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  • Writer's pictureJulie Love

Treatment Corner: Meditation

From the Archive: May 2022

In a nutshell: Many treatment modalities encourage “mindfulness” and often recommend meditation, without explaining what that means.

Let’s start with what Meditation is NOT: Meditation is not sitting twisted into a pretzel shape, chanting “Om,” and making your mind completely blank. Most know now to sit in a comfortable position, and that “Om” need not be part of it. Yet they still think the goal is to “empty your mind.” Then they get frustrated when they discover they can’t do that. No one can. Brains don’t do “empty.”

Our brains are very busy, chatty places. Generally, our minds are so busy reviewing the past and preparing for the future that our brains put as much as possible on autopilot to free up space. And while that can be helpful (your morning rush would be far worse if you had to think about each step of routines like showering or dressing), the fact that the brain defaults to it every chance it gets can be problematic – whether you’re missing your exit on the highway, or enflaming conflicts with preconceived assumptions, or just finding yourself at bedtime with yet another day of your life reduced to a vague, distracted blur.

Meditation is the practice of exercising the toggle in your brain that lets you decide what you’re going to be thinking about. It’s not telling your brain to stop, it’s telling it that now is not the time for that; we’re focusing on this for now. To meditate, you choose a focus to draw the mind back to. The past and the future being constant distractions, we focus on the present: your experience of sensations right now.

A common approach is by focusing on your breath: breathe slowly and deeply, and notice every sensory detail of doing so. Or you can do a body scan: starting at your toes, notice what each part of your body is experiencing right now. You don’t have to sit; you can stand, or walk – all the while noticing the sensations this action brings. For brains that are very language-driven, insisting on building a barrier of words between you and your experience, it can be helpful to have a mantra. “Om” might appeal to some, but any short phrase will do; and to avoid the brain’s tendency to get talkative about the chosen phrase, it can be helpful if it’s in another language. That can help you focus on just the sounds and the sensory experience of making them.

And then your mind wanders. Almost immediately, for most people. So you gently call it back. It wanders again, you call it back. Many think at this point that they “can’t” meditate, that the wandering means they are failing. Instead, think of this as if you are walking your dog. Every time it sees a squirrel, or picks up a scent, it naturally wants to follow it – and you call it back. The goal is not to have a dog that never is distracted – it’s a dog, after all – the goal is to have one that reliably comes back when called.

What is meditation good for? Everything. When your mind is preoccupied with anxiety, or negative thoughts, the ability to gently and kindly draw it away gives you space and perspective which is tremendously healing. ADHD seems like a perfect example of those who “can’t” meditate – but also for those who benefit from it. (They’re basically on a walk with a Jack Russell Terrier – of course practicing being able to call the mind back will be helpful!) Plus, there are abundant studies of the positive effects meditation has on our physical bodies: lowering blood pressure, boosting the immune system, and even reducing chronic pain.

Best of all, as you spend more time in the present moment, you find it’s a pretty good place to be. In a conversation, you’re more able to listen to the person (rather than scrambling to prepare your response). Brainstorming by freely engaging the thoughts your brain is having now, rather than screening everything for compatibility with your plans and expectations, results in dynamically increased creativity. And it’s kind of nice to end the day having lived a day, rather than having just gotten through it.

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