MEDITATION AND PSYCHOTHERAPY
by Elizabeth Blaise
I recently asked participants on an introduction to meditation course I was delivering to define their understanding of mediation. Responses ranged from the somewhat oxymoronic “something you do to relax” to “sitting still and not thinking” to the goal-orientated “meditation is the way to get enlightened!”
Whilst a degree of instrumentality is necessary for meditation, in that you need to commit to “doing” a practice, beyond this the primary requirement is to let go of doing. To relax you need to release tension in the bodymind and to meditate you need to let go of (or at least loosen the grip of) the ego. And whilst it is true that sitting in stillness can bring about a meditative state, altered states of consciousness can also be reached through dynamic practices such as walking meditation, Qi Gong, physical yoga or Sufi whirling. Nor is sitting specifically necessary. Yoga Nidra for example, which is considered an advanced meditation practice in the Himalayan Yoga tradition, is practiced whilst lying down, in yogic corpse pose (savasana).
whilst it is true that sitting in stillness can bring about a meditative state, altered states of consciousness can also be reached through dynamic practices such as walking meditation, Qi Gong, physical yoga or Sufi whirling.
As for meditation leading to enlightenment, Patanjali, the scholar who outlined (circa 200 AD) a systematic path to Self Realization through Yoga certainly thought so. In a series of 195 aphoristic statements, titled the “Yoga Sutras” he cites Samadhi (enlightenment) as the goal of yoga meditation and provides a systematic methodology for controlling the fluctuations of the mind and ultimately transcending the mind and resting in true nature, the Self. However, he also warns against attachment to any end goal and lists several stages of enlightenment which still have a supporting object, or lure the practitioner with enticing siddhis (spiritual or supra normal attainments) that are not “the real deal” and can become sticking points before ultimate Self Realization.
Given that meditation is a complex phenomenon and that there has been tremendous cross-cultural dissemination of mediation practices in the last 50 years, it is not surprising that the term is used loosely and often elusively.
In this article I hope to provide some clarity around the term meditation, highlight the relevance of meditation for psychotherapists and also to share something of my personal experiences of meditation and its signigficance in my spiritual development.
Meditation is recognized as a component of almost all religions and spiritual traditions and essentially there are two main types: concentrative meditation and open monitoring or mindfulness meditation. Concentrative meditation practices involve focusing attention on a single object (inner or external). Hence this object or focus of attention might be the breath, an inner or external image, a movement pattern (as in tai chi or yoga) or a mantra (a sound, word or phrase that is repeated silently). The purpose of concentrative practices is to learn to focus one’s attention and develop concentration. When thoughts or emotions arise, the meditator gently directs the mind back to the original object of concentration. In this way the meditator comes to know the nature and structure of the mind and develops skill in taming or controlling it’s tendencies. The meditator transitions through three stages: concentration (dharana) to meditation (dhyana) to total absorption (samadhi) in which there is no separation between subject or object. The initial stage is often very difficult for beginner meditators, but with ongoing meditation practice and the ability to not be swayed asunder by the “monkey mind”, there is a progressively seamless flow from one stage to the next.
Jung was not too keen on concentrative mediation for Westerners, due to their underlying dualistic mindset (as opposed to the inherent holism of the East). He believed that this type of practice would encourage egoic control of mind and also that, since only content of which one was aware (conscious) could be controlled, it was not a useful means by which to access or integrate unconscious content. He advocated active imagination, as a preferred meditation technique for Westerners. As we know from our creative imagination and dream work exercises at CCPE, this meditative technique uses the conscious ego to translate the contents of the unconscious into an “object” (image or narrative) that can then be integrated into consciousness. In my opinion, concentrative meditation is not necessarily ego strengthening, as Jung assumed. Stilling the mind also includes stilling (or resisting) egoic functioning. However, I often suggest mindfulness mediation over concentrative mediation to (yoga) clients with obsessional traits or schizoid tendencies, who could probably very readily use egoic will to “fixate” on an object in a static and repressive way.
My feeling is that it is important to use a meditation technique that in the first instance, brings balance to the psyche and supports or encourages the emergent aspects of self. Hence for someone that would benefit from bringing forth compassion, a heart meditation or Metta bhavana, (loving-kindness meditation from the Buddhist tradition) might be appropriate and for an individual with blockage or disruption to libidinal energy, a dynamic practice such as walking mediation, free expressive movement or Microcosmic Orbit (a Taoist Qigong energy cultivation technique) might be useful.
Mindfulness meditation practices, such as Vipassana (or Insight Meditation) involve becoming aware of the entire field of awareness including all thoughts, feelings, perceptions or sensations as they arise in each moment. These are met non judgmentally and with compassion.
This fluid awareness enables the mediator to examine and know more intimately the workings of the senses, the body and the mind and hence cut through the distortions that cloud awareness. The meditator experiences the sense of personal self as a changing flux of phenomena and hence comes to the realization that there is “no self” as such in terms of a fixed and unchanging structure.
I believe meditation is indispensible for any kind of inner work. As transpersonally oriented psychotherapists we need to do this inner work as we cannot take someone where we have not been ourselves. Our Western outward orientation means that we develop competence at examining and “knowing” things in external reality (which is of course necessary for effective functioning in the world) but receive no guidance in ways of looking and “knowing ” inwardly. We need to learn how to notice the signals and guidance from within, the nature and structure of the mind, the flow of energy in our BodyMind, our particular personality, self identity and soul nature. Meditation and contemplative introspection reveals all of this to us. It exercises our “spiritual muscle” and catalyzes transpersonal development. We get to investigate our inner dimensions. We can witness the activity of the mind rather than getting caught up in it’s endless looping. And ultimately we can go beyond the mind, beyond personal consciousness and collective consciousness to come into direct and naked encounter with that which is utterly impersonal and unchanging and is variously named, in different traditions as the Self/ God/the Ground of Being/ Atman/the Source.
I believe meditation is indispensible for any kind of inner work. As transpersonally oriented psychotherapists we need to do this inner work as we cannot take someone where we have not been ourselves.
The art of psychotherapy is meditative practice. As therapist, your object of concentration is your client (external) or your countertransference (inner) and as you shift between object to field (all phenomenological experience), perhaps in moments holding both in awarenes, expressing the synergy between Being and doing and exploring the boundary between object and subject, you are engaging in a most profound meditation.
Mindulness can be introduced instrumentally into the therapy as a means of helping clients regulate emotions, manage addictions and develop the capacity to relate to self and other with acceptance and compassion. However mindfulness practice, as a specific state of moment to moment awareness, is not per se meditation. Introducing meditation practices into psychotherapy practice depends on your particular way of working and on whether it is relevant to the specific therapeutic goals. I have for example used yoga nidra to to help a client connect to soul nature and awaken transpersonal knowing, but would not use this practice if the goal was to strengthen ego boundaries. I have also sat in silence with a client for nearly 40 minutes, seemingly staring at the blank white sheet of A3 paper that she was unable to draw on, in a spontaneously arising concentrative meditation that signified for her a transformative experience and that instigated a breakthrough in the therapy. We are privileged at CCPE to have a treasure trove for contemplative meditation, from the individual Elements, to their specific qualities, to the Element archetypes. Also the many poems and readings that we have heard, offer themselves as portals to meditative inner stillness and insight. In the spirit of “sacred reading” or “lectio divina” (the Early Christian monastic practice where each verse of the Bible would be read super-slowly with reflection on it’s deeper meaning) , any scripture, elevated text or poem that resonates for you (or your client) can be used for contemplative meditation.
While it is great that clinical research is able to prove how meditation positively impacts emotional and physical functioning by modify neural structures in the brain, it is in my view essential to remember that the primary purpose and meaning of meditation is spiritual
We have embraced mediation in the West primarily for health and well-being and, in our typically Cartesian way, have subjected meditative practices to a growing field of neurological research. While it is great that clinical research is able to prove how meditation positively impacts emotional and physical functioning by modify neural structures in the brain, it is in my view essential to remember that the primary purpose and meaning of meditation is spiritual. We can measure and marvel at the happiness encoded in the activity of a Buddhist monk’s left prefrontal cortex, but no conceivable piece of equipment wired to such a wise head can provide even a glimmer of light on understanding the illuminated state of Self Realization.
Suffice to say that, thanks to decades of clinical research, it is now scientifically proven that meditation, through the process of calming the cognitive “thinking” (cognitive) mind, affects our physiology positively and brings about profound peace and positive emotions. Once the tyrannical ego abates and stops trying to control things, there is more space for perceptual and introspective sensitivity to amplify. This is important for insight into our own psychological processes as well as those of our clients.
it doesn’t really matter which meditation practice you choose for your spiritual development, as all are simply vehicles that take you to the door and ultimately you have to leave the vehicle (bodymind) behind
However the effects of meditation are not all peace and equanimity. My personal meditation practice has invoked profound love, feelings of bliss, multi-sensory ecstasy and irresistible pullings at my heart to be in this state of Presence rather than anywhere else. However, I have also experienced epic and apocalyptic pain, clearing samskaras and coming into contact with primary repressions. Breaking through this barrier is not without full-on resistance to what forebodes as total annihilation through the dissolution of ego. It is the experiencing of a near-unbearable and excruciating wrenching, like being sucked through a force-field or cosmic wind tunnel before deliverance into eternal, omnipresent Consciousness.
Hence it doesn’t really matter which meditation practice you choose for your spiritual development, as all are simply vehicles that take you to the door and ultimately you have to leave the vehicle (bodymind) behind. And should Spirit ask this of you (because ultimately it is not your doing or deciding but an act of Grace) it is a really, really big ask, because dissolution is not a solution and un-integrated states of enlightenment don’t really amount to much. Your commitment then must be to the path, to your practice, to your Being. Ultimately your commitment is to Spirit.
Universal Mind is a dynamic process. To be all there ever is, was and will be, limitlessly and infinitely can only be experienced by unwrapping from this completeness into earth-(bound) subjectivity. And longing for unboundedness, we go through the process of unbinding again. Sri Auribindo expresses this exquisitely in words that send my soul aquiver and touch my heart so deeply each time I connect to them:
And Spirit shall look out through matter’s gaze
And matter shall reveal Spirit’s face.
We are both naked and clothed (veiled) simultaneously, but our incarnate predicament in the space-time cosmic changing room is to eternally dress and undress, as we navigating between states of contraction and expansion.
After glimpses of naked awareness, one tends not to be so much of a fashion victim (identified with the bodymind) and is able to observe self from a more impersonal or “objective ” perspective. After glimpses of naked awareness, one might also recognize that even individuation is no more than a fashion statement.