Meditation, Mindfulness, Relief
I’ve been a skeptic nearly half my life. There’s no UFO sighting, “paranormal” incident, or psychic claim I won’t raise an eyebrow to. My intellectual heroes are renowned debunkers like James Randi, Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame), and Mick West. For me it takes a great deal of evidence and legitimate inquiry to substantiate extraordinary claims.
I wasn’t always like this. In my early teens I wanted to be a UFOlogist. I believed in ghosts. I saw the movie Zeitgeist and believed everything they said. It was back in those days that I first tried meditation. We did it in class senior year so most likely I got nothing from it. You know, senioritis and all. When I got older (and more leery), I viewed the practice with suspicion. The ties to Eastern religion and the new age crowd turned me off. Then, years later, Sam Harris and Dan Harris (no relation) came along.
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist popular with the skeptic community. I’d listened to his podcast and heard him speak countless times, but I always ignored his involvement with meditation. Sometimes, though, the thought crossed my mind: “What’s up with that? Is there really something to it? How could a guy like Sam Harris be so into meditation?”
Dan Harris is an ABC news anchor who suffered a panic attack on live television. Aside from earning him minor ridicule and millions of YouTube views, it set him on a path to meditation. Referring to himself as a “fidgety, skeptical newsman” he’s the last person anyone would think subscribes to “woo-woo” spiritual practices.
I soon learned meditation is far from “woo-woo.” In fact Dan Harris’ story gave me a first glimpse at meditation’s usefulness in mental heath. This could easily become a biography about the two Harris’s but to keep it short, the significance is that they opened a door to meditation when I was hesitant.
Approaching the subject with caution, I did some research. The most legitimate advocates for meditation never seemed to oversell it. Sam Harris stresses it does not eliminate bad emotion. Dan Harris’ meditation app is called “10% Happier,” not “100% Happier All the Time.”
There are various styles of meditation but most research concerns “mindfulness.” This involves awareness and acceptance of body sensations, thoughts, and moods. Some studies show meditation changes brain structure and function to our benefit. Parts of the brain associated with rumination and worry tend to quiet down, while areas dealing with raw experience are activated. As anyone with an academic background knows, studies like these are often elegantly contested. Although it sounded promising I still took it with a grain of salt.
Recent studies found “moderate evidence” that meditation provides some relief from disorders like anxiety and depression. I liked this measured tone. It sounded reasonable if not promising. No one was trying to sell anything but who wouldn’t want to feel 10% more at ease? I’d been suffering from mental illness long enough that if it were a bust I could say I at least tried. A few more articles later and it was meditation time.
Starting with five minutes a day was easy enough. Then I gradually worked up to where I am now: 20 minutes per day. At the risk of exposing myself as an amateur, I’ve only been practicing for two years. But what an illuminating two years. My constant companions, anxiety and panic, were particularly affected. They haven’t gone away. I just notice them. Noticing my negative emotions and intrusive thoughts has been invaluable to me. At first I didn’t completely get it. I thought meditation was about trying to think of “nothing.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As Sam Harris says, it’s almost impossible to keep an empty mind for more than a few seconds. The real work of meditation is to recognize each new thought, feeling, or mood as it arises in consciousness. Then not to push it away or pull it closer but merely to notice it with equanimity. Some meditators refer to this as “sitting with” a feeling/thought. This allows them to step back and know what they’re experiencing. Sadness, anxiety, anger, etc. stop navigating life for us. Instead they become transient indicators of what is happening at any given moment. There is more consideration and less brash reactivity. The day-to-day state cultivated by this practice is known as “mindfulness” (some approaches label meditation as “mindfulness based stress reduction” or MBSR).
The more we practice doing this the more we get used to it. Meditation psychologically habituates us towards mindfulness. Dan Harris has used the phrase “bicep curl for the brain.”
I’m no meditation instructor. To learn it, there are fantastic resources that I’ll link to below. The aim of this post isn’t to teach meditation or discuss the available types, but to share my story of curiosity and my relief from the pain of mental illness. I still feel dizzy when a panic attack comes on and get a little fidgety when someone sneezes behind me. But instead of letting these things own my life, I sit with the feelings for a while and make a decision while aware of my thoughts. Over time the harshness of moods and sensations has diminished. I’m growing used to living with mindfulness.
Meditation doesn’t work for everyone and I can’t stress enough it’s no cure-all. It’s still hugely important to get real psychiatric/psychological treatment if you or someone close to you is mentally ill. However with the right attitude, circumstances, and instruction, it could change how a sufferer feels and deals with mental disorders.
(Some of these are apps with subscriptions available. I do not wish to market for anyone, so I’ll emphasize that these apps have several free lessons and guided meditations for beginners – perfect for getting acquainted with mindfulness)
10% Happier – An app co-founded by Dan Harris, this is a great place for beginners.
Waking Up – Sam Harris’s app. Slightly longer, more advanced meditations.
UC San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness
Stanford Mindfulness Resources
Note: For assistance with behavioral health issues, contact us at 305-740-3340 or schedule an appointment with BregmanMD.
Groves, Paramabandhu (2016) Mindfulness in psychiatry – where are we now? BJPsyche Bulletin, 40(6), 289-292. doi: [10.1192/pb.bp.115.052993]
Harris, Sam (2014). Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyMt0gts6mM&t=19885s (audiobook version read by author)
Wikipedia contributors. (2018, October 9). Research on meditation. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:56, November 28, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Research_on_meditation&oldid=863251630