People who are Driven or compulsive like to take action and get things done. Sitting still and watching their breath hardly seems productive.
But mindfulness meditation is all the rage these days in mental health. There’s far more research demonstrating its efficacy than there is for, say, the benefits of flossing, which everyone seems to believe in, but nobody seems to be able to prove.
Anyway, I thought it would be worthwhile to explore whether meditation for compulsives might be helpful, and what it might have to offer folks who struggle with compulsive personality and OCPD. Here goes.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a particular form of meditation which helps us to be present, aware, and accepting. It’s not just relaxing or reflecting, but a specific way of training the mind.
The basic instructions are to sit quietly and try to focus on your breath, in and out. Each time your attention wanders—and it will—notice where it wandered to, label it (thinking, planning, remembering, fixing, hating, craving). Just bring your attention back to your breath without judging the thought or feeling. Each time you do, you’re building new neural connections that help you to be less reactive.1
Don’t expect immediate results. It’s a gradual process.
For more basic instructions, check out mindful.org.
Benefits of Meditation for Compulsives & Type A’s
Here are four reasons that mindfulness can be especially helpful to people with compulsive tendencies. It helps them to
- Live in the present rather than the future.
- Exert less control and accept things as they are.
- Reduce anger and frustration when we aren’t able to fix and perfect everything.
- Cling less rigidly to to time, money, and having things a certain way.
In meditation we systematically practice observing feelings without reacting to them. So, for instance, each time I start to feel that I have to fix something and I start to think about what I need to do to fix it, I label it “planning,” and come back to observing my belly as it rises and falls. Each time I bring myself back, I improve my capacity to be in the present rather than trying to alleviate my anxiety by planning my future.
When I’m not actually meditating and I face a challenge, I can use breathing to recall the mindfulness I’ve developed in meditation.
Compulsive tendencies, when they’ve become unhealthy, are efforts to avoid anxiety by controlling. Mindfulness meditation is effective partly because it helps us to be present and curious about our feelings (such as anxiety) rather than avoid them, get entangled in them, or judge them.
Mindfulness helps us to develop affect regulation—another buzzword in psychology today–meaning it helps you learn to have an emotion without it having you. It helps you to be more flexible—which is something most compulsives can benefit from.
Meditation for Those Who Can’t Sit Still…Yet
But if sitting still is too hard to do, you can also use walking meditation to improve mindfulness. Observe carefully the process of walking as you are doing it: “Lifting, moving, placing.” The advantage to this is that it grounds you in your body even more than the breath. For most compulsives, that’s a real benefit since they are often so out of touch with their bodies. It also helps you to carry the practice into your everyday life.
Simpler still is the practice of mindful breathing. There are lots of options here, and they all have emotional and physiological benefits, but the main idea is to breathe through the nose, lower, into the belly, and do it on a particular count such as in for four, hold for seven, and out for eight. Or in for five, hold for five, exhale for five, and wait for five. You can find a great guide to breathing benefits and exercises here.
Theoretically you can use any simple behavior as a form of meditation. Just try to be aware of what you are doing as you are doing it. I try to practice it when I’m flossing. Since there’s no guarantee the flossing is doing any good I want to make sure I’m not wasting my time.
Limits and Dangers of Meditation
The dangers in meditation for compulsives are not inherent in meditation itself, but occur if you use it improperly, or if you try to use it exclusively to work on your issues.
Let’s say you’re bummed out and you try to use meditation to bliss out–to evade an emotion rather than face it head on. That’s not really meditation, and if it does help, it won’t help for long.
Some people think of meditation as a heavenly state of oblivion. Nope. Sorry. Maybe you’ll have that experience occasionally years from now if you really devote yourself to the practice. But I wouldn’t count on it happening right away.
Let’s say that you use control as a way to try do deal with your anger. Cleaning your house might be better than a rage attack, but it can’t replace processing what you are angry about and learning why it pushes your buttons so much. Similarly, trying to force yourself to be chill rather than angry is not only contrary to good mental health, it’s contrary to the spirit of meditation. Sit consciously with the anger first so that it can eventually dissipate.
It’s also possible to get too compulsive about meditation. Beware of getting perfectionistic about it, or making a competitive sport of it.
Meditation and Psychotherapy: Better Together
And meditation probably won’t be sufficient to deal with your compulsive tendencies. Meditation can’t replace psychotherapy for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). It’s important to understand the role that control, perfectionism, and over-working has played for us so that we can find better ways to honor our passions and to meet our emotional needs.
Many mediation teachers themselves have benefited from psychotherapy. Mark Epstein, for instance, therapist, Buddhist teacher, and author writes in his most recent book about the important role that therapy played for him in solving issues that meditation could not do alone. Some problems need talk and the benefits of the therapeutic relationship.
There’s An App For That
If you’re not quite ready to pack your bags for India and sit at the feet of a teacher, for the time being you can try using the InsightTimer meditation app. It has a timer that will ring a gong at the beginning and end of the time you select for a meditation session (say 15 minutes). And if you want, it will also ring gongs periodically (say every 2 or 3 minutes) during your mediation to bring you back to your focus. At least as important, it has a ton of guided meditations and will bring the teacher to you so that you can get started.
Goals Or No Goals?
Confession. In order to get your attention and tempt you to try meditation I said that research says it is effective in self-improvement. I know that compulsives need such incentives. But truth to tell, aiming for “effective” is a little contrary to the whole project. It is an exercise in not being so effective. Being Driven in meditation is a questionable approach. Unless you enlist that Drive in order to be less Driven.
Sometimes we need to turn off the engine and not try to get anywhere.
1Britta K. Hölzel at the Bender Institute for Neuroimaging in Germany recently wrote: “Evidence suggests that mindfulness practice is associated with neuroplastic changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures. …[T]he mechanisms described here work synergistically, establishing a process of enhanced self-regulation.”
2 “The practice of mindfulness teaches one to approach internal experiences with curiosity and acceptance, which allows for intensive self-observation without judgement, elaboration, or attempts to fix or change the experience.
“These approaches involve a rigorous program of training in meditation to cultivate the capacity to evoke and apply mindfulness to enhance emotional well-being and mental health. Mindfulness approaches are not considered relaxation or mood management techniques, however, but rather a form of mental training to reduce cognitive vulnerability to reactive modes of mind that might otherwise heighten stress and emotional distress or that may otherwise perpetuate psychopathology. Bishop, Scott, et al. 2004. Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11(3)