Having written about Zen in the past, I am sometimes asked whether Zen practice can help in dealing with anger, anxiety or trauma, and whether it can complement counselling or psychotherapy or is useful in improving mental health generally.
First of all, let’s quickly get the ‘Zen’ part out of the way. Practising Zen to achieve a result or get something out of it is not really Zen at all. (Some Zen schools see things differently, but that is a different conversation.) Mostly though, the Zen angle doesn’t matter because it usually turns out that the question refers to the Zen practice of zazen or ‘sitting meditation’, or simply to meditation in a wider sense.
I have seen people who meditate gently and consistently who have benefited. For example, that their anger, anxiety or flashbacks dissipate over time; that buried emotions they didn’t know they had were discovered and dissipated, leaving them happier; that resentments and anger were let go; or that their thinking patterns became more helpful or at least that negative inner voices became less powerful. If that is the result, then meditation is probably helpful for many of us, not just those in therapy. And of course, the same can be said of yoga or mindfulness, both of which people report as beneficial to their physical and mental well-being.
So, if you ask me, “I am in therapy. Will meditation improve my mental health?” my answer might be to try it out carefully. I mean ‘carefully’ in two ways. Firstly, you are practising treating yourself gently and, literally, with care. Finding time and commitment to meditation contributes to developing self-care and compassion towards ourselves, which on its own is already an important component of longer term mental health for all of us. And secondly because the results may not be what you expect. Here is what “carefully” means in practice.
Notice and discuss. Think about what you are trying to get out of meditation, so that you notice as you go along whether the effects you are getting are the ones that you want, or something else (for better or worse). More importantly, notice all the time what actually results from your meditation, separate from what you had imagined or hoped for. Discuss what happens with your therapist. If meditation is freeing up your mind and emotions in some way, then it is wise to bring this into your therapy process, both to double check that you are on a positive path, rather than slipping into patterns that are unhelpful to you; and also because on occasions this may genuinely aid or speed up your therapy process.
Think about the long term. Don’t judge the results too quickly. Yes, meditation takes time and commitment, even if that is a small, regular commitment. So don’t expect instant results. But I mean more than just that. When other things happen than what you planned for, don’t automatically treat these as bad and try and eradicate them, believing that meditation isn’t working. Here is an example.
Meditation might allow some of critical voices in your head to quieten down allowing you to feel better about yourself. But at the same time, it might relax some of the mental processes that have kept you from feeling some of negative feelings you kept even from yourself because it wasn’t safe in earlier life to allow them to be seen and heard. It would be easy to decide meditation is making you worse, when in fact this might be an important, even vital, step in your journey.
Once again, ask your therapist to help you evaluate what is happening. It doesn’t matter too much that your therapist has no experience in meditation, as long as she or he can help you understand and process the results.
But if meditation results in distress, stop! In my experience this is rare. But err on the side of caution. You are, I hope, trying to improve your long term mental health and not push yourself to do something that hurts. If you are playing out some form of destructive behaviour, that too is important to recognise. At the very least, stop until you have had a re-think about what you are doing. Again, this can be done with your therapist.
A final note of caution. I said earlier, that my answer might be to try it. But it will never be a universal “yes”. For example, if you dissociate easily or often, I would suggest being more careful, if you try it at all. Attempting to meditate might simply result in more dissociation, which would not be helping. Even experienced mediators sometimes mistake a deep quietness (‘laya’) as progress or a beneficial state, when it is in fact a diversion. In fact, I sometimes wonder, when I hear about some wonderful place that a meditator has reached, whether they have simply dissociated. This is an easy mistake to make. If you dissociate easily, learning to ground yourself is probably more important.
In summary then, Zen to help yourself feel better is not Zen. But zen-style meditation or meditation generally is certainly worth considering, provided you’re careful that it takes you in the direction you need to be going. Work with your therapist and, most importantly, work on caring for yourself.