Meditation has gone mainstream in recent decades. While it was once confined mainly to mystics and seekers, it is now fairly commonplace in Western life.
Entrepreneurs and executives meditate to get an edge in the market, professionals meditate to manage stress and boost productivity, and the health-conscious meditate to boost their general sense of peace and wellbeing.
There is now quite a bit of scientific research supporting the various effects of meditation, including better concentration, better mood, less stress, and better relationships. That’s one reason meditation is now a common feature in various forms of therapy, including dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, and addiction treatment programs.
However, despite the popularization of meditation, or perhaps because of it, a lot of people don’t really understand what it’s about and what it can do.
Meditation Is Not a Replacement for Therapy
The first thing to understand is that meditation is not a replacement for therapy. This is a common mistake because meditation is so frequently discussed in the context of mental health.
In addition to being incorporated into the treatment modalities described above, much of the media coverage of meditation has focused on its role in helping people overcome challenges, like anxiety, depression, trauma, or substance use. However, these conditions are complicated and require professional help.
Meditation might be part of the solution but it’s just a part. Even experienced meditation instructors typically advise that you get treatment for any mental health issues before you begin an intensive meditation program, such as a meditation retreat.
Meditation Is Not a Form of Escapism
Another common misconception is that meditation is a form of escapism. It’s often thought of as blissing-out or distracting yourself with pleasant visualizations.
While experienced meditators do sometimes feel blissful when meditating, that’s typically not the real goal and it’s something most meditators won’t experience for a while, if ever.
In a sense, meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, is the opposite of escapism. The goal of mindfulness meditation is to be fully aware of your experience-—what you’re sensing, thinking, and feeling.
This is often quite challenging. Rather than escaping your problems, the goal is to be aware of your problems—particularly physical discomfort, challenging emotions, and troubling thoughts—and engage with those in a more open, less judgmental, and less reflexive way.
Meditation Is Not About Emptying Your Mind
A similar misconception to the idea that meditation is a form of escapism is that meditation is about clearing your mind of thoughts. This is a trope that is especially common on TV and in movies.
However, if you try to clear your mind, you’re only going to end up frustrated and disappointed. Your brain is an organ that thinks and that’s what it’s going to do.
You wouldn’t expect your heart to stop beating or your lungs to stop breathing while you meditate, so why is it reasonable to expect your brain to stop thinking? The goal of mindfulness meditation is rather to notice your thoughts without getting caught up in them. The trouble with thoughts is not that they exist, but that we take them too seriously.
There Are Many Ways to Meditate
This article is primarily concerned with mindfulness meditation, which currently has the most research behind it and is the form most commonly used in treatment. However, there are many ways to meditate and there’s really no right or wrong way.
There is a place for visualization, for example, and sometimes meditators do experience bliss. Another commonly used form of meditation is metta, or loving-kindness meditation, which is a method that specifically helps you cultivate compassion.
Relatively new research suggests it is particularly good for cultivating more positive emotions and improving relationships.
The important thing to remember is that our brains adapt to what we consistently ask them to do. If you want to distract yourself by vividly imagining you’re lying in a sunny meadow, then you’ll get better at that with practice.
That might be a good strategy for some people in some circumstances. If you want to feel more compassionate and more connected, practice metta. If you want to take the power away from cravings and other challenging emotions, practicing observing them without judgment will help.
Meditation Is About More Than Relaxation
Another common misconception about meditation is that it’s mainly a relaxation exercise. You just sit quietly and relax and it lowers stress and whatever else.
Per the discussion above, that’s a perfectly valid way to approach it. Most people would benefit from spending 20 to 30 minutes each day just quietly relaxing.
In fact, by doing so, you will sometimes be meditating. However, while relaxation is an integral part of most forms of meditation, it’s not the whole deal.
As noted above, there are many ways to meditate and they all have different effects. What’s important to keep in mind is that the real value of meditation is bringing its benefits into your regular life, whether you are trying to cultivate mindfulness, compassion, or focus. Meditation is a bit like a gym where you strengthen your mind for other parts of your life.
There Are Some Possible Downsides to Meditation
Much of the excitement around meditation has to do with its apparent safety. For example, you’ll often see media coverage of some new study showing that meditation has benefits comparable to antidepressants “but without the side effects!”
However, that’s not exactly true. Most people practicing mindfulness meditation for 20 or 30 minutes a day won’t have any problems unless they spend that whole time worrying or ruminating and not actually meditating, which can definitely happen.
The problems tend to arise when people get deep into it or start experimenting with techniques they don’t understand. Most meditation techniques were developed in monasteries where monks would be guided by expert meditators for many years. In that environment, any problems could be easily corrected.
Also, the goals of monks and the goals of average Americans are very different, and sometimes incompatible. As a result, devoted meditators sometimes suffer adverse effects.
The Brown University psychologist Willoughby Britton has spent years studying the various effects of meditation, including the downsides. These may include anhedonia or avolition, loss of a sense of agency, occupational impairment, and social impairment, among others.
Meditation can play a valuable part in addiction treatment and recovery, but it’s important to realize what it is and what it isn’t. At its best, meditation can help make you calmer, wiser, and more compassionate. While it can offer some tactical advantages in addiction recovery, such as tolerating challenging emotions or “surfing” cravings, the real promise of meditation for recovery is that it helps you become a more aware and complete person.
At Enlightened Solutions, we believe that joy is the true path to healing from addiction and meditation is one element we incorporate into our holistic treatment programs. To learn more about our treatment options, call us at 833-801-LIVE.