness into psychotherapy. For example, how do you introduce the concept to clients and what exercises do you give them?

Several years ago a Chinese Buddhist nun led a meditation group on an inpatient psychiatric unit. I asked her how she would describe what she did and she said ‘I sit in my stillness and invite people into theirs.’ This summed up beautifully for me the task of the psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher. An example from the book was when one of my supervisees in the middle of a major crisis told me that what had made a difference was that she did not see fear in my eyes.

I tend not to give exercises but I would remind clients that the essence of their being is the uncondtitioned mind before any story ….fundamentally still and free. There is a paradox when it comes to practice because we don’t need to practise what we already are. If there is a practice it’s more like what Christians call negation and Hindus Neti Neti. More to do with realising what we’re not (e.g thought or story) revealing what we are. Like the sculptor who was asked how he sculpted the horse and said: ‘I just took away the bits that weren’t horse!’.

3. Can you give any examples of how stillness and mindfulness have helped your clients?

The book is written very much from this perspective and each chapter is an example that I hope speaks to all of us in some way. 

The following are some quotes from some of the contributors to the book:

Alice:’ I feel that I have stripped away layers of stories and myths that I have collected over the years, of who I should be and finally recognised who I am’

’Sarah:  Letting go of the fight, I felt free. Freed from conflict, fear and a need to defend myself.’

J: Looking back I think I first wanted to make the ‘now’ different and a bit easier; then I changed to making it more comfortable, later to making it happy and then to not making it anything other than what it is.’

4. What advice would you give to therapists who attempt to integrate mindfulness into their work with clients, but clients seem resistant or are so anxious or overwhelmed that they can not quiet their minds?

If there’s resistance then it needs to be listened to and fully accepted. Resistance can sometimes dissolve when truly heard and befriended by the client and the therapist. 

When people feel very anxious or overwhelmed it’s wise to go to the body. A well grounded body acts like those snow globes: set them down and still and the flakes naturally settle. There’s no doing involved simply being. Action involved in trying to engage the mind simply adds energy to the agitated mind, like further shaking of the snow globe….let gravity act naturally on the body/mind and bring you back to a fundamental stillness.

5. How did you get interested in mindfulness and therapy?

I was running a therapeutic community in central London and we had regular supervision from a child psychotherapist. His approach and wisdom led me to think ‘I want to be doing what you’re doing’. I already had an interest in Eastern philosophy and meditation and a few years later met my first meditation teachers, who taught a combination of meditation and psychotherapy.

6. What challenges in your life has mindfulness or stillness helped you overcome?

I wouldn’t say so much ‘overcome’ but experiencing a fundamental stillness through mindfulness has enabled me to be with any challenge that life brings. As in the Rumi poem The Guest House, I learnt to welcome all of life’s guests whatever they bring. ‘even if they are a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.

7. Any examples of serendipity or synchronicity throughout your journey?

 Many. I see it often. The clearest was when some colleagues and I were matching patients to trainees. Over 10 years we matched over a 100. Time and time again there were amazing coincidences in their histories that we didn’t know about until the work started. There is chapter in the book devoted to this theme. The right patient was being matched time and time again with the right therapist by a power greater than us. It led me to this conclusion at the end of the chapter.

‘Instead of seeing life as a collection of random events and chance meetings with others we could instead see these as manifestations of a unified whole’.  

8. Anything else?

Part 2 of ‘Sitting in the Stillness’ has examples of therapy with couples, families and groups.  The founder of group analysis, S.F. Foulkes, once said there is no such thing as an individual. Relating to others gives us the potential realisation of this connectedness or ‘interbeing’ as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it and may remind us of a deep belonging.