These days everything in the mental health world is about ‘mindfulness meditation.’ This is a wonderful leap forward, to be applauded, an amazing practice that has tremendous healing power.
But in this new world of meditation consciousness, there seems to be a hierarchy of techniques. “Mindfulness meditation”, usually of the sit in the lotus position and follow your breath variety, is the presumed King of meditation. And I use the word “King” deliberately, because it seems to me not only that male teachers/practicioners promote it more than women, but also because there is a lean, spare, no-nonsense feel to this kind of meditation, also called “Vipassana Meditation.” There’s nothing mushy or emotional about it.
Interestingly, female practicioners/teachers like Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, and Sharon Salzburg seem to be guiding people to other kinds of practice. Often these are practices that actively cultivate compassion, self-love, forgiveness, and the transformation of painful experiences into transformative. Not nearly as lean or spare as straight-up ‘mindfulness meditation,’ these techniques – Loving Kindness, Tonglen, Radical Acceptance – have different and equally important benefits.
There are many reasons for us to promote alternatives to following-the-breath meditations. First, this technique is fairly difficult for many people – I’d be curious about compliance studies, how many people attempt it for a while and give up. Many people resonate to more physical meditations – Tai Chi, yoga, for example- who could not possibly sit still for meditation sessions. And in my informal observation, far more people are able to follow a guided audio meditation than can follow their breath.
And then there is the fact that different meditations can serve different purposes. Most or all induce the relaxation response. Most help sharpen attention and create an ‘observing self’ that is somewhat detached from the chattering of the mind. Beyond that, there are different benefits, from strengthening the body and relaxing muscles to inducing states of feeling ‘oneness’ with the world.
There is a class of meditation, what could be called “heart” meditations, that is VERY relevant to psychotherapy because it addresses the most pervasive problems we all have as humans and that we bring to all our emotional issues: self-hatred, lack of self-esteem, judgments of ourselves and others, shame. Whether you are in therapy or not, you can get benefit from the meditation teachers whose works are displayed below. I’ve put up the audio guided meditation versions, but most are available as books as well.