The Role of Meditation Practice In Psychotherapy

In recent years I have begun implementing meditation practice during the first ten minutes of a session with some of my patients. The choice whether to meditate or not is always at the discretion of the patient. The purpose of such practice is to help bring awareness to one’s internal world in the present moment. This encompasses improving one’s attunement to emotions and physical sensations that can be detected in the body. I have found that many people are initially uncomfortable being with themselves in the here-and-now, and thus they flee being in the present and resort to living in the past or future, allowing their thoughts to distract them from what is right before them.

Most people do not need my help accessing their thoughts; they can fairly readily identify what they are thinking. It can be a different matter when they are trying to identify what they are feeling. When an emotion is intensely felt, it is likelier that the individual will notice it and be able to describe it. One is more apt to recognize that she is enraged than to recognize that she is mildly annoyed. But if we believe that all people have thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations at every moment, whether we are aware of it or not, then we can begin to see how difficult it can be for many people to access feelings when felt to a lesser degree. This concept that people have thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations at every moment is similar to breathing. Once an individual is encouraged to focus on his breathing, he usually can do so easily. We are all breathing at every moment but often we are not paying attention to our breathing. The same applies for thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Some people may find identifying and accessing physical sensations challenging. Still more may struggle to identify and stay with their feelings. Trauma survivors in particular may struggle in this way, given that one of the ways they learned to cope with the trauma they experienced was to numb themselves and dissociate from their internal world. This serves a protective function. As adults many of these individuals have difficulty knowing what they are experiencing when it comes to emotions and physical sensations.

Meditation seems to assist people in building their awareness of what is happening internally. Furthermore, it can help people learn to stay in the present moment and tolerate inhabiting their own internal world without feeling threatened by unpleasant emotions. I’ve witnessed people who initially had trouble sitting still because they were so anxious learn to relax into a ten minute meditation practice and open themselves up to the present. With most patients we start and end the meditation practice with four deep breathing inhalations and exhalations. This seems to help people relax and prepare themselves for the meditation. During the meditation itself, patients are instructed to focus on something simple, such as their breath, that they can keep returning to when their minds start to wander. They simply can notice and be curious about the thought that distracted them and then return to their breathing. With some patients, it is preferred to scan the body from head to toe during the meditation as a way to tune into what is happening internally. By conducting a body scan, one might become aware of tension and other physical sensations that are being held in various body parts. Another option is to draw one’s awareness to the sounds around them, both near and far. I invite my patients to focus on their breathing or to do a body scan, however, because these are ways to increase awareness of one’s internal space, whereas sound brings the individual to something that exists outside of them. Over time, most patients tell me that they have found that the meditation helps them be more aware of what is going on inside them, both with emotions and with physical sensations, and these skills can transfer to the their lives apart from the meditation. For the purpose of developing these skills during psychotherapy, I find that the term “awareness building” rather than “meditation” may be a better fit. People can get confused by what is meant by meditation practice. When we agree that we are working on improving their awareness of their feelings and body sensations, they can best understand how such practice can be of value to them. After the ten minutes, I find it useful to briefly discuss how the patient experienced the exercise and what she became aware of during the time. I also attend to whether starting with this practice has a positive shift for the remainder of the session and can help the patient feel more present and connected to me while engaged in the therapeutic endeavor.

The Plight of the Performing Artist

The gratification of a standing ovation, uproarious laughter when you land your joke just right, the sense of mastery you can experience at reaping the rewards of your hard work and preparation…these are just some of the allures of being a performing artist. Inherently, nothing is wrong with basking in the limelight for a job well done. But when the measure of one’s sense of self-worth is determined by external validation as opposed to internal validation, it may drive that individual into a nonending chase after that all too temporal adoration.

Children develop self-worth by the age of five. In a healthy development, the child learns an intrinsic sense of self-worth and is internally validated. Such a child comes to believe that he is a valuable individual merely because of his existence on this planet, as opposed to because of how good his grades are, how popular he is, how attractive he is, or any other of the numerous false markers of “worthiness” that may be prescribed at a young age. Often when one is seeking elusive validation of their self-worth, that individual may feel incredibly insecure and “less than” on the inside. If that person then pursues a career which is so closely intertwined with the response of an audience, as would be the case of a performing artist, then often the need for external validation becomes the thing that drives the artist’s performance above all else. When one’s primary motivation for one’s art hinges on the accolades of an audience, it is likely that this individual at his core has a depreciated sense of self.

In addition to seeking constant adulation, performing artists may attempt to compensate for a lack that is at their core. Numerous behaviors may be employed to this end: substance abuse, eating disorders, anger outbursts, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and sexual acting out, to name a few. Such behaviors often are attempts to manage underlying feelings of low self-worth.

Psychotherapy can help a performing artist uncover the previously hidden unconscious motivations that have been operating, thereby assisting her in increasing her awareness of underlying relational patterns that get repeated if not addressed. By becoming aware of how one has exhausted herself with this constant drive for validation, one may be better positioned to shift things so that one can learn to derive satisfaction from one’s intrinsic sense of self-worth. Such a person will still have ups and downs, losses and successes, like any individual, but one’s identity can remain solid and intact even during times of hardship because one’s sense of self-worth is no longer dictated by some outside validation over which we have no power.

The Collective PTSD of a Nation

Since the Presidential election of 2016 - even prior to it - there has been a spike in the number of patients who are reporting experiences of anxiety, powerlessness, restlessness, fear, difficulty sleeping, and being more scattered and disoriented than they previously have known themselves to be. This is particularly jarring when their sense of self is shattered and they are exhibiting symptoms that have not materialized before in their adulthood. Still more concerning is when, given the changes in health insurance in recent years, patients can no longer afford their deductibles and therefore opt to discontinue treatment at a time when they might most need to be coming in.

Not long ago I attended a seminar in which the speaker addressed how in ways not previously seen to this extent or magnitude, people seem to be responding to a collective trauma brought on by our current political climate. Clinicians, in addition to our patients, are struggling to manage their own levels of anxiety and powerlessness. Many of the people in our country show a complete dismissal or disinterest in facts, choosing instead the ease of not having to think for themselves and diminishing their personal fears by taking comfort in entrusting those in authority who are disseminating lies and "fake news." On a national (if not global) level, this is incredibly terrifying. Many of us are reeling from the continual onslaught of political egregiousness. This constant bombardment of one horrific incident after another is a form of trauma and the very thing that can disrupt us to such an extent that we are left in the position of having to always be in a reactionary stance, having to brace ourselves for further trauma.

For people who have a history of trauma in their childhood and adolescence, the current political landscape is all the more fraught. It is like walking through a landmine that presents us with ongoing triggers which reawaken those early traumas which may be deeply entrenched. One might react internally in much the way they did when they were young, defenseless children. 

I encourage patients to limit their exposure to the news if it is interfering with their ability to function. Given that it may be crucial to have a safe relationship such as the one that can develop in a therapeutic relationship, I think it is important to work together to figure out how people can continue coming in if their insurance is the barrier that is preventing them from seeking the help they require. Having a support system and appropriate self-care is of the utmost importance for both patients and clinicians during this highly chaotic time. 

Mourning Losses

When we think about mourning losses we usually think of grieving a loved one who died or perhaps grieving the end of a relationship. Yet, much of the work of psychotherapy involves mourning losses that are less transparent - losses that can be traced back to childhood. This is the type of mourning that I wish to address in this blog post.

Most adult behavior has its origins in our early childhood experiences. We may unconsciously cling to relational patterns and beliefs that stem from the earliest years of our lives. Oftentimes, the reason we do this is to avoid incredibly painful feelings that may arise and engulf us when we allow ourselves to fully access these experiences. To recognize that one's parent was never able to love and accept them unconditionally, that this parent may never apologize for abuse or injuries they've inflicted, that the parent may never change and one may never have the mother or father they have always longed for and needed, that they will never be truly vindicated for the traumas they have endured - to come to terms with such losses is to open oneself up to tremendous grief. People may spend the majority of their lives engaging in all sorts of behaviors that are attempts to stave off such mourning.

Continued avoidance of mourning unresolved losses from our past comes at a devastating cost. People may suffer from depression, anxiety, and any number of other mental illnesses. They may experience chronic pain and health concerns, abuse substances, repeat unhealthy relationship patterns, and find themselves having ongoing difficulties at work and in their social lives. Even worse, they may inflict the same injuries that they suffered onto their partners and children. 

We can understand how not allowing oneself to mourn the death of a loved one can impede one's healing; we may allow ourselves and encourage others to take whatever time is needed to fully grieve, being gentle in the knowing that mourning can take various forms and evoke a gamut of emotions.  The same concept applies to mourning losses that are much more deeply buried. If working through these losses in therapy didn't have the potential to help an individual achieve greater self-awareness, profound healing, more satisfying relationships and one's personal life goals, then there would be absolutely no good reason to ask our patients to undergo a process which has the potential to stir up such pain. Still, I know of no other way to make long-lasting fundamental positive change. There's a corny saying in the business (alright, there are several) that you have to go through it to get through it. I think this expression is rather apt when it comes to this topic of mourning losses from one's childhood.