What is meditation?
Contrary to what many people will tell you, meditation is not an attempt to clear the mind. You cannot clear the mind by trying to clear it. It is true however that in the process of doing meditation the mind becomes clear.
Meditation is a mental discipline by which one attempts to get beyond the conditioned, "thinking" mind into a deeper state of relaxation or awareness. It often involves turning attention to a single point of reference. (Meditation, 2008) - from Wikipedia
There are many methods of meditation, each involving focussing the mind in a particular way. As a result, the effects of meditation can vary dramatically, although there are some similarities. With such a wide variety of methods of meditation, it's somewhat difficult for a page such as this to contain useful generic information, although that is what this page attempts to provide. When characteristics of "meditation" are described on this page, the reader should bear in mind that these are characteristics which apply to most meditation practices.
The benefits thought to be achieved from meditation include
- Developing self-reflection and self-awareness.
- Detachment from one's reactions to stimulus.
Most of the research which considers meditation has been performed on transcendental meditation (TM) and mindfulness meditation practitioners. Benefits which have been demonstrated include decreased physiological arousal, decreased tension, reductions in symptoms including blood pressure in patients with hypertension, reduced pain, improved ability to engage with activities of daily living (ADL), improved mood and self-esteem. (Payne, 2005; Kabat-Zin, Lipworth, Burney, 1985).
Many meditation practices involve observation of the body-mind during the meditation. This practice is said to cultivate "the observer", and allow awareness of one's reactions to events. Detachment may also be gained from thoughts and feelings. The meditator learns that I am not my thoughts, and I am not my feelings. Through this detachment, the meditator becomes able to let go of their reactions to events. This ability is very useful in stress management, as many of the stresses or life are caused or exacerbated by emotional reactions.
Research comparing meditation with other stress-reduction methods has been inconclusive. Some research evidence shows meditation to be more effective than other modalities, and some shows it to have comparable effects (Payne, 2005). The benefits of meditation while they can be considerable, develop over time with regular practice. Short-term application is unliklely to provide as much benefit as a simper method such as breath retraining. In stress management, a therapist should only consider using meditation techniques with a client when the client has demonstrated a strong commitment to change.
- Breath-based meditation mp3 (published by David McQuillan under the CC-BY license)
- Ascension - everyday meditation
Twenty minutes practice of meditation once per day is probably optimal for most people.
Twenty minutes practice twice a day seems to be the most common recommendation by meditation teachers, however this is probably too much of a commitment for most people. Payne recommends that novice meditators begin with 5 minutes per day, then increase the time to 15-20 minutes per day as they gain experience. The rationale here is that too much meditation may cause the practitioner to "get out of touch with day-to-day life" (2005, p. 194). This recommendation is on the conservative side of the spectrum, and is presumably this way because of the possible psycho-emotional effects of meditation.
A therapist should practice a meditation technique for a minimum of one to two months before they begin to train others in the technique. This minimum applies to the simplest of meditation techniques. Some meditation techniques may require a year of practice or more to gain sufficient competence for instruction.
If meditation is to be used with clients, it is best if the client is committed to a long-term process of stress management and/or self-discovery.
Cautions & Contraindications
Meditation involves a deep process of self-reflection, and it is not uncommon for psychological and emotional issues to surface during meditation. The meditation process itself has enough therapeutic value to resolve minor issues, but it may be advisable to recommend a psychological health care professional in case additional support is needed.
Mental illness - As discussed previously, meditation can bring up psycho-emotional issues. The transcendent states which may be achieved during meditation may not be beneficial for clients who are mentally unstable (Payne, 2005). When a client presents with a history of mental illness, it is advisable to work in conjunction with a psychological health professional.
- Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L, Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Journal of behavioural medicine 8(2), 163-190.
- Meditation (2008). Retrieved September 5, 2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meditation
- Payne, R. (2005). Relaxation techniques - a practical guide for the health care professional (3rd ed.). PA, USA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone.