Using mindfulness to reduce anxiety, go to sleep etc

From time to time I’ve heard participants at retreats etc mention the reason they want to learn meditation is to reduce/manage their anxiety [a couple of my friends dabbled in meditation (they never really became meditators) because they hoped meditating would reduce their anxiety – it didn’t and they no longer meditate].

In the book A Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Workbook, based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the authors warn against meditating to achieve anything other than awareness. Indeed they point out that meditating to achieve a particular outcome other than awareness may be counterproductive:

In mindfulness meditation, the intention is simply to place non-judgemental attention on whatever object of awareness you’ve chosen. So if you are practising meditation for the purpose of relaxation it can actually be a trap; if you meditate and don’t feel relaxed, your mind might start racing with thoughts about how it isn’t working. This could lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and disappointment, which may send you on a downward spiral towards becoming anxious or depressed.

One of the potential hindrances to a meditation practice could be meditating for an outcome other than awareness (because the if other outcome wasn’t obtained there could be a lowering the motivation to meditate).

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  1. Jan Rivers
    Posted March 23, 2015 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I understand what you are saying. In my view there isn’t a simple linear relationship between meditating and reducing stress and anxiety but I think meditation helps us to work with anxiety in two simple ways.

    Firstly the practice of bringing the mind to the present moment again and again – by choosing to focus on the felt manifestation of the present moment rather than being caught in the usual chains of thought / emotional states – helps bring about the realisation that we can direct our mind’s point of focus. For beginning meditators this can help begin the journey with any emotional state including anxiety. It’s not suppression of emotion but a conscious choice to focus elsewhere for a period and can provide relief and a sense of empowerment.

    Secondly by taking a curious and compassionate view towards our emotional state and noticing how it plays out in the body is a willed act that does seem to help us to “be with” rather than being “bowled over” by our emotional states. Extreme anxiety, like many emotions, can be very powerful, even overwhelming, and the decision to just sit and notice is, for each of us, a courageous act especially at the outset. The advantage that experienced meditators have is to know that the courage of “noticing how things really are” is a practice worth the effort.

    Finally I think the opportunity to put into words what we feel has changed and to have others bear witness to this can be an important part of the process for some people, though not for everyone.

  2. Posted April 3, 2015 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    The people who produced Buddhify asked the folk who downloaded their app why they got into meditation, and here’s what they found:


Looking at these figures, it’s reasonable to suppose that almost three quarters of Buddhify users practice meditation because they’re looking for a way to deal with the stresses and pressures of daily life. I’d also suggest it’s likely these are not the people who tried and gave up.

    Murray shows above the paradox that setting an aim for our meditation practice, in this case to reduce stress, might not produce the desired result, that it might in fact produce the opposite – increased stress.

    This discussion makes clear for me that while meditation is in itself a great thing to do, in fact I describe it as the greatest gift I ever gave myself, it is more useful when it’s part of something greater. This something greater is for me both a contemporary understanding and a felt sense of the relevance of the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha, in today’s world.

    When we practice with ‘complete effort’, the sixth fold of Mr Gotama’s eightfold path, we do so with balance. We try to find a middle way between trying too hard and not trying at all. Not only is this not stressful (not a double negative but an intensifier, language pedants please note) but people do find, to paraphrase Jan, that meditation really does help them work with anxiety.

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