“In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops.” -Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
People pursue meditation and therapy for the same purpose: to relieve their suffering. And while it is a universal human drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain, finding true healing requires deeper work than simply applying strategies to fulfill these goals. A holistic approach to health and well-being involves addressing issues on a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual level. It is about looking at the entire picture of our existence, rather than spot-treating symptoms and trying our best to cope.
When clients come to see me for therapy, they want to break free from their minds, let go of patterns that are no longer serving them, process their emotions in an authentic way, and connect to who they really are. What I have learned over many years of working with clients is that by combining self-exploration from therapy with inner silence from meditation, people can truly transform their lives.
The meditation and therapy worlds both agree that symptoms (or “presenting problems”) are not the real issue. So, when someone seeks support due to an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, OCD, trauma, stress, and so on, we have to look beneath the surface and ask the question “What is really going on here?” When we dig deeper, we begin to see patterns that evoke and perpetuate the symptoms. These are called underlying issues. Let’s take a look at the underlying issues that both meditation and therapy address…
Common Underlying Issues in Meditation and Therapy:
• The desire to control
• The need for certainty
• Lack of trust in self
• Impatience with life
• Trying to logic or rationalize our way out of problems
• Getting stuck in defence mechanisms (blame, projection, denial, justification, etc.)
• Making choices based on our conditioning instead of our real values
• Lack of purpose and meaning
• Being trapped in judgement
• Going on auto-pilot and being reactive
• Needing things to be perfect
• Refusing to accept the reality of the present moment
• Believing our thoughts
• Avoiding or becoming stuck in emotions
• Losing ourselves to our roles and identities
• Trying to use willpower to make changes
• Believing we are just a body or a mind
Now that we see how meditation and therapy address similar issues, it’s important to look at how meditation contributes to therapy in a new way…
How Does Meditation Support Therapy?
While therapy aids self-exploration, it is limited in that it focuses on the psychological realm. We can use our minds to make some changes to our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, but if our overall connection to Self is missing, we can become stuck in surface-level change. Psychology cannot answer some of life’s biggest questions, including “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “How am I meant to be living?” At best, it can only distract us from our deepest fears by focusing our attention on fleeting goals and needs.
While therapy can be very useful, it’s reliance on self-analysis, logical thinking, reframing thoughts, emotional “techniques,” and distracting with positive coping strategies has limitations. It ignores parts of our true nature like the capacity of introspection, deeper awareness, spontaneous insight, and intuition. And it is these factors that are necessary to create a real transformation in our lives. In addition, many people find that they “know” more about themselves and their symptoms through therapy, but that their minds continue to control their lives. Without inner silence, it becomes difficult to connect inward and heal.
Here are some examples of clients making progress in therapy without meditation:
• Client A. has been in trauma therapy for many years exploring her adverse childhood experiences. She has a strong sense of how her past has shaped her behaviours, emotional style, identity, and overreactive nervous system. In some ways, she has found solace in this understanding of her conditioning. However, she feels stuck in her patterns. She knows why she does what she does, but she doesn’t feel capable of stepping out of her patterns in-the-moment. She feels frustrated and ashamed for being unable to help herself any further. She recognizes that talking about her past has only gotten her so far.
• Client B. went to CBT for depression. He became aware of how certain thoughts were bringing up difficult emotions and then leading to behaviours that perpetuate his depression. He found some success with catching these unhealthy thoughts and reframing them, but he is noticing how exhausting it is to battle his own mind. Moreover, his thoughts still remain out of control most of the time. Distraction has become his primary coping strategy, which contributes to his ongoing lack of purpose, meaning, and sense of self.
• Client C. attended solution-focused brief therapy for anxiety, and also made several other attempts at talk therapy. They spent a lot of time exploring their issues and feeling validated by their therapist, which helped. They have been able to identify triggers for their anxiety and have been given a list of healthy coping strategies to use to deal with it. The problem is, the anxiety doesn’t seem to resolve. They have found that the best option is to avoid feeling triggered, which has made their world very small. In addition, they haven’t learned how to process emotions since the coping strategies step in to distract them from their pain. They wonder if this is as good as it gets.
By incorporating meditation into their lives, these clients could see further progress with their inner work. Training the mind to quiet down has many benefits, including:
o Increased awareness – a deeper, present-moment understanding of the dynamics contributing to our issues
o Connection to self – having a steady center of being we can come back to over and over in moments of stress
o Slower thoughts – freedom from our mental chatter contributes to peace of mind and the ability to make choices that are aligned with our true values
o Stronger intuition – suspending analytical thinking helps us learn to trust ourselves and realize that we have the wisdom necessary to guide us in our lives
o Spontaneous insight and true self-reflection – inner silence creates a mental space where insight begins to arise. We start to see options that we couldn’t see before, which creates new possibilities for healing
o Wider perspective – a quiet mind creates the capacity to look at our lives more objectively and find the truth so that we can free ourselves from suffering
o Connection to a greater purpose – when we slow down inside, we can begin to let go of our conditioning and find true meaning in our lives
o Acceptance – learning to accept and work with the present moment, rather than fighting reality and getting stuck in difficult emotions
So how do we go about connection the practices of meditation and therapy?
How to Incorporate Meditation into Therapy:
1. Find a teacher – meditation is simple but not easy, and it’s important to have someone who knows how to guide you through the challenges and new awareness that arises. Find a therapist who has an active and long-term meditation practice. Transpersonal therapy and mindfulness therapy are aligned with meditation and awareness work.
2. Let go of misconceptions – recognize that meditation is not a relaxation strategy and you will not feel calm and at peace all of the time.
3. Begin your mind training – use an anchor to first train the mind to slow down (see my blog post here on the mind training strategy I use with my clients).
4. Stay open – new awareness might contradict theories from your past therapies. If we think we already know what is happening, we might miss the truth.
5. Practice, practice, practice – staying consistent with your meditation is important. Ask your therapist to practice with you in session, and be sure to take time each day to sit in inner silence.
6. Discuss new awareness in therapy – as new insights arise, no matter how small, it is important to explore them in therapy so that they solidify and support healing from symptoms.
7. Keep it simple – meditation doesn’t need to be a complex technique. The purpose is to quiet the mind and learn to be with yourself in silence. We can practice anytime, anywhere.
8. Trust the process – awareness work unfolds over time. People often come to therapy and expect big changes quickly, but we can’t force our own evolution. Trusting that we have all the resources we need inside of us is important, and your therapist can help you work through any challenges with this.
The purpose of meditation and therapy is to be with ourselves, to stay in the present moment, and to separate who we are from our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. The signs of progress can be subtle at first: the mind is calming down slowly; there are more spaces between our thoughts; we can feel who we are deep inside; there is a sense of knowing that wasn’t there before; we are trusting our intuition more; we are becoming aware of real issues and deeper dynamics playing out in our lives; we are being more honest and open; we are more patient and less reactive; and so on. If a person isn’t used to identifying this other level of awareness, it is easy to miss the small signs of progress at the beginning. This is why having a guide who has dedicated their life to this type of inner work is so important.
Katie Dunnigan is a transpersonal and mindfulness therapist in private practice who teaches about inner silence, awareness work, and personal transformation. If you have questions about this work, please contact her for a free phone consult.