Question of the Day: When is Meditation Self-soothing, and When is it “Deep?”

Or, Is there a Right Way to Meditate?

Photo by S Migaj on

This is today’s question to spur reflection and provide a moment for you to get present with yourself. I will follow it with an example from my own life or an experience shared with me. You may want to contemplate the question or journal on it before reading on — the question may mean something different to you than the way it’s intended, which is perfectly okay!

Today’s question comes from a client: When is a meditation break self-soothing, and when is it “deep”… and is there a difference?

For reflection, I suggest considering your own experiences so far–whether you’ve practiced mindfulness, guided meditation, tai chi, yoga, transcendental meditation, breath work, prayer, or some other form of meditation. Do you experience a self-soothing break of say five to ten minutes from work stress/life worries differently in your mind and body than you experience say a 20-minute session? Does one way feel better–or maybe just more doable–to you?

And ultimately, is there a right way to meditate?

I answered her initial question with my thoughts on the matter, but then became curious about why she asked. Did she already have an answer and was looking for affirmation? She told me she didn’t have an answer, but our discussion revealed a concern that a lot of people have, particularly when starting out, “I know I’m doing this wrong!”

I read yesterday someone expressing frustration that they shelled out good money on a meditation program only to be told by the narrator that “you cannot be taught how to meditate.”

But also, there’s not one right way to do it. As listed above, there are many forms of meditation.

In guided meditation, someone often guides the participant through breath work and possibly connecting mindfully with the body, or uses imagery to elicit emotion, memory, and/or the senses.

Yoga and tai chi connect movement with breathing.

Mindfulness practice may direct the participant to be particularly aware of the present moment by trying to quiet their bouncing monkey mind, letting thoughts pass, and not judging themselves for whatever comes up.

Some meditations direct the participant to repeat a phrase or mantra. Others focus solely on the breath. Some people and traditions consider prayer a form of meditation.

Some meditation and mindfulness practices have established protocols, guidelines, or movement patterns. Yet much like and including prayer, they are also deeply personal.

There are short, grounding or calming meditations. There are long, stillness meditations. There is meditative music or nature sounds to soothe or prepare for sleep.

Is it okay–or good enough–to click play on the free four-minute “meditation for anxiety” program on Insight Timer? Does that “count?” Or is meditation only legit if you’ve done a full 1:1 course on Transcendental Meditation and you sit for no less than an hour at a time?

My answer to my client was that both relaxing and “deep” meditation are good. Certainly anything that slows our thoughts, gives us space, and allows our nervous system a time out is excellent for us (well, almost anything; please see this article and caveats below).

There are scientific studies that show a myriad of health benefits of some types of meditation (the NIH has done a run down of these with references).

Specific changes in thought patterns can lead to rewiring of the brain that leads to a deeper calm more quickly over time.

Deeper sessions may provide something more equivalent to a nap as far as body/mind repair. Meditation snacks can give us a reprieve from stress, anxiety, or overwhelm. Either one can lead to changes in perspective and some depression relief.

If you are engaging in some sort of meditation or mindfulness practice that you find beneficial, keep it up. If you are interested in expanding your practice, there are lots of apps, lots of teachers, and lots of opinions.

“Meditation apps are not your granddaddy’s ashram.”

–says my dear friend, Renée Guillory.

A nice and easy place to start if you’re new to it is with an app (no ashram necessary).

Headspace is very popular, frequently top-rated, subscription service ($69.99/year) and offers a free trial. I’ve used it and liked it–particularly the sleep session–but the graphics were a bit cutesy, and I didn’t feel motivated to keep up the practice, even though I paid for it.

Insight Timer, which I currently use, has both a free option and a paid subscription option ($59.99/year). It as 100,000 free meditations to choose from plus over 700 premium courses for subscribing members also available with the free trial (and it appears to be a 30-day free trial currently).

I’ve taken a few of the courses on Insight Timer, which are often a blend of talk/lecture and guided meditation, and found them to be very informative and beneficial. I’ve also engaged with some of the live events and will say that some are better than others. The “world’s best teachers”–as advertised on the site–are pretty much self-selected with no certification or education requirements. That said, with more than 10,000 teachers, you’re bound to find a few with whom you’ll connect.

As with any health practice, particularly if it’s new to you, it’s best to discuss your participation with your primary healthcare provider. If you see a mental health provider, discuss with them whether you have a history of trauma or any condition that may preclude the safe use of meditation.

The resources and information shared here are solely for informational purposes and aren’t intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any condition or disease or provide any professional advice.

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