Mindfulness Meditation

If I had to recommend a daily spiritual practice for you for the next year, something that would bring about a huge boost in consciousness in you, it would be doing this simple thing…

Eckhart Tolle

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the purpose of mindfulness meditation
  • Recognize the role of cognitive distancing in mindfulness practice
  • Explore the connection between mindfulness and acceptance

People who don’t like meditation usually misunderstand it. There’s a stereotype about meditation in our society, a belief that meditation should focus the mind or sharpen the mind. When I discuss meditation with clients, they often arrive for the next session saying “Doc, I hate to admit it, but I’m a failure at meditation…I just can’t keep my mind focused.” Based on their lack of focus, they conclude that they just can’t meditate. Let’s correct that misconception. Concentration is not necessary for mindfulness meditation. I say again: Concentration is not necessary for mindfulness meditation. Transcendental meditation, yes. Mindfulness meditation, no.

Even if you never actually meditate, please take time to understand the motivation behind mindfulness meditation. Through mindfulness, you cultivate the ability to notice, pause, observe, and accept. These are four fundamental functions of mindful awareness.

You may believe that you already know how to do mindfulness meditation. But you probably don’t. That’s because the experience of mindfulness is like the experience of Paris. You can read about this great city, but you don’t know Paris until you’ve actually been there and explored it. The same is true with mindfulness meditation. The experience of being able to pause, notice, observe, and accept is much greater than these concepts separately. Each skill is cultivated with mindfulness.

So…you definitely want to take advantage of this major tool needed to move forward in your recovery. If you’ve been practicing cognitive distancing, you then you already have a hint of what mindfulness can do. Like mindfulness practice, cognitive distancing involves taking the observer perspective and noticing in the present moment. When physical symptoms appear, you observe and comment on them. “Ah, I see that my hand just trembled.” When your negative stories appear, you simply observe and comment on that, too. “Ah, I see my mind is playing the ‘You’re inadequate’ story.” That’s cognitive distancing.

Done correctly, cognitive distancing opens a small space between you and your experience of your thoughts. This space is key, it is the beginning of your freedom. Rather than becoming entangled in your catastrophic thoughts and stories, you simply observe them, but remain detached. Being outside, above, or external to the storyline distances you enough to remove some of its impact, taking the edge off the symptoms. You begin to see yourself as the author—in charge of your own destiny—instead of a victim or sufferer.

The Purpose of Mindfulness: The Present Moment

The purpose of life is living.

The real purpose of mindful meditation is a richer, deeper appreciation of present experience. As you meditate on your breath, many distracting thoughts and feelings arise. Your purpose is not to suppress them. Instead, simply return your attention to the breath, as many times as you need to. Remember, mindfulness is the awareness of present experience with acceptance. There is no need for self-blame. If your mind wanders one hundred times and you return to the breath, that’s okay. Each such return is a successful moment of mindfulness, so that’s one hundred successes. The practice of mindfulness meditation actually requires that your mind wander. Otherwise, you could not have the experience of returning it to the breath!

Some sources suggest that the present moment is full of joy, and that we should meditate to make contact with this joy. In fact, the present moment is not necessarily joy. Any emotion can dominate the present. Even multiple emotions can dominate the present.

The purpose of mindfulness is simply awareness. Mindfulness suggests that we approach whatever is negative and try to “make peace” with it, and simply let it be. Sometimes life will be wonderful. Sometimes life will be agony. Rather than flee the agony, we instead seek to be present with it, to feel the agony fully. This is called “zestful living,” because it involves an experience of both the highest highs and lowest lows that life can bring. Sometimes life will be full of love, sometimes it will be full of sadness or grief. What else could it be? Such emotions are simply part of being alive. Anxiety is one of these lows.

Tara Brach talks about a “yes meditation.” No matter what experiences arise, we say “yes,” giving it permission to enter our awareness. “Yes” is the gateway to intimacy with our own inner life. When we say “no” to our experiences, we tend to assume a position of denial, defensiveness, or victimhood. “Yes” suspends our control strategies and introduces us to new possibilities in the development of our being. To heal from pain, we must feel pain.

Anxiety and Mindfulness

In the grips of intense anxiety, many clients don’t see the point of meditating. They are too busy practicing anxiety management and looking for solutions. When such clients do accept meditation, they bring into therapy the baggage of meditation as viewed through the lens of popular culture. Clients may believe, for example, that meditation can be used to build and fortify an internal wall against anxious thoughts and against anxious feelings: “I just have to learn to keep my mind focused.” Or they may pursue meditation for relaxation, as a means of avoiding bodily sensations of anxiety, a wall against the body. “If I can stay focused, my body will start to calm down.”

When meditation serves the master of avoidance and escape, that’s the temporary relief of negative reinforcement again. You are not meditating just to be meditating. You are not meditating to control anxiety. You are not meditating to reduce the symptoms. Avoidance only makes anxiety worse. In this instance, meditation backfires.

In the context of psychotherapy of anxiety, meditation helps you 1) recognize states of cognitive fusion, 2) relax fusion by assuming an observer perspective, and 3) facilitate exposure by bringing thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations to the center of your observing awareness, while 4) providing some distance from the emotional terror of doing so, and therefore, some comfort. What all of this adds up to is a systematic means of exposure and acceptance.


Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is the purpose of mindful meditation?

  • A. Concentrating the mind
  • B. Suppressing thoughts and feelings
  • C. Appreciating present experience
  • D. Achieving joy in the present moment

2. What is the role of cognitive distancing in mindfulness practice?

  • A. Focusing on catastrophic thoughts
  • B. Becoming detached from negative stories
  • C. Controlling anxious feelings
  • D. Suppressing bodily sensations

3. What is the purpose of saying “yes” in Tara Brach’s “yes meditation”?

  • A. Denying experiences
  • B. Avoiding control strategies
  • C. Developing new possibilities
  • D. Suppressing pain

4. How might meditation serve the master of avoidance and escape, keeping you imprisioned by anxiety?

  • A. By reducing anxiety symptoms
  • B. By fortifying the mind against anxious thoughts
  • C. By helping control bodily sensations
  • D. By providing temporary relief of symptoms through negative reinforcement

5. In the context of psychotherapy of anxiety, meditation helps with:

  • A. Suppressing thoughts and feelings
  • B. Avoiding exposure to anxiety triggers
  • C. Observing and accepting anxious experiences
  • D. Controlling emotional terror

Answers

1. C. Appreciating present experience

2. B. Becoming detached from negative stories

3. C. Developing new possibilities

4. D. By providing temporary relief of negative reinforcement

5. C. Observing and accepting anxious experiences