Over the years that I’ve been teaching meditation, many people have asked me whether meditation can replace therapy.
It’s understandable why so many people are interested in this. For starters, meditation is a much more economical option than therapy (depending on what part of the world you live in). It’s arguably easier to get into meditation. And meditation has a positive connotation where therapy still has a stigma attached to it.
However, deciding whether or not you can replace therapy with meditation is not an easy call to make. There are many things you have to be aware of. So, let’s take a look.
Can You Replace Therapy With Meditation?
Let me start by saying that if you can, you should do both therapy and meditation. Meditation works wonderfully with psychotherapy, and both options have unique advantages. To get the absolute best treatment possible, you will want to do both therapy and meditation. Indeed, in the 2009 article on Buddhadharma titled “Medicate or Meditate?”, Robin Bitner, Bruce Victor, Roger Walsh, and Lorena Hillman stated that “Meditation and psychotherapy can enhance one another… this has been observed by clinicians and demonstrated by research”. So, for best results, do both therapy and mindfulness.
Right. But what if you don’t have access to a therapist, can’t afford one, or for some other reason it would be very challenging to get therapy? Can you just forget about the therapy and do meditation exclusively?
Some people will tell you meditation wasn’t meant to be used as therapy
Some people, including the Buddhist website Lion’s Roar, will tell you that meditation was never designed to be used as psychotherapy. However, I personally disagree with this. Buddha specifically said that he “had one thing to teach, and that is the end of suffering”. And he surely meant psychological suffering—after all, he didn’t exactly offer solutions for a broken leg.
While we might not have had terms for conditions like schizophrenia back in the times of Buddha (‘schizophrenia’ was coined in 1910), these conditions nevertheless existed, and one way people healed their minds was by meditating. Indeed, you could call meditation, which was first mentioned in Vedantism, a Hindu tradition, around 1500 BCE, the first form of therapy.
But psychotherapists do not see it this way. Indeed, psychotherapists will shout to the high heavens that meditation can’t replace therapy, possibly because they are financially motivated to say as much because if meditation could replace therapy, they’d be out of a job. Indeed, the pharmaceutical industry tries its damnedest to talk down meditation, because they see it as a threat to their monopoly over the health industry—sorry if this is too close to the truth, guys.
Even so, there can be no doubt that in some instances meditation could replace therapy. Whether or not it should, however, is an entirely different question.
Meditation can do anything therapy can… but it’s challenging
Taken at face value, psychotherapy is simply “talk therapy” in which we enter a dialogue with a therapist and via our conversations we change our thoughts and beliefs, which then leads to healing. Meditation can be used in exactly the same way. We can use meditation to challenge thoughts and to create new beliefs, leading to healing.
Therefore, taken at face value, yes, meditation can replace therapy, theoretically. However, this comes with one massive caveat because in order to successfully use meditation as therapy, you would have to be extremely knowledgeable about the mind and about psychology in general. You would need to understand your problem in depth in order to prescribe a system of meditation that would target your symptoms and provide genuine healing. Without this extensive understanding, you simply would not know how to guide yourself towards healing.
In fact, that is entirely why a therapist is so beneficial. A psychotherapist will have completed a master’s degree in psychology and will have the extremity of knowledge needed to heal complex conditions. They know how to identify and correct distorted thinking, which is a skill the average person simply doesn’t possess.
Some conditions are more easily treated than others
There can be absolutely no doubt that meditation can heal certain psychological conditions. For instance, it is very well documented that meditation has a wonderful effect on stress and that even the simplest of meditation techniques (namely, breathing meditation) can transform stress into calmness [Read: Meditation For Stress Relief]. Meditation can help with many other conditions too. For instance, Loving Kindness Meditation can treat social anxiety.
Oftentimes, it is obvious how and why meditation can cure the mind. For instance, if we are suffering from anxiety caused by information overload, then of course some quiet time sitting breathing and emptying the mind will help. And if we have depression because the mind is riddled with memories of times people mistreated us, then it only makes sense that a pro-social meditation like Loving Kindness, in which we visualize people being kind and compassionate to us, will help.
Some conditions, however, are substantially harder to nail down. For instance, Borderline Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia. These conditions are not a simple case of “relax more” or “think more positively”. These conditions directly effect our perception of reality to such an extent that the individual cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not. The sheer complexity of such conditions means that meditation cannot cure them by itself—even if it can, nevertheless, help improve quality of life for sufferers. That being said, I will point out that some therapists are starting to merge cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation into a new form of therapy dubbed the “third wave”. One example of this is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is basically just Buddhism.
So, to decide whether you can replace therapy with meditation, ask yourself how complex your condition is.
I personally believe that individuals know inside themselves whether their condition is one that they can treat by themselves or not. Sometimes we just need to be honest with ourselves and say, “I am not able to handle this alone. I need help.” Or “I got this”.
But thankfully, the solution is obvious
We could debate for hours about when meditation can and cannot replace therapy. But we really needn’t, because it is honestly quite obvious what we should do.
Firstly, consider your condition. How complicated is it? How much control do you have over it? Do you honestly believe that you can treat your condition by yourself or not?
Secondly, is therapy an option for you? Is it available? Is it free? If it is not free, can you afford it? If it is an option, then absolutely one-hundred percent, get therapy. It’s for your mind, and your mind is the single most important tool you possess. So yes, if therapy is available, use it.
And finally, meditate either way. Whether you get therapy or not, meditate either way. Meditation by itself is a wonderful tool that will help to improve your mental health. And meditation alongside therapy is the best possible solution.
Yes, get therapy if you can. Yes, meditate. And if you would like my help, book an online meditation lesson with me today.
As a final thought, while researching this article I was struck by how many therapists and psychological associations have paid for websites (Lion’s Roar / Tricycle) to publish articles saying that meditation cannot replace therapy. Clearly, they are running scared, which they needn’t be, because for me, meditation and therapy are actually the best of friends.
Paul Harrison is a passionate meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
“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