How Do Meditation and CBT Fit Together?

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My own experience of learning CBT had a lot in common with my experience of learning meditation.  Meditation is a practice and a discipline.  CBT is also a practice and a discipline.  In both practices, I learned to focus and gently re-focus my attention.

Once I had learned both meditation and CBT, how did the two fit together?

When I experienced anxiety or panic, I discovered that it was most effective to use my CBT techniques first.  My CBT techniques directly addressed each element of my panic response – each slice of my “panic pizza”.  Hence, every experience of anxiety or panic became an opportunity for another CBT practice session – gradually learning mastery over each sensation and scary thought.

Perhaps I can best make this point with an analogy.

Imagine that you are a fisherman, and you fish everyday for your livelihood.  But every time you go out on your boat, you feel anxious, because you never learned how to swim.  Let’s also suppose that you have learned meditation, and you have begun to experience  many wonderful changes in your life due to this spiritual practice.  You decide to try using your meditation in this anxious situation.  Sitting on your boat, you meditate, and you are able to lower your anxiety.  Your meditation has helped you cope with an anxious situation, but you still don’t know how to swim.

CBT is like learning how to swim.  You start by just standing in the shallow end of a swimming pool.  The next step is dunking your head in the water.  You learn step by step, mastering each step before you go on to the next.  With practice, you become an excellent swimmer. 

Now, when you go out everyday on your boat, you feel confident.  You have addressed the underlying cause of your anxiety.  Now, if you feel like meditating on your boat, you can.  If you choose to meditate, you are meditating because it feels wonderful, not because you need to lower your anxiety.

The role of meditation in your life has not been diminished.  In fact, it has been enhanced.  Your meditation is no longer a technique for managing anxiety.  It is an expansive experience of peace, safety and joy – on the sea or on the shore.

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When I was healing, I used my CBT techniques when anxiety came up.  Then, if I felt like it, I would meditate.  Since I was recovering from agoraphobia, it was especially healing for me to find opportunities to meditate when I was away from home.  

As I healed, I grew to love meditating in beautiful places away from home.  These were some of the most beautiful meditations I have ever experienced.  I felt deep feelings of healing, peace and gratitude.

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