by Ali Emerson
By now, most of us have heard that mindfulness and meditation can be good for our mental health. But are we being told the whole story? With 8%, in other words, 18 million Americans trying or using meditation practices in 2012, there is no doubt that this is now big business. But are we ignoring the centuries of wisdom that go along with this ancient practice?
We’ve all heard the good stuff – that in as little as 20 minutes a day of just sitting and concentrating on our breathing, we can work wonders on our minds. We can de-stress, feel more gracious, lower our blood pressure and enjoy all the benefits that stem from these effects. We can increase our satisfaction with life, improve our happiness, our relationships, our sex lives and even be more successful. But can it really be that easy?
After all, if meditation is so easy, why is it called a ‘practice’? Zana Marovic, a meditation teacher with years of experience, explains the problems she has witnessed, perhaps why ‘sitting’ should come with a few more warnings. Meditation connects us to our inner minds, and some of the things we find there can be difficult to deal with – that’s why we locked them away to begin with.
In 1985 a study by Kutz et al. found that meditation was likely to bring up disturbing memories from the past, such as abuse and abandonment. Kutz reported that these memories caused sobbing and unpleasant emotions such as fear, despair, and apprehension.
In 1989, Craven listed destructive behaviour and suicidal feelings among the negative effects of meditation. However, Craven also commented that meditation may lead to psychotherapeutic change, and could be useful as a tool in modern therapy.
Perez-De-Albeniz and Holmes note that there are definite physiological changes for the meditator in the short term. These include decreased blood pressure and heart rate. Metabolic and hormonal changes appear to continue and even increase over a period of 12 – 18 months.
One of the main aims of meditation is to enable the practitioner to let go of ‘the self’. Western psychotherapy is based on the idea that we must find and know the self in order to be mentally healthy. This may be where the problem lies, and where many in the West are misunderstanding the practice of meditation.
When bad memories are unearthed during meditation, it is tempting to try to analyse them and understand how they contributed to making the ‘self’ that we identify with. But the idea of meditation is to realise that those events were just a moment in time and that they do not define the self at all. It is only when bad memories are allowed to take root inside us that they have the power to hurt. By seeing the memories and allowing them to pass without attachment we can free ourselves of them once and for all.
The practice of meditation is a long and sometimes intense journey. Despite what we are led to believe today the short term benefits are only the beginning of a process which requires commitment and effort. With an experienced teacher, or at the very least, a trusted friend to talk through the results with us, meditation can be as relaxing as the million-dollar industry makes it out to be, but we must remember that ultimately this is a tool for spiritual growth.