Psychotherapy and Meditation

The other day a client and I were discussing the similarities and differences between psychotherapy and insight-oriented meditation. It was a very interesting discussion, and I thought I would share some of our conclusions. The basic act of meditation is to notice what happens in the moment. While the meditator is seated, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations occur, sometimes with rapid and painful intensity. The task is to sit there and notice. There is a memory from childhood. There is a feeling of sadness, loneliness. To some degree this is the same process involved in psychotherapy: the client also notices what is happening. In psychological language, this is called developing an observing ego: The ability to notice one’s experience. In the therapy session, the client talks about these experiences, making them manifest verbally.

The aim in meditation is emotional detachment — not to get too caught in these experiences. The meditator is simply watching these thoughts and feelings and sensations as they arise and disappear (as one meditation teacher puts it “like waves in the ocean”). However, in psychotherapy, client and therapist aim to get very involved with these experiences. Together, they check them out and pursue underlying meaning. If the client should feel sadness, the task is to really feel it. The aim is to both feel the feeling (allowing for it to be felt and processed) and to understand it (and underlying assumptions, beliefs and thoughts that may support it). In that way, there may be more opportunities to feel differently or act with other options.

There are a lot of similarities between the processes of meditation and psychotherapy. But the big difference, of course, is that psychotherapy is done with someone. The core of the psychotherapeutic experience is the relationship formed between client and therapist. Often what the client experiences is painful – sad or traumatic memories, difficult emotional states. While the client must experience these things him or herself, hopefully the experience is made more bearable by the presence of someone else. By having these experiences, accompanied by the therapist, the aim is for the client to move through them and be less burdened by them.

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