Being human can be considered a lot of things-a blessing, a curse, an experience filled with abundance and joy, and experience filled with loss and suffering. Most of us feel all of this at some point in our lives. We have times when life is good-everyone we love is healthy, we feel good about our lives, and we are engaged in work and activities that we feel are meaningful. We have times when we experience loss, everything seems to have gone to hell, and we are thrown into crisis. Those are the times when we reach out and try to find some help to ease our suffering and again experience wholeness and health. One route to achieving our goals is through counseling services with a qualified therapist.
Methods of Counseling
There are numerous reasons we might seek counseling. Circumstances, such as divorce, job loss, of the death of a loved one, may be the impetus. Then again, we may struggle with our own mental health issues such as depression or an eating disorder. Whatever prompts us to seek counseling, there are many methods a counselor might use to help us. Among the approaches to therapeutic counseling are cognitive behavioral therapy, narrative therapy, humanistic therapy, and positive psychology. A trend is emerging in these and other counseling approaches to complement methods of treatment with mindfulness and meditation training.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation is the practice of quieting the body and mind in such a way that we are able to be “present” in the moment. To do this, we sit and focus our minds on one thing-our breath, a mantra, or the sounds in the room. As we do this, our “monkey” mind will intrude and remind us of the bills we have to pay, the way our performance at work tanked this week, the food that’s going bad in the refrigerator- in other words, anything but the present moment. During meditation, we (patiently, without judging ourselves) bring our attention back to our focus. During a ten-minute meditation, this process may happen a hundred times. Meditation practice means accepting that that process is the actual practice. Even if we feel we are doing it wrong, or it feels weird, or we feel restless, continuing to try to focus our minds during meditation practice will allow us to bring that focus, that mindfulness, into our daily lives.
We can think of meditation as the practice sessions and mindfulness as the application of the practice. Meditation is the actual sitting and quieting down part of the equation. Mindfulness is remembering, while we pay our bills or clean out the refrigerator, to interrupt our monkey mind and focus on the present moment. We learn to say, “Oh, there I am, worrying about tomorrow,” or, “Oh, there’s some doom and gloom,” and let it go. We learn to notice what is present. Maybe we are paying bills while our child practices their clarinet and we notice the sounds. Maybe we are cleaning out the fridge, and instead of worrying about the bills, we notice the fresh fruit we forgot about. Being mindful in these moments allows us to experience the moments of our lives more fully.
The Benefits of Meditation and Mindfulness
Recent years have seen a flood of scientific studies done on the mental and physical benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness training have been found to increase feelings of well-being, reduce stress, and result in a stronger ability to tolerate distress. Improved focus, less emotional reactivity, and less rumination, a habit among those experiencing depression, have been observed as well. Studies point to actual physical changes in the brain that can occur as a result of mindfulness and meditation training. Such changes include a reduction in size of the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with processing stress, a size increase in the brain stem and hippocampus, both associated with positive emotions. There have been long term studies done on regular meditators as well which indicate that as long as the practice is maintained, these brain changes would remain.
Mindfulness Practice as an Adjunct to Therapy
The benefits of meditation and mindfulness training can be evident whether we are in need of counseling services or not. It’s not hard to recognize that slowing down and “being” instead of doing would be good for us. For those seeking counseling, meditation and mindfulness training could be one of the many techniques a skilled counselor would employ in helping us achieve our goals in therapy. After all, there are times we need all the help we can get.