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date: 20 February 2017

Meditation, Mindfulness, and Social Work

Abstract and Keywords

Research has shown that social workers and other helping professionals can make use of the contemplative practices from religion and spiritual disciplines. These practices can be utilized as tools that help social workers become more intentional and effective change agents as helpers in their work with individuals, families, children, and communities. This entry discusses the evolution and emergence of the practices of meditation and mindfulness within the helping context, starting with the historic roots in different religions to its usage in the early 21st century with children and families. Additionally, it addresses the limitations and benefits of meditation and mindfulness as practice tools.

Keywords: meditation, mindfulness, contemplative practices, spiritual discipline, effective change agents

Historical Overview

Social work emerged in the United States in the 19th century in response to the attempts of charitable organizations to create a systematic and secular approach to provide aid to the influx of impoverished immigrant families and children from southeastern Europe: Italians, Jews, Greeks, people of Slavic heritage, and others. Aide was originally provided by volunteers known as friendly visitors; they were later replaced by the Charity Organization Society (COS), which had a focus on distinguishing between the unworthy poor and worthy poor recipients of alms. The ultimate goal of COS was to restore as much self-sufficiency and responsibility as an individual could manage. Paralleling COS were the Settlements and Progressive reform movements, with their focus on improving the deteriorating urban infrastructure and quality of life for impoverished immigrant families and children living in the inner cities. Both the COS and the Settlements and Progressive reform movements, along with the new thinking about mental health, the compatibility of psychological theories with social casework, and economic changes, greatly influenced the evolutions of and eventual professional development of social work (Hopps & Lowe, 2008; Hopps, Lowe, Stuart, Weismiller, & Whitaker, 2008; Morris, 2000).

Available data suggest that 21st-century social workers can be found in a variety of fields, serving many new and traditional populations and playing different roles (National Association of Social Workers, 2006; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1988). Practitioners serve diverse populations with multifaceted needs and at different levels of practice (Hopps et al., 2008). Initially, the theories of Sigmund Freud, who believed that religion was an illusion that derived its strength from the fact that it falls in with one’s instinctual desires; Karl Marx, who postulated that the economic organization of society conditions the social and ideological life of a society; and John Dewey, a leader in the progressive movement in education who believed that a democratic society of informed and engaged inquirers was the best means of promoting human interests, had a direct impact on how help was conceptualized and perceived in society. The thinking of Freud, Marx, and Dewey and the reorganization of the COS influenced the nonreligious shift in almsgiving that resulted in private or state program sectors taking responsibility for achieving social change (Garvin, 1981; Larson, 1977). After 1935, several factors influenced the continuing evolution of the profession, including the Great Depression and World War II.

Further development of social work as a profession led to an evolving emphasis on research and scientific methods and development of a knowledge base consisting of theories such as ecological systems (Germain & Gitterman, 1995), empowerment (Lee, 2001), the strengths perspective (Saleebey, 2012), and other emergent collaborative practices such as solution-focused treatment and narrative therapy. As reflected in the profession emphasis on strengths, empowerment, and collaborative practice, as the profession evolves it will not only continue to address current issues related to its conception of practice modalities of how change occurs and diversity issues, but also be challenged by new ones. Along with emergent collaborative approaches, meditation and mindfulness, albeit slowly, are continually finding their way into the professional practice of social work. Clinicians, researchers, and theorists have explored Buddhist thoughts, other spiritual orientations, meditation, and spirituality since the 1950s. Meditation and various forms of relaxation techniques and training have been researched and studied for their potential to reduce the physical impact of stress and assist people in monitoring aspects of their behavior related to stress (Bloomfield & Kory, 1977; Wallace, Benson, & Wilson, 1971; Walrath & Hamilton, 1984). According to Epstein (1990), early psychoanalytic literature dating back to the 1920s examined Buddhist and other spiritual concepts, finding seminaries and parallels with psychoanalytic concepts. In the field of clinical social work, there have been calls from the literature not only to examine concepts from meditation spiritually as they apply to social-work practice, but also to examine the actual effects of meditation and mindfulness as a practice tool (Brandon, 1991; Canda, 1988; Keefe, 1975, 1986; Sermabeikian, 1994).

As the uncertainty and stressful nature of the world take hold of our day-to-day existence, the helping professions have begun to explore alternative options for relevant and effective modes of treatment for individuals, families, and communities. As discussed in greater detail later in this entry, meditation and mindfulness practices are rapidly becoming the norm as the adjunctive or treatment tool of choice in the helping professions.

The following section, with its focus on the definition of meditation and mindfulness, will provide a beginning context for understanding and discussing the connection between mindfulness and meditation and their ongoing emergence in social work and other helping professions.

Defining Meditation and Mindfulness

Sitting meditation, like mindfulness, comes to us from diverse cultures and traditions. Both have evolved from a time older than recorded history. Some date this ancient history as more than 3,000 years ago (Larson, 1997). Further, meditation has been an important practice in major world religions such as Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity (Ridgeon, 2003). Despite the various forms of meditation, all express a common beginning in the intuitive mode of thinking (Burt, 2000).

Buddhism, a popular form of meditation in the east and west, is said to have been carried from northern India to China in A.D. 520 (Ridgeon, 2003). In China the Indian dayana (meditation) became the Chinese Ch’an. Meditation in China was also influenced by Taoism and was transferred to medieval Japan, where it was referred to as Zen (Watts, 1975). Zen literally translates to mean “meditation.”

Sufism (an Islamic mystical doctrine), Jewish mysticism, and Christianity all have a history of meditation ranging as far back as the 12th century A.D. (Al-Ghazali, 1972). The two major forms of meditation practiced in the east and west are yoga and Buddhism.

Meditation found its way to the west in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s via the influence of various meditation movements. One of these movements, which began in the early 1970s, was called a “meditation revolution” (Brooks et al., 1997). The intent was to make the practice of meditation available to everyone, everywhere, who desired it (Muktananda, 1989). Transcendental and other forms of meditation were also popularized during this period (Suzuki, 1994; Watts, 1975). In the early 21st century, meditation has become more and more acceptable as a part of individual and family life (Kabat-Zinn & Kabat-Zinn, 2011; Sharp, 1998). Likewise, it is also being integrated into other aspects of institutional life such as schools, social service programs, and prisons (Hicks & Furlotte, 2010; Napoli, Krech, & Holley, 2005). As noted previously, meditation is the practice of turning one’s attention within and focusing on one’s inner Self. An international teacher of meditation reminds us that meditation is universal, that it is not the property of any particular sect or cult, nor does it belong to the east or west or any religion. It belongs to humanity (Muktananda, 1991).

Two basic forms of meditation are identified in the literature: concentrative forms in which attention is focused either on an object such as the breath or on the exercise of other mental activity. With consistent, ongoing practice the meditator opens to the fullness of inner meditative experience, which offers the opportunity to go beyond the mind. Going beyond the mind refers to an aspect of our inherent consciousness that is identified in different cultures by several names. Sometimes this inherent consciousness is referred to as the Self, the Witness, or the nonjudgmental present-centered part of the mind that offers the opportunity for spiritual growth and development. This growth and development manifest as an expanded level of awareness of unity and oneness with all things. One may also think of this expanded awareness in the form of seeing the interrelatedness of one’s external world and one’s inner Self.

It is important to note at the onset that the Buddhist origin of mindfulness meditation techniques that are practiced in the west and incorporated into the different mindfulness-based therapies have developed basically independently of Buddhist paradigms, theory, and goals. In Buddhist settings, mindfulness is one aspect of a set of integrated spiritual practices, beliefs, and teachings with the intent to achieve insight into the nature and cause of suffering and spiritual enlightenment (Rosch, 2007). It is within this context that the second, increasingly well-known form of meditation, referred to as insight meditation or mindfulness, exists. Mindfulness meditation has been adapted to a western secular context to treat clients with a variety of psychological and physical conditions. This form of meditation offers the opportunity for insight. According to McCown, Reibel, and Micozzi, “vipassana, or the cultivation of mindfulness, is the characteristic form of meditation in Buddhism” (2010, p. 72). Insight meditation stresses the examination of randomly occurring mental content or thoughts, often with a naming of each interrupting thought.

According to Borysenko, “mindfulness is meditation in action and involves a ‘be here now’ approach that allows life to unfold without the limitations of prejudgment. It means being open to an awareness of the moment as it is and what the moment could hold. It is a relaxed state of attentiveness to both the inner world of thoughts and feeling and the outer world of actions and perceptions” (1987, p. 91). Mindfulness is considered an inherent aspect of consciousness that can be enhanced through a variety of mental training techniques, collectively referred to as mindfulness meditation, in which the meditator becomes aware of all mental activity. Mindfulness literally means “to remember,” translated from the word sati (Pali) or smrti (Sanskrit) (Epel, Daubenmier, Moskowitz, Folkman, & Blackburn, 2009). The most frequently cited definitions in the west evolved out of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994), who defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). Other researchers have described Kabat-Zinn’s nonjudgmental attitude of mindfulness as curious and accepting (Bishop et al., 2004) or as kindness, compassion, and acceptance (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freedman, 2006). Bishop and colleagues (2004) conversely argue that mindfulness had not been defined operationally and proposed a two-component testable operational definition with implications for instrument development.

Yoga Meditation and Buddhist Meditation

It is important for those helping professionals interested in exploring and assessing the usefulness of meditation and mindfulness as practice tools to understand the origin and evolution of meditation in the west. Essentially there are several forms of yoga meditation; however, this discussion will focus on yoga meditation from a generic or classical yoga perspective. This perspective will serve as the necessary prerequisite for understanding and practicing all forms of yoga meditation.

Meditation was taught for centuries in the oral traditions of the Hindu Vedas in India. Patanjali, the great philosopher who systematized yoga and who lived somewhere between the 5th century B.C. and the 7th century C.E., wrote the Yoga Sutras (Hariharananda, 1983). In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defined yoga as the stilling of the modifications (thought waves) of the mind. He said that then the seer (individual) abides in itself. At other times the seer appears and assumes the form of the modifications of the mind (Hariharananda). The techniques used in yoga for stilling the mind include focusing on a favorite deity, mantras (special or sacred words or sounds invested with the power to protect and transform the one who repeats it), visualizations, breath control, and concentration on various parts of the body or postures (Muktananda, 1998). Yoga meditation is a process through which the body is made strong, healthy, and energetic and through which the memory is improved (Muktananda, 1983, 1998). Yoga meditation allows one to access the relaxation process and other means of combating stress and other life challenges (Muktananda, 1998).

Buddist meditation is generally associated with the practice of mindfulness. It is important to note that Buddhist meditators and yogic meditators have contrasting meditation behaviors. For yogic meditators, for example, the aim in meditation is to experience a merging or blending with the object of focus and experience a state described as samadhi, a transcendent state of consciousness attained through consistency and practice. The Buddhist state of nirvana is analogous to samadhi; however, when this state is attained in Buddhist meditation; it is rejected in favor of an act of compassion. The compassionate Buddhist goal is to try to help other sentient beings to reach enlightenment or a sense of spiritual freedom (Suzuki, 1994).

Meditation and Mindfulness as Treatment Tools: Children, Families, and Communities

Roose (2009) and Gockel (2010) note that mindfulness is receiving substantial attention in the social-work education and practice literature. They believe that it is an important source of inspiration for social work and a counterbalance for its rationalization. According to Hick (2009), social workers and clients are better able to understand what is happening to them in both a psychological and a sociological sense by opening up in a particular way to their internal and external experiences. Mindfulness exercises and practices serve to cultivate this process of opening up. Practitioners in the helping professions generally lead with a philosophy or a life orientation that extends beyond a normative conception of health and well-being to an optimal level of functioning. The optimal level of functioning is concerned with strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive (Caprara, Alessandri, & Barbaranelli, 2010; Keefe, 1978). This life and professional orientation is generally referred to as practice wisdom and a practice frame of reference. It is within the context of practice wisdom/practice frame of reference that practitioners and educators conceptualize and utilize meditation and mindfulness as treatment tools.

As has been noted elsewhere in this entry, meditation and mindfulness can stand alone as treatment tools or may be incorporated with any treatment systems utilized in a practice setting. It is a tool that may be used in work with individuals, families, and groups in a variety of agency and practice settings. The practice of meditation and mindfulness is a global phenomenon. It is practiced worldwide in a variety of settings including hatha yoga classes, community meditation centers, Japanese corporate offices, schools, ashrams, monasteries, offices of private practitioners, psychiatric wards, medical settings, family service agencies, and the homes of individuals and families (Keefe, 1996; Maharishi School, 2013; Moore, 2009). Most settings where social workers practice would be conducive to meditation and mindfulness practice. Hick (2009) notes that health-care providers in multiple disciplines are increasingly including the practice of mindfulness and meditation as a useful tool, not only in building a self-care routine, but also in addressing the needs of their clients. Given the tendencies of agencies to adapt a particular theoretical orientation or utilize an eclectic approach, few, if any, would preclude meditation and mindfulness as an appropriate treatment strategy if it were thoughtfully and systematically introduced as part of the treatment protocol.

Meditation and mindfulness are personal and individual activities and are often thought of as an individual modality of treatment. However, research and experience have demonstrated the usefulness of meditation and mindfulness for individuals and certain kinds of groups, including families (Bloomfield & Kory, 1977; Kabat-Zinn, 1982; Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992; Peterson & Pbert, 1992; Sharp, 1998) and school settings (Maharishi School, 2013). Beginning and ending a group with meditation or a mindful exercise can enhance group members’ overall feelings of solidarity and identity with the group; it also promotes feelings of compassion, empathy, and constructive interaction.

Some families have set aside a room in their homes that is devoted primarily to individual and family meditation practices (Sharp, 1998). It has also been reported that an entire community comes together twice a day to meditate (Oprah’s Next Chapter, 2013).

Since their early conception as treatment tools, meditation and mindfulness have literally expanded by leaps and bounds. They are being utilized with diverse populations to treat a wide range of problems-in-living (Kiselica, Baker, Thomas, & Reedy, 1994; Miller & McCormick, 1991; Napoli et al., 2005) as well as with children and youths (Sharp, 1998; Wood-Valley, 2008). One of the biggest challenges in modern society is for children to be still and observe quiet time (Sharp). Almost immediately after birth a child’s world is bombarded with a novelty of noises, electronic vibrations, and nonstop television programs. Most particularly in the west, the world of children as young as three and sometimes younger is modeled after that of adults. Young children go to “junior gym,” “sports camp,” and “kiddy keyboard.” Additionally, research and general observations show that children are under a great deal of external stress at home and at school and they live in neighborhoods that are considered unsafe. The research shows a direct correlation between lower academic performance and physiological complaints such as stomach disorders, asthma, and headaches (Kiselica et al., 1994; Miller & McCormick, 1991; Napoli et al., 2005). Therefore, it is not surprising to see a growing recognition for the need to help children reconnect to their natural or innate faculty through meditation and mindfulness.

A small but significant body of literature is emerging on the use of meditation and mindfulness with children and their families (Wood-Valley, 2008). Parenting is viewed as a natural and critical arena in which to introduce the practice of mindfulness. Mindful parenting is described as keeping in mind what is really important as parents go about the business of daily living with their children (Kabat-Zinn & Kabat-Zinn, 2011).

Children are thought to be closer to the experience of meditation and mindfulness than adults. This observation is especially evident in younger children. For infants and toddlers, every experience is fresh and new. The experience of freshness is the goal in mindfulness practice. Young children live in the moment. To fully appreciate mindfulness action in children, observe children at play. To an adult, play with any simple object is just that; however, to the child the object is a limitless source of joy and wonder. Even more importantly, the child could just as easily let go of the first object of wonderment and move on to another object. This is not a likely scenario for adults because attachment becomes the norm.

Research has shown that children, like adults, also benefit from practicing meditation and mindfulness (Hooker & Fodor, 2008; Napoli et al., 2005; Nauert, 2011; Sharp, 1998; Wood-Valley, 2008). Available data suggest that meditation improves brain function and reduces symptoms among students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Nauert). In the research, mindfulness practice resulted in an increase in selective attention or the ability to choose what to pay attention to, as well as the reduction of both test anxiety and teachers ratings of students’ attention deficit hyperactivity disorder behaviors (Napoli et al.). It is also believed that meditation and mindfulness will benefit children experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Overall, the process will promote improved self-control in addition to positive self-image and peer relations, building memory, enhancing anger management, and improving the ability to express care and compassion (Wood-Valley).

There are many natural ways to introduce children to the practice of meditation and mindfulness. Children can be exposed to meditation and mindfulness as early as age 2 by being held in an adult’s arms and gently rocked or stroked during a family or group practice session. Older children can sit. Music can be playing in the background; children may use the support of their breath to focus the mind (Sharp, 1998; Wood-Valley, 2008). Some facilitators of children’s meditation use guided or journey meditation with older children ranging in age from 5 to 12 years old. In these guided meditations the children are encouraged to let their imagination follow instructions that may take them through a forest, along a beach, to a beautiful castle, or on a faraway space voyage. The practice could last 2 to 5 minutes for younger children and 10 to 15 minutes for older children.

The following instructions are offered as a sample outline for children’s meditation practice (Wood-Valley, 2008, pp. 53–67):

  1. 1. Keep your definition of meditation simple.

  2. 2. Demonstrate how easy meditation is.

  3. 3. Encourage children to choose their own meditation posture.

  4. 4. Avoid rules and restrictions.

  5. 5. Invite children to talk about their meditation experiences.

  6. 6. Offer creative projects to support the children’s meditation.

The following sample outline may be used for a mindfulness session with 6- to 8-year-old children (Napoli et al., 2005).

Purpose: Using Movement and Mindfulness

Focus: Paying attention to how our bodies feel and how we feel emotionally

  1. 1. Mindfulness: ask students what they have been aware of today.

  2. 2. Smile exercise

  3. 3. Paying attention to your breathing

Lie on the floor on your back in a circle with feet toward the center of circle. Put hands on belly. Breathe for one minute.

  1. 4. Body Scan

Guide students to pay attention to each body part while staying with the breath: feet, ankles, calves, shins, knees, thighs, hips, belly, arms, and throat. Instruct students to notice what’s happening as students move their attention along the body.

  1. 5. Physical Exercises

Shoulder Exercises—slowly roll the right shoulder clockwise, squeezing it toward the ear, then down, forward, and up. Repeat several times. Reverse direction of circle and then repeat on opposite side. Finally, rotate both shoulders at the same time, then repeat in opposite direction. Neck Stretches—Press head away from shoulders, gently tilting head backward so chin aims at ceiling. Then bring chin forward, pressing against the chest. Feel the back of the neck open and stretch. Bring head to center, tilting it to the left, lowering the ear to the left shoulder. Turn head slightly to the side and slowly roll it back to center and repeat on the right side. Feel the neck extend as you lean to each side.

  1. 6. Listening and movement exercise with music

Play a song for approximately 30 seconds. Just listen to the music. How do you feel now? Play the same music again, and this time move to the music however your body wants to move. How do you feel now? Repeat using different types of music. Notice how you feel differently when different types of music are playing.

  1. 7. Smiling circles exercise.

Sit in a big circle. Breathe in and out. With each breath, smile a little bit. Smile a little bit more with each breath until your smile gets as big as possible. Make eye contact and smile at each person in the circle.

Note: All of the activities can be modified according to the facilitator’s interest, experience, and creativity. The key focus of all activities is paying attention to the experience without judging what’s happening. (Appendixes A and B, pp. 121–125)

Teaching Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness practices are global phenomena. Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been an explosion of interest in the integration of mindfulness in contemporary treatment approaches and the self-care of practitioners. There has also been an increasing interest in meditation as an adjunct helping tool at all levels of practice.

The research has focused largely on the development, implementation, and effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness–based interventions with clients (Baer, 2003). However, teachers of meditation and mindfulness–based interventions argue that it is imperative that practitioners using meditation and mindfulness as adjunctive intervention strategies engage in their own ongoing practice and knowledge acquisition to be effective and authentic (Grepmair et al., 2007; Hick, 2009; Kabat-Zinn, 2003, 2009; Woods, 2009).

Mindfulness and meditation practice focuses attention on the fact that the facilitative conditions and attitudinal dimensions of respect, warmth, caring, kindness, acceptance, empathy, and compassion are critical dimensions of the helping process that can be assessed more effectively through meditation and mindfulness practice than through traditional teaching methods. The practice of meditation and mindfulness fosters these additional attitudinal dimensions in the helper (Hick, 2008; McGarrigle & Walsh, 2011; Ying, 2009). Meditation and mindfulness training is a useful tool in the provision of practitioners’ self-care and in the prevention of burnout, trauma, and other forms of occupational stress (also called compassion fatigue). Mindfulness and meditation are thought to help practitioners become more present centered in their professional and personal lives and to increase overall life satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive emotions such as warmth, empathy, and compassion (Brenner & Homonoff, 2004).

As indicated elsewhere, individuals meditate without consciously being aware that they are meditating—it is a process that simply involves focusing on whatever one does. Essentially one is doing nothing more than turning one’s attention within or anchoring one’s attention in the present. Teaching and learning to meditate is a process that requires motivation, effort, determination, and commitment. All of these ongoing and consistent elements are cemented together by practice. It is important to start small and not judge how well one thinks he or she is doing, but to just keep doing it. A meditation master once advised that if one sits with the intention to meditate, then no matter what happens the individuals should know that he or she is meditating.

General instructions for meditation begin with anchoring the focus on the breath as it goes in and out. The breath is neutral; it animates the body and when one breathes in deeply and breathes out long, the mind is naturally quieted and awareness is focused inside.

Instructions for the practice of mindfulness entail purposefully directing attention to one’s experience in the present moment with an attitude of open curiosity and acceptance (Bishop et al., 2004; McCown et al., 2010). The guidelines below are easy to follow, user friendly, and essentially based on generic instructions. They may be used for a practitioner’s personal practice sessions or, with the necessary experience, in the practitioner’s practice with clients.

Meditation instructions

Mindfulness instructions

1. Choose a clean quiet spot, free from distraction and outside influences. Loose, comfortable-fitting clothes are suggested.

1. Choose a clean quiet spot, free from distraction and outside influences.

2. Sit in an easy, relax, and comfortable posture with the back straight but not rigid.

2. Sit in an easy, relaxing, and comfortable posture with the back straight but not rigid. Loose, comfortable-fitting clothes are suggested.

3. Sitting cross-legged on a cushion is ideal but sitting on a chair is acceptable with both feet on the floor, hip width apart and parallel to one another. A comfortable easy posture is critical.

3. Choose an activity or an object (brushing your teeth, making love, eating a piece of fruit, taking a walk, etc.) and do it like a meditation, to “be here right now.”

4. The hands and arms are at ease. You can rest them palms down on your thighs or rest them on your lap, palms up, one hand on top of the other.

4. Open to the moment. Be aware of where your mind is and make a choice about where you want it to be. Center on your breathing so your mind becomes still; open up your attention to what is in the moment without judging. Just relax into the moment.

5. Bring your awareness to your breath. Breathe in and out in a relaxed, easy manner. Think of your spine extending in both directions.

5.Awareness of thought and physical reaction. If and when your mind wanders during the practice of mindfulness, observe where it wanders; bring your awareness back to the moment as it is and to what the moment holds.

The goal is to increase awareness of present-moment experience in increasingly subtle levels and to strengthen stability of attention to remain aware of each experience as it occurs (Kabat-Zinn, 1982; Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992).

6. Relax your jaw and allow the back of your neck to soften and gently elongate as if you were bowing very slightly. Face and eyes are soft. Tongue rests on the floor of the mouth.

7. Chest is open, rib cage expands as you inhale—front, sides, and back—and relaxes as you exhale. Gently close your eyes. If and when your mind wanders during the practice of meditation, bring it back to the awareness of the breath.

8. Meditate.

Practice once a day for 10 to 20 minutes. It’s important not to force the process. Whatever happens is a part of the meditation process (Muktananda, 1991).

Spiritual Benefits

Essentially, the benefits of meditation and mindfulness address mind, body, and spirit with an aim to attain wholeness, peace, healing, and a fulfilled life. Available research has shown that approximately 15% of a client’s success in the helping process is associated with the treatment approach or techniques (Hubble, Duncan, & Miller, 1999). According to Hubble and colleagues, elements that clients bring with them such as life experiences, inner strength and abilities, hope, expectancy factors, and readiness for change are the critical factors associated with change in client outcome. Similarly, studies suggest that nearly three quarters of visits to doctors are for illnesses that get better spontaneously or for disorders related to stress and anxiety (Borysenko, 1987). Within a spiritual context, some emotional disorders and medical conditions can be reduced as the body’s own natural healing is evoked. Meditation and mindfulness are tools used to evoke the natural healing process, a process that is grounded in a spiritual context. As indicated previously, this spiritual context has its roots in eastern philosophical thinking and practices. The premise undergirding this thinking is a simple truth that, despite our differences, we are all alike. Beyond personal expressions and desires there is a common core inherent in all human beings—a core whose nature is peace, whose expression is thought, and whose action is unconditional love (Gurumayi, 1999; Muktananda, 1989, 1991). It is through the practices of meditation and mindfulness that we tap into this inner core. When we identify with this inner core and see and respect the inner core in ourselves as well as others, we experience healing and wholeness in all aspects of our existence. Within this context, spirituality is defined as “the personal quest for understanding answers to ultimate questions about life, about meaning, and about relationship to the sacred or transcendent, which may (or may not) lead to or arise from the development of religious rituals and the formation of community” (King & Koenig, 2009, p. 116).

Biological Benefits

Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind–body research, studied different types of meditative practice and was able to demonstrate its impact on the body. Benson (1975) called these effects the relaxation response, which causes oxygen consumption and blood pressure to drop significantly; Benson’s findings had implications for high blood pressure (hypertension) as well as cardiovascular disease. Research has shown that the relaxation response is an effective means to reduce the amount of medication required to treat high blood pressure (Dusek, Hibberd, Buczynski, Benson, & Zusman, 2008). The relaxation response has not only proven to be an effective treatment tool, but also it is free. It can be used by social workers and other helping professionals to combat high blood pressure and related health conditions in low-income communities. According to Benson, the treatment method can be taught in 10 minutes. Within this time frame, when practiced regularly, health improvements can be seen in conditions such as pain, insomnia, hot flashes caused by menopause, and premenstrual syndrome.

Jon Kabat-Zinn was the first to introduce mindfulness training into behavioral health in 1979. He developed an eight-week program that was formerly known as the stress reduction and relaxation program for chronic pain and stress called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Research has shown MBSR to be effective in improving several medical conditions, as well as in psychosocial functioning (Davidson et al., 2003; Fang et al., 2010).

It has long been speculated that meditation slows the aging process. In 2009 Epel and colleagues discovered a link between telomeres (caps at the end of chromosomes that serve as protective measures that ensure healthy cellular division) and the aging and overall health of an individual (Epel et al., 2009). The recognition that the length of the telomeres was linked to chronic stress exposure and depression raised a question of mechanism for the researchers: How might cellular aging be modulated by psychological functioning? In considering the state of mindfulness meditation on cellular aging, the researchers were optimistically cautious and proposed that some form of meditation may have salutary effects on aging but additional research was in order.

Psychological Impact

Baer (2003) provides a useful conceptual and empirical review of the current research on mindfulness-based psychotherapies and other interventions that have proliferated the landscape of the helping professions. Included in this lineup since 1993 is dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), pioneered by Marsha Linehan and described as a multifaceted approach to the treatment of borderline personality disorder. The therapy is based on a dialectical world view, which postulates that reality consists of opposing forces. The synthesis of these forces leads to a new reality, which in turn consists of opposing forces, in a continual process of change (Linehan, 1993a, 1993b). Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) was developed by Stephen Hayes in 1999. It is theoretically based in contemporary behavior analysis. It does not describe its treatment methods as meditation or mindfulness, but utilizes strategies that are considered mindful based (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) was developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale in 2002. It is a manualized eight-week group intervention based primarily on the MBSR program (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002). Other forms of mindfulness psychotherapies are emerging on a daily basis. They include mindfulness-based relationship enhancement (MBRE) (Carson, Carson, Gil, & Baucom, 2004), mindfulness-based art therapy (MBAT) (Monti et al., 2006), and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) (Witkiewitz & Bowen, 2010). Additionally, the U.S. Department of Defense uses yoga and meditation to train future soldiers; the intent is to focus their minds and help them make better decisions on the battlefield as well as to prevent trauma (Mockenhaupt, 2012).

Special Populations

Research and experience have shown that meditation-based or contemplative practices have proven to be beneficial with populations that are considered at risk, marginalized, or oppressed and with those who are incarcerated. A program specifically designed for the severely economically disadvantaged (SED) called radical training (RMI) suggests a positive change in participants’ view of their self and interpersonal relationships. Radical training, a modified version of MBSR, focuses on ways of overcoming oppression, increasing self-compassion, and improving interpersonal conflict within the mindfulness contexts. The current findings, although encouraging, suggest a need for further research and analysis (Hicks & Furlotte, 2010). Additionally, available research suggests that the introduction of meditation and mindfulness practices within prison facilities reduces recidivism and promotes higher rates of rehabilitation (Bowen, Chawla, & Marlatt, 2011; Himelstein, 2010).


Despite many methodological flaws, current findings suggest meditation and mindful-based interventions are helpful in general and in the treatment of several disorders (Baer, 2003). A word of caution, however, is in order. Experience and research have shown that for severe emotional or mental problems and level of functioning, meditation and mindfulness practices maybe counterindicated (Baer, 2003; Hick & Furlotte, 2010; Keefe, 1996). It is recommended that practitioners use these adjunctive interventions flexibly. According to Farmer and Chapman (2008), careful consideration should be given to particular client characteristics and presenting concerns. These authors outline key principles to consider in this decision-making process, along with examples (Farmer & Chapman, p. 258). Treatment or use of these adjunctive tools should be cautiously considered, if at all, for use with any severely depressed or psychotic clients or patients. Further, when in any doubt, consultation with a treatment team, along with close supervision and follow-up with the client, is imperative.


The starting premise of this entry was that all human beings are searching for the same things: happiness, contentment, peace, and unconditional love.

The mission of social work is to enhance the effective functioning and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. This entry’s overarching focus was on the promotion of two adjunctive tools: meditation and mindfulness practices as means for social-work practitioners and educators to promote effective functioning and well-being to consumers at all levels of practice. As indicated previously, mindfulness practice is useful in a wide variety of clinical and therapeutic settings. It has been found useful in managing many of the problems and concerns addressed by social workers and other helping professionals. These problems and concerns include chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn, 1982, 1990; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, Burney, & Sellers, 1987), managing stress (Shapiro et al., 2006), depressive relapse (Segal et al., 2002), eating disorders (Kristeller & Hallett, 1999; Teasdale, Segal, & Williams, 2003), cancer (Monti et al., 2006), suicidal behavior (Kenny & Williams, 2007), and building therapeutic alliances (Hick, 2009; Howgego, Yellowlees, Owen, Meldrum, & Dark, 2003; Lambert & Simon, 2008). The powerful intent behind the promotion of meditation and mindfulness as a treatment tools is based on the recognition that these contemplative activities and strategies cultivate a paradigm shift in beliefs, values, and emotional qualities. Essentially, these contemplative practices not only provide a society with a skill set that helps to eliminate destructive maladaptive functioning, but also build strong nurturing communities. Despite the proven and transformative usefulness of meditation and mindfulness practices, not everyone will be amenable to incorporating contemplative-based practices into their daily living.

In closing, meditation practices are becoming a common occurrence in family homes, in schools, and in prisons and are even becoming the practices of entire communities. Mindfulness research is ongoing and continues to impact the change-orientated strategies utilized by social workers and other helping professionals.


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Further Reading

Boyce, B. (Ed.). (2011). The mindful revolution. Boston, MA: Shambhala.Find this resource:

Bushell, W. C., Olivo, E. L., & Theise, N. D. (Eds.), (2009). Longevity, regeneration, and optimal health: Integrating Eastern and Western perspectives. Boston, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Desbordes, G., Negi, L. T., Pace, T. W. W., Wallace, B. A, Raison, C. L., & Schwartz, E. L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 292. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292Find this resource:

Duncan, L. G., & Bardacke, N. (2010). Mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting education: Promoting family mindfulness during the perinatal period. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19, 190–202.Find this resource:

Jacobs, T. L., Epel, E. S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., Wolkowitz, O. M., Bridwell, D. A., et al. (2010, October 29). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(5), 664–681.Find this resource:

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10 Surprising treatments for mental disorders: Meditation, methylfolate, magnesium, vitamin D, exercise, get outside, ditch sweet drinks, get together with family, eat your yogurt, sleep. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from http://causes.msn.com/mental_health_month_2013/?section=gallerylong_4#section=gallerylong_4

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