Many therapists advocate the practice of meditation for their clients. The benefits of meditation have been well documented in articles and books. Meditation can assist an individual in controlling their breath, which helps to reduce anxiety by lowering heart rate and blood pressure. There are also chemical reactions in the brain observed in fMRIs which activate parts of the brain associated with relaxation. There has even been some documentation on lasting changes in the brains of those who meditate regularly.
Another way meditation is helpful is through distancing the individual from their thinking. Most therapists, at the very least, will focus to some extent on challenging the clients’ distortions in thinking. Meditation helps provide the distance that assists in this questioning and challenging of thought. In many circumstances people allow their thinking to control them. Their anxiety or depressive thinking dictates their thinking and mood. The person who meditates is better able to step back psychologically and not be as driven by their automatic thinking. They have a distance between their thoughts and thereby are able to be an observer of their thoughts, rather than at their mercy.
Although I have always been an advocate of meditation, I have only practiced sitting meditation for periods sporadically. Recently a friend on Facebook started a group for the month of May where sitting mediation is the practice. I have sat in meditation most days (admittedly I had a tough time making time or forgot a couple of the days of the practice). But even with sitting most days (6 of 7 weekly) I have noticed a substantial change in my reactions to stress. This in turn has impacted my mood, resulting in more calm.
I generally consider myself a very happy person. But, as those who know me are aware, I am passionate about some things, and react, at least initially, to stimuli. I might have a small but noticeable reaction of anger or disappointment to a stimulus. Since sitting in meditation I seem less reactive. I am more able to be an observer to situations that I am involved in. Situations that would normally lead to a reaction I am more distanced from, and I thereby handle them better.
The meditation we are doing is a Metta meditation. It focuses on loving-kindness. The first week or so of the practice we focused on loving kindness for ourselves. I believe I said in a previous post, but it bears repeating: I believe this practice has an abundance of benefit for anyone. Most people I see in therapy are very hard on themselves, and this practice creates a more forgiving and loving atmosphere for them.
I did follow the practice completely as laid out. At first I skimmed some of the directions (I am a guy) and admittedly missed some of the leaders suggestions initially. I had read and practiced Loving-kindness meditation in the past, and incorporated some of my previous learning. But when reading later suggestions from the leader, I went back and reread what I had missed. I say this now because if you have also been following her tutelage, my process may vary.
The next stage I engaged in, following loving kindness for myself, was envisioning loving beings around you while you meditate. These loving beings can be people you know who are loving, or beings you imagine to be loving. I would like to discuss my experience with this portion of the practice. The first time I did it, I went weeding through the people I know to surround myself with loving people. This turned out to be a little more difficult than I expected. As I went through my friends, I would first put them in the circle, envisioning them entering a sort of empty space with me, and with them we made a circle. Then for some I would remember times they weren’t very loving or kind, and eliminate them from the circle. I even toyed with the idea of just using beings, but as I have trouble believing in that type of thing, I kept going through people I know. Eventually I was able to get myself a circle of people I perceive as loving. Many were friends; some were spiritual leaders (the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn). Some were people I don’t know well but imagine are loving (the group leader, a few others that I have read submissions from).
I also found this practice to be very beneficial, and to affect the way I was to strangers. As many others, I do not walk around exuding love. I imagine there aren’t many who envisioned me in their circle of loving friends, and that is understandable. I have a shell that is meant to protect me from being taken advantage of or otherwise hurt. This shell is often unnecessary, but the habit of keeping it up is well ingrained. This practice of surrounding myself with loving individuals and creating a bubble of love helped to lessen the unnecessary use of a shell and made me more personable to strangers, when I had usually been indifferent.
Another part of the meditation I’d like to discuss is the “Benefactor”. When I read this I thought how easy it would be. So many people have helped me through my life, both professionally and personally. But when I brought my benefactors in, I realized I held some small negative feeling for some. There was an old director of a program, who although was quite a model, we had a falling out and never repaired the relationship. He has been deceased some time, but feelings I thought were gone surfaced. This repeated for at least a few of my benefactors. As such, I found I needed a hybrid of the benefactor and difficult person practice. I move from recognizing the benefactor to bringing all living beings into the meditation. First, I start bringing in anyone I can remember as they have likely impacted my life, and to this degree, are benefactors. Second, even those I find difficult somehow affect me, so I bring them in. All the while I am focusing on loving-kindness for all living things, expanding it in concordance with those I have invited into the practice.
It is important to remember that it is a practice. My mind wanders when I meditate, and I have to bring it back to the breath, and recently to the thoughts of loving kindness. I am not an expert practitioner. No one really is. I believe everyone’s mind wanders. The goal is to become aware of it and come back to the practice. I write this so those who are new to it don’t feel they aren’t doing it correctly and quit.
In conclusion I cannot say enough about the benefits of meditation. I have become a meditation evangelist with my clients, discussing the benefits and when appropriate my experience with the practice. Metta practice and meditation in general, can be of the utmost benefit to individual mental health, and a feeling of serenity.