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Meditation and Psychotherapy

As a psychotherapist I advocate people taking up meditation. Obviously, it’s not for everyone but if people understood more of its benefits, more people would do it. You may already know that it’s good for managing stress, insomnia and fighting off colds and the flu. But in addition, having a meditation practice will improve your insight and subtle awareness of what is going on in your mind and in the troubling patterns you repeat in relationships. Meditation works synergistically with therapy to achieve these profound life skills.

Meditation cultivates “somatic awareness,” which for our purposes here is the same as subtle awareness.[1] The phrase somatic awareness refers to the felt sense of the body as in, “my body in which I feel things sensually, spaciously and intimately.” When you take on a daily practice (Mantra meditation, Mindfulness meditation, Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi or journaling) you increase your ability to sense, identify and understand your sensations and feelings. You come to know yourself better. You develop insight.

Sometimes people don’t know what they are feeling or have a shallow grasp of their feelings. The therapist asks, “How do you feel about your friend not calling you back?” And the client says, “I don’t know, its no big deal.” But the therapist can tell it does matter because the client keeps circling back to it. Here focusing on the body helps, like “I noticed you looked away when you said he often doesn’t call back. Or, you seem to be breathing pretty shallow while we’re discussing this.” Other times a client is in touch with a feeling and gets activated by it. He may vent about his friend, “he can be a self-centered prig, too caught up in himself to think to call back.” The client’s voice raises and there are sparks in his eyes. Sometimes, we call this getting in touch with the outer, defensive layer of feeling.

Having subtle awareness can help a client become aware that there are different layers within their own mind.[2] The therapist may introduce the concept that venting is a momentarily, healthy defensive emotion protecting you from the other’s behavior. “The best defense is a good offense,” is a tongue-in-cheek metaphor I might use to portray this to a sports-oriented guy. But, then I’d suggest, “Your irritation with your friend is there to protect you. But what is it protecting you from?”

Answering this kind of question requires some wisdom. When you look at your own mind with clarity, you begin to realize that you don’t have everything under control, that in fact the self is not unified but has several voices or layer. Reflecting upon an angry reaction a client may realize, “I guess some part of me feels dis-respected. I begin to doubt my friend holds me in the same regard as I hold him. And that feels bad.”

Recognizing that the defensive layer and the underlying, vulnerable layer are connected is the beginning of insight. Having the ability to pivot in real time from defensive emotions like anger and withdrawal towards vulnerable emotions like sadness and mutual regard is where growth really takes hold. This growth requires subtle awareness.

Meditation trains the mind to keep a focus. Continually, the mind wanders and you gently bring yourself back to the mantra or the breath. Over time this training cultivates a multi-dimensional awareness of the mind. Like a 3-D chess game, you become aware of levels of the mind.[3] As I repeat my mantra, a deep, calm stillness is felt in my being. Then, as thoughts of action-oriented tasks I need to accomplish today or feeling-full thoughts of what my daughter and I spoke about last night pass through my consciousness, I am aware of levels of depth in my being, some more about doing the management of life (ego), some more about being with the experience of life (soul). Regardless of depth, I gently choose the place of stillness by returning to the mantra. I don’t force my mind to stop thinking other thoughts, but I gently steer back towards the mantra and the qualities of stillness, silence and spaciousness it cultivates.[4]

Regular, daily choosing of the place of stillness provides a backdrop from which to gauge and release thoughts and feelings as well as cultivate wisdom and skillful means regarding the flow of mind. This is subtle awareness. Just as in psychotherapy, the meditator grows to see that certain thoughts, feelings and sensations have a lot of power to orient, organize and motivate her/him. Some for good, some for bad and all in need of moderation – the middle path.

Through the focused stillness of meditation, I come to see how these thoughts bind me. I develop the spaciousness to loosen those binds, momentarily let them loosen and choose to hold them flexibly. My priorities, commitments and optimal stress level[5] upon which my ego is partly organized remain prominent. But, they are translucent: I am aware of a deeper level of my soul which is not bound by these commitments and from which wisdom, strength and love radiate. This is how subtle awareness leads to enlightenment. Jesus intimates this in his teaching:

Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.[6]

Subtle awareness allows us to see what binds us and then loosen it the right amount in order to flexibly find the sweet spot of control and release, of ego and soul.   There is a yin/yang balance between grasping and controlling life on the one hand and collapsing into letting go completely, chaos and apathy on the other hand. Finding and missing this sweet spot is poignantly experienced in the day-to-day communication we share with those we love and care about.

The more you develop subtle awareness, the better you are at communicating your feelings and needs to others skillfully. Good communication requires direct access to your emotional core as well as timing and poise. Good communicators have timing in relation to context: a sense of when to bring things up and when to wait. At the right time they speak clearly and concisely with the right amount of detail and emotion, not too dry and flat and not too embellished or labile. They do this by gauging themselves and the receptivity of the other person’s emotional core. The power of the sharing they are initiating respects and invites the other to open too.

Meditation quiets the mind allowing for more internal space so that an idea can be developed and communicated without straining to hold all the parts together. Cognitive scientists refer to the “chalkboard of the mind,” as the ability to hold several thoughts in your mind at the same time in order to understand and problem solve. Meditation augments this ability. When you have a daily meditation practice, there is greater steadiness to consider things and resiliency to see things through. You don’t get thrown as much by personality conflicts, obstacles and setbacks. This leads to an overall greater sense of optimism and effectiveness. This is because the twenty minutes you spend returning to your meditation focus every morning trains your mind to be steady, focused and persistent.

Becoming committed to meditation can take time. It took me over a decade to be able to sit on my own for 20 days in a row. I’d be good for a few days and then want to sleep in. Or I’d be disciplined all week but get too busy with family and fun on the weekend. This still sometimes happens. But now if I miss a day or two, I immediately start to drag, feeling a significant drop in energy, mood and poise. I feel compelled to return to practice and . . . I experience the benefit from it right away. I see these patterns of improvement in my clients as well.

Maintaining a daily meditation practice cultivates self-discipline, training you to set healthy limits with yourself and healthy boundaries with others. You get yourself to bed at a reasonable hour. You know when you’ve had enough to smoke or drink, are about to spend too much money or are flirting too much. Aware of your energy expenditures, you know how to exercise restraint.[7]

Meditation practice is appropriately called cultivating the ground of being. When we have this ground we are better equipped to notice emotions as they arise, allow them to grow, understand the needs they convey, and finally, let them dissipate and pass through. We develop composure and an ability to consciously respond rather than reacting in fight, flight or freeze. Cultivating a grounded-ness in our selves simultaneously supports being present and connected in relationship with others. Grounded presence helps us gauge when and how much to risk opening up and trusting another with our true feelings as well as earning and eliciting the vulnerability of others to trust us with their feelings. It makes us real.

One of the simplest practices I can suggest is mantra meditation. Simply repeating the phrase “I Am,” silently to yourself over and over again for twenty minutes is the practice I recommend. Though the meaning of the words are certainly profound, when practicing do not focus on their meaning but only on the silent sound of the phrase itself. The act of hearing it in your mind’s ear so to speak will gradually bring you into a place of deep focus and peace. Not all at once, not necessarily the first time. But, persisting in repeating the phrase and bringing your attention back to it once you realize your mind has wandered will have a powerful effect upon you over time. [8]

©Keith Weinstein, 2018

[1] In a separate article I will explain how somatic awareness is a stepping stone towards the development of subtle awareness.

[2] Heart-mind and soul are better terms for what we are describing here but I use “mind for simplicity.

[3] Soul or heart-mind are better terms than mind for what we are discussing.

[4] Gratitude to Tenzin Wangyal for this teaching. His guided meditation, “Sacred Space,” is available on Itunes.

[5] Hans Selye, the scientist that pioneered the use of Vitamin C for immunity and health developed the concept that every person has an optimal level of stress keeping them motivated and engaged without over-heating with anxiety and irritation.

[6] Mathew 18:18, King James Version of the Bible.

[7] “By three things a person is a person tested: by their give and take in business, by the amount of wine they drink, and by the length of their talk.” The Book of Legends (a compendium of Jewish wisdom from Talmud and oral tradition)

[8] This particular mediation practice is fully described in the ebook, Deep Meditation, a part of the AYP Series. This writing can be accessed and purchased through a search for AYP (Advanced Yoga Practices) on the Internet.

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