What is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness meditation practices are now widely promoted to decrease stress and anxiety. A quick Google search brings up countless entries on how mindfulness can help people self-soothe and reduce their everyday stresses. There are innumerable apps that can be downloaded directly to stressed-out people’s smartphones stocked with a wide variety of guided mindfulness meditations. In my private psychotherapy practice, I frequently hear people ask about whether mindfulness meditation could help them respond differently to stressful situations or prevent anxiety attacks. Mindfulness meditation would seem a perfect topic for Stress Awareness Month then as we consider how stress can impact our health and how we can best alleviate it.

Does Meditation Really Relieve Stress?

As a historian and religious studies scholar, I’ve studied the history of how mindfulness meditation practices became associated with stress relief – a history that dates back far earlier than the 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn’s developed his now ubiquitous Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR). Today one hears of an ever-expanding variety of meditation practices all labeled as cultivating a state of mindfulness and all advertised to people for stress relief and other purposes. Some of these practices seem nearly impossible to not offer relaxation. Guided “body scan” mindfulness practices, for example, are bound to be relaxing as a soothing voice invites listeners to progressively release tension body part by body part.

However, in my psychotherapy practice, I also regularly hear people tell me that mindfulness meditations can actually make them feel more agitated than relaxed, more anxious than serene. These people have usually experimented with varieties of mindfulness practices intended to create a state of “bare attention.” For many, the phrase “bare attention” is a useful shorthand to define what mindfulness is exactly. In this understanding of mindfulness, one does nothing more or less than barely attend to whatever is in one’s present moment experience, without adding anything or taking anything away, chasing or avoiding, any aspect of that experience. Far from relaxing, this can, at times, feel irritatingly dull and at other times downright anxiety-producing.

How to Decompress Without the Stress

People who feel stressed at the end of a long day can easily be tempted to “turn off” sitting in front of a screen playing video games, endlessly scrolling through Instagram or binge-watching their favorite TV show on Netflix. But these sorts of activities can often leave them feeling numb and disconnected. Removing these distractions, can sometimes offer a different sort of antidote to a stressful day in which one feels both connected to their experience and truly at peace.

But for those who are not used to “just being” with their experience without distractions, attempting to sustain bare attention for longer than a few minutes can feel highly agitating. These folks are probably far better served by mindfulness meditation practices that seemed expressly designed to generate feelings of peace and well-being. For these sorts of people, a bit of pan flute nature music and a soft soothing voice is probably far preferable to an instruction to “simply observe your agitation and see it for what it really is.”

The Roots of Stressful Meditation

When I hear people struggling with being stressed out by mindfulness meditations, I often think of the Buddhist scholarship I have studied that outlines a history filled with descriptions of meditative experiences that seem anything but relaxing. As a religious studies scholar, I am aware that many of the mediation practices typically associated with today’s “mindfulness” were actually intended to force the practitioner to undergo sometimes extreme discomfort in order to be able to achieve insight into the true nature of reality. Many contemporary meditation practitioners are not looking to undergo this kind of radical reorientation to reality; they are simply looking to unwind after a long day.

About The Author

Ira Helderman

Scholar, published author, screenwriter and commentator, Ira Helderman holds a PhD in Religion, Psychology and Culture from Vanderbilt University and a BFA in screenwriting from New York University. A licensed professional counselor, he began working in the mental health field in 2001 and has a private psychotherapy practice in Nashville. Ira’s research examines how psychotherapists and psychotherapeutic ideas shape the way that people are religious in America.

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