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Meditation: To Calm the Heart
or Break it Open?

by Elisabeth Targ

It has become popular to hope and to expect that if you engage in a spiritual practice you will feel better, and that if you are ill, you will start to recover. But such thinking is profoundly misleading. It has been well documented that people who meditate or pray often feel more peaceful and less anxious than those who do not, but those feelings may have nothing to do with whether the meditation is working. In fact, immediate relief of emotional distress may not be an expected or even desirable outcome of spiritual practice.

Much of the popular confusion has to do with the association between

© Barbara Bruch
meditation and relaxation. Thirty years ago, Harvard's Herbert Benson, M.D., renamed certain meditation practices "the relaxation response." These practices are so-called "concentrative" practices to help beginning students still their minds before doing deeper exploratory spiritual work. They are found in various forms in most religious and spiritual traditions. The student focuses on a candle, a word, a short, inspiring phrase, or the breath. Often the object of focus itself, such as the word "peace," inspires a peaceful state.

But the spiritual purpose of meditation is not to lower blood pressure but to increase awareness. As the student learns to quiet the mind, he or she may add a practice of letting the mind rest, not just on a word or object, but on the sum of his or her inner experience. As meditators sit with internal experience, they may find an intensified consciousness of pain, sadness, confusion, or anger. Anxiety occurs as these emotions (or the reasons for them) come closer to conscious awareness.

For example, a student may become aware in practice of her shame or self-criticism about failing to give a dollar to a homeless person on the street. While it might be easier not to think about it, as part of her practice, she chooses to relax her attention around the feeling, and allow in her pain and confusion. This very act is a moment of connection and caring by the student for herself. It is the beginning of access to loving-kindness. From this more open and loving inner experience, she may also be able to let in more of the homeless man's experience. Longtime meditators sometimes describe their increased sensitivity as a "breaking open of the heart."

Another cause of distress during meditation is the evolving awareness of the constraints of our life choices and daily experience. This is exemplified in the famous torments of St. John of the Cross, described in his book Dark Night of the Soul. This courageous explorer of inner worlds experienced a divine epiphany, followed by sadness, isolation, and hopelessness.

A larger question is whether this deeper and more difficult exploration is healing. I believe it is. Data from our laboratory's recent study of spiritual practice for women with breast cancer found that those who meditated scored lower on measures of avoidance or avoidance coping than those who did not. In other words, the meditators became increasingly aware of the degree of their pain, the extent of their illness, even the proximity of death. At the same time, they became significantly less depressed and anxious.

How can increasing our awareness of our suffering or difficulties help us cope with or recover from illness? Whether the practice is meditation or prayer to God, saints, or spirits, spirituality requires radical honesty with oneself. As we spend less mental energy running from our feelings, and allow less physical contraction and bracing around the areas of our body that are diseased, we can relax and let in more nourishment.

This relaxation has obvious psychological and immunologic effects. The nourishment may be in the form of self-love, support from friends and family, hope, energy, or realization.

And as we courageously face the subtleties of our unpleasant feelings about and "unacceptable" reactions to small or large difficulties, we begin to understand how we hurt and limit ourselves. We can make choices that bring us closer to our communities; we can become less vicious to ourselves. We can make things better.   

Reprinted with permission from:

Spirituality & Health Magazine
Issue: Summer 2001


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