Relaxation is Not the Goal

I often recommend mindfulness meditation to my anxiety patients. People often find this experience relaxing in the moment, and that’s lovely, but I swear to you, this is not the central aim. Here’s why I encourage practicing meditation:

1. It is a potent way to learn the skill of noticing thoughts without giving them excessive energy. We often give thoughts undue energy by clinging to ideas, feeding them, automatically buying into them, treating them like facts that need to be followed or forcefully pushing them away. People often intellectually get the idea that this is a habit worth dropping, but experiential learning is powerful. What if you learned to pause in the midst of thoughts?  What if you got comfortable noticing them as a curious observer? What if you had the chance to decide whether you’d feed them (hey, some thoughts are helpful) or whether instead you’ll just label them & let them float away on their own time? What if you allowed them to arrive like popcorn and then naturally run their course rather than trying to push them away with all your might? Meditation allows you to taste these ideas in a calm, planned setting, so you can ultimately apply them broadly in your day to day life.

2. Meditation is a practice of shifting attention. Not keeping your attention stuck on one single, solitary place. Our brains weren’t designed to do that. Even monks’ brains! Our attention will naturally drift. Can you notice when that happens and shift back to the breath, or to sound, or whatever your target is? Can you do that gently? With a soft tone, not a pushy or judgmental one? If not, fine! That’s why you’re practicing. Keep moving in that direction. Can you see how this attention shifting might be handy even when you’re not sitting on a pillow?

3. Meditation gives you the chance to practice deciding, on purpose, to attend to what is rather than your imagination. My folks who struggle with anxiety are in the habit of spending excessive time and attention imagining what their colleague is thinking about them, guessing what germs lurk about, running through creative or even plausible What-If scenarios. None of those, even the plausible ones, actually exist in that moment. But your breath does, always. There are times when actual reality is more worthy of the priority of your attention. Meditation allows you to learn how to shift there. It allows you to practice making this distinction and choosing, over and over, what is here now, in reality.

In my view, meditation need not be hippie, spiritual, or even relaxing. It’s a concrete method to retrain your brain to develop a different stance toward your thoughts and emotions. Need an app to help guide you? I really like Buddhify. It gives you a ton of options for brief (even 5 minute) meditations. My recommendation is that frequent meditations are more important than long ones.