When I was growing up, my dad was learning to meditate. He had meditation teachers that would come to our house, and for a joke, my little brother would stand outside the door and repeat mantras like “alpha, beta” in a zombie-like voice. We all thought it was hilarious, but looking back, I now realise that this was probably the only outlet my dad had from his role as a father of five and a doctor. In spite of my little brother’s jokes, my dad still meditates everyday and says that it is one of his top stress management tools.
A review study by Johns Hopkins University last week reported that meditation appears to provide some limited relief from anxiety and depression symptoms (Journal of the American Medical Association, January 2014). According to the study, “meditation is a form of Buddhist self-awareness designed to focus attention -not judgement- to the moment at hand. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
The study reported that:
– Mindfulness meditation programs could help reduce anxiety, depression, and pain in some clinical populations, but the patients who received these benefits did not typically have full-blown anxiety or depression; and
– Little or no evidence could be found of meditation’s impact on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep and weight.
I have a theory as to why the effects of meditation were found to be limited in many participants. We have known for a long time that we all benefit from any form of connection with our inner world. Meditation is a perfect tool for entering our inner world. It is like the doorway that we can use to enter our inner world whenever we want. Teachers of meditation or guided meditations merely point us in the direction of our inner world and we must walk the path to arrive there.
During and after meditation, most people experience feelings of relaxation induced by a combination of music, darkness and breathing. But this is where the benefits end for most people. If you don’t want to enter your inner world because you are afraid of what meets you there, you won’t go beyond the feelings of relaxation. Meditation teachers can point the way to your inner world, but if you don’t feel comfortable entering it, then meditation won’t work for you.
I believe that meditation is a stage of consciousness. I think that we need to get to the point where we feel safe enough to navigate our inner world. We need to first be okay with vulnerability and with facing our light and shadows. Until then, the benefits of meditation will be limited.
Also, many people use meditation as a 20 minute escape from the world and from stress, but this strategy may be missing the point. Meditation, or mindfulness, can actually be a way of existing in the world. Rather than just meditating for a small portion of the day, I advocate being in the present moment for every moment of the day. If you are in the shower, be in the shower. Focus all of your attention on the water falling over your body and breathe. If you are in traffic, be fully in the car or bus. Focus all of your attention on the sensations you have in every moment. This brings a new quality of mindful attention to your life. It also makes a distinction between the thinker in your outer world and the observer of your inner world.
To make meditation work for you:
1. Do some form of awareness training to adapt to your inner world;
2. Adopt a meditation practice that you can utilise throughout the day to bring you more fully into the present moment.
It is my view that alongside the appropriate medical treatment, these steps will bring relief from any issues relating to mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep and weight.