If you’ve been a client of mine, chances are you’ve heard me talk about the benefits of meditation. It’s become a bit of a buzzword these days, but for good reason. Meditation is associated with decreased stress and better overall health. Yet, most clients tell me that it’s too difficult or time consuming. Let’s take a moment to review what it means to meditate.
Recently I heard someone describing the difference between the 2 most popular types of meditation and I think distinguishing between them is helpful. The first is called transcendental meditation, or TM for short. TM involves trying to shift one’s attention away from thoughts, usually by repeating a word or mantra. The idea is to transcend beyond one’s thoughts by focusing attention on the mantra and achieve a level of detached peacefulness.
The other popular type of meditation is called insight meditation, also known as Mindfulness. In contrast to the idea of getting away from one’s thoughts, Mindfulness teaches one to notice thoughts. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting quietly while allowing thoughts and feelings to come up. The practice is in noticing these thoughts without becoming attached to them or judging them.
I often recommend mindfulness practice to clients because I believe it is psychologically beneficial to learn to detach from unhealthy thinking. When I propose the practice of meditation, people often say, “but I can’t turn off my thoughts!” Exactly the point! Mindfulness does not ask that you turn off your thoughts, just that you notice them without judgment.
A teacher of mine compared it to watching clouds float across the sky. A cloud goes by, “I really need to clean the bathroom today” and you say to yourself, “OK, I’m thinking about cleaning the bathroom” and let the cloud float on by. This can take time. The first time you notice the bathroom cleaning cloud, your thoughts might go something like this: “Oh, I can’t believe I let it get so dirty! I wonder how long it will take me to clean it? Should I use the chemical cleaners or the non-toxic? I wonder what the long-term effects of chemical cleaners are? Probably cancer, I don’t want to get cancer!” and so on. You can see why it is worth learning to observe the initial thought without judgment, then moving on.
The second most common response I hear when recommending meditation is “but I don’t have time.” The practice of mindfulness really does not require much time. Practicing for as little as three minutes can be helpful. In just three minutes, you might have 50 different thoughts, which gives you much to work with. And of course the more you practice, the more automatic the process will become.
I should note that Mindfulness also means simply placing your focused awareness on whatever you might be doing. Washing the dishes can be a mindful practice if you are really paying attention to the warm water, the act of scrubbing that pan. The idea is to bring intention into whatever you happen to be doing.
The other type of meditation I often recommend is progressive relaxation. This involves placing attention on your breath and focusing on relaxing each part of your body progressively, generally from feet to head. I usually find clients feel quite relaxed after leading them through a progressive relaxation. Just the practice of mindfully placing your attentive breath on your body leads to a physiological calming.
Whatever type of meditation you choose, the benefits of relaxing your body and mind are worth the effort. If you are looking for more guidance, I can make book or podcast suggestions, or even instruct you myself.