I often encourage clients to take up meditation alongside therapy with me – whatever type you take up, it is a potentially supportive practice alongside talking therapy. In fact, any practice that slows us down to focus on the moment we are in, with an awareness of what is going inside our body and mind will help the reflective work that talking therapy encourages.
I’m biased in favour of meditation as it helped me enormously in my mid-20s when I first turned to it – it was my first step toward talking therapy. Meditation began to unearth what was really going on underneath all my defences, and it was then I knew I needed some help with what I found. I had no idea what ‘type’ of meditation I was doing then, nor did it really matter, as all I knew then was that it helped me sit with feelings I had been avoiding, and see patterns of behaviours that were unhelpfully repetitive. Meditation and other contemplative practices have become mainstream since those days – hooray – and we now know through ongoing research so much more about why, and how, meditation is beneficial for a wide range of mental, and emotional health issues – and that it can also change the structure and function of certain parts of our brain.
Meditation isn’t an easy practice – whichever type you choose – and many, if not most, people I know will struggle with it, and may well then give up on it. Or, they start off committed and enthused and then peel away from the regularity it really needs to make an effective difference. So it may be worth having a good think about what it is you want to achieve from a meditation practice before you start – to help tackle anxiety or depression? To deal with insomnia or chronic pain? To support you through a stressful period ahead – such as exams or moving house or an IVF cycle? Meditation has various guises, and teach isn’t exactly the same as each other, so it may be helpful to think about tailoring the one you choose with a goal in mind.
Loosely put, meditation falls into four camps:
-‘mindfulness’ – probably the most familiar type of meditation these days, so I mention it first. It involves ‘focus’ (see the next type below), but there is also an emphasis on developing a non-judgemental awareness of what is going on inside of you, and an encouragement of ‘openness’ too. So it has a bit more depth than just tuning attention to one thing – such as the breath or a candle flame. Studies show how mindfulness can affect the frontal parts of the brain and increase slower brainwave activity – which antidotes the faster brainwave activity we have when under stress or anxiety. A growing research base shows us how mindfulness practices can help with depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, pain management…
-‘focus’ – here you focus attention on one object or word or phrase or strong visual image. If your mind wanders (which it will), you are encouraged to spot it when it does, before gently bringing it back to the object of attention – such as the ‘in’ or ‘out’ breath, or image of waves or, say, the word ‘peace’. Studies suggest these forms of meditation increase communication between the front and back of the brain and may be of help to people who are easily distracted, and struggle with sustained attention – it is used with some people with ADHD. It may also be a good introduction into a slightly deeper mindfulness practice.
-‘quiet mind’ – here, the research looks at the practice of Transcendental Meditation (of which I have no experience) where the focus is upon a mantra. Some like the spiritual connotation, others don’t. However, unlike pure ‘focus’ meditation, this practice works to create a mental silence – a wonderful state that is rarely achieved naturally. Mindfulness doesn’t aim for this mental silence – it aims to wriggle away from the noise, and be with it – without judgement. Research suggests that this type of meditation affects the ‘Default Mode Network’ of the brain, quietening it down, which ultimately allows for a broader perspective on one’s perceptions of self.
-‘compassion-based’ – many of these types of meditation derive from Buddhist scholarship, and involve creating and activating compassionate feelings from within. Many mindfulness practices incorporate compassionate elements – they click onto the ‘non-judgemental awareness’ aspect beautifully. Research shows these practices can increase front to back communication in the brain as well as increased fast brainwave activity in other areas – not unlike ‘focus’ meditation – but this is also associated with the brain’s ability to synthesise and integrate complex information. Another interesting find is the activation of the left prefrontal region of the brain too – a balance to an overemphasis on right frontal activation that has been shown to be tied up with depression. Using these types of meditation to improve your relationship with yourself is, in my experience, very challenging for most clients I talk to – but the ideas behind it make up the backbone of much of the work that I do.
It’s rare that any of us fit a category snugly, so I wouldn’t get too hung up on choosing the ‘right’ fit – but maybe follow your hunch as a place to start. Meditation is such a personal endeavour, and I would encourage anyone to play around until a practice latches. I wouldn’t lose any sleep if I didn’t have to swim again, but if you told me I couldn’t run again….