Meditation? What is it?
For over 5,000 years, meditation has been used in spiritual and healing traditions in many parts of the world. Historically, religious or spiritual aims were central to meditation and traditionally, meditative practices held some type of spiritual growth, enlightenment, personal transformation, or transcendent experience as their ultimate goal. With the integration of these traditions into modern and Western culture, the practice of meditation has increased in popularity among the general public. Over the last 40 years meditation has been used as a secular mind-body therapeutic approach for a variety of psychological and health-related problems. Its positive therapeutic benefits have been described in many ways in the scientific health care literature, including improved coping with distressing emotions, reduction in anxiety, reduction in depression and improved coping with pain. The complex quality of meditation, and the multitude of theoretical perspectives that describe the practice, have contributed to modifications in its use, and the resulting variety of therapeutic effects across meditation research studies.
There is extensive use of meditation techniques within the general public and the health care community. Meditation among the general Western population is broadly defined as a relaxation technique. Within the psychological and health care literature there is no consensus definition of what meditation is…
Meditation is typically defined as an emptying of the mind of thoughts, or concentration of the mind on just one thing, in order to aid mental or spiritual development, contemplation, or relaxation. With such a broad scope of meaning it is easy to place a variety of unique mental and physical practices into the singular category of meditation.
Some Types of Meditation
Meditation has many different techniques to fit with one’s individual needs, and does not necessarily require the difficult task of emptying the mind of thoughts. Meditation has subsets alike to other diverse human activities such as dancing. As an illustration of this diversity, meditation examined within the health research community has among others, included:
Tai Chi : Routine of slow, deliberate bodily movement. Body relaxed with mouth closed. Attention is focused on body and internal energy.
QiGong : Specific slow and stationary movements. Attention is focused on breath and internal energy.
Yoga : Specific, active body postures dependent on school of training. Awareness is focused on specific breathing approaches and at times, mantras.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) : No formal posture required. Eyes closed. Concentration on repeated phrase.
Relaxation Response (RR) : Comfortable position required. Eyes open or closed. Concentration on repeated phrase.
Autogenic Training : No formal posture required. Concentrative meditation communicating with body using repeated phrases (e.g., “my hands are warm and relaxed”).
Clinically Standardized Meditation (CSM) : Comfortable position required. Eyes open and focused on a pleasant object. Concentration on repeated phrase.
Vipassana : Uses seated posture. Focuses on cultivation of awareness, acceptance, nonjudgment, and paying attention to the present moment.
Mindfulness Meditation : Comfortable position required. Attention is on breathing. Cultivation of awareness, acceptance, nonjudgment, and paying attention to the present moment.
Zen Buddhist Meditation : Specific cross-legged sitting position. Eyes half closed. Cultivation of attention to breath or repeated Koan (i.e., mental puzzle)
Over time and within different cultures, these diverse approaches have evolved out of several spiritual and philosophical traditions into techniques that range from reciting mantras (TM and RR) to spinning (Sufi Whirling Sema). Some practices require specific body positions (Zen Buddhist meditation, Tai Chi, and Yoga) while others are not concerned with posture (TM, RR, and CSM). Some practices (Yoga, Tai Chi, and QiGong) include movement, while others (Zen Buddhist Meditation, TM, RR, and CSM) use sitting as their primary practice. Early adaptations of meditation to psychological theory reflect the influence of TM, RR and CSM. Each of these approaches are behavioral relaxation methods in which a stimulus (the mantra) is associated with a sustained state of relaxation.
Meditation practices are categorized according to essential characteristics:
* The primary goal of practice – relaxation, healing, or spiritual.
* The mode of attention – mindful, concentrative, or a shift between
background perception and experience.
* The kind of attentional object used – a word, visualization,
object, or sensation.
* Body position – motionless sitting, stationary poses or type of movement.
Mindfulness is both a mental state and a simultaneous meditative action to achieve that state. It is self-regulation of attention maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased awareness of mental events in the present moment. Mindfulness requires engaging a neutral orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, a perspective that is characterized by openness, interest, receptivity, and acceptance. It is described as a process of regulating attention in order to bring that neutral observation to your here-and-now experience. It emphasizes relating to that experience within an orientation of openness and non-critical acceptance. With consistent practice, mindfulness results in a process of attaining clear perception into the nature of mind and taking on the ability to observe thoughts and feelings as temporary, objective events in the mind, rather than reflections of the self that are determined as true. This process allows the meditation practitioner to distance oneself from self-doubt and negative mental pattern.
Mindfulness in Psychotherapy
Like other complex therapies, meditation involves a combination of specific and vaguely defined features that can be applied on their own, or together with other therapeutic and self-help skills. Whatever form one’s practice may take, meditation is increasingly viewed as a way of responding to one’s life in a manner that is noted by a deepening knowledge about experience derived from being focused in the present moment. Mindfulness is one such form of meditation that emphasizes present-centered awareness and has been widely adopted by health care and psychotherapists. Mindfulness can be effective on its own, or in conjunction with your psychotherapeutic treatment.
Mindfulness adapted for psychotherapy is a type of meditation derived from original Buddhist teachings. Buddhist teachings are dedicated to a pragmatic effort to know the mind, train the mind and liberate the mind. Mindfulness practice is central to these teachings and was developed as a course leading to the end of suffering and personal distress, a goal that is in kinship with the goals of modern psychotherapy. In Buddhist teachings, mindfulness practice involves turning one’s attention to experience in the present moment with acceptance. According to this Buddhist tradition, the present moment is our only encounter, therefore clinging to obsessive thoughts of past, or future inherently leads to suffering and distress. Simply put, mindfulness can lead the practitioner away from the constant worry of an overly active, anxious mind, toward the insight of a stable mind. Despite its Buddhist origins, mindfulness is not a religious activity, rather comes out of a Buddhist viewpoint of the psychology of mind, and as such has been easily adapted into Western psychology. Mindfulness is described by some psychologists as a process of bringing spacious awareness to moment-by-moment experience. In contemporary psychology, mindfulness has been used to increase awareness and create unbiased response to the mental processes that are known to amplify emotional distress and maladaptive behavior.
INSTRUCTION: Mindfulness is a non-judgmental watchfulness of your mind and your experience. Sit down cross legged with eyes fixed, comfortably looking down the end of your nose at a point on the floor. Sit with your spine upright (as much as possible), steadily breathe in and out without force, and engage in watching your experience with an impartial state of mind. Do not make a plan to “not judge” or “not think.” Just sit there and use your observing mind. To set your intention and develop a proper frame of mind, I like the meditation training metaphor of the sky…
Your mind is like the sky, perfect and stainless. Like the blue sky, unstained by the clouds, so is your mind, unstained by thoughts.
There are chapters and chapters of books and books with various explanations of how to meditate. I like Dr. Rapgay’s “Real Meditation in Minutes a Day” as it has a succinct, Western research-style, how to breakdown of meditative components. The instruction above is overly simplistic, but for now it will do the trick.
3 BEGINNING STEPS TO MINDFULNESS and 3 MYTHS
First off, know that your mind is untrained and be patient. All of our minds are untrained. Just as most of us are not adept at training our bodies, we are not adept at training our mind.
Sit comfortably. Eyes open or eyes closed– whatever feels safer. Do not believe that you need a quiet place. This is the myth of meditation #1. You can be free anywhere. Feel free to stand, even, but centering your thinking at your mind is key. In future posts, I will discuss how to recognize that your irritation with noise and meditative distractions is just a version of your mind that you are fighting with. There is a saying in meditation: Let it drop… Fall into it. Settle Naturally. Trust yourself. You are naturally capable of this– it is your true nature: let it drop. Say this to yourself now and again as you sit there.
Take a few slow deep breaths. Bring your mind to your breathing and notice it, but don’t worry about your other thoughts. Your thoughts are fine. You do not need to clear your mind of thinking. This is myth of meditation #2. Certainly, many, many meditation instructors and meditation descriptions require you to “clear your mind.” Or free your attachment from your thinking. Fooeey! Sometimes, I think that’s an unconscious way for teachers to maintain some mysterious power. There is another meditation saying to help out here: Just as your heart beats and your lungs breathe– your mind moves. The organ of the brain (your mind) must think. That is its activity. It cannot be without its activity or its function ceases. We wouldn’t want to stop our heart from beating or our lungs from breathing, right? Let your mind move. However, observe it. Just as your child doesn’t get to run through the streets wild without you watching, neither should your mind. You have the human ability for meta-awareness. Start to watch your thinking as you simultaneously watch your breathing. Where do your thoughts come from? Are you simultaneously able to notice your breath and observe your thinking? If you are, then add in your awareness of the environment, sounds in the room, sensations in your body. Can you sustain an awareness of all three?
Most folks have difficulty with just noticing their breathing and not planning their breakfast. They get fidgety and expect some epiphany to happen. Really… you’re just sitting there. I hate to break the bad news. This is it– meditation is just sitting there. This is frustrating myth #3: You’re not going to levitate to the planet of la-la and bliss. You’re going to sit there and discover how trapped by your own mind, you truly are. It’s not fun (mostly). Ugh. But it does get better– it gets wonderful, even. But like weight training, it only gets better with practice. Then you will begin to feel free. Knowing that you’re just sitting there trapped in your own mind, be aware that this last step is VERY DIFFICULT. Try this for a few seconds at a time and alternate it with the previous step of watching your mind and breathing using meta-awareness. Think about an infant for a moment– just a few weeks old. Their brains are not organized with complex language yet and they experience the world through a very primal, present-centered way of being. They are learning to filter all of their sensations, yet they have no language to organize and label it. Now with this in mind, pick an object, or setting to look at. This is an eyes open meditation. Look at that object and try to see it without language, as a young infant would– no language just looking. Try to extract all of your preconceived ideas from your observation. Do this until your mind starts labeling it with language (which happens pretty quickly). Once language returns, go back to awareness of your breathing and start over.
Do these three steps for a few minutes per day. You don’t need to start with more than a few minutes at a time until your body becomes more familiar with sitting still and and your mind more familiar with being controlled.