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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

What You Need to Know about the Dangers of Meditating for Relaxation

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 20th 2010

As we go through life we often have hidden (or not so hidden) beliefs and assumptions about all kinds of things. A classic example of this is to have someone close their eyes and ask them to picture and alcoholic. Often times the immediate picture that comes to mind is a homeless unkept man on the street. As the mind has a chance to digest it, we start to come up with more pictures that become closer to the truth.

In this same way, when most of us think of meditation we see the pictures of serenity, relaxation and peacefulness. It's important to uncover this assumption as it sets our minds up to be more restless when engaging in any meditation practice. Why?

The aspiration of meditation is not relaxation; it's more about cultivating an awareness of the present moment and about developing a sense of equanimity about things. What is equanimity? Equanimity is about being at peace with the reality of the present moment. So whether there is pain or joy, there is a sense of acceptance without a need to be habitually reactive.

One classic practice for this is scanning your body up and down and eventually coming to a place where you see all sensations as just that, sensations in the body without a need to scratch the itch, but instead the ability to follow and be with the sensation as it ripples and resonates and eventually passes away.

Equanimity is often confused with indifference or not caring. This is not the case, in fact, mindfulness is about caring deeply for the present moment, so much so that we are practicing being with it, instead of avoiding it. Equanimity is not about indifference, but more about a sense of peace and balance.

If we believe the aspiration of meditation is about relaxation, immediately a monitor gets built in the back of the mind that looks for relaxation as you're practicing. Any sign that you are not relaxing is a cause for stress and alert. Stress and alert are the opposite of relaxation, so paradoxically; if you have the intention of relaxing through meditation it may have the opposite effect. If you drop this aspiration and make it more about being present to what is, you may actually experience a dropping away of the struggle and feel more relaxed.

Meditation is about breaking free from the confines of our minds, a much larger aspiration than just relaxing.

Keep this in mind next time you sit, stand or lie down with the intention of meditating, see what your experience is.

To practice a brief meditation you can click here.

Please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Itching - Lili - Oct 7th 2010

    You said that during meditation, one should observe an itch without scratching it. I've found that trying to do this is impossible for me to do without getting very frustrated. Is it ok to scratch if I mindfully label the sensation as "itching" first? Will scratching or coughing or sneezing or readjusting my posture due to discomfort ruin the meditation and prevent me from getting any benefit out of it?

    Great article - Douglas Garcia - Apr 21st 2010

    Elisha,

    Great article and reminders about reason and benefits of meditation. I do think however that there is an element of relaxation as a benefit when one practices.

    I meditate at night before going to bed, partly because it helps quiet the mind, and partly because it does prepare me better (relaxes me?)  for a night's sleep. Maybe the latter is the wrong reason. I do aim for present moment awareness and pull the mind back when it goes (rehashes, rehearses) away from the present moment.

    Again, thanks, and keep these articles coming.

    Meditation is about knowing the ultimate truth - Rajesh yedida - Apr 21st 2010

    Dear Doctor,

                      You brought out a good point about meditation. These many people seek it as a method of relaxation. In their pursuit they lose sight of other great benefits. Meditation is all about knowing the ultimate truth. There may be many great benefits which we get as byproducts.

    Why the word Danger is Important - Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. - Apr 21st 2010

    Thank you for your comment. The word danger for me felt fairly important as it implies a caution against using meditation simply for relaxation. It can be a trap to do this and so it's important to be aware of it. If people read the title and read the article, I don't think they'll be scared away from meditation, but hopefully will come to it with a sense that there is something even greater than relaxation to come from meditation. 

    That is a greater sense of mental and emotional freedom. 

    Use of Word "Danger" in Title a Poor Choice - Phil Murray - Apr 20th 2010

    The use of the Word "Danger" in the title of this article was a poor choice.

    It will scare some people away from meditating, who might have otherwise benefited from it.

    The article is otherwise accurate and makes good points. I meditate and have experienced what the author is describing.

    I recovered from OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder) through mindfulness meditation, so I know meditation can heal significant psychological problems.

    However one way way to use mindfulness to get rid of an anxiety disorder is to develop a 'neutral witness' and then to meditate on the worst feeling (emotion) in the body until it dissolves. This may involve the feeling actually getting worse (at first), but then it will drop very low if one gently persists. 

    After that point, the OCD will be greatly reduced.

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