Intersectionality between meditation and psychotherapy
Growing up with Buddhist parents, meditation has been a daily practice for the last 20 years of my life. What started off with my own child-size meditation beads has evolved over time. I have tried everything from transcendental, chanting, Vipassana right down through to laughing meditation.
In recent years I have noticed in my personal and professional life, a promising trend of seeing more individuals interested in mindfulness and meditation. It has now become a staple for many people in terms of their wellbeing toolkit and widely accepted.
I was speaking to a friend very recently who wanted to start taking up meditation again. He said he had benefited from meditation in the past as it helped "get rid" of his thoughts. Innocently enough his desire to get rid of his “negative” thoughts is not unreasonable. To avoid pain is a normal human reaction.
As a counsellor, a lot of clients come to see me wanting to be free of their anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness. However, after many years of working with a litany of presenting issues clients bring to me, I started to wonder - can we get rid of these feelings? If this is possible, have they gone completely or have they been avoided, denied, numbed or suppressed?
The term "spiritual bypass" comes to mind; a concept coined by the prominent psychotherapist who described it as using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”
Often, I would notice bypassing taking place when an individual seems to be experiencing a great deal of uncertainty and unrest in their internal worlds.
Where I feel the overlap between meditation and psychotherapy lies for me is that these can both be vehicles to help us “meet ourselves”. They can both be used as a mirror to witness, examine and explore what is going on for us in our internal worlds. At times, sitting with the feelings rather than reacting to them can be uncomfortable. Some of the most intimate moments and revelatory moments with a client have originated from sitting in silence together. In a world where there is much adulation for achieving, I feel the exquisite nature of just being is incredibly underestimated.
The challenge and difficulty is to find the right balance of becoming embodied with all our feelings whilst being a compassionate witness to them. Even the etymology of the word compassion comes from the Latin “suffer with”. There is a fine line between understanding a feeling such as sadness versus being sad. As poet Robert Frost points out, “the best way out is always through.” It is through being with our pain and suffering that perhaps we can start to put meaning to our lives and experiences.
I feel this idea is best summed up by the Sufi poet Rumi in his poem, The Guest House. He says, “Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honourably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight”.
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