When I began meditating in 1984, most people I talked to about it would stare at me blankly, then quickly change the subject or shake their head and walk away. These days, discussions of meditation and mindfulness appear everywhere from business and medical journals, to addiction and trauma recovery groups, to education conferences. In this article, you’ll learn why so many are turning to these techniques and how to avoid common misconceptions, dangers, and potential pitfalls.
By recent reports, you might think meditation and mindfulness are a “panacea” (cure all) for everything that ails you. Programs are sprouting up in hospitals for pain management, in prisons for inmate reform, and in military, police, and emergency response settings to help handle intense situations and recover from PTSD.
These techniques are used as a support in psychotherapy-for addiction and trauma recovery, defusing self-sabotage, increasing self-awareness, and taming self-criticism. They are increasingly sought after for dealing with the stress of living in our fast-paced, threat-sensitive world. To feed this demand, countless apps promise to bestow the benefits of these practices at the push of a button.
Yet, with the rise in popularity of mindfulness and meditation, I’ve begun to see some contrarian headlines, such as “New Study Shows Meditation Doesn’t Make You Happier, More Creative,” “Meditation Not a Panacea,” or “Christians Should Be Wary of Meditation.”
As a meditation teacher, I hear beginning students say things like:
• “Meditation was supposed to be relaxing-but it made me irritated.”
• “Meditation was supposed to feel good, but it made me more stressed out.”
• “I thought meditation would help me sleep, but it gave me nightmares.”
• “I thought meditation was supposed to help me accept myself, but it made me more self-critical.”
• “I am more aware of my impulsiveness than ever. How is this helping me?”
What’s going on here?
(Hint: Meditation doesn’t “make these things happen.” It reveals them. Meditation and mindfulness make you more aware of what’s happening in your subconscious mind.)
Let’s demystify meditation and mindfulness by defining them clearly, so you can assess their function and effectiveness, understand misconceptions, and avoid dangers and potential pitfalls.
Meditation and Mindfulness Defined
By meditation I mean, “Mindfully focusing your attention on a specific focal object for a period of time.” It’s about training your mind to consciously focus your attention. It’s that straightforward.
A focal object in meditation can be the sensations of breathing, a mantra or focusing phrase, the stream of your thoughts and feelings, the presence of God, a blank wall, or a candle flame. Focusing on chosen focal objects develops your ability to pay attention, be present, and fully engage with what you are doing.
“Mindfully” in the definition means that you exercise “mindfulness” during meditation. Mindfulness means, “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.” In other words, you adopt the attitude of a curious observer, just noticing what is happening without judging it as “good or bad.” A non-judgmental attitude enables you to see more clearly, instead of reacting from fear, bias, or prejudice-which distort insight.
To sum up, “meditation” is an attention-training technique and “mindfulness” is an effective attitude for practicing this technique. You could also say that meditation is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Together, meditation and mindfulness give you a deeper understanding of how your mind works.
Here’s how it goes in practice:
As you meditate on a specific focal object, you notice moments when your mind wanders off to other things-such as an argument you had yesterday, a childhood memory, a presentation you have later today, or what you might have for lunch. Mindfulness enables you to recognize when and where your mind wanders, accept this as something a busy mind does, and gently return your attention to your chosen focal object.
During meditation, you will have a whole host of different thoughts and feelings. Some may feel good: some may scare you. Mindfulness treats them all the same-as passing bits of information. Using mindfulness, you come to realize that all thoughts and feelings come and go. They offer information, but they are no more substantial than that. They are nothing to be afraid of when you approach them mindfully. This insight can free you from anxiety about what is going on inside you.
The 3Rs of Meditation
I call the process of managing your mind during meditation the 3Rs: Recognize, Release, and Return. You recognize when you have wandered from your point of focus, release paying attention to that “distraction,” and return to your chosen object of attention. It’s that simple.
However, like any learned skill, it can be challenging at first. You may find your mind wanders most of the time. You may find yourself caught up in negative thoughts and feelings. You may find yourself irritated, self-critical, bored, or wondering if you’re doing it right-or if you’re doing anything at all!
That’s OK. Recognizing all of this is part of meditation. Meditation increases awareness. You do this by mindfully focusing your attention, recognizing and accepting what your mind does, releasing distractions, and returning to your chosen focus-again and again and again.
As you repeat this process, you develop a sense of ease with managing your thoughts and feelings and a freedom to choose what you focus on and what you release. By practicing mindfulness during meditation, you grow your ability to relate to all kinds of moments in your life with greater freedom and ease.
Further Benefits of Practice
As you meditate for a period of time (say 10-20 minutes) consistently, your mind quiets down, your emotions calm, and your body relaxes. You de-pressurize, let go of over-thinking, and release built-up stress. As you release stress, energy is freed up that your body and mind use to recover, repair, integrate, and heal.
You start to feel like yourself again. You realize that “who you are” is much more than “the chatter” in your mind or the emotions that can “take you over.” You are a deeper witnessing presence who “has” thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but is not defined by them. This can be a life-altering discovery!
These benefits don’t happen because you are trying to clear your mind, they happen as a result of practicing the 3Rs. As you practice consistently, you develop the skills of recognizing where your mind is focused, releasing what is not serving you or others, and returning to what matters most.
These are invaluable skills that serve you in anything you want to do, overcome, or accomplish. I would go so far as to say they are fundamental skills you need to live your life well. Why, then, weren’t you taught these essential skills in school when you were young? Regardless of the reasons, at any age, you can learn them with a few simple instructions, insight into how they work, and consistent practice.
Personally, I like to practice first thing in the morning. For much of my life, I woke up feeling anxious about what I had to do in the day ahead. Yet, now, no matter how I feel when I wake up, I feel relaxed and centered after my morning practice. I have a calm reference point I can return to when I get irritated or stressed out, caught up in negativity, or feel overwhelmed by what’s happening in the world around me.
Why Meditation and Mindfulness Are Especially Important These Days
Today there are infinite demands on our time, energy, and attention-and they call to us 24/7-making us feel as if we always need to be doing something productive. We feel compelled to respond instantly on social media and gather a steady stream of tantalizing bits of information to keep us informed and amused. Even entertainment becomes a “must-do” as we feel compelled to binge-watch to get “caught up” on as much enjoyment as possible in our “free-time.”
Yet always being “on the go” is not healthy.
Our bodies and brains are not made to run in constant overdrive. We are designed to engage in activity, then to rest and recover from what we’ve done. In our downtime, our body repairs itself, integrates all that we’ve experienced, and heals cellular damage we’ve sustained.
If we don’t honor this balance, our systems go haywire. We get exhausted, hold increasing levels of tension in our bodies, and become persistently anxious or depressed. In this “overcooked” state, we invite the host of chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease, and auto-immune disorders that are epidemic.
Meditation is a structured time-out from all this activity, so you can focus inwardly, rest, and recover. At first, it may feel like “doing nothing,” but, as we’ve seen, the process is a gentle, yet active, training of your mind. It allows you to step back from the frantic pace of life, consciously unwind, and observe what’s going on inside.
Meditation and mindfulness reveal your inner workings. They uncover the subconscious biases that lead to arguments, poor judgment, and bad decisions. They shine a light on habits that drive unwanted results in your life. They help you more objectively observe what you are doing, so you can consciously choose healthy habits and let go of unhealthy ones.
Maybe most importantly for us in this hyper-driven consumer culture, they encourage us to slow down, take a deep breath, and pay attention to the relationships, gifts, and opportunities we already have, rather than always trying to be, have, and do more.
Conclusion: Are Meditation and Mindfulness Dangerous?
Are meditation and mindfulness dangerous? Yes. They threaten to make you more conscious and intentional. They are dangerous to your negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and beliefs. They release the stifling grip of fear, bias, and prejudice. They shine a light on what needs to change.
By practicing mindfulness in meditation, you learn to evaluate all sides of any situation more objectively, so you can make better decisions. You recognize what no longer serves you and others, so you can shift your time, energy, and attention to what does. And, you become more present, focused, and fully engaged in your experiences, so you live a richer, more purposeful life.
So, let me ask you, “Do you have a regular Meditation/Mindfulness practice?” If so, please share what works well for you.
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Enjoy your practice!