At the end of my self-compassion workshop this semester in the Psychology & Counseling Program I overheard a student saying, “I’m so glad to hear I could just meditate for ten minutes. I always thought it had to be a whole long thing.” This blog is for those who thought they could never meditate, like this student, like me, and for those who already have a meditation or yoga-meditation practice.
Most of the literature about meditation is written by experienced practitioners and teachers who have successfully passed through the difficulties and obstacles involved in a long term practice. They want to inspire us to embark on this journey. And they do! On the other hand sometimes one needs to talk to people who are where you are in the process. I’ve been reading about meditation and mindfulness for maybe fifteen years, dabbling in it – here a day, there a day of sitting for 15 minutes at home – for about the same amount of time. But about four years ago I took the plunge and attended a seven day silent meditation retreat. Since then I crave to meditate and I do it every day. However, in the slow moving world of mindfulness, four years is not a long time. I am only a beginner.
Meditation as a tool for calming both the anxious body and the fearful mind has been moving into mainstream psychological theory and counseling practice for many years. This integration grew more rapid when, about ten years ago, certain cognitive-behavioral therapists discovered that some of their goals were shared by Buddhist psychology and practice. One of these goals, the most obvious, is to help the client (CBT) or practitioner (Buddhism) gain perspective on the endlessly chattering mind. As a meditation teacher of mind said to me recently, “The mind is shameless.”
The mind will tell you that you’ll never be loved, you’ll die poor and alone, you said a stupid thing yesterday and an even stupider thing the day before. The mind will tell you that you’re better than that person and worse than this one, that you need more and you’ll never have enough. The mind will keep you busy all your days evaluating, comparing and fearing while you barely regard what you actually have, love and experience.
However, knowing that this is so doesn’t silence the chatter and doesn’t protect us from getting lost in it. In fact, knowing that this chatter is merely mental ephemera sometimes makes me feel worse. On days when I can’t get away from its power, days when my mind is making me want to weep with the tale of my epic limitations, knowing that this bad feeling is futile only increases my misery. Neuroscientists tell us that the mind likes to do what it’s done before. Once is a novelty, twice begins a pattern, twenty times is a groove, twenty million times is adult life. My mind has been making a self-critical pattern and patter for many decades. Fortunately, the same neuroscientists tell us that we can make new circuits that can become new patterns, then new grooves, ditches even, riverbeds, canyons! But it’s not easy.
In the very good self-help book Feeling Good, David Burns the cognitive-behavioral psychiatrist offers many verbal exercises for creating new grooves in the chattering mind which are quieter, kinder and both more optimistic and more realistic. In the equally good book Mindfulness for Beginners Jon Kabat-Zinn an experienced meditator and creator of innovative meditation programs, will tell you how to accomplish the same thing from the perspective of Buddhist psychology. Either way works, neither is a miracle cure. Either way takes persistence and time and, usually, the support of others.
In the Goddard Psychology & Counseling program a student will study these two points of view along with many others. We also encourage all students to focus on the many recent research findings on common factors that demonstrate that all forms of counseling can be equally effective providing the common factors are in place. The common factors begin with the profound importance of the supportive, counseling relationship.