Meditation Therapy is a rapidly rising form of psychotherapy with promising potential, and as an expert in this emerging field, I’d love to introduce you to it.
But first let me be honest with you. I never really considered the lessons that I give to be “Meditation Therapy”. That was until one of my clients, John, said that they find our sessions “Very therapeutic” and that it was “as much therapy as meditation”. That’s what made it click for me that the work I do is really beyond the regular old meditation sessions and more about meditation-therapy.
Let me tell you a little about my sessions and in doing so you will see what this rising form of psychotherapy is all about.
My meditation sessions usually begin with a friendly chat. And it’s here the therapy begins. This chat is an opportunity for my clients to discuss with me the problems that they have been facing. If they wish, we may go into great depth in these chats and oftentimes my clients open up to me and share thoughts and feelings that have been troubling them. I never deliberately set this up as therapy, but it certainly does have similar effects. The simple act of discussing personal troubles with someone who is empathetic and non-judgmentally listening is in itself quite therapeutic. And I know from feedback that these friendly chats are a big reason why my clients keep coming back.
After our chat, I discuss with them how meditation can help. This goes a heck of a lot further than “Do mindful breathing and you’ll relax”. Indeed, I teach over a hundred forms of meditation and one of my main objectives when teaching is to help my students choose a meditation technique. This is something most traditional therapists don’t realise. Most are aware of the common forms of meditation like mindful breathing and guided visualizations, but next to none of them are aware of more obscure techniques such as Merkaba or Karuna. And this is disappointing because such methods are often highly effective.
After choosing a meditation I’ll tweak it a bit to make it perfect for my client, before finally doing it with them. Add in a final chat about how my client is feeling after the meditation and you’ve got the basic recipe for one of my sessions.
That, to me, is the blueprint for meditation therapy. Although this is certainly up for debate. Why? Because there is no real official guidance on how “Meditation Therapy” works. Indeed, the term itself, “Meditation Therapy” isn’t even officially recognised.
What Is Meditation Therapy?
So what is this amazing new field of healthcare called Meditation Therapy? Well, that’s the weird thing about it, it actually isn’t a thing… yet. Take a look online and you will find that all the guides on so-called meditation therapy actually just discuss your regular old meditation practice and the mental health benefits thereof. And that’s quite bizarre.
It’s bizarre because most of the Third Wave psychotherapies are already based on meditation. The “Third Wave” therapies are Acceptance And Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Metacognitive Therapy, and Mindfulness Based Interventions. All of these are almost entirely based on Buddhism. But because their creators (Stephen Hayes, Marsha Linehan, Adrian Wells, and Jon Kabat Zinn) wanted to claim that they had individually created these therapies, they didn’t called them “Buddhism” and “Meditation”, they gave them individual names and claimed that they themselves had invented these practices even though they’ve actually been around for thousands of years, under different names. This isn’t an exaggeration by the way, here’s another expert source saying the same thing. The one exception to this is Jon Kabat Zinn who, in all fairness, has been very open about the fact that his therapies are based on traditional meditation and Buddhism.
And so as such, Buddhism and meditation are the entire foundations of Third Wave therapies, yet there is no officially recognised “Meditation Therapy”. I want to change that. So let me tell you what Meditation Therapy means to me. It’s basically the best of meditation mixed with the best of therapy.
It’s Meditation. It’s Therapy. It’s so much more
Probably the most important question to answer is how Meditation Therapy is different to your regular old meditation lesson. I’ve attended very many lessons and have given both traditional-style lessons and Meditation Therapy. So how do we distinguish them?
For me, your regular run-of-the-mill meditation lesson is when the teacher has already chosen a form of meditation to do, and that choice has been made more on the desire to explore meditation itself rather than to heal any sort of mental health condition in the client. The meditation session is then done traditionally, not customized at all to the client’s needs. And things proceed in a very formulaic way.
What sets meditation therapy apart is that it is very much done on an individual level for the purpose of healing the client. As I mentioned earlier, this is something I specialize in. It’s very much about a human connection with the client and the desire (and skill) to customize the session to their individual needs. This begins with the chat that I mentioned earlier, and it’s a chat that must be done with the utmost of compassion and understanding, with the teacher doing far more listening than talking. There is a need for excellent communication skills here as there is in traditional therapy. I’m always acutely aware of everything that I communicate in my lessons, whether it’s my body language or verbals. This is something I discuss in my meditation teacher training.
Then when it comes to the actual meditation practice, this must be done in a far more personal way than your typical meditation lesson, with words and tone of voice being used in such a way that it encourages the client to experience inner peace. I personally consider my meditations a kind of “performance” and the artistry of this performance is every bit as important as the actual meditation technique. This is something I discussed in detail in my guide How To Lead A Meditation Session.
To put it in too small a nutshell: Meditation Therapy should be a personal thing finely tuned to the individual student. This is not simply “leading a meditation” and it’s also not just talking to someone as in regular psychotherapy because, of course, we also meditate.
Meditation Therapy Techniques
The basic technique of meditation therapy is to discuss problems with the client, identify key areas to target with meditation, choose the best meditation technique for the client, and then lead them through it.
I would like to mention that although I use very many different meditation techniques, there are a few specific methods that I have found to be especially effective in therapy. They are:
Somatic Meditation: Despite not being as popular as some other meditation techniques, somatic meditation is wonderfully therapeutic. It’s a method in which we allow the body to control the mind. This can be fabulous for releasing repressed emotions. Indeed, it is one of my favorite meditations for emotional healing.
Compassion methods: Much of the work we do in meditation therapy focuses on healing emotional wounds. Many of those emotional wounds were caused through a lack of compassion, such as in childhood emotional neglect. And so it’s no surprise that compassion-based meditations make for wonderful therapy. The best options here are the Buddhist compassion methods such as Metta (Loving Kindness), Karuna, and Tonglen.
Body Scan: I mentioned Jon Kabat Zinn earlier and how he is one of very few psychologists to have actually credited the inspiration of their techniques to Buddhist meditation. He has also given us one of the most effective meditations in therapeutic settings: Body Scan.
Vipassana: Vipassana has pretty much become the holy grail of meditation techniques. It’s probably the single most used method in the Third Wave therapies like ACT and DBT. Indeed it is pretty much the heart and soul of ACT, which teaches us to mindfully accept and “defuse” from our thoughts and feelings, often by labeling them, which is essentially the very same practise used in Vipassana.
Examples Of Meditation Therapy
To illustrate all of the above, I’d like to share a few stories from clients I’ve worked with. In the interest of protecting their privacy, I have changed their names and certain details of their stories.
Jane: Jane came to me having heard that meditation could help with her OCD. Specifically, her mind would demand that she flip switches constantly. She had gone to therapy previously but it had been unsuccessful, and she’d heard meditation could help. Whenever I work with someone who has tried other therapies I immediately know that I will want to help them to accept their previously unsuccessful attempt. For this reason a large part of our sessions was spent in gentle conversations to help her release her frustrations. We ended up mostly working with a form of Vipassana that also used Schwartz’s 4R’s method, a popular treatment for OCD, but the main point I want to make is that without the original discussion and without having listened and helped her to accept the disappointing results of her former therapies, it would have been extremely difficult for Jane to get into the meditation in the first place. Hence the “therapy” part.
Dom: Dom came to me because his wife Vanessa had recommended he take meditation lessons to help him deal with anger issues that he had for a very understandable reason based on past events in his life. Vanessa was very enthusiastic about meditation. Dom was not. It was obvious how reluctant he was to meditate. And had I approached his meditation in the typical “meditation teacher” way he would have scoffed and told me to piss off. Instead I had a very down to Earth discussion with Dom about his life. During this chat I didn’t use the word meditation at all. Instead, I decided to take an interest in where he was. I asked questions about the view outside his window, about what his new leather chair felt like, little questions like that that made him be mindful of his surroundings without me ever actually using the words mindfulness or meditation. He did eventually catch on and asked me what I was doing, so I explained that I’d snuck a mindfulness exercises into our chat. I asked him how he felt and he said more relaxed. From there it was possible to get further into meditation exercises, but I made sure I spoke in very “real” ways, not using any of the poetic language many meditation teachers use because I knew that would put him off. Again, it was my ability to listen, understand, and adapt meditation to my client’s needs that led to success. And for me, that’s what meditation therapy is all about.
My Final Thoughts
Although the term “Meditation Therapy” is not officially recognised, most Third Wave therapies are massively influenced by traditional meditation, and given the considerable proven benefits of the practice it is easy to see why. Mindfulness based practices are the future of mental health. And the two fields, therapy and meditation, are becoming ever more closely connected. That said, I do feel that most therapists and meditation teachers can go further in their practices. Therapists could certainly benefit from learning about the vast number of different meditation techniques (most just know the basics like Anapanasati and Body Scan because those are the ones that have seen the most research). And meditation teachers would gain by understanding more about therapy, especially the communication skills that therapists use to get clients to open up. As for everyone else. Well. The combining of meditation and therapy can only be a good thing. And if you would like to experience it for yourself, why not book a session with me today.
Giving Is Caring
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison