Meditation and mindfulness are buzzwords nowadays. Part of me believes this is wonderful because anything that becomes popular naturally becomes more accessible. It means that more people know about meditation and there is no longer a taboo or whimsical stigma around it. It also means that researchers are more likely to study meditation and its benefits, which can lead to a wider implementation of mindfulness and meditation for various populations.
Another part of me, however, worries that because of its popularity, people might dismiss meditation – “Oh yeah, I know meditation. Where you sit with your eyes closed. Yeah, it’s boring/uncomfortable/weird. Doesn’t work for me.” This is my big fear, that people will dismiss it as unimportant, obsolete, or even assume they already know all there is to know about meditation and therefore there is no reason to explore further.
This scares me because, as a therapist, I see meditation as an integral part of healing the mind. And when people discount something that is so important for their health, it worries me. It also gives me the challenge of finding ways to transmit the importance of meditation without sounding preachy or demanding. One way that I do this is that we might use meditation as a tool for insight or transformation in our sessions. My hope is that if you feel a difference, you will be more motivated to use this tool outside of session in your daily life.
Back to my thoughts about why meditation is so important. As I mentioned, I see meditation as an integral part of healing the mind. There are two main reasons for this. One is that the very act of practicing meditation has beneficial effects on our attention, mood, pain tolerance, and ability to concentrate. There are certain things we can do in life (i.e. exercise, sleeping enough, eating good food) that have positive mental and physiological impacts. I am arguing that practicing meditation is one of them.
For example, after just 8 weeks of meditation, participants in this study showed reduced anxiety and reduced neural reactivity to negative stimuli when practicing breath-focused attention. This study looked at injured athletes and found increased pain tolerance and improved mood as a result of practicing meditation. This one looked at those with ADHD and found improvements in attention and mood. The topic of mindfulness has also exploded in research– one study was cited in 1966 and in 2020 there were 2,808 studies – to me this shows that there’s a growing interest in defining the changes that occur with the practice of mindfulness.
Few would argue if I said that physical activity has beneficial effects on our body and mental state – it’s just a fact and it makes sense to most people even without knowing all the science. With meditation, we are practicing skills like focus, concentration, acceptance, compassion, and inquiry – don’t those qualities sound like nice things to cultivate for a happier life? Doesn’t it make sense that meditation, even if it’s difficult or unpleasant (similar to a grueling workout!), would leave us with more skillfulness and less reactivity?
The second reason that I see meditation as an integral part of healing the mind, is that it gives us the chance to slow down and understand more subtly how we create our own reality. I do not mean to say that the external world isn’t real – that is foolish to say – but rather, what are we adding to the experience? What are the appraisals, dialogues, fears, anticipatory anxieties or hopes that are also coloring our experience?
When we close our eyes, sit still, choose to be quiet and not follow every urge, impulse, and whim, something special happens. We open up to an inner world. Sometimes this world is scary and overwhelming, other times it is peaceful and profound. Either way, we are giving ourselves the space to recognize how much we are carrying with us each day. Just by virtue of being a conscious human, we have a whole world inside us.
To illustrate what I mean by “create our own reality,” read the following scenario: There is a bumper-to-bumper traffic and many cars, with many people, are impacted by the same event. However, it’s highly probably that each person will be experiencing the same event quite differently. Someone might get annoyed at being delayed, another might be in anguish at the thought of being late for something important, another might relish the fact that they have more time to listen to their favorite podcast. Some might be having all 3 experiences at once! What makes the difference in these perspectives? It is the inner appraisal, the inner dialogue, the fears, anxieties, and hopes.
In this way, we can see that outer events are not the sole cause of our inner experience. We have an inner world adding rich meaning to it as well. If we don’t see that this inner part is flexible, changeable, and optimizable, we might feel totally stuck and at the whim of reacting to our surroundings in our habitual, automatic ways. When we get stuck in habitual negative ways of thinking, this can feel like anxiety and depression. Learning that we can change how we respond to life is why I think meditation is so powerful for healing the mind.
Here I did not talk about how to meditate. There are many ways, strategies, and types of meditation. You might already have an idea of where to start. But if you don’t, I would just suggest being quiet, with your eyes closed, and start with a few minutes. In the morning or at night are good times. You can just pay attention to your breath, watch your thoughts, or scan your attention across your body. Anytime your mind wanders, bring it back to what you chose to focus on. This helps increase your focus and concentration and aids in emotion regulation.
If you experience a part of you pulling your attention away to something else repeatedly, this can become an interesting focus for meditation. You can ask that part of you why it is pulling your attention so strongly, and what it wants you to know. Continue with your eyes closed, being quiet, still, and maybe you will find out something very important about your inner world.
I would also deeply encourage everyone to practice compassion when you meditate. I used to sit with my own difficult emotions to the point where I felt I could see them underneath a microscope with immense granularity, and I just practiced staying with the pain which was very difficult. It was not until much later I realized that I could also introduce compassion in response to pain, and that made the exercise more powerful, warm, and I left the meditation feeling lighter and more at ease.
There is so much information out there about meditation. I couldn’t even advise anyone where to start. And please throw out any rigid idea about what meditation actually is – it’s effective if it works for you. It’s kind of like exercise – you could get a gym membership, take a yoga class, garden, create a walking route around your neighborhood, do ten pushups first thing in the morning, buy a pair of roller blades… no one could say that one way is the “perfect way” for you. Only you can find that, and you will find it as a result of experimentation. For meditation, start with a few quiet moments in your morning or evening, light a candle, find a group online, explore an App, and keep seeking out what feels good to you to practice going forward.
I also want to note that meditation in itself is not the cure-all we have all been waiting for. I just think it becomes an invaluable tool for understanding our own mind, making friends with stillness, allowing for confusing urges and impulses to pass, and laying a foundation to do some deeper and slower work on what can seem like untangling a habitual downpour of emotional experience. Whatever helps you slow down, go inward, and develop compassion, by all means, please use that technique. For me, I use meditation.
- Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
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