And she answers: Probably not.
Meditation is only one way to find stillness within. My husband sings in two choirs. A good friend walks in the woods. Well, I walk in the woods. I even like walking in the woods. But walking in the woods doesn’t make me quiet. I feel refreshed, usually, and ready to go, but my mind is chattering away on the day’s to-do list. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just not meditation or mindfulness. Playing golf or baseball or any sport or game can quiet the mind for a while, which is one of the reasons people who do them love and crave these activities. Tedious daily chores, like washing dishes or brushing teeth, if done with focus can give a gift of a moment’s stillness as the psychologist and long-time mediator Ron Siegel points out in his book The Mindfulness Solution.
I have a close colleague who worries too much, even when her life and her family’s life is going well. She’s a clinical social worker so telling her about cognitive-behavioral therapy won’t help, she knows about cognitive behavioral therapy, she teaches cognitive behavioral therapy in a graduate social work program. So far I have dragged her to three continuing education workshops on meditation. The only one that took was the one that included yoga. Yoga is something she can get behind because it’s exercise and therefore she doesn’t consider it a waste of time. There are current studies that indicate that active forms of meditation – Yoga or Qi Gong, or Akido – are more effective than sitting for some people.
Meditation isn’t for everyone and yet in my counseling practice the most surprising people take to it. A seventy year old church-going Methodist, a twenty-something, unemployed single parent both found that five minutes a day of loving-kindness meditation kept their anxiety level on a lower frequency throughout the day. Notice, the anxiety didn’t vanish. But it got smaller, weaker, more manageable.
Now, a good researcher would note that in these anecdotes that I am not accounting for what is referred to as “non-specific effects.” Non-specific effects are all the other parts of a situation that are not meditation: the trust and caring in our relationship, the clients’ desire to please me, the simple act of taking five quiet minutes out of the noisy demands of the day…. any or all of these might b a significant part of the helpful impact. But when sitting with a person in pain I am happy to employ the non-specific entwined with the specific if they work together. I don’t need to do research during that particular fifty minute session, especially if the client tells me she can generalize the experience to her daily life.
On the other hand, when a client says to me, “I can’t meditate,” I have learned to pay attention. Pushing someone to try meditation can backfire and has backfired on me. I once had a very self-critical, relatively new client. I tried doing some cognitive-behavioral work with him, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere.
“I can’t meditate,” he said, when I offered this as an alternative. I urged him to try, just once. We did five minutes together.
“I couldn’t do it,” he said at the end of the five minutes.
No matter what I said about how it’s a no-fail exercise he couldn’t hear me, even though he nodded as if he were listening. I assume his self-criticism was too great. At the end of the session we made another appointment. But he never came back.
The moral of the story is: Meet the client where he or she is, not where you wish them to be. This is probably the most frequent moral one learns in stories of counseling failures.