Meditation is a great and powerful skill that many millions of people have learned, in many countries, across the centuries. Recently meditation has seen a surge of popularity in the west, thanks in part to a number of meditation apps sweeping the world. In this article, we’ll look at the applicability and usefulness of meditation in a mental health context.
One of the most difficult things for people with mental health issues, to grapple with, is reacting to situations that come up. This might be reacting to a very stressful situation (like locking your keys in your car accidentally), or a job interview, and the suffering that it causes. On the other hand, this might be reacting in an extreme way to an everyday situation, such as leaving the house for work, and reacting with anxiety about leaving the lights turned on in the house. There are of course many other aspects to mental illness, but let’s discuss this aspect in the context of meditation.
Does it really help?
Being able to choose your response to a situation is a real skill, it can help calm you down, and help you maintain a sense of control over the environment. When you feel in control, your ability to handle stressful situations improves, which means you’re able to think more clearly, and make better decisions. This physically and perceptibly improves the situation. So it’s accurate to say that being able to choose your response to situations has a real effect on the world, and has real consequences. I mention this, as some people view meditation as a kind of prayer or wish that has no effect on the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many studies have shown that long-time meditators have shown far less reduction in performance on physical and mental tasks when in the presence of stressors (cold, loud sounds, etc).
How it helps
So, the question remains, does meditating help you choose your response to a situation? The answer is yes. During the practice of many common types of meditation, you are repeatedly drawing your attention away from distracting thoughts, and stopping yourself from reacting to them. You’re not violently halting your thoughts, it’s more of a careful reassignment of your attention back onto the object of meditation (often, breathing in and out). Each time you do this, you are repeatedly training your brain to not run wild reacting to stimulus, but instead, you’re training yourself to choose where you put your attention, and which thoughts you decide to follow through to their conclusion.
So, with this specific benefit clearly laid out, it’s all decided then: You should meditate. Let’s look at a short meditation together. Read this text and then try it out:
Take your time to sit comfortable in a chair with your eyes open. Settle down into the chair. Next, sit up straight and correct your posture. If you experience any pain, then just do whatever is comfortable for you today. You can worry about your posture later. Next, take a deep breath in and pay attention to how it feels for the air to be drawn into your lungs. Feel the air exhale too. Focus your attention on the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body. It might be helpful to imagine the air as a series of small particles being drawn into your body. Repeat this for a short while, then stop.
You may have noticed that your mind started wandering at some point during the meditation. This might have happened several times. Also, at some point you might have had the urge to stop meditating. It’s ok, that’s completely normal, and it’s how you develop the ability to choose your responses. For this practice, what you should do, is the following:
When your thoughts wander from the sensation of your breath, gently bring your attention back to it.
When you get frustrated and want to stop meditating, wait a moment, and then go back to your breath.
Keep repeating this.
When you’re done, sit quietly and reflect on what happened, and how you dealt with it.
You’ll notice, that with time, you’ll be able to hold your attention on your breath longer, and more successfully. This is of course, a skill that you can transfer to other areas of your life.
As I mentioned in the introduction, meditation apps are taking off, and for good reason. Listening to an experienced meditator guiding you through a meditation is much better and more interesting than reading a meditation guide, like the one we provided above. Both are useful of course, but it helps to be able to listen to a nice voice, and focus on the meaning of the words and instructions (or silence), rather than quickly reading the words on a screen, or in a book. As such, meditation guides are much better for building the practice of meditation. But, people don’t want to visit a meditation guide, finding a good one can be difficult, and they don’t want to interrupt their day. So, having all the power of a meditation teacher in your pocket is highly desirable. In fact, some of the meditation apps are even free. So, there are very few downsides to using a high-quality meditation app.
So, to conclude, meditation can help you choose your response to a stressful situation. How much it helps you, will depend on your skill in meditation, and your dedication to it. With time, you’ll be able to gradually choose your responses more and more. And that’s a skill that you can use to improve your life, and your mental health.