Posted: May 7, 2018
Author: NYC-NYC staff therapist, Mike Comparetto, LMSW.
CBT Therapists have lots of tools to teach our clients. But I often think, what if I had to pick just one to share with people? My answer, without hesitation, would be mindfulness meditation. It is the most powerful and transformative tool that I have ever come across, and these days we have ample studies to prove it. If you are a skeptic (as you should be), just Google “medical research on meditation” and you will find results from Harvard Medical School, Time Magazine, Mayo Clinic, the CDC, etc. showing a vast array of benefits both mental and physical. Here is just one article from the APA listing many of them.
What is Meditation?
This question is simultaneously very simple and very complex. Let’s start with the simple, and we can save the complex discussions for another day. There are many types of meditation, but for this article I will only be referring to Mindfulness Meditation. The officially accepted definition of mindfulness, penned by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “…awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness can be practiced while doing just about anything, but when we say meditation, this usually refers to practicing mindfulness in a seated position. There are ways to do walking meditation, standing meditation, and other forms of moving meditation, but seated meditation is the most common, and that’s what we will be focusing on here.
What is the Aim of Meditation?
If I could boil the aim of meditation down to one thing, it would be switching our frame of mind from conceptual to experiential. Meditation allows us to tap in to our lived experience, and let go of the stories we tell ourselves about it. These stories often magnify (or in some cases manufacture) the pain and difficulty in our lives. Mindfulness also reminds us that we never have to endure our experience for more than one moment at a time, which is quite freeing. All experiences are impermanent, and meditation brings this into direct focus.
If you learn how to effectively manage your mind, your thoughts and actions start to lead you away from suffering and towards happiness. This is why we practice meditation- to end suffering.
“Mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what’s happening and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening, stories that get in the way of direct experience. Often such stories treat a fleeting state of mind as if it were our entire and permanent self.” –Sharon Salzberg
How to Meditate
There are so many different ways to meditate that it can be overwhelming. A Google search on “how to meditate” returns 258,000,000 results. I think when you are starting out, it is important to just find a style that is accessible to you and do it. Later on, if you find that that particular style or tradition doesn’t really resonate with you, you can do your research and find the one that does. In the beginning though, any meditation is better than no meditation.
Since this article is about the bare basics, let’s establish some guidelines for just about all types of meditation:
1) Meditating for 5 minutes every day is better than meditating for 1 hour once a week. Developing the discipline to cultivate a daily practice is extremely important, and doing it every day creates the momentum needed to get results. If that means starting with only 5 minutes, then do what you can.
2) Try not to judge your meditation. You may have some meditations that leave you feeling great, some that leave you feeling tired, discouraged, or indifferent. They are all equally valuable. Nobody is bad at meditation- it is a constant practice. Each time you redirect your mind, you are building new neural pathways in your brain.
3) Don’t seek out particular states of mind or experiences. As a beginning meditator, you will most likely not have the ability to sit down and immediately cultivate the exact mind-state you are looking for (if you can, let me know your secret!). Meditation is about observing what is arising in the present moment- it is not about creating an alternate reality to dwell in. Remember that mindfulness is meant to cultivate a non-judgemental mind. That is absolutely critical. The goal of meditation (you will not always achieve this goal and that’s ok) is to meet each moment without adding your own commentary, opinion, interpretation, or sense of like or dislike to it. Yes, it’s as hard as it sounds, but that’s why we call it a meditation practice.
4) Have compassion for yourself. You will quickly find that the mind can sometimes be, well, kind of a jerk. The last thing you ever want to do is make things worse by beating yourself up when you can’t focus for more than half a second, or when your mind won’t stop repeating the same thoughts over and over. This is all a part of meditating, and even advanced meditators experience a mind that is uncooperative at times. It’s all about how you relate to those experiences. Try to use it as an opportunity to observe what it’s like to be in a busy mind (or an angry mind, a sad mind, etc).
5) Develop patience. I don’t know how to break this to you, but you are not going to achieve enlightenment after your first meditation. You will most likely see some immediate results, but the real benefits come weeks, months, years, and decades into the practice. As a bonus, you can use your meditation to observe the mind’s compulsion to want instant gratification.
6) Don’t worry what anyone thinks about it. If your friends think you are weird for meditating, or you fear that your co-workers will never speak to you again, just let it go. Nothing is more important than finding true peace and happiness. Be yourself, be free, and do what makes you happy.
Keeping those guidelines in mind, use the resources I have provided at the end of this blog to try meditation. If you are absolutely brand new to meditation I suggest starting with the Headspace app, or this guided meditation.
I hope meditation can be as powerful and transformative for you as it has been, and continues to be, for me. Supposedly the last words the Buddha ever spoke were, “Strive on with diligence.” May you strive on towards liberation and well-being.
Get in touch with us to book a session:
Meditation for Beginners – Jack Kornfield
How to Meditate – Pema Chodron
Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation – Sharon Salzberg
Against the Stream – Noah Levine