We’ve all heard the benefits of meditation: reduced levels of anxiety and depression; an increased level of focus and cognitive abilities; a greater sense of well-being; and a higher degree of mental health.
The facts are indisputable. Neuroscience research shows that just fifteen to twenty minutes a day over a period of weeks can create structural changes in the brain. Meditation is all the rage in personal development and therapeutic communities. The majority of influencers and celebrities assert they meditate regularly.
Our Tendency To Make The Simple Complex
However, in my experience as a psychotherapist and coach, few individuals will make more than a cursory attempt, let alone practice with any consistency. “It’s too hard,” “I can’t stop my thinking,” are the typical refrains I hear. There is no doubt one impediment is people’s tendency to overcomplicate it; meditation is the essence of simplicity. As human beings, we tend to have an inclination to make the simple complex.
Paralleling people’s propensity to give up on meditation has been my own discouragement in attempting to get clients to do it. Many times, I have temporarily stopped advocating meditation out of frustration with individuals lack of effort in giving it a fair chance.
The Wrong Type Of Meditation
There have been numerous times in my career where I have been tempted to give up on certain issues. However, there has always been some part of me that has always awakened with resolve and conquered the situation. Perhaps, nothing has made me want to give up more than getting clients to practice meditation. Nonetheless, I have redoubled my efforts to overcome my client’s blocks to meditation.
In addition to overcomplicating it, new research from the Max Planck Institute for Neuroscience has shown one of the reasons people struggle to meditate is they are doing the wrong type of meditation. Currently, the most popular form of mediation is mindfulness meditation. This consists of closing your eyes and tracking your breath. If your attention drifts to other things, you just bring it back to your breath without judgment and begin tracking it again.
Clearing The Blocks To Meditation
What could be simpler? Yet, what I have found is almost no one can do this with any consistency. I was initially perplexed by this fact. How could someone not dedicate two to three minutes a day to engage in this practice? I would encourage clients two minutes a day regularly was much better than thirty to forty-five minutes once a week.
Moreover, the hard charging achiever in me thought how the hell do you expect to reach your entrepreneurial or athletic goals if you cannot even complete this task. It was pathetic, I thought to myself. But once I got down off my self-righteous pedestal and removed my judgment, I came to the realization people’s inability to meditate was not a personality defect but a block of some sort. Many of these individuals were very accomplished in their fields and not of weak character and drive.
The Importance Of Clear Goals
What I next came to understand was the importance of having a defined outcome for motivation. This is true in any other endeavor. When beginning to attempt a meditation practice, I believe it is imperative to have defined outcomes or goals. Without this, there is just not going to be enough motivation to do it with any consistency. And why should there be? Motivation requires a reinforcer.
I believe the majority of people attempt mediation because they have heard of its benefits but do not have a clearly defined goal for themselves, which results in a lack of incentive. All the research shows having clear, specific goals with immediate feedback and completing them releases dopamine. Dopamine is associated with both pleasure and learning. Getting those frequent hits of dopamine will drive us to continue to pursue that behavior.
Different Types Of Meditation
In addition, beginning meditation can be uncomfortable for most people. There is no doubt a large percentage of human behavior is driven by the desire for pleasure or the avoidance of pain. However, for something we find meaningful, we will forgo pleasure and go through pain to acquire it. Again, this points to the importance of having a desired outcome your meditation is attempting to attain, such as decreased anxiety, an increased level of creativity, or being more present in your life.
Once you have defined goals for your meditation practice, you can now align the type of meditation that can best help you achieve these outcomes. Going back to the research conducted by the Max Planck institute, there were four types of meditation they utilized for their study:
- Breathing meditation – mentioned earlier where you focus and track your breath and breathing sensations
- Body scan – you complete a full body scan from head to toe focusing on one body part at a time
- Loving-kindness meditation – focusing on and sending love, care, and compassion to yourself, others, and the world
- Observing-thought meditation – focusing on your thoughts as they arise but without getting caught up or absorbed in them
The Importance Of Scaffolding
My work as a psychotherapist is primarily focused on helping people deal more effectively with their core emotions, as well as how they connect intimately with others. I will introduce elements of a body scan or observing thought meditation in the initial sessions. These tracking skills are the foundation of emotional regulation abilities.
This also gives me an indication of what their capacity level is in these areas. I can then develop objectives and scaffold them, which means creating targets that are just outside the client’s current ability level and support them in reaching that goal.
Necessity of Coaching and Guidance
If someone is struggling with resentments towards self or others, a great meditation to begin with is a loving-kindness meditation. Again, this can be adapted individually to a person’s present ability. I believe having an instructor or coach in mediation is essential to creating a regular practice. Anything that is difficult to develop basic skills in should be undertaken with support and guidance. Even though it appears simple on the surface, meditation definitely falls into this category.
Breathing meditation is great for lowering symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as increasing presence. Variations of this can be lying on the ground, sitting, standing, and walking. I have many clients start with something that incorporates movement, such as yoga, a mindful walk, or pilates.
Meditation And Peak Performance
A large part of my peak performance coaching consists of teaching clients how to access flow states. Flow has four stages: struggle, release, flow, and recovery. A great tool for transitioning from the struggle to the release stage is mindful breathing. This skill has been invaluable for some of the pro golfers I have worked with. Regulating your breathing and muscle tension is probably more crucial in golf than any other sport. Moreover, if you have hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, that is a pretty good motivator to practice breathing meditation frequently.
It is my belief the majority of individuals are open to the idea of developing a meditation practice but become frustrated and demotivated due to not having clearly defined goals for their meditation and a lack of knowledge and support to navigate its challenges.
You Are Capable
If you are agreeable to giving it another shot, employ the principles outlined in this article: gain clarity for why you are doing it in the first place (make sure your why is compelling enough to be motivating); develop clear, specific goals for each session and create means for receiving immediate feedback on your efforts; identify the right type of meditation for the outcome you desire; and obtain coaching and guidance for your practice.
I have no doubt if you apply these strategies you will be able to generate a consistent meditation practice and reap the countless mental, emotional, and spiritual rewards that will come as a result. I can assure you, it will be well worth the effort.
John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.
John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance.