Part 1: Will Therapy Help Me be More Mindful Without Having to Meditate?
I have often heard statements from clients like, “I’ve already tried meditation and it doesn’t work for me” or, “meditating makes me more anxious,” or even “I can’t meditate no matter how hard I try!” Although meditation is an important part of life for many people, as these statements show, it is certainly not for everybody. To make matters worse, meditation seems to be all the rage right now and the word mindfulness is thrown about liberally in our society. Mindfulness is often used interchangeably with meditation. Perhaps you’ve seen the many apps, websites, blogs, and advertisements dedicated to the practice of meditation and/or mindfulness. And maybe you’ve even seen stories about all the benefits of meditation. As you will read in the first part of this article, mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing exactly.
As a psychologist, I aim to help people develop practices of mindfulness without needing to meditate if they do not wish to. In the next part of this article, I give some tips below on how mindfulness rather than formal meditation can be used during everyday activities. However, meditation is an important part of my life and I enjoy supporting people as they develop their own meditation practice. I close this article with a brief discussion of some of the reasons I practice both mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness vs. Meditation
Meditation has made its way into the realm of psychotherapy and it has been heralded as one of the keys to mental health. However, upon a closer look, most psychologists rely on mindfulness, rather than a formal meditation practice when designing research studies and working with clients. But what is mindfulness and how does it relate to meditation?
Mindfulness and meditation are different yet related forms of training the mind. They can be the same thing, but it is certainly not necessary that they are. Generally, mindfulness as we refer to it in the West comes from the same roots as Buddhist meditation. That is, mindfulness is part of Buddhism, as is meditation, and much of what we know in the West about mindfulness is derived from the religion. Although there are many different definitions of mindfulness, we can rely on one put forth by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an early proponent in North America of using mindfulness in psychotherapy. He states that mindfulness is a way of being aware of the present, moment-to-moment reality and paying attention non-reactively and open-heartedly. It is obvious from this definition, then, that Buddhism does not hold the exclusive rights to mindfulness, as it is an aspect of being human and, therefore is much older than any religious practice.
Meditation, on the other hand, is traditionally rooted within a spiritual tradition. It can be described as a kind of mental exercise to engage in concentration and focus for the purpose of spiritual realization. Generally, meditation involves a formal seated practice period and may include, for example focusing on the breath, the body, the environment, or a mantra. There are many different types of formal meditations. A quick search of the internet shows many, many different types of meditation associated with all different religious affiliations. However, in our current society, meditation is often done outside of spiritual traditions for the purpose of personal growth, relaxation, and management of emotional response. Mindfulness meditation is practiced within Buddhism and has its origin from this approach. At its most basic level, it involves taking a seat, setting a timer, focusing on the breath, and when the attention wanders, returning it to the breath.
Why Does Mindfulness Improve Psychological Health?: The Decentering Theory
There are thousands and thousands of scientific studies that look at the psychological benefits of mindfulness and meditation and most researchers have found these practices to improve physical health and lower levels of perceived anxiety, depression, and stress,, , . Unfortunately, the story is not that simple because researchers define mindfulness in different ways, from using a simple app for five minutes a day, to engaging in silent retreat practice more extensively. Participants can have no prior experience with mindfulness in some studies, but other studies focus on meditators who have practiced for a long time. Some Buddhist scholars and scientists even say that the effects of mindfulness meditation are not always positive. For some people diving into a meditation practice, like a 10-day silent retreat, can be quite devastating. Indeed, many retreat centers do not allow people with significant mental disorders to participate or require special support for these participants. However, for many practitioners, even the negative effects that might happen during a time of meditation – like anxiety and questioning the self – can be beneficial for spiritual growth. Certainly, patience with experiencing these states and self-compassion is necessary. Engaging in an extensive practice with meditation requires the assistance of a teacher, such as teachers found in meditation communities or through a website like Dharma Seed.
Because of the different definitions of mindfulness and meditation and the different methodologies used in research, we are unsure exactly how and why mindfulness works. However, there has been a lot of research aimed at answering this question. One particularly interesting explanation is focused on the state of decentering. In therapy, this has been called cognitive defusion, or simply “unhooking” from thoughts that are not helpful. It is thought that becoming mindful allows us to view our internal states as though from a third person’s perspective. Rather than seeing depressed thoughts as mine, we can learn to detach from these thoughts and see them as merely occurring, having developed from pattern or habit. Therefore, when a depressed person thinks, “I’m no good”, decentering allows the person to see that they had the thought that “I’m no good.” The thought is not indicative of who that person is and to be believed, but rather is merely a thought. This technique can be very powerful for people, but it usually takes some practice. Exercises in mindfulness can be a way to develop this skill. In therapy, mindfulness supports this decentering aspect of thought construction, as do other techniques.
Meditation is not for everyone and it is not necessary to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can be described as: a way of being aware of the moment-to-moment reality and paying attention non-reactively and open-heartedly. Meditation can be described as a kind of mental exercise to engage in focus for spiritual realization.
In Part 2 of this article, we will explore some of the many exercises that you can do in your daily life to practice mindfulness. I will also share some of my personal experience with mindfulness and meditation. Stay tuned!
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