By Nicolina Santoro, MA
Mahayana Buddha, the progenitor and prophet of the middle way, had encapsulated an entire philosophy into short, clear directives. “Commit not a single unwholesome action, Cultivate a wealth of virtue, To tame this mind of ours; this is the teaching of all the Buddhas” (Rinpoche, 1993). Meditation is part of the practice of taming the mind. Often described as the still mind, or still waters of the mind, meditation appears to be a kind of martial art for one’s thoughts. To even begin to feel the stillness of mind that comes with the practice of meditation, one must endure the onslaught of thought as it runs through the beginning meditator’s mind rampantly. Even more interesting, is the realization that this pattern of thought is a regular occurrence in the mind. Meditation highlights the never-ending barrage of thought, as the student tries to negotiate the noise to a place of quiet within the mind.
Meditation is actually a common practice among many different platforms of faith, although called many different names throughout time, but the goal of calming the turbulence in the mind remains the same. The practical applications of meditation have far reaching benefits to those who suffer from a variety of illnesses. Mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and manias have all shown to be positively affected by the regular practice of meditation. Some of the therapeutic benefits of regular meditation practice include enhanced self-esteem, reduction in feelings of hopelessness and depression, and a sense of spiritual connection.
Since the mind, by its various sense mechanisms can create and maintain a subjective reality, one seems to be at the mercy of the mind and its myriad of emotional states of being. Thoughts create emotional experiences based on the electrical impulses that send messages to various chemical centers to whip up recipes for certain emotional states. These emotional states hold tremendous power over self-efficacy, and emotional well-being. Most people have had the experience of having a “bad” day, or a lack of desire to get out of bed. These types of feelings and their sources are often overlooked by people experiencing them, as the emotional tide they create has a strong influence in coloring one’s perceived reality. Over time, the continuing pattern of similar emotional states can create long-term relationships between neurons in the brain. In other words, relationships between a thought and the subsequent emotional state that the thought triggered become a learned response with different chemical markers for different emotional states.
Meditation is the act of awareness, noting a thought as it travels through the mind’s eye, rather than grabbing on to it for dissection. It is in the act of dissection that the emotional response is created. A sort of fixation then occurs, making it very difficult to regain a sense of calm detachment which is the focus of the meditation practice. Observe, but be not of the waves of thoughts that roll through the ocean of conscious awareness, and breathe which is certainly not as easy as one might think. Buddhism imparts that suffering, and dis-ease are certainly inevitable in life however, there is an opportunity for personal transcendence in the observation rather immersion in this state of suffering (Rinpoche, 1993). A meditation posture is grounded, comfortable yet deliberate. One may elect to sit on the floor with legs crossed in front of them, arms relaxed and poised comfortably in the lap, eyes closed. One then begins to notice their breath, every inhalation and exhalation is noted in the awareness space. As this practice begins, the mind seems utterly flooded with thoughts, worries, randomness, and chaos. However, through each breath, the subject becomes accustomed to the flow of thoughts which become a sort of background noise, and the central focus of breathing creates an altered or trance like state in the consciousness of the meditator. This altered state of being allows the meditator to observe self from a place of detached compassion which is the place of mindfulness that the Buddha described.
Common mistakes that people make when entering into the practice of mediation exists in the misapplication of the quiet mind concept. The term is slightly misleading. The mind, it seems, is never truly quiet. Thoughts run constantly because the mind is always taking in information, processing it, encoding it, retrieving it, and deciphering it. The stillness of mind exists in the unfettered observance of this process. Unfettered meaning that one never holds on to, or tries to single out the thoughts as they steadily move through conscious awareness of the subject. As meditation becomes familiar to the mind itself, the thoughts no longer control the emotional state of the meditator, and stillness is observed by a state of total acceptance, and symbiosis.
The meditation process has been reported to be difficult, and even frustrating to those who are new to the experience, but long term benefits have also been relayed by those who were able to get through the frustration, and experience the trance-like state where feelings of calm and clarity exist. Meditation as a response and treatment for stress is now common advice from health practitioners even in the west because of the positive impact it has on the central nervous system (CNS), (Fontana, 1992). The effect that mediation has on the body is noted further in the American Psychological Association’s book entitled Integrating Spirituality into Treatment. Meditation lowers respiratory rate, heart rate, and brain wave states, placing the body in a state of rest which is very helpful in dealing with chronic anxiety. Meditation has also been used frequently in the redirection of addictive behavior because of the altered state that it can enhance bio-chemically. In behavioral and cognitive behavioral types of therapeutic interventions, meditation is also useful in the reprogramming of negative thinking, through the natural change in thought patterns that are facilitated by the practice.
Research conducted by Lindgren & Coursey, published in 1995 shows a strong positive correlation between the use of meditation practice and increased feelings of well being among those who suffer from severe forms of anxiety and depression. Those who are being treated for more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have also reported positive cognitive effects on mood and self-esteem. These trends can enhance the level of care that practitioners bestow upon their clients, giving them the tools to help alleviate some of the distress associated with negative automatic thinking, placing some of the control back in their hands with regard to better self-care.
Self-care is something that even mental health practitioners overlook for themselves. In the mental health fields, burn-out among therapists and social workers is high. The culprit seems to be a lack of self-care and over extension according to the APA. Regular meditation practice can also help alleviate the stress that in the field of mental health seems almost inevitable to its practitioners. Self-care processes that the APA advocates include the awareness of the levels and types of stress in the practitioner’s environment, case load management, outside support networks, and extra-curricular activities that promote a sense of health and well being. A professional support network, boundaries, and realistic expectations upon the self are also highlighted as areas to which the practitioner should attend for optimum results. The clarity that accompanies regular meditation can also invigorate a flagging practitioner, providing a sense of calm and clarity toward the greater good of all concerned.
American Psychological Association. ed. by Miller, W.R. (2006). Integrating Spirituality into Treatment: Resources for Practitioners. Washington: American Psychological Association.
Berger, K. S. (2006). The Developing Person. New York: Worth Publishers.
Fontana, D. (1992). The Meditator’s Handbook. Rockport: Element Books, Inc.
Lindgren, K., & Coursey, R. (1995). Spirituality and Serious Mental Illness: A Two-Part Study. Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 18(3), 93-111. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Rinpoche, S. (1993). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.