Sophrology and mindfulness - similar but different

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We in the UK are very aware of mindfulness.  Coming from Buddhist meditation and more recently the writing of Thich Nhat Han, the modern mindfulness movement in the States (the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn) has been very successful in establishing a scientific evidence base for its 8-week programmes and enabling mindfulness to be rolled out across the UK.  It is everywhere you care to look: workplaces, schools, hospitals.  But in France, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland they have Sophrology.  In fact Sophrology predates Kabat-Zinn with its use of mindful awareness in the work.  But in Sophrology it is part of a wider package: Sophrology blends mindfulness with dynamic movement; it works through the body to heal the mind; it always accentuates the positive; and it can be goal-oriented, enabling you to function better in a particular situation.  And often it is more accessible to busy, tired people!  But because mindfulness is well known in the UK, Sophrologists here will often start by using it as a point of reference when explaining Sophrology: ‘it’s like mindfulness, but brings in all sorts of other things too...’  Indeed, like mindfulness, Sophrology practice deepens your capacity to connect with your body and your moment-by-moment experience, but we don’t leave you there contemplating how bad things feel – which can be a downside to mindfulness.  We acknowledge what is present, what is real, but we seek always to emphasize the positive in each client.  You do not have to sit for prolonged periods in meditation, either, with Sophrology – though of course you can if you wish.  Instead the aspect of mindful awareness is woven into a dance of physical and mental movement and stillness, and its benefits seep gently through the holes in the net.

So there are many exercises in Sophrology which connect us with our bodies, as our body is the gateway into the present moment, and the present moment is the gateway to peace.  You might want to take a brief moment right now, reading this, just to cast your attention through your body from head to toe.  Just notice it from the inside: your head and face; your neck, shoulders, arms and hands; your chest and upper back; your abdomen; your lower body from hips down to feet; and then finally your whole body again.  That’s what we call a body scan.  What’s happening in my body?  How do I actually feel?  For the vast majority of our lives we do not connect to our bodies, unless they have become places of pain.  Walking heads, most of us are.  It is common in Sophrology sessions for people to say afterwards that they had no idea they were carrying so much tension in their neck, their shoulders, their hips.  We might, too, notice the places where there is pain, but also all the other places where there is none.  So we move, gently but powerfully, and then afterwards sit or stand for a brief moment just being with all the sensations within caused by that movement.  The pause between exercises is just as important as the exercise itself: it enables integration within your whole being, it embeds the exercise within you. 

Some exercises work with the five senses; the channels of our experience of this world, of our aliveness.  We sit noticing, really noticing, what it is to see, to hear, to smell, to touch, to taste.  Again, so much that many of us take for granted.  I was struck by a recent Radio 4 interview with a man experiencing anosmia (absence of smell), and how deeply distressing and affecting it had been for him.  So we tune in and we listen without judgement to our experience, both outer and inner.  It brings us back into the world with a somehow calmer, steadier, deeper feeling of connection.  Walking heads are by definition disconnected from most of their physical experience.  Sophrology gently builds a sense of wholeness again, puts the fragments gently back together.  

As we progress through the levels of Sophrology we begin to encounter the future and the past, as well as the present.  We take this mindful awareness, this neutral gaze, and turn it on aspects of our experience, taking what they can teach us about our capacity to cope, or to heal, and bringing it forwards.  Sophrology as alchemist of our experience; taking the base metals of our lives and transmuting them into the gold of awareness and acceptance.

At the heart of this process lies something quite hard to put in words.  Then I find it helpful to remember that the opposite of rational need not always be irrational, but can also be transrational, or beyond that which the rational mind can process.  This is the thing that Zen brings to the Sophrology table, this intuitive sense of a different kind of knowing that lies beyond the cognitive.  Somehow the simple, repeated actions and pauses, the visualisations, the meditations, create a space in which wisdom and healing begin to peep through.  As if they were always there, just hidden.  Jung said towards the end of his life that he wasn’t aware of a single one of his clients whose problems could not have been solved by contact with what he called “the Numinous” – this spacious, infinitely safe place of pure awareness within us all.

For, as the poet David Whyte says: “What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence.” (‘The Winter of Listening’, The House of Belonging).

But more of this another time.

For now, wishing you peace.