Meditation in the West
Meditation has become extremely popular in western society in the recent years however; it has existed for thousands of years and has obviously passed the test of time in various other cultures. Meditation has in fact survived 4500 years of political upheaval and socioeconomic transition (Andreson, 2000). If meditation was not beneficial would it still be around and being practiced thousands of years later? Probably not.
The word meditation tends to cause confusion in many people due to it being unknown or regarded as somewhat metaphysical, new age, or associated with a special dogma or religion. Well as just discussed there is nothing new about meditation and I believe that the foundation for meditation in its purity is not confusing or complex. The very essence of meditation is simplicity, but as Ayaja states in his psychotherapy text, "simplicity is often the most complicated thing" (Ajaya, 1983, 126). I genuinely believe this statement to be accurate in especially western society's way of life.
Life consists of simple principles, however human beings tend to complicate them within their minds rather than living and being from the soul. I know for my life, I choose to keep meditation and living as simple as possible. I think Stephen Levine says it best when he discussed meditation in his book, A Gradual Awakening, "meditation is for many a foreign concept, somehow distant and foreboding, seemingly impossible to participate in. But another word for meditation is simply awareness. Meditation is awareness" (Levine, 1989, 1). Now, this explanation is indeed workable and practical to an individual wanting to become involved in meditation.
Within this paper, I will offer a simple explanation of the process of meditation, its psychological, physiological, and spiritual benefits as well as a brief description of my personal experience. There are several types of meditation, however Levine states that "differences in these techniques are basically due to the primary object which is concentrated on through the process" (Levine, 1989, 8). Thus, I will base this paper on mindfulness meditation (Vipassanna) which involves directly participating in each moment as it occurs with as much awareness and understanding as possible. In my opinion this is the simplest and most effective form of meditation and actually a very enlightened way to live your daily life. We live "now" right in this moment and that is what this type of meditation proposes. After all, as Goleman (1972a) states, "the goal of all meditation systems, whatever the ideological orientation or source...is to transform the waking state through the fruits of practice - to die to the life of the ego and be reborn to a new level of experience" (155).
As previously discussed, the focus of this paper will be mindfulness meditation rather than concentration meditation which is what usually comes to mind when the word meditation is mentioned. While concentration meditation focuses on the attention of a single object, mantra, or deity, mindfulness meditation includes a more dynamic inclusive field of observation. It is inclusive of the depth that surrounds us rather than shutting the world out, which is more practical for the average participant in western society (Tacon, 2003 ). It was also suggested by Kabat-Zinn (1994) that mindfulness may be beneficial to many people in western society who might be unwilling to adopt Buddhist traditions or vocabulary. Thus, mindfulness meditation is considerably more appropriate for our society than discussing the full range of meditation techniques from eastern traditions, due to its simplicity, practicality and perceived detachment from eastern philosophies and religions.
Rather than try to choose one definition to describe what mindfulness meditation is, I will present a variety of views from those familiar with this specific practice in order to get the point across more succinctly. First of all, mindfulness meditation is more specifically called "insight meditation" in Buddhist traditions, or vipassanna which is sanskrit and means "to see clearly." Mindfulness meditation is a large part of Buddhism as well as Zen practice; however it can be successfully practiced detached from these traditions. As previously mentioned it is not necessary to be a practicing Buddhist to enjoy the fruits of mindfulness meditation (Levey & Levey, 1999). At this time I will present varied definitions or descriptions of what mindfulness meditation actually is.
Tacon (2003) describes mindfulness meditation as a "form of meditation that involves stimuli from the field of consciousness rather than the exclusion of stimuli, as in concentration meditation" (67).
Kabat-Zinn (1994) states that mindfulness meditation is "paying attention in a particular way; on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally." (108).
Levey and Levey (1999) describe mindfulness meditation in the following way: "mindfulness liberates us from memories of past and fantasies of future by bringing reality of the present moment clearly into focus" (89). They also state that "mindfulness makes us more aware of life's everyday miracles" (89).
Dunn, Hartigan, and Mikulas (1999) state that "mindfulness practice involves open receptivity and awareness to all stimuli, while evaluation, analysis or classification of those stimuli is suppressed" (p.148).
Ruth Baer states "mindfulness is the nonjudgmental observation of the ongoing streams of internal and external stimuli as they arise" (2003, p. 125).
Although each of these passages utilize different terminology to articulate what mindfulness meditation is; the overall consensus comes down to "being present in life." In my personal opinion, this may well be the secret that all human beings have been searching for outside of themselves. Being present in the moment is very simple, yet profound. Most people will likely say, "There has got to be more to living than this." Is there?
Mindfulness meditation focuses on all areas of our being. Levey and Levey (1999) present a variety of these areas in their book, Simple Meditation and Relaxation. These elements of the human being include being mindful or aware of your sense without judgement, being aware of your emotions with acceptance, maintaining awareness of your thinking and allowing thoughts to flow by, just noticing. Another two vital areas include being aware of your breathing as well as what is going on with your body (pp. 95-97). What it comes down to is being aware of what is going on for you in each moment. To further articulate this I will provide various excerpts from a mindfulness meditation by Stephen Levine (1989).
- "Find a comfortable place to sit, with back straight but not rigid..."
- "Keep your attention at one precise point and note the sensation that accompanies each breath..."
- "Sounds arise. Thought arise. Other sensations arise. All background, arising and passing away..."
- "Sensations arise in the body, Thoughts arise in the mind. They come and go like bubbles..."
- "Don't get lost. If the mind pulls away, gently, with a soft non-judging, non-clinging awareness, return to the breath..."
- "Moment to moment awareness of whatever arises, whatever exists" (pp. 32-36).
My hope is that these excerpts further clarify mindfulness meditation to the reader. Levine is a master when it comes to simplicity in one's life as well as having the capacity to make meditation practical and efficient. Next, I would like to discuss a variety of interventions using mindfulness followed by research demonstrating the psychological, physiological, and spiritual benefits. Mindfulness meditation is truly a holistic application and this will be shown through the research findings discussed in this article.
As previously discussed meditation has been around for thousands of years, however has only recently been integrated into psychotherapy in western society. The American Psychological Association, around 1977, suggested that "meditation could facilitate the therapeutic process" (Taskforce on Meditation, 1977, p. 3). Unfortunately, about 20 years later it still hasn't actually become mainstream. However, we must be fortunate that some progress is being made. At this time, I would like to discuss four current interventions that are using mindfulness meditation as part of the therapeutic process.
The first intervention is the integration of mindfulness meditation in the general psychotherapy process. La Torre (2001) discussed it as an effective component of psychotherapy and stated that as meditation brings awareness to feelings and discomforts in the therapeutic process, psychotherapy can provide discussion and exploration of these insights. She also expresses that the ability to practice meditation in and out of the therapeutic session fosters independence and self mastery on the client's part. La Torre (2001) concludes by stating, "That in most cases the incorporation of meditation into the therapeutic process has enriched therapy and given clients a greater sense of control and awareness" (p. 104).
In a separate case study by Boorstein (1983), he describes his integration of mindfulness meditation and bibliotherapy and its effectiveness with a depressed, agitated, and paranoid client. Boorstein integrated various readings with a transpersonal theme as well as mindfulness meditation in and out of session. Boorstein claims that the outcome was significant and included increased self-esteem, psychological and spiritual growth and relief of presenting symptoms. Boorstein conducted follow ups and stated that the positive outcomes were maintained and the client continued to focus on personal and spiritual growth in his life.
A second popular intervention and the most frequently cited method of mindfulness meditation intervention is the program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This program was developed specifically for chronic pain and stress related disorders. It is an 8-10 week course for groups which utilizes a unique combination of discussions related to stress, coping, as well as homework assignments and an intense instruction and practice of mindfulness meditation. The ability for clients to practice inside and outside of session in real life situations is again a benefit of this modality (Baer, 2003).
Another intervention which is strongly associated with MBSR is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This intervention incorporates aspects of cognitive therapy that facilitate a detached or decentered view of ones thoughts including statements such as "Thoughts are not facts" and "I am not my thoughts" (Baer, 2003, p. 127). MBCT is designed to teach skills for previously depressed individuals to observe their thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally and to see them as simply mental events that come and go rather than as reality or aspects of themselves (Baer, 2003).
The final intervention that I will discuss that incorporates mindfulness meditation is a therapy termed Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). This specific therapy was designed to treat borderline personality disorder however it is currently being applied to a variety of different populations. DBT integrates mindfulness meditation training with cognitive behavioral skills in order to facilitate acceptance and change at the same time. Specific aspects of this intervention include emotional regulation, interpersonal skills, and distress tolerance skills (Baer, 2003). In my personal career I have had direct experience with this an addiction facility and found it to be quite effective. Residential clients embraced the mindfulness components in all aspects of their lives and appeared to truly benefit from practicing acceptance and non-judgment as part of their recovery. I genuinely hope that more interventions will become available and mindfulness meditation will eventually get the respect it deserves in the field of psychotherapy and life in general.
Mindfulness meditation is a holistic tool for growth and self awareness. It benefits the mind, body, and soul as a whole, however for this papers purpose I will separate the components into the benefits related to psychological, philosophical, and spiritual elements of the human being. These will be based on the literature pertaining to mindfulness meditation specifically and what has been discussed in a variety of research studies.
The literature discusses an immense amount of physiological benefits derived from mindfulness meditation. To list and discuss all of them is beyond the scope of this paper; however I will discuss some of the main physical benefits shown throughout the empirical literature. First, the physiological changes that have been noticed when practicing meditation such as decreased heart rate, breathing and the lowering of blood pressure has been termed the "relaxation response" by Benson (1975). These changes can of course be extremely beneficial to those individuals needing to escape the daily stress and chaos of society. However, the physiological benefits of mindfulness meditation transcend the momentary changes during the act of meditation. In Perez-De-Albeniz's (2000) 75 study Meta analysis he discussed a vast array of benefits that were found in his perusal of the available research. These included increase cardiac output, muscle relaxation, increased serotonin and melatonin levels, and significant improvement in chronic pain. In addition mindfulness meditation was found to be beneficial for psoriases, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, and hypertension. This brief summary obviously demonstrates that mindfulness meditation can be effective for the body component of a human being. Lets explore the other two elements that make up human beings.
Numerous psychological benefits of mindfulness meditation are mentioned throughout the empirical literature. Again, this is not an exhaustive review of the literature, but a brief articulation of outcomes reported regarding the practice of mindfulness meditation. La Toree (2003) explains the benefits of mindfulness meditation in terms of its emotional benefits concerning self growth. In her article she explains that overwhelming feelings are better able to be accepted as an individual is able to own these feelings and experience them with a greater sense of safety.
In Perez de Albeniz's Meta Analysis of the literature the following were demonstrated throughout the empirical studies that were reviewed:
- Increased happiness
- Increased joy
- Increased positive thoughts
- Increase problem solving skills
- Enhanced acceptance
- Enhanced compassion
- Enhanced tolerance
- Increased relaxation
- Increased resilience
- Better control of feelings and personal responsibility
- Improvement in psychological well being
- Decreased anxiety
- Decreased substance abuse
Perez de Albeniz also discussed mindfulness meditation's ability to help patients understand that there are no quick solutions in life which leads to development of patience in their personal growth journey. In addition, the promotion of a non-judgmental attitude as well as the ability to come to terms with what is rather than what could have been.
Finally I think it is important to mention a study by Shapiro, Schwartz, and Bonner (1998) in which MBSR was offered to medical and pre medical students. The application involved a 7-week intervention with a wait list control. The outcome of this study included reduced self-reports of overall psychological distress, including depression, reduced self-reports of state and trait anxiety and increased scores of empathy levels. Again, in the psychological domain it is obvious that mindfulness meditation has enormous benefits.
Spiritual benefits are also demonstrated in the practice and application of mindfulness meditation. In the Shapiro et al study (1998) it was also found that there were increased scores on the measures of spiritual experiences, which basically meant that following the mindfulness introduction, participants had a greater conviction of the existence of a higher power as well as an increase in the internalization of a personal intimate relationship to a higher power. In Perez de Albeniz (2000) it was noted that mindfulness meditation helps a patient or person to trust their inner nature and wisdom. Finally, Walsh (1983) expresses in his article that meditation is "available as a tool for those who wish to plumb the depths of their own being and explore the nature of mind, identity, and consciousness. It's a tool that can be used from the beginning to the end of the spiritual quest" (45). Obviously, there are many other spiritual benefits of meditation, including the obvious, Nirvana; however I merely supplied the reader with a summary. Perhaps, it may motivate some to enter this journey of awareness and explore the many additional gems along the path.
Henry Miller said "the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be awake, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware." This is what mindfulness meditation has brought to my life. By all means, do not think that I sit in meditation continuously and detach from the world. Mindfulness allows me to feel every moment of life within my entire being. It allows me to live life rather than just existing and the application of this practice throughout the past five years of my life has transformed who I am. I have tapped into my genuine being and united with the energy of the universe. Simply by cultivating awareness of the moment through mindfulness I have been able to transcend my ego and travel each day on the path of self-actualization. I have experienced the pure essence of mindfulness meditation. Each moment of my life allows continuous practice and application of this essential skill that genuinely gives life. Each human being on this earth has the innate ability to tap into the perfection and precision of mindfulness meditation. Go and experience the bliss that it offers.
Finally, throughout this paper I have discussed what mindfulness meditation is, provided a variety of description by the experts in this practice, and given the reader examples of the process of mindfulness meditation based on writings by Stephen Levine. It was concluded, that simply mindfulness meditation is being aware of life, which obviously can be practiced in any setting. Mindfulness mediation is extremely practical in the west and has been utilized in a variety of therapeutic interventions with much success. Additionally, it has been shown to have physiological, psychological, and spiritual benefits by the research thus far. In short, mindfulness mediation is a great tool for the whole person to utilize toward personal and spiritual growth. Mindfulness is genuinely living life in this very moment. Go truly live in the now and experience the true essence of life without the deluded impediments caused the thinking mind.
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Benson, R. (2003). The Relaxation Response, New York, NY: Morrow.
Dunn, B. R., Hartigan, J. A., & Mikulas, W. L.. (1999). Concentration and Mindfulness Meditations: Unique form of consciousness?. Applied psychophysiology and BioFeedback, 24(3), 147-165.
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La Torre, M. A (2000). A holistic view of psychotherapy: Connecting mind, body, and spirit.. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 36(2), 67-68.
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Article By Richard Singer
Richard A. Singer Jr. is a practicing psychotherapist living in the Cayman Islands. He is formerly of Pennsylvania and has a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and is currently working on his Doctorate Degree in Psychology at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. His daily inspirations have been included as part of Chicken Soup for the Recovering Soul, from the best selling Chicken Soup series. His own recovery from addiction and depression impassioned him to help others find courage, determination and peace, and has made what some would call “work” the love and purpose of his life. To learn more about Mr. Singer and explore updated information, visit his Web site [http://www.yourdailywalk.org]. or E-Mail him at RAS9999@aol.com. In addition, please join the him for down-to-earth interactive discussions about the suggested monthly readings, daily quotes, meditations affirmations, and journaling sections of the book on his Amazon.com Blog.
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