S1E5 Meditation

Many of us have tried to meditate, especially with the increased presence of mindfulness in the West (thanks to more access and knowledge about it via the internet and popular apps). In this episode Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss the science of meditation, their journeys with meditation, and offer some strategies for how to begin a meditation practice.




Pete: Learning about meditation, I first went to my Zen teacher and I sat down and I said, “So how do I become the best Zen student and Buddhist?”

Nikki: Of course he did.

Pete: Of course I did. I'm hoping in this episode that we'll talk about meditation, what it means to us and how we got there. Nikki, you and I both meditate, we have different relationships in meditation, we have the same relationship with meditation from time to time. The thing about meditation that I've often written about, and I continue to profitise, is it's like any other relationship, and there are sometimes I can't get enough of it and other times where I don't want any of it.

Nikki: Sure.

Pete: You feel the same way.

Nikki: Mine is a little different than that. When I'm not doing it, it's less like antagonistic feeling, like I want to get away from it. It's more like I forget about it, does that make sense? I'm like, “Oh, I know that this is helpful”, and out of sight out of mind, like other things are occupying my headspace.

Pete: Yeah. For me, you and I are both mid-career, we're early to mid-career.

Nikki: We're on the early side of mid-career.

Pete: Yeah, APA defines 10 years from graduation.

Nikki: I thought it was seven years of licensure.

Pete: No, 10 years of licensure, I’m doing a presentation at the American Psychological Association in August, and I'm listed as a mid-career psychologists.

Nikki: Your like, “don’t age me”

Pete: They did, but anyway, I think that we are both early on in this. My community of sitting is a much older group. I think that's something else, and I've noticed that I've been at this now for I think, 12 or 13 years, which means I was much younger when I first started and I was significantly younger. Now there are some people more around my age. But in general, there's a lot of grey hairs and like retired folk, I'm also saying that just to validate that, when I'm retired, I'm sure I'm going to meditate every day for a while, and I do meditate every day today. But I think I'll do it a lot more. Right now, as a mid-career, early career person, I have a lot going on, especially with all the different hats that I wear.

Nikki: Yeah. I think what I'm hearing in that description is that right now, you don't have time to devote an hour or two hours a day to meditation.

Pete: I do an hour a day.

Nikki: Oh right, in the morning, you do an hour. So you don't have two hours to devote, and you would like to devote double that?

Pete: Well I only do an hour every morning, because I don't always have time.

Nikki: You split it up sometimes?

Pete: I split it up, and I always do a sitting in the morning and a night. So traditionally, speaking of Buddhism, within the Zen tradition, you do it with sunrise and with sunset. That's why the Dalai Lama, he goes to bed at seven at night.

Nikki: Makes sense, he's good really. I think, interestingly, that sometimes deters people from running out meditation because they think they have to do it in a certain framework or time, and if they're not doing it, they're not doing it right. Or they're not doing the real meditation, and that's something that in our practice of flexibility is, as third wave clinical psychologists, and clinical and counselling psychologists, I always let people know that you can do it for five minutes, and actually, I'm always interested in this. I don't know of any other behaviour out there where if you meditate, if you did something for five minutes, three times a week, which is what I prescribe to new meditators, new patients…

Pete: It’s like being cut from the same cloth.

Nikki: Yeah, exactly. I don't know any other behaviour that can have such a significant impact. If your physician was like, “jog for five minutes, three times a week”, that's not really going to do anything that impactful, it might get you started on the behavioural thing.

Pete: That’s my issue with mindfulness based stress reduction. I love Jon Kabat-Zinn. I love MBSR, but 45 minutes a day?

Nikki: It's a long time.

Pete: During the eight weeks, 45 minutes a day plus those groups, it's a big commitment. But that being said, it works, it hands down works.

Nikki: We can look at it as what's workable for somebody.

Pete: Exactly. That's why you and I are flexible, we'll create that.

Nikki: Yeah, we'll create that. I also think people should be aware that mindfulness meditation isn't the only type of meditation out there. Pete, obviously, is a Zen practitioner. I came to mindfulness through western psychology, which actually draws from Zen Buddhist tradition, so I'm, interested in the same family of treatment. But there's Transcendental Meditation tm, which is like, 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes at night. There are all kinds of meditation practices associated with yoga, any of the Eastern spiritual traditions, many religions, Hinduism, there are visualization meditations, all kinds of stuff. Do you ever use Insight Timer, Pete?

Pete: I don't use any of the apps. I was going to say, there’s also Ziva meditation, which is something I've just learned about, which is like a mantra.

Nikki: So it’s kind of like tm.

Pete: There are all these different names for things, and so one of the things, the way I approach this clinically is, let's find what's right for you. I think insight is great. The big 10, which I'm a part of, through my position at Rutgers University, just partnered up with calm app. So I've been using that a little bit, because I'm trying to see what's out there. Headspace has obviously gotten a lot of attraction. Hopefully now, they'll give us ads for this podcast. They're not right now, but maybe one day they will. But seriously, I'm so thankful that these things are out there, but I don't necessarily prescribe one to a client or an athlete. I let them find what works for them.

Nikki: Oh, that’s cool. I always give people a starting place of ones that I…

Pete: You're nicer than me, that's why.

Nikki: I don’t know if that’s true.

Pete: That’s totally true.

Nikki: Maybe that is true, actually. Just because I think people can get overwhelmed these days, because meditation, and mindfulness probably specifically is kind of sexy these days, people know about it. I mean, when I'm speaking to a prospective patient on the phone, and I'm doing a consult, and I'm explaining about how I work, it's so interesting how I do that now, versus new patients like 10 years ago. People know, most people I talked to have tried something. Even at work, some people are like, “Oh, yeah, we had somebody come in and did a mind test.”

Pete: People are definitely more informed, 100% the work thing, they're like, “Oh, yeah,” law firms, finance, they have someone come in, and I'm always just like, “Who are these people?”

Nikki: But also like, “hell yeah”.

Pete: Exactly. It's that thing of like, “who are they? And is this like a business model, that are they true giving the science of the practice?” or are they saying, “you have to do it this way, or i's not going to work.”

Nikki: I think that leads me to this thought that I've had before, that I get really bummed out when I read things about companies bringing in meditation, because it's to increase productivity, because of the impact on improving attentional and excellent functioning.

Pete: Blah, blah, blah. I hear you.

Nikki: Yes, and then the focus is outcome based again, and the whole point of meditating is not to focus on the outcome.

Pete: It’s to let go of outcome. I know, and you and I both know that all of us come to it, because we were looking at decreasing some suffering that we've had. Honestly, I talked to my teacher a lot about that, because I think sometimes in particular, thinking about some of my community work with the Zen community, I don't always want to talk to people or hear what's going on in their world. I really like them, but when I have to hear and feel their suffering, which is natural, sometimes I'm going there for my own healing. I think for me, that's my work. But let's step back. I started off this episode by saying, I went to my teacher saying, “hey, let me become the best person”. In the Zen tradition, it's all about silence, so that's also my issue with some of these apps. A lot of guided stuff, music. We are all about silence, and for me, I've become so accustomed to that. That's the part that I desire.

Nikki: The quite.

Pete: I do. When I just can't get enough of the cushion, I just want to get on my zafu and zabuton easily, the five cent words that we use in the in the meditation world. But then it's about posture, so it's about making sure your spine is super straight. The crown of your head is up to the ceiling. We sit cross legged, but you don't have to, sometimes you could sit like you’re…

Nikki: Like your Asana, like yoga.

Pete: Yeah, on your knees. You could sit that way. It's really about just following the breath. One of the things we do is we lay our palms in our hands with our thumbs touching, because when you're sitting that with the Lotus, then you're able to create one line of energy through your body, so that's another big piece that's important. I think one of the things I encourage is having a space that set aside just for that, so you don't want to be doing that at your desk, because your desk relates to work or homework, you don't want to do it in your bed. You want to do it in a place that is specific just for this meditation, in a zendo, that's another. We should have like a glossary for this episode. A zendo is like the home, I guess a church or a synagogue would be like the equivalent. There's a plant, a bowl of water, a candle and some incense. Just representing the elements of earth and of life. The bowl of water is really cool, because it's about stillness and clarity.

Nikki: It’s beautiful

Pete: It is so beautiful. And so that could be an exercise. If you have a mantle, just have a bowl of water up there, maybe just look at it every so often, and that could be your meditative practice.

Nikki: I love hearing about the experience in the zendo, because for me, I'm not a dedicated Zen practitioner in the formal sense. Even though as I said earlier, the types of meditation I practice come from a Zen Buddhist tradition. Sometimes I would say like, I'm Buddhist informed; I mean that in the most highly respectable way. I integrate and believe in those teachings and those worldviews, though I wasn't raised Buddhists and I don't belong to a zendo, like Pete does. Though, I think what's interesting in hearing that is, that's where some people can kind of get confused about what is meditation. Is it a spiritual practice? Is it a religious practice? Is it just behaviour? And I think it's everything, it's all things.

Pete: It's whatever you want it to be. It's a knowing the answer, and I also don't identify as Buddhist, because I think one of the things you learn in the Buddhist or any kind of mindfulness, Buddhism, and Zen practice, is that all of that is just identity. There is no self, and I think that that for me, especially if I link this to psychology, or Western psychology sciences, that's really powerful. To think you're not your anxiety, you are not your depression. You'll feel it, and it's not who you are.

Nikki: I'd love to talk about that more in depth in another episode, because that is something I imagine people hear you say, and are like, “What? There's no self, I'm not my anxiety?” The answer is “no, you're not.” And that's a really difficult concept to internalize.

Pete: I’m not even there.

Nikki: Well, who is? To be honest, if we are there. And I'll share sort of experience I have in meditation sometimes, I do have that experience of, unsticking is the best way I can say it, it's like a millisecond, feeling like I'm really watching what's happening, but it doesn't stay with me, it doesn't hang around. Do you know what I'm talking about? That sort of unsticking, I don't have a more eloquent way of saying it.

Pete: I think that's the biggest challenge of this. I think that's probably what turns people off at times, but that's the other hippie thing. Sometimes I feel a little hippie-ish, and I think it is a little hippie. So I think it could be spiritual for some people, it could be just an existence, it could just be earthly, it could be universal. I've had really Christian, Catholic athletes that are able to connect with this, they're able to meditate.

Nikki: I was going to say, any of the Judeo Christian practices, they also have that Christian contemplative practice, Kabbalah in Judaism that these are… I think it's something important for people to know, too. Meditation doesn't just come from Eastern traditions; it’s a pre-ancient practice, across human experiences.

Pete: I think with Bill Maher, had done this religiosity.

Nikki: I actually never saw it; I know what it is though.

Pete: I like it, because what he highlighted was how there's more similarities, all the similarities between all the major religions, all of them, versus the differences. I think, especially in today's world, thinking about how polarized everything is. So thinking about, what do we call it? Linearness?

Nikki: Oh, linearness. Pete and I have decided to redefine perfectionism as linearness, that all humans tend towards linearness.

Pete: So I think that adds to and contribute to that polarizing and all this negative energy about your relationships is because you're not hearing and really realizing how similar we are, rather than this focus on how different. Now I sound like a hippie.

Nikki: I think some hippies, if somebody who identified as a hippie, might resonate with what you're saying, and I think that that term also speaking of linearness has helped people to misunderstand these really foundational concepts. We want to say hippies might connect with this, though lots of people might connect with what we are saying, whether they identify, hippie inclined or not?

Pete: Yeah, because there's a place for it, so the other thing I'll say is, I really see it as, I believe, my personal belief is that meditation helps everybody. My other personal belief is that it's not right for everybody in every moment.

Nikki: I share both of those beliefs wholeheartedly. You and I, we're the same and different.

Pete: Because that would be a really provocative or otherwise challenging statement that you'd make amongst other peers or…

Nikki: That meditation would help everybody?

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: When people come to me, and again, I'm talking clinically, generally, people in my personal life have all said this. They'll say, “You know Nikki I’ve tried meditation and it just doesn't work for me.” I valid, I go, “look, I know, it's really hard”. But I’ll also chuckle, and I'll say, “well, that's kind of like saying, exercise doesn't work for you”. I’m like, “it works for everybody. It helps everybody. It's hard, and it might not be to your point, you might not be ready to do that at that point, because it requires a bit of effort”. But it really is like saying; physical exercise doesn't work for you. That's just not true. It's just not.

Pete: Works for everybody.

Nikki: It works for everybody.

Pete: Yeah, and we know it from the new emerging research related to some brain imaging, PET scans to see that there are changes that are occurring. That's also why I feel that way, and I'm not going to push anybody to get to there.

Nikki: Of course not, it’s like if somebody is like, “I don't want to start jogging.” Okay, that’s okay.

Pete: When I have good relationships with clients, if I've seen them for a little bit longer than usual, I'll be like, “Look, the last thing that's left here is if you're struggling with meditation for a reason,”

Nikki: That's right.

Pete: Your symptom is what's making a challenge, so the symptom of like racing thoughts, perfectionism, inability to find that inner peace or stillness, that's why you're struggling with it. That's why we're done with treatment, and if there's anything else you're going to do beyond this, you're going to find your own meditation practice at some point, and then you'll find what you've been looking for, but you're not going to keep coming to me to complain about how it's not changing. In a compassionate way.

Nikki: Of course. That's a very important thing for people to hear, that in order for you to begin to cultivate this practice of being mindful that we learn in meditation, or frankly, any other behaviour you're trying to learn in the world, it requires willingness.

Pete: I love it the way you said it, willingness, curiosity.

Nikki: I always say to people, this might sound cheesy, but it resonates with me.

Pete: Don’t get cheesy

Nikki: I’m going to get cheesy. Willingness, I would say, is a seed that exists within all of us, and I can't give it to anybody. I can't give willingness to you; I can't give willingness to a patient. Everybody has the seed somewhere in them. I can give people tools, or teach them how to water it or give it sunlight. But even then, you have to be willing to find that seed and do the things that help cultivate it and grow it. As humans, we're not always willing, willingness is effort.

Pete: So maybe the takeaway is go find a seed plant it. Because I love that metaphor, and if anyone has a plant or a green thumb, you know that it takes a lot of cultivation, care, compassion. Find that for yourself in this practice, and challenge yourself, like we said, maybe just a little bit here and there. But here's to meditating.

Nikki: Here’s to meditating.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Peter Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West; all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.