Teaching Clients to Meditate
Posted by Christian Conte, PhD on 2/1/18 - 6:54 PM

A family sent their abrasive son to a monastery to learn a better path. When he came home to visit them after having been there his first year, they asked him what he learned. The son replied frustratingly, “All I learned to do was breathe.”

He returned to the monastery, and five years later, when his family asked him what he learned, he looked disheartened as he shrugged his shoulders and said, “All I learned to do was breathe.” He went away and returned again after ten years, and this time he seemed defeated as the same question was posed and he gave the same answer.

Then, many years had passed, and the young man now became a much older man, and at last, he reached enlightenment. When he was asked what he learned to become enlightened, he replied, “Finally, I learned to breathe.”

Our egos like to assure us that we “know.” “I know, I know,” we say, “I should meditate. I know it’s good for me….” But then we don’t. Talking about knowledge makes for interesting conversation, but practicing knowledge is wisdom. In 2018, we have enough evidence from the field of neuroscience to know that even five minutes of meditation a day for six weeks can create physiological changes in the brain. Meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (our constant inner chatter), it lowers blood pressure, and it helps our amygdalas send fewer false signals of danger that lead to anxiety, fear, and ultimately all-too-often, anger. In short, you know that daily meditation can significantly help you, so what’s stopping you from practicing it?

Many people tell me that they “don’t have the time,” and I certainly understand living a fast-paced life with a seemingly perpetually busy schedule; so I often tell people this: You might not have ten minutes a day, and maybe right now you’re convinced that you don’t even have five minutes to do it, but you cannot rationally come up with an reasonable excuse for not having two minutes to meditate a day. And people usually agree. I start people with two minutes a day, because 20,000 hours of clinical experience has taught me that when people start off with two minutes a day, two things happen: 1. They find that they can make the time, and 2. They eventually sit longer until it’s worth it to make five or ten minutes a priority in their everyday lives.

There are many different ways to meditate, but the most basic is to focus on your breath. I recommend people sit up, because I have seen evidence that sitting with a straight spine activates the reticular formation, which is the center of our brain’s ability to pay attention. Like the monk from the story above (and like mastering anything), learning to breathe takes effort, until it doesn’t. I teach people to sit up straight and to focus on their breath. I also recommend not trying to stop your thoughts, as trying to do so often becomes discouraging, since it’s not very realistic. Instead, I encourage people to become an observer of their thoughts—to watch their thoughts move by like watching a boat pass on a river. As the “boat carrying your thoughts” goes by, come back to your breath. A two-minute timer will likely go off sooner than you think. Eventually, so will with the five or ten minute one.

My experience has taught me that it’s foolish to wait until we’re anxious or angry to try to begin handling those tough emotions. Instead, if we can breathe with intentionality as often as possible throughout our day, as well as engage in actively having realistic self-talk, then our ability to handle things like anxiety and anger when they arise will become significantly better. You have all the tools you need to start meditating daily and practicing and role modeling the type of self-control and healthy habits for your clients that will help them see that you are living the example that you are presenting to them. After all, you already know how to breathe… or do you?

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy