Meditation and ‘mindfulness’ are increasingly discussed both in popular culture and psychological research. Interestingly, meditation seems to be increasingly in vogue both as a technique for alleviating mental distress as well as something those who enjoy good mental health can pursue to increase their wellbeing. More than twenty years ago Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, claimed that ‘modern’ approaches to mental health have generally focused on alleviating negative psychological states and treating conditions, but have little to say on improving an individual’s life from a ‘normal’ baseline. The increased interest in meditation, both in research and in the general public, suggests that a ‘positive’ psychology which looks at ways for people to flourish in their lives as well as cope with them has begun to come of age. I have been interested in meditation since my teens, although I cannot claim to have always been the most dutiful practitioner!
There appears to be a tension in the path of meditation to the mainstream. Many approaches to meditation are function specific, such as for reducing stress or anxiety; easily half of the meditation apps recommended to me seem to be aimed at improving sleep. Yet formal meditation originates in traditions that orient to a ‘deeper’ purpose, perhaps conceptualised as spiritual awakening, experiencing non-duality, or seeing through the self. I am thus always interested in how my clients understand and use the practice of meditation, and how it might connect with their deeper worldview. For the purpose of this article however, I will restrict myself to a functional approach.
Meditation has been of incredible use to me personally as a way of building emotional awareness. Speaking as an English male, I did not always have the best relationship with my emotions. For years I struggled to identify them, often feeling as though I felt nothing at all, despite sensing at a deeper level that this wasn’t the case. I habitually answered ‘how do you feel?’ questions with ‘I think…’ answers. I often mislabelled emotions as anger, and through my own therapy came to see that I had more or less avoided large parts of my emotional life (mostly fears and vulnerabilities).
Sadly, this is not an unusual state of affairs, and I have worked with many individuals with a similar mental organisation, and I have come to believe that meditation is the Via Regia to a more developed emotional life. Without dwelling on thoughts, simply focus on how your body feels the next time you are aware of feeling a certain way. How is it that you know that you do feel that way? What does that feeling consist of? Is it located in a particular part of your body, like your chest or stomach, or does it seem amorphous? How is it that you know you find the sensation pleasant or unpleasant? What is the relationship between these sensations in the body and the thoughts that enter and exit your awareness? Does the word you find yourself ascribing to the feeling actually fit the feeling?
Although intuitive to some, I have seen in my own life and in my clinical work that for many individuals there can be a pronounced before and after when this exercise has been integrated. One sees that, contra CBT, emotions very often drive thought; to the extent that one is engaged and focused on emotionally ruminating thoughts about how one feels, one is not engaged with the feelings. Meditation is the skill of building a space in one's life to actually feel and process at the level of emotion, where one often finds even powerful emotional states can quickly pass when actually held in the light of conscious awareness, instead of endlessly intellectualising away from one's emotional life.