Meditation is not psychotherapy but it is a great coping resource

It is unfortunate that the practice of meditation is generally misunderstood and often scorned. I knew someone who on hearing the mention of the word meditation put his hands together in mocking supplication and intoned ommmm with a supercilious grin on his face.

Meditation is a behavioural technique to slow down the level of nervous system arousal and excitation in the body and induce a relaxed physiological state, no more or less. The fact that meditation is sometimes frowned upon because of perceived theological or spiritual associations can result in the loss of a remarkably powerful and easy to use, cost free coping resource tool.

In physiological terms meditation is a wakeful hypo-metabolic (slower than normal metabolism) physiological state.  This simply means that meditative practice results in a state of somatic relaxation which is accompanied by mental alertness. Meditation produces unique changes to physiology and metabolism. Oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide elimination, heart rate/cardiac output, respiration and blood pressure decrease. Skin resistance (using mild electric current) increases; an indicator of muscle relaxation and arterial lactate associated with symptoms of anxiety decreases. This is the physiology.

In addition one of the other significant effects of meditation practice is the growth in the stability of the nervous system; meditation practice over time can help us to be less emotionally reactive, more free to respond in a calm considered manner and more emotionally resilient.

Please note meditation is not psychotherapy and should not be confused with or substituted for it. Meditation is a potential coping resource that could be used as a tool in our daily living. Sometimes the practice of meditation can be challenging because we are carrying emotional pain and unresolved psychological issues that do not allow us easily to surrender to an open psychological state such as meditation.

Being resilient in this world helps a great deal; the more ingrained it is the better; a brief story to illustrate this point.

There was a young woman who was a magnificent weaver of linen. After she had woven a sheet of linen she dyed it yellow. She left it to dry in the blazing sun. Pleased with her work she returned the next morning to find that the sheet of linen had lost most of its brilliant yellow beauty in the intense light and heat of the sun. Unperturbed, with a calm smile she dipped the linen into the yellow dye once again and hung it outside to dry. The unrelenting sun again diminished its yellow magnificence. Still unperplexed and undeterred the young girl dyed her linen cloth each day until eventually the depth and penetration of the yellow dye was so profound, so ingrained that the fiercest light of the sun could not fade its brilliant yellow hue. (1)

At a more psychological and poetic level meditation practiced regularly helps to cultivate a greater friendliness towards the self. What does this mean?

I think that it is about internal dialogue, voices, noise, detachment, perspective and inner streams. How many different voices do we have in our heads? Why sometimes is the level of noise so high in our minds? It seems that there is always someone/something telling stories in our heads. Some shout as they tell, some whisper and some speak so softly you can hardly ever hear them.

The thing about stories is that they can be fun even entertaining but they remain stories. This to my mind is true in equal measure if the stories are experienced as negative or positive.

To quote psychotherapist John Welwood; (2) “it is important to help people distinguish between actual feelings and the stories they tell themselves about their feelings. A story is a mental fabrication. We usually don’t realise these stories as the inventions they are”.

This does not mean or imply that we have not had the actual experiences that punctuate our lives or that these experiences are a fabrication or fiction.

If we could penetrate beneath the layers of the stories what would we be left with? We would have the experience of our feelings; sadness, anger, fear. Instead of just being with these feelings, which sometimes feels impossible and undesirable to do, we often feel compelled to explain why the feelings are there in a judgmental unfriendly to self-kind of way. I feel this way because I am no good, a failure, I don’t deserve to succeed, I am weak, unlovable. The self-torment we are capable of inflicting on ourselves knows no bounds. Equally I think we are inclined to tell stories when we experience more positive feelings.

Perhaps just being with the sore feelings without resorting to stories is humility and perhaps just being with the good feelings without telling stories is gratitude….I’m not sure.

The practice of meditation over time reveals that in addition to the voices, the noise, the praises and reproaches there is something more consistent, something that is always there but not always felt.

In Eastern religious traditions it is referred to as big mind, others call it the self. I think it is usefully described as the stream that runs within us. If you are fortunate enough to experience it you will see that it is just a narrow flowing brook. The water is crystal clear and sweet to drink. It quietly babbles in the background. Sometimes the voices, noises, praises, reproaches and anxieties are so loud that the stream is forgotten. If you want to hear the stream and feel its unconditionally loving, tranquil, nurturing, sustaining and inspiring effects the only way is through calm, silent stillness.

Of the many things that the stream yields; acceptance, friendliness to oneself; perspective and connectedness are particularly important.

What may feel overwhelming, gigantic and unmanageable becomes an ordinary task that needs to be dealt with one step at a time with perseverance, courage and discipline; this is perspective.

The feeling of being alone, abandoned and desolate in a relentlessly demanding world is replaced with a sense of joining, belonging and groundedness in the experience of the self; this is connectedness.

Connecting with the stream affords us the opportunity to experience what is real, if that concept is not acceptable to you then perhaps connecting to the stream allows us more easily to discern amongst the noises, which of them are more or less important in the bigger picture of our lives.

Although some might have expected it I have not used the word spiritual when speaking of meditation for two reasons.

First I regard meditation as a behavioural coping resource that anybody can learn and apply.

Secondly issues of spirituality, elaboration of meanings, ultimate realities and eschatology are personal and intimate matters that I leave in the care of those who choose their own faith and affiliations.

Learning to meditate is like playing the guitar. At first it will feel clumsy and difficult, almost impossible to reach the chords with your fingers. Your finger ends will ache. But with a daily commitment to practice the chords, learn new ones every day, play even though it sounds ghastly, fairly soon fingers will be less sore, the playing will sound like music, almost pleasant, your fingers will stretch and contort to construct the chords….you will be a guitar player, perhaps not Jimi but there is only one Jimi.

There are many meditations with their own techniques. Choose one that feels workable for you. Do it every day.

  1. Author Unknown
  2. Wellwood, J. (1987) Depression as a loss of heart, in, Levin, D. [Ed.]  Pathologies of the Modern Self: Social and Cultural Dimensions of Psychiatric Illness. New York: New York University Press.