So many of us are in a constant state of motion – juggling jobs, families, and a seemingly endless to-do list – that the concept of meditation may seem too foreign to try. But meditation practice can not only calm and clear the mind – it can improve health issues like high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression.
There are dozens of meditation styles including transcendental and guided meditation, meditation as part of religious or spiritual practice, and for those who can't sit still, there is even walking meditation. Different forms serve different purposes, but what they all seem to have in common are techniques designed to promote relaxation and mindfulness.
Sandra Salzillo, LMHC (licensed mental health clinician) leads guided meditation with cancer patients in Women & Infants Hospital's Program in Women's Oncology. Guided meditation uses a person's live voice or a recording and Salzillo's sessions combine mindfulness meditation – helping patients relax the body, quiet the mind, and focus on breathing – with her training in the expressive arts and Jungian psychology, which involves images in dreams and their objective translation. Patients take part in a guided meditation, and then draw or paint whatever image comes to mind.
"It's meant to help a person go into a deep state of relaxation and, at the same time, reach a part of their imagination – that part of the unconscious mind that is always right on the surface that most people don't want to pay attention to – and let it bring in images that can become symbolic," she says.
"With the patients I work with, the guided meditation becomes a way for them to express their feelings visually," Salzillo says. "When you are in a state of guided meditation, you are more likely able to access feelings with an image easier than you can by just thinking about it and articulating it in words, because you are reaching a deeper part of yourself."
For example, a person may draw a picture of something to symbolize depression to them because perhaps they have tried to stay upbeat during treatments and not let anyone know about these feelings.
"It's not traditional art therapy where you analyze the images; the images often speak for themselves," Salzillo says. "Sometimes, they won't understand what they are right away, but, over time, they begin to have relationships with these images. Like a journal, it helps them begin to experience what's going on that they can't access consciously."
In eight years with oncology patients, Salzillo sees the benefits.
"What I find is that from the time they are in the room, there is a decrease in their stress level, for sure," Salzillo says. "That's one of the reasons they come back. They say, 'For the two hours I'm in here, I can keep the world away.' There's a sense of keeping things at bay, of being in a safe space where they can relax and let go of all the other pressures they are having.
"The other benefit I see is that patients have been able to express and release emotions that were too difficult to talk about. There's a lot of self-growth and self-knowledge that comes out of this practice. They are not going into it with a planned agenda. I always say whatever comes up, just go with it. There's no right or wrong. Often times they'll make an image that truly surprises them and becomes very meaningful to them. It still amazes me how profoundly powerful it is to watch this process."
While Salzillo's patients are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, she says this combination of guided meditation and expressive arts can help people dealing with any type of significant change or trauma. For stress, she adds that it's one of the best solutions.
"Like anything else, it's a discipline. You have to stick with it and commit to it to really see long-term benefits," she says, adding that anyone interested in meditation should do proper research to find the right form for them and the proper instruction.