The Role of Meditation in the Contemplative Approach to Therapy

A woman talks to her therapist.Hold fast to the Great Form within
And let the world pass as it may
Then the changes of life will not bring pain
But contentment, joy and well being
Tao Te Ching, Verse 35

A woman I work with walks in and begins crying; covering her face, she is looking down, searching for some thing, some words to identify her experience. She speaks in anxious circles, words revealing nothing but the space that she cannot find comforting. She admits that her life is “dominated by thoughts” and that she is constantly mining for a jewel that will explain what is going on.

As she seeks to find meaning, to understand, I feel her suffering, but am also aware that I do not want to add to her experience with probing questions that would distract her. And I don’t wish to take away from her experience by offering soothing words that would only serve to temporarily mute her inner noise. Instead, I just sit with what is revealing itself, with what is arising in the present moment. In this being together, it is understood that nothing needs to change, that there is no pressure to interpret or to understand.

She squirms while watching me as we sit in this process of not adding to or taking away from her experience. She reports as she sits looking down, “It’s like I wake up and am in this body, and I wonder, ‘Is anything there if I’m not obsessing?’” She elaborates, “I’m looking for a mental formula that proves I exist, but I can’t find it!” She is genuinely curious about her experience of confusion. In this act of being present to one another (without an agenda that something needs to be different) there is a sense of completion despite her conflict, her anxiety, and her questions regarding what signifies an experience of being alive. This sense of completion arises from not needing to change or to maintain a condition. Just like in meditation, we view our thoughts, our emotions, and our sensations as passing conditions and don’t need to do anything about them.

The two main benefits of meditation are the attainment of another way of perceiving and relating to reality and more enjoyment of life in general. These benefits are cultivated by quieting the mind through concentration and insight practice. Sitting quietly, we place all of our attention on watching the breath go in and out. A few seconds later, we notice our leg feels stiff, our nose is running, there is a pain in our forehead. We are wondering what’s for dinner.

We notice we’ve been thinking with a sense of dread that there may be a problem in our relationship. As soon as we see we are distracted, we gently pull our attention back to the breath. There is no attempt to explore or understand any of the experience that distracted us. Instead of analyzing any “thing,” that arose, we work with the structure of the mind itself by strengthening its ability to not attach to the passing phenomena of experience with any emotional reactivity. The ability to learn how to rest and to feel at home in our body is cultivated in the practice of meditation. This practice is an invaluable adjunct to the psychotherapeutic process.

“Hold fast the Great Form within/and let the world pass as it may” is a description or an attempt to describe the indescribable. Mystics and seekers throughout time and from diverse cultures have sought to know the answer to “What is the Great Form within.” The Dalai Lama, during a mind-life symposium studying the effects of destructive emotions on brain functioning, was asked about whether every state of mind would have neural correlates. His answer is important, “There is no reason to believe that the very subtlest state—called ‘innate mind,’ the very essential nature of awareness itself, which is its luminous nature—would have neural correlates because it is not physical, not contingent upon the brain” (2003 Goleman).

Yet, this state, which is not a thing, and “not contingent upon the brain,” can have tremendous influence on our experience. Mind training affects a sense of moment-to-moment calm, a resting in the spaciousness that holds everything. Immediate contact with this spaciousness offers the experience of complete simplicity where nothing is missing and nothing needs to change. This process: just sitting and doing nothing, paradoxically transmutes any pain or suffering into quiet calm.

As this woman and I are sitting, we are sensing that there is no urgency to do anything. I return to her “mental formula” statement in which she was curious about a formula for existence. In the spirit of contemplative inquiry, I ask her, “Where is your I?” She looks at me without answering and then laughs, nervously. She is noticeably uncomfortable, but she just sits with her discomfort. I ask her where the boundary is between her sense of self and the outside. She closes her eyes, but again remains silent. It’s as if she’s processing that her mind can’t figure out the answer, and I’m with her feeling into the confusion. She closes her eyes again and breathes. She then reflects, without much need to hear an answer, “Is just being aware, my I?” This sense of her sitting without a need to identify an “I” with her body or her mind, and allowing for the sense of the inexplicable, relaxes her.

Pure awareness is beyond our ability to understand, to know as a thing. Therefore, unlike the woman above, it is possible to become more anxious before we learn to accept the space of not knowing. This is not a problem. In therapy sessions there is a constant reinforcement of noticing the present moment—whatever is being experienced. We also notice that the things that activate us have a history and a story associated with them, but we are not interested in participating with the thoughts and the stories as much as we are interested in letting them arise and then letting them go.

Our attachment to these stories can create increasing anxiety, but we just sit together and allow an increase in tolerance for the sensations within the body. It is not infeasible that a person might even get angry and say, “This isn’t what I expected. I don’t know what is happening.” So, we allow this and ask if they can notice that they are not their confusion, not their anger.

This can be hard, but not impossible, for someone who is not practicing some form of contemplative discipline. Yet, if they can just witness the passing of time and the moment-to-moment shifts they begin to rest in the sense that the ground of their witnessing is not changing. That ground is what we are looking to touch and hold in this process of feeling very identified with the emotion of confusion and anger. Familiarity with this ground and this baseline of neutrality helps when there is a perceived potent assault on our sense of safety.

The challenge in psychotherapy is to blend what is happening in therapy (all the conditions that are being experienced) with the openness of our essential nature, pure awareness. In any moment in time, we feel either contracted or expanded, and whatever arises is used to enhance the experience of effortless being, of freedom and spaciousness in the present moment.

A person enters the psychotherapeutic process because he or she is experiencing discomfort and emotional reactivity. The contemplative therapist responds from the space of curiosity monitoring the absence or presence of freedom and spaciousness in the present moment. The dance becomes the inquiry between the conditions that a person believes keeps him or her in discomfort, and what is immediately available in the present moment. We use whatever arises to reveal the presence of pure or neutral awareness, and we see how different conditions can be viewed from unconditional presence, the essential nature of pure awareness.

References
Goleman, Daniel. (2003). Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? New York, NY: Bantam Books. p 206

© Copyright 2010 by Linda Jame, LCSW, therapist in Katonah, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • clement joules

    clement joules

    February 24th, 2010 at 3:43 PM

    its no doubt that meditation is a great vehicle to find solution for any problem we have or any conflict in our head…it has worked for people since ancient ages and more and more people are taking it up now…

  • Linda Jame, LCSW

    Linda Jame, LCSW

    February 24th, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    Hi, Clement, I appreciate your refinement of “problem” to “any conflict in our head.” As you suggest meditation has been a practice since “ancient ages,” and it is a discipline that has lead to spontaneous corrections of perceived “problems.” I thank you for having read the article and for seeing the potential for its implementation in psychotherapy.

  • DERRICK

    DERRICK

    February 24th, 2010 at 8:47 PM

    Meditation teaches us to take a peek at our inner selves… and this may even amaze us when we come face to face with our inner selves. I have attended a workshop on meditation and I have to say it was very peaceful and delivered a calming effect on my mind.

  • Linda Jame, LCSW

    Linda Jame, LCSW

    February 25th, 2010 at 6:35 AM

    That’s well said, Derrick, but as we advance in the practice we are not looking for any “result.” We simply sit with the experience so we don’t want to condition the space because of a “positive” experience. We watch our attachment to pleasant experiences, unpleasant experiences and neutral ones which allows us to deconstruct how preferences lead to a lot of suffering. Having said that, however, there is no doubt that meditation has a profoundly relaxing effect on the mind as it releases its hold on the illusory sense of “I”–this center of the world–being separate from what’s “out there.” I encourage you to keep up your meditation practice independent of results–it is well worth the investment in time. Thank you for your comment!

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