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.