The Purpose of Meditation for Mental Health

The Purpose of Meditation for Mental Health

Michael Biuso, MA, LPC

Oftentimes, people hesitant to try meditation report being unable to control their mind—or more specifically, unable to stop their thoughts—and use that as a reason to not attempt the practice.

Stopping thoughts is not the goal of meditation, however. Most thoughts are involuntary, meaning that we are not aware of what is happening in the mind. When we are unaware of what is going on in the mind, we are likely to fuse or identify with our thoughts even if they do not reflect the truth of reality.

These inaccurate perceptions, known as cognitive distortions, lead to maladaptive beliefs about ourselves, the world, and our relationships. Meditation is a proven antidote to this, allowing us to increase awareness of mental activity and thus gain more control—not necessarily over what we think but rather how we respond to thoughts themselves.

Meditation cultivates mindfulness, which is the optimal balance between awareness and attention. Awareness, simply put, is knowledge of the big picture without focus on any particular detail. Conversely, attention is the act of intentionally placing one’s concentration on a single object or task.

In the practice of meditation, one chooses an object to which one’s attention is directed—the sensations of the breath for example. While attending to this object, one must also be cognizant of what the mind is doing—whether it is maintaining attention on the object or drifting into thoughts of the past or future. This requires a specific type of awareness called introspection, which is “the examination or observation of one's own mental and emotional processes” [Oxford English Dictionary].

Whenever one notices the mind straying from the chosen object, one simply redirects one’s attention back to it without any reactive self-judgment for becoming distracted. This balance between awareness and attention affords an increase in moment-to-moment consciousness to the involuntary thoughts that arise in the mind.

The more light we shine on the patterns of our thinking the more empowered we will be to choose how to respond to them, as opposed to automatically reacting to them. We are then free to choose to not buy into them and challenge them instead. This defuses the power that distorted thoughts may exert over us—abating their influence on our emotional state and how we behave outwardly.

The same applies to external situations; by practicing meditation and mindfulness, we become better equipped to respond more effectively—with greater intention, objectivity, thoughtfulness, patience, and compassion—to challenges that come up in day to day life.

Meditation is an accessible practice that offers the potential to improve and maintain our well-being in all aspects. In addition to promoting stress relief, it hones our attentional skills and enhances our introspective awareness; this, in turn, paves the way for gaining greater insight into ourselves and provides us with more agency in choosing how we relate to difficult thoughts, feelings, and external stressors.

Furthermore, research has demonstrated meditation’s efficacy in improving sleep, controlling addiction, managing pain, and decreasing blood pressure.

Recommended Books:

The Attention Revolution by Alan Wallace
The Mind Illuminated by John Yates