Mental Health, Meditation, and Mindfulness

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By yolya_ilyasova/adobestock.com

Back in the day, all my friends were doing transcendental meditation. They claimed various effects from it, including lower blood pressure (which I believed) and levitation (which I didn’t). At the martial arts dojo, the sensei did lead a guided meditation which left me feeling energized and ready to train, so I think you would call that a success. Nowadays, I can’t get into a lotus position or even sit on the floor tailor-fashion, which is to say I might make it down, but I can’t get back up. Never mind the fancy kicks and rolls we used to do.

Meditation has come a long way since then, though it is rapidly being overtaken by mindfulness. My psychotherapist recently suggested that I try a mindfulness exercise which could be found on my computer. It took the form of a guided meditation, with the leader noted that the mind would wander, but suggested several ways for me to return my attention to my breath and my surroundings. One distinct advantage was that I could perform it sitting safely in my desk chair. I found it interesting, but not something that I would likely try again. My mind is just too restless, especially when I’m manic. (Perhaps if I tried it regularly, it might have a positive effect on that.)

You may ask, as I have, what the difference between meditation and mindfulness is.

In Transcendental Meditation, one of the most popular forms, the practitioner concentrates on a word or syllable that occupies the mind and tries to “transcend the process of thought.” On the other hand, positivePsychology describes mindfulness as “active awareness of the mind as it wanders and repeatedly refocusing the awareness on the present moment.” The aim of mindfulness, Rogers Behavioral Health says, is not quieting the mind, but aiming to focus “the attention to the present moment, without judgment.”

According to positivePsychology, mindfulness and meditation are “interrelated,” but “not the same.” The article does note that there is a practice called “Mindful Meditation” that combines the two. Mindful, in describing the intersection, says that mindfulness meditation teaches a person “to pay attention to the breath as it goes in and out, and notice when the mind wanders from this task.”

In essence, the goal seems to be disconnecting the mind from thought, though whether the mind is otherwise occupied differs from practice to practice.

Either one is considered suitable as an adjunct to psychotherapy, depending on whether a person’s goals are relaxation or “bringing the mind back to the present moment.” Meditation is thought to be useful in treating PTSD, while mindfulness has been used in treating “obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression,” in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder. Training helps people to become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and body sensations so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, they’re better able to manage them. The Mental Health Foundation goes even further, claiming that the practice can give one “more insight into emotions, boost attention and concentration, and improve relationships.”

The journal Mindfulness specifically reports on the usefulness of mindfulness in elementary schools and high schools. This study of studies reports that most of the positive aspects of mindfulness training occurred in high school students and that the effectiveness depended largely on whether the exercises were lead by someone from within the school or “an outside facilitator,” though the article abstract was mute on which was more effective.

NIMH, on the other hand, talks about mindfulness techniques in psychological settings. Specifically, it addresses “mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT),” noting that mindfulness training “should be accessible to everyone with a long-term physical health condition and recurrent depression.”

My own experience is that meditation, lead by an expert in the subject matter to concentrate on, rather than a simple syllable, can indeed be helpful in focusing the mind, rather than merely transcending thoughts. Perhaps the version involving transcending thoughts is more beneficial for phenomena such as relieving stress, lowering blood pressure, and calming agitation is a better use for this style of meditation. Mindfulness, on the other hand, I found to be interesting as a way to corral random thoughts, which I often suffer from, and I can see this practice being useful in daily life.

I fear, however, that the mindfulness trend that appears to be sweeping the world means many different things to different people, and the benefits of it will depend on what benefits one expects to receive. Any more “mindfulness” is a word that has been taken over by the general population and in particular the business community. It can mean simply “mind” as in “Be mindful of your manners” or “be very aware” or “pay close attention to” as in “Be mindful of how much is spent on travel and entertainment.” Perhaps some agreement on what mindfulness is and what the practice consists of will prove to make it more useful in psychiatric and other settings.

In that regard, both meditation and mindfulness practices are worth exploring further.

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at butidigress.blog and bipolarme.blog.

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