Mentalization: Practicing Mindfulness and Vipassana in the Family

Masazumi Okano


The concept of mentalization originates in psychoanalysis, and, since the early 1990s, the Hungarian-born psychologist Peter Fonagy and his colleagues have revitalized it, making it relevant and applicable for the everyday lives of families. Mentalization can be defined in various ways. According to one definition, mentalization is the ability to focus on the mental processes of self and others, especially as a way of understanding behavior (Bateman & Fonagy 2016). Emotions, needs, goals, reasons and thought are mental processes that influence behavior. The three most important reasons for having the capacity for mentalization are as follows (Allen et al. 2003).

1. Through mentalization, you get to know your own emotions, thoughts, and assumptions, and you learn to understand that they underlie your behavior. It gives a sense of control over your actions, which, again, leads to a greater self-awareness and sense of identity.

2. Mentalization is the foundations for meaningful, lasting relationships. By mentalizing you see the other person’s perspective, while at the same time you are able to be true to yourself in your relationships with others. This is the cornerstone of healthy relationships.

3. Mentalization is the key to self-regulation and emotion regulation.

Mentalization failure

The child is taught to mentalize through interactions with his/her parents. Mentalization is acquired usually in such unsystematic ways and if the parent-child interactions are not adequate especially in the first three years there will be risks of the child not developing good mentalizing skills. Moreover, mentalization is a dynamic capacity which is sensitive to stress and intense feelings. It is especially hard to continue mentalizing in relation to those people one has the strongest feelings for—typically one’s children or one’s partner.

When intense emotions lead to shifts in the brain, which switch off the capacity for mentalization, ‘mentalization failure’ occurs (Hagelquist and Rasmussen, 2021). When this happens, even an adult loses focus on his/her own and the other person’s mental processes.

Everyone experiences mentalization failure—and usually many, both big and small, every day. The more you are aware of the risk of mentalization failure, the better you are able to understand yourself and your triggers (that is, situations that remind you of other, similar negative situations and which activate intense emotions such as anxiety, anger, or stress).

The more you are aware of the risk of mentalization failure, the better you are able to understand your child and its own triggers. When your child experiences a mentalization failure, the most important thing to do is to remain calm and mentalizing yourself. When you are unable to mentalize yourself, you cannot help others mentalize (Hagelquist and Rasmussen, 2021).

Not knowing and open mind

Mentalizing parents know that their child’s mind can be difficult to comprehend from the outside, so they reflect on the possible reason for their child’s behavior and come up with several possibilities. Mentalization is about being open and curious about your child’s behavior. Rather than trying to control the behavior, one must attempt to find meaning in it. One way of aiding mentalization—and stopping the need to act—is by adopting an open mind. Essentially, this means trying to maintain an open mind about your own and your child’s mental states. The open-mind approach is based on the following traits: openness, balance, empathy, curiosity, and patience (Hagelquist and Rasmussen, 2021).

Open mind and balancing one’s focus

The open mind approach arises from knowledge that you actually do not know what is going on in other people’s minds, and consequently you must actively try to keep your own mind open to other possibilities instead of rigidly fixing on a certain way of thinking. In this respect, balance is central, because it is important to be able to find a balance between your own mind and that is happening in the other person’s mind. Some parents are too focused on their child’s mind, while others are too occupied with their own minds.

Empathy, curiosity and patience

Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. It is crucial for maintaining healthy, mutual interactions. Curiosity is important with regard to understanding the reason behind a certain behavior. Patience is the ability to accept that children’s development moves slowly, and they do not always develop in the directions one hopes for—and despite that, one persists and continues to invest time and patience in the process.

Mindfulness and vipassana aiding mentalization

Mindfulness meditation and Vipassana meditation can be useful in enhancing mentalization. Normally these meditations are practiced in order to be aware of one’s own mental and physical processes but we could purposefully apply them to enhance mentalization. This could contribute not only to enhancing children’s inter-relational skills but also the skills of those who are engaged in various care-giving activities. I am aware that these meditations are already practiced for the purposes similar to what I just mentioned but it may be useful to apply the ideas of mentalization in order to open up new dimensions to mindfulness and vipassana.


Elaine Yuen: In Tibetan Buddhism we talk about the space between. We speak of the problem of the basic duality based on feeling separate from others. Many Tibetan practices developed at Naropa University around psychology involved working with that space. Specifically, Maitri Space Awareness teaches how we are joined in this space from perspective of the five buddha families which deals with personality types. In this way, a different space will have different energetic qualities. This influences our meditation training in first attending to the breath, settling, etc. and then acknowledging the out breath, which Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged us to attend to as this out breathe goes out into space. Once one is settling into their sitting, they then begin to focus some 75% of attention on the outbreath. I have also been teaching the practice of Tonglen this way. Tonglen means “sending and receiving” and is a way to develop bodhi-citta by thinking of someone and extending loving-kindness out to them and then you take in or open yourself up you any difficulty. This helps to break down the duality that we perceive exists with others.

Jinji Willingham: As Rev. Okano mentioned that Mentalization failure happens most often in family relations, I find with the family there is less separation so it feels more intense. Studying at Upaya Zen Center with Roshi Joan Halifax, I felt that the GRACE model offered an economical and easily practicable framework.

1. Gathering attention (Attentional Domain: focus)

2. Recalling intention (Affective/Cognitive Domain: motivation)

3. Attuning to self/other (Affective Domain: resonance)

4. Considering (Cognitive Domain: Insight/discernment)

5. Engaging (Somatic Domain: ethics, enacting, ending)

For me A = attunement was the term that changed the way that psychotherapy is done in the U.S. We cannot hold space, if we cannot regulate ourselves. Attunement is more than paying attention, it is tracking micro systemic nuances, body tone, facial expressions. To do this, we need to slow down and stay in play. Self-attunement is what Halifax calls it. Staying with the family is critical to track and sustain our service in the sea of GRACE. The reason why I do this work is so that I learn more and more about the nuance of relationship.

Gustav Ericsson: I wish that Mentalization would be taught in schools and to parents. Recently, I was working on our suicide helpline and speaking with a single mother who called in under a lot of pressure and stress. She had cracked and beaten her children and was unsure that she could go on living. In this way, her failure of mentalization or failure as a parent felt very shameful. So what more can we understand about failure? I also recently read an article that claimed that mindfulness practice had increased selfishness. I find curiosity is connected to honesty, so how can we make sure that curiosity is honest?

Dr. Prawate: I appreciated very much how everyone is bringing Buddhist contexts into relationship work. I have seen how parents here in Thailand may use dharma in the wrong way as a way to judge their children, which can eventually injure the child’s curiosity. For myself, I find that in Buddhist teaching the past is included in many concepts such as the khandas or skhandas which have been conditioned and formed by the past. These teachings seem very intellectual, but when we become affected by them in the present, we get very emotional. I find that someone who has been traumatized in the past, when they get triggered in the present, it is like a different self that has been banished from consciousness re-appears. This is not easy to heal, but having someone who really cares and listens will have the most success. Usually parents who abuse children were abused themselves, and they feel unable to control themselves. I think these mentalizing skills help such people look at their minds without making judgements. They will be able to see their good intentions despite being unable to control themselves and in turn, coming to accept the inability to have control is an important step towards self-regulation and healing.


Janne Oestergaard Hagelquist and Heino Rasmussen, ‘Mentalization in the

     Family: A Guide for Professionals and Parents,’ 2021, NY, NY,


A. Bateman and P. Fonagy, ‘Mentalization-Based Treatment for Personality

     Disorders: A Practical Guide,’ 2016, U.K., Oxford University Press.

J. Allen, E. Bleiberg, and G. Hslam-Hopwooe, ‘Mentalizing as a compass

     for treatment,’ 2003, Bulletin of Menninger Clinic, 67.

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