Making Change

A psychologist provides guidelines to help individuals define their best pathways to change

Open Your Mind And Say Ahhh

Meditation can be freeing in ways you never imagined -- even for you.

Self-awareness is an important part of developing an acceptance of who you are now, and making personal changes for who you would like to be in the future. One frequently effective method that people use to increase their self-awareness is meditation. While this won't be the best way for everyone, there are many people who dismiss the idea without knowing what they are rejecting. They often say that they can't meditate or that it doesn't calm them down; but these reactions belie a misunderstanding.

Before I address the inaccuracies in these statements, I need to clarify that there are different kinds of meditation. I am specifically addressing mindfulness meditation.  It is the awareness of thoughts and feelings in the present, as they are occurring; and without judgment. One common mindfulness meditation practice is attending to the inhale and exhale of your breath; recognizing when you have become distracted; and then gently redirecting your awareness back to your breath. Mindfulness meditation helps people to 'see' (or become aware of) the constant activity of their consciousness; and to learn to direct their attention rather than just get carried away in the flow of that activity.

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A common belief about meditation is that it is something people who are calm do; and that it makes these people calmer. As a result, the two reactions that I mentioned above are common:

I can't meditate. It's important to understand that the purpose of meditation is to see your consciousness (the flow of your thoughts and feelings). Most people are not aware of just how busy their minds are until they really pay attention. So, if you approach meditation as a practice of seeing your consciousness, then you can undoubtedly meditate - because all you need to do is be aware. It might be difficult and frustrating - but you can do it.

If you have tried to meditate and still question whether you were really doing it, ask yourself; Was I aware of the constant wanderings of my mind? Could I see it wandering and then bring it back to my breath again? Being more aware of what the Buddhists call your "monkey mind" tells you that you were, in fact, meditating.

Meditation does not calm me down. Although meditation often results in feeling calmer, this is not its essential purpose. Using meditation to calm yourself is a lot like using Benadryl to help you sleep; it's not the stated purpose, though it can be a very useful side-effect. So, even if meditating doesn't help you feel calmer, it might be helping you become more aware of your own experiences. With this greater awareness, you will gain greater knowledge of (and compassion for) your inner struggles, making you better prepared to work effectively with them. 

Again, meditation is not for everyone. But it is often a very effective tool. It provides a way for people to explore - and become more comfortable with - their thinking, feeling, perceptions, biases, and reactions. Meditation also helps people attain greater self-acceptance and inner peace; and places them in a better position to change how they relate to themselves and the world around them.

 

(If you would like to learn more about meditation, two good places to start are looking at Jack Kornfield's website and reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Wherever You Go There You Are.)

 

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey.

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