Transcript for Episode 43: Faith-Based and Secular Meditation

NASW Social Work Talks Podcast

Greg Wright: Welcome to NASW Social Work Talks, I'm Greg Wright. Raymond Monsour Scurfield is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Mississippi, Hattiesburg, and a nationally recognized expert in post-traumatic stress disorder. He also received the NASW Lifetime Achievement award in 2012. Scurfield is author of the newly released NASW Press book, "Faith-Based and Secular Meditation: Everyday and Posttraumatic Applications." Welcome to Social Work Talks, Raymond.

Raymond Scurfield: Thank you, very happy to be here.

Greg Wright: How did you first become interested in meditation?

Raymond Scurfield: I had a girlfriend who was a heavy-duty meditator, when I met her back in the mid-70s. And she was into transcendental meditation, or TM, and I explored it and I got initiated into it, and was assigned a mantra. That was back in 1977. And then I meditated twice a day, 20 minutes after that, for a good 20 years, without missing more than three or four. And then I have evolved from there to not doing pure TM, but some TM and other meditations since then. So that was my personal side. Then, I started teaching some of my clients over the years, different meditations, and found it to be very helpful for them.

Greg Wright: When a person meditates, what are they actually doing? What's going on in their mind and in their body?

Raymond Scurfield: There are many forms of meditation, and I'm not an expert in all of them. However, one thing that is common to all forms of meditation, that I'm aware of, is that there's a dwelling upon something. There's something that you focus on, that you dwell upon, that you rest your awareness on. And then there are various instructions as to how to maintain that focus. And so when you lose your focus, you keep coming back to that dwelling place, you keep coming back to it, and coming back to it. That is the more or less, generic description.

Greg Wright: When you're focusing on doing meditation, what are you actually focusing on?

Raymond Scurfield: One way to categorize meditation is into two different types. One would be concentrative, or shutting down of awareness, to focus on a singular something, and mantra meditation is the most common form of that in the West. The West meaning North America, Europe. And the other type is opening up or expanding of awareness. And mindfulness is the most popular example of that. I say the bridge that's in between the two is breath, because breath is central to all meditations. I divide it into those three groupings.

In mantra meditation, you focus on a word or a short phrase, or a series of words, and that is your focus. For example, it might be peace, or calm. So that would be your meditation focus, and you keep coming back to peace or calm. That would be for any type of meditation. If you wanted to do a faith based meditation, then you would pick a word that is faith based, or religious. For example, I am Catholic and I use the mantra, Jesu (the Latin pronunciation of Jesus pronounced "Yay-Zoo"). And so repeating, "Jesu, Jesu," is an example of a faith-based form mantra meditation.

Greg Wright: How does meditation affect a person's body and mind?

Raymond Scurfield: Yes, well there's been over 1,000 research studies on this, so there's an impact on the amygdala or the emergency response center of the brain. It has been found that some forms of meditation help them to shrink the amygdala, so that you're not over reacting. This would be very relevant, for example, for people with severe anxiety or PTSD, who have an exaggerated startle response, and constant vigilance, and so forth. That is, most of us are a little too attuned to that direction, and so, this is very helpful for that.

On the other side of it, there's research to suggest that the prefrontal lobe part of the brain, which is associated with higher order functioning, there's a critical thickening, as in actual thickening of the brain itself. Stronger, more pliable, more resilient. There are many physical manifestations of the benefits to include, lower blood pressure, a lower standing heart rate, you can go on and on about the examples of that.

I might just give it the one clinical example. I've got a client with very high blood pressure chronically. She went in to see her doctor for her regular checkup, the nurse did a blood pressure reading before she saw the doctor, and her blood pressure reading was something like 169/123. And the nurse said, "You've got to go to the hospital right now." She asked if she could meditate for a few minutes to try to bring it down, and the nurse said, "Okay."

She started doing what's called 7-11 breathing. A rapid form of breath based meditation. Six minutes later, the nurse came back, redid the reading, and there had been a drop of 30 points in both her upper, and her lower blood pressure readings, in six minutes. It can be extremely helpful to deal with immediate stress that's going on. And it can be very helpful to help lower your baseline of problematic emotional states, such as anxiety, anger, depression. You can bring your baseline down, so that it's not so exaggerated.

Greg Wright: How does meditation help a person overcome trauma?

Raymond Scurfield: Yes, there's a great opening lyrics to a song by the Dixie Chicks, it goes something like this, "Forgive, I wish I could. Forget, I don't think I could. They say time heals everything, but I'm still waiting." And this is the theme of so many trauma survivors. They cannot let go of the memories, of the images, of the emotions attached to past traumatic events. They're unable to let them go, and they're unable to stop them when they intrude on their daily life.

Probably with any trauma survivor, the most common wish would be, "If I could just forget about the trauma." And of course, trauma is unforgettable. When you meditate, and do it correctly, you do not attach yourself to memories, to emotions, to images, that you do not want to attach yourself to. This is the key to meditation. You don't blank your mind out, like some people think. You learn not to attach yourself to those intrusions.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the wonderful Buddhist monk has a saying something like, "Your emotions are like clouds on a windy day. Conscious breathing is my anchor." Meditation, if you will, helps the person to weather the storm, to not focus on the incoming intrusive memories and emotions, an instead, to return to your meditation focus. In mantra meditation, to return to your mantra. To gently return to your mantra. You simply note that there is an intrusion, and you gently return to your mantra.

Raymond Scurfield: You have to learn to do that in normal situations before you can apply it to when you're having intrusive, emergency thoughts going on. Once you learn it, then you're able to apply it to almost any circumstance.

Greg Wright: Is this a skill that anybody can learn?

Raymond Scurfield: Like anything else, some people are more adept at it than others. Some come to it more naturally than others. I once asked a client, "Have you ever meditated?" And she said, "I can't stop the busyness in my head, my thoughts. And I can't sit in that uncomfortable position with my legs crossed."

And I said, "Well, neither one of those is required to meditate. You don't have to not have thoughts, but can't not have thoughts." So it isn't a question of whether you have thoughts, is if you are able to learn how again, to not attach yourself to those thoughts. And some people's brain, they are so full of thinking and cognitions, and images, that they find it very, very difficult to not attach to that.

So some people then say that their meditation is very turbulent because it's so full of thoughts, and they keep essentially attaching themselves to the thoughts. So you have to work with someone to help them develop the skill of neutral awareness of a distraction, gently return to your meditation focus.

I liken this to a bass guitar in a band. Bass guitarist is playing this bass lick, [inaudible]. And then you've got the lead guitarist going crazy, you've got other guitars, maybe you've got horns going, you got singing, you got the audience, and what's the bass guitarist doing? Doing that bass lick. Is the bass guitarist blanking out all that other stuff? No. What the bass guitarist focusing on bass lick. Well, that's your mantra, that's your meditation focus. And you can learn to do that no matter how busy your brain is. No matter how much is going on around you, you can learn to let go of that, and come back.

So if your meditation isn't working, there's a proverb, "Don't blame the meditation." Meditation has been around thousands of years. And so, I would just encourage people who have difficulty with this, they need to search for the right teacher, and they need to search for the right meditation that seems to work best for them.

Greg Wright: When I think of meditation, I think of Hinduism, Buddhism, and far Eastern faiths. Has there been a resistance in the West to adopting meditation?

Raymond Scurfield: Yes, very good point. Yes, of course, meditation has its roots in ancient Hindu, Vedic scripture, going back to 2,000 or 2,500 BC. And back to Buddhism 400 to 500 BC. And in Christianity, to 3 and 4 AD with the desert fathers and desert mothers, who lived in the eastern Egyptian desert. They lived a very hermetic life, and did prayers all day long.

In more modern times, and this is in the West, we have what's been called secular meditation. Secular meditation essentially means that you don't have any religious or faith-based aspect to the meditation. You are using the meditation techniques and strategies, without again, any faith-basis to them, and they have a power because of the fact that they work.

For example, if you go to mindfulness workshops, one of the first things you'll hear is, "You don't have to be Buddhist to practice mindfulness." Even though mindfulness is steeped in Buddhism. You don't have to be Hindu to practice transcendental meditation, and so forth. However, you could choose to be faith-based with those, or you could choose to be secular.

For example, just to take Mantra Meditation for a moment, picking a mantra is very important. If someone is faith-based, I might say, "You might want to pick a faith-based mantra such as, for Christians, you might pick Jesus, my Lord, my Lord and my God, Jesus be with me. Let go, let God," as examples. If you want to pick a secular mantra, you might pick something like, "Peace, calm, serenity." In other words, a state that perhaps, you aspire to have more of. If you do it that way, with that secular word as your mantra, then you can practice all the benefits of mantra meditation, and not have the faith element involved.

Greg Wright: Listeners, we'll be right back.

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Greg Wright: We're back. You have a new book from NASW Press on meditation, and I was wondering what inspired you to write that book?

Raymond Scurfield: I like to do handouts for clients, and when I was a professor of social work. So I started doing a short handout on meditation for personal usage, and with clients. And then that handout grew from one or two pages, to five pages, to ten pages, to 20 pages, to 30 pages. Around about that point, I said, "Ray, I think maybe you have a book in you on this." Really my manuscript became a living document, because of I'd be writing the book, and I'd go and have an experience with a client, then I'd run back home and change part of a chapter, because I learned something new.

So that's what happened. It was formed from my early meditation experience. It was a genesis of it. And then I developed a faith-based mantra along with my TM mantra, and my faith-based mantra was Jesu or the Latin pronunciation of Jesus, that became my faith-based mantra. And then I started again, teaching secular and faith-based to clients, and then started adapting it to their dealing with issues such as, anxiety going into a crowded supermarket, or anxiety being in a meeting. Or being unable to focus or concentrate, because they were so full of different distractions.

Greg Wright: Why did you focus on both the faith-based, and the secular side of meditation?

Raymond Scurfield: Actually, there's a very significant Catholic presence on the Gulf Coast, but of course this is very Protestant and we do have a lot of Evangelicals and other Southern Baptists, and so forth. When I meet with people, of course I'm up front about my particular faith, and then I tell them that, "If you have concerns about meditation or your prayer life, we can do secular based meditation." I said, "However, we can do faith-based meditation based upon your faith, and we won't be changing any of the wording, of for example, your prayer life. However, we can just be adopting meditation dynamics and principles to your prayer life, to enhance your prayer life."

For example, learning to recognize you have a distracting thought while you're praying, and gently returning to your prayers. I tell people, "If you have any issues or thoughts that there are issues about the meditation in your religion, go and talk to your minister, or to your healer, or to whoever you might want to consult with, and ask them if the kind of meditation I'm going to teach you..." And I give them a hand out. "If they see an issue with this. And if they do, then we won't do meditation."

For example, I had a client come in who had a morning routine of doing maybe a 20-minute prayer before he went off to work. However, he was finding he had intrusive thoughts about things that weren't prayer related, were coming in. So he wasn't so happy with the effectiveness of his prayer. And so I said, "Let's learn some meditation. And two things, number one, you could meditate first, before you pray. That could help you get to a calmer place, and then you could go into your regular prayer routine. You could also take the principles that you're going to learn about neutral observance of distractions, and gently return to your focus. You can learn that in meditating, and then apply that to your prayer life."

So he learned to do mantra based meditation. He used a faith-based mantra, and then he would go do that for 10 minutes, then he would do his prayer for 20 minutes. And he said that doing a meditation first brought him to a calmer place, and to a quieter place. So then when he started his prayer, he was able to just... He was there, and he did his prayer life, it wasn't any different, he didn't do anything different. Once he started his praying, but he came to it in a more receptive, quiet way.

People resonate with truth. If they don't feel like you're trying to proselytize them, to change their beliefs. I'm giving them something to add, and consider, and they make their own choice. The Buddha's only point the way, and therapists only point the way. That's all I'm doing.

Greg Wright: If a social worker wants to learn more about meditation, how can they do that?

Raymond Scurfield: Oh yes. Well, of course, you should buy my book, that would be the first next step. Seriously, there aren't very many books that actually go through and apply systematically, meditation to various clinical dynamics and issues. There are several with mindfulness. They're hard to find on any other forms of meditation. There's no substitute for a teacher. You want to try to find someone who is at least a few steps further along than you are, and hopefully maybe, more than a few steps further along. And if you're blessed enough to have a master meditator, or someone who truly is advanced stages meditating, don't pass up the opportunity.

Also, there might be a Sanga, there might be a community of meditators in your area, and some are online actually. To have a community of meditators is very powerful. And if you can't find that again, you need to find an individual teacher. Of course, some people go online, and there are many apps out there, and a lot of people rave about different apps. I do it the old fashioned way, just me, and dealing with my thoughts and applying the principles.

Bottom line, whatever works for you. However, I would strongly encourage trying to find someone to do it in person with, because you learn that you're going to rough spots in your meditation. And you're going to feel like, "This isn't going anywhere," or, "Am I doing something wrong?" And it's very helpful to have someone to talk to about that, to make sure that you're not just simply doing something wrong mechanically. And it's very hard for a lot of us, to realize that on our own. Often times you need someone to give us that feedback.

Greg Wright: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Raymond Scurfield: Thank you so much for the opportunity. Take care.

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