By SUZANNE PHILLIPS, PSY.D.
Research has shown mindfulness and meditation-based programs to hold promise for treating a number of psychiatric conditions, including depression,anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Adding to this, a recent study by Harvard researchers soon to appear in Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging will report that participating in an eight-week mindfulness mediation program actually appears to make changes in the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The study validates that reported improvements are not just a result of people spending time relaxing but of actual changes in brain structure.
Since this is too significant to ignore, it raises the question for many as to how to understand mindfulness and meditation in a way that makes a first step possible. If you are confused and a bit hesitant – you are not alone.
Clinicians inviting people to try mindfulness or meditation report that people are often confused with the difference between mindfulness and meditation. Many can’t quite conceptualize techniques that seem so abstract. Some resist because they assume that to try meditation they have to change their beliefs to embrace Buddhism. Some report they are too anxious to sit still much less focus their thinking.
Having heard many of these same questions and doubts, I invite you to consider a simple clarification of mindfulness and meditation and two concrete options that may make first steps possible.
What is Mindfulness?
The basic definition of Concentration meditation is being aware,“ present to” what you are thinking and doing. It involves noticing your emotional and physiological reactions to everyday events. Mindfulness is coming off autopilot. It is awareness without judgment.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is an approach to training the mind, similar to the way that fitness is an approach to training the body. Just as there are many ways to stay fit – there are many ways to meditate.
Concentration Meditation is a well-known form of meditation. Concentration meditation involves focusing the mind on a single point. It often begins with a focus on your breathing. It can involve repeating a single word or manta, staring at a candle flame, listening to a repetitive gong or counting beads. In this form of meditation, you simply refocus your awareness on the chosen object of attention each time you notice your mind wandering. It cultivates the capacity to focus and manage attention.
Mindfulness Meditation is another form of meditative practice.
- As compared to being mindful in your daily life, Mindfulness Meditation is a more formal use of mindfulness techniques. Referred to as “ insight meditation,” it involves observing wandering thoughts as they drift through our mind–not concentrating on a chosen object as in Concentration Meditation.
- The goal of Mindfulness Meditation is to cultivate a stable and nonreactive awareness of one’s internal (thoughts, feelings and sensations) and external (social-environmental) experiences.
- A prime benefit is that mindfulness meditation practice leads to a capacity for suspending habitual patterns of reactivity that trigger negative reactions, thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
- Essentially one becomes able to respond in a more mindful way that allows for self-regulation and healthy changes on physical, emotional and neurophysiological levels.
- A Concrete Example of Mindfulness
- Whether or not you are ready for Mindful Meditation, it is valuable to understand how you might try using mindfulness.
- Negative self-thoughts plague most of us. Triggered by events like negative feedback at work, an argument with your partner, or an overdue bill, you may have thoughts like “ I’m a loser” “Who would love me?” “ It just isn’t fair.” Such thoughts can ruin a day, lower self-esteem or start a downward slide to depression.
- Elisha Goldstein, author of Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion offers an important example of mindfulness.
- Goldstein suggests that a basic example of mindfulness is the awareness of having a negative thought about yourself.
- Such mindfulness provides a space between an upsetting stimulus and a habitual negative reaction.
- If there is an awareness or mindfulness of your negative thought…then you may be able to use self-compassion to apply what Goldstein calls a fact check – Is this thought true? Is it absolutely true 100% of the time? How does this thought make you feel? What would your days, week and months ahead be if you no longer had this thought? Who would you be without this thought?
- The different and wiser choice starts with a small step of mindfulness.
A Concrete Example of Meditation
Or a regular basis people report to me that they can’t stop worrying about the people they love. Since I have often found myself caught in that same trap, I suggest a meditation that is easy to do, concrete and comforting.
It comes from Ride of Your Life, by Ran Zilca. In his quest for inner peace, Ran takes a solo coast-to-coast motorcycle trip. Along the way, one of the experts he interviews is Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity who shares with him the “ Loving Kindness Meditation.” I recommend it.
“Loving Kindness Meditation”
Think of someone you love and focus on these phrases of love and kindness:
“May you be safe, May you be happy, May you be healthy and May you live with ease.”
By repeating and staying focused on these thoughts—you start to have these feelings yourself— A simple mediation is a surprising alternative to worry and stress.