Meditation and mindfulness in therapy
I can’t imagine therapy separate from meditation. They are intertwined. Many aspects of therapy are guided meditation. Not all therapists will readily agree, probably because in the Western understanding, meditation is often confused with concentration, eg Wikipedia:
“Meditation describes a state of concentrated attention on some object of thought or awareness.”
That’s false or very limited. Meditation is better described as an understanding. There’s you – your consciousness, your awareness, your spirit – and there’s your experiences: your thoughts, emotions, sensations. People in pain turn away from their experiences. But that makes things worse, not better. Meditation is the understanding that when you turn towards your experiences and allow yourself to experience them, and view them with gentle, neutral, accepting awareness, they become separate from you and they float away. And behind them is peace, joy, profound tranquility. This is the fundamental truth of all life healing.
What’s more, when you have some distance from your experiences, you gain the power to choose whether to act on them. For example, when you “feel the fear and do it anyway”, that is part of the spirit of meditation.You feel the fear, but something in you – your soul, your spirit, I’d just call it your conscious awareness – is larger than the experience. You make a conscious choice to act in a different way.
When you live in the here and now, that too is meditation. Our minds provide and endless stream of thoughts of other times and other places. Mostly, we live in fantasy not reality. But that is so universally true – every person is doing it all the time – it’s accepted as normal. But the body is always here and now and so life is always rooted here and now. So the simple act of coming present to the experiences of the moment – your breathing, you feet on the ground – pulls you out of the fantasy world of the mind. Many times, problems and fears come from the past or the future and are tape loops in your mind, not realities of the world in this present moment. And so by coming into the present, they lose their power over you.
This latter understanding, packaged into a system, is what is termed “mindfulness”. It contains aspects of understanding that apply much more widely to other kinds of meditation. These are wrapped together with some specific meditation techniques. It’s a very useful tool and it’s excellent that it is becoming mainstream. (See for example Madeline Bunting’s enthusiastic recent article about it in The Guardian. )
Mindfulness won’t work for everyone, nor will it cure everything. Thoughts aren’t only the little ripples in the mind which you can calm by sitting for half and hour. “Thoughts” include life-wide emotions and behaviour patterns. So when over a period of weeks or even years, you become aware that you are unconsciously living out a behaviour pattern, and slowly gain awareness until the point where you can choose not to act like that any more, that’s absolutely the spirit of meditation. It’s a matter of having a gentleness with yourself and your experiences. When you run away from your experiences, you run forever. When you meet your experiences with a gentle, self-respectful, self-forgiving self awareness, the floodgates of change and transformation open.
From this viewpoint, meditation is not a specific calming technique, thought that is often handy as an adjunct to therapy. Rather, much of all therapy can be seen as assisted meditation. Some therapies indeed, for example focusing, are directly meditation techniques.
From this viewpoint, the difference between meditation and therapy is that you only go to a therapist when you are unhappy. But the Eastern wisdom is to carry on and on with the journey of meditation, allowing not just painful thoughts, but happy one too to float in and out of the mind, on an ultimate voyage of discovery of “Who am I beyond all thoughts and emotions? Who is the one who feels happy?”
The other difference is that meditation is a self-help method. Many of my clients, if they understood and practised meditation in this extended sense, would not need to come to see me.