Suggestion forms such an integral part of our lives that most of the time we aren’t even aware of it. Every time someone says, ‘That was a great movie’, or ‘I’ve just been to my favourite restaurant’ they are making a suggestion. Advertising and marketing are built on suggestion, so we are embedded in it every moment of our lives.
What is suggestion?
A suggestion is any communication device that is intended, directly or indirectly, to influence a specific outcome or response. It is at the core of all guided meditation and how it is used forms the basis for many of the ethical questions associated with guiding meditation.
Whether an instruction is given verbally and directly, or whether it is implied or even conveyed by touch, it is still a suggestion. For example, if someone guiding a meditation says, ‘Follow your own experience’ or ‘Follow whatever comes up’ it presupposes that there will be an experience or that something will come up.
It is important to know this because when leading a guided meditation session or when guiding a client, a teacher or therapist is seeking a goal or some kind of outcome, whether they are aware of this or not, and this will affect the kinds of suggestions they make.
Confusing differing goals of meditation
Therapeutic goals are very different from spiritual or personal development ones and so these differences need to be clearly understood in order to have a successful outcome. The American psychologist, Marsha Linehan, who was one of the first advocates for teaching mindfulness skills in the therapeutic context, has given what I think is the best definition of the goal of therapy. In her view therapy has the goal of changing behaviour in order to develop a more effective way of transacting with oneself and the environment.
I’d like to share with you an example of mindfulness meditation being used in a therapeutic context where the teacher was not at all aware of these differences. This story was shared with me by a social worker who was working with a group of refugees.
The mindfulness teacher led the group into meditation and then gave them the direct, but open-ended suggestion to simply follow their thoughts. This would appear to be what the teacher had been taught to do and, unfortunately, no consideration had been given to the needs of those who were being guided.
The outcome for the refugees was not at all what had been intended. It left them extremely distressed and, in many cases, re-traumatised because they had fled from the appalling circumstances and violence of their home country. This suggestion had unwittingly directed their minds to focus on the vivid, raw and painful memories of the very circumstances they had fled.
In this case, a suggestion which might have been perfectly appropriate in a spiritual or personal development setting, proved to be extremely harmful for these refugees. The social worker was left with the daunting and difficult task of repairing the damage which had been done. Perhaps a more skilful way to approach this would have been to talk with the social worker first, see what was needed, and within that context suggest a very simple relaxing and calming experience for the refugees.
To think or not to think
This example also highlights how differing suggestions around thinking can profoundly influence the outcome of guiding meditation and lead to unintended consequences. Inappropriate suggestion has led to so many people having the impression that thoughts are meant to stop when meditating. This suggestion has been both stated and implied in so much that has been written and said about meditation that it is has become a cliché. The consequence of this has been that meditation is seen as being difficult, and therefore many people who try it give it up, and lose something which could be a very beneficial skill in their lives.
It is therefore understandable that a counter trend in meditation teaching has gone the other way, and the story I have shared is an example of this. Here the suggestion is given to follow thoughts wherever they go without being too concerned about returning to the object of meditation. This would seem to be much more open-ended, and so free people from the rigidity of trying to stop thinking. However, it can be heard as a very direct suggestion to focus on thought.
One unintended consequence of this is that following thoughts can become just as rigid as trying to stop thinking. Whether the suggestion is to stop thinking or to focus on thinking the object of meditation becomes thinking, whereas one of the main goals of meditation is to provide an alternative to thinking.
Including both feeling and thinking
For the suggestion to focus on one of the many objects of meditation, for example, breathing or the sensations of the body, to be an alternative to thinking, thinking needs to be accepted as an integral part of meditating. Otherwise this suggestion becomes a rigid instruction making thoughts the enemy. They then need to be excluded.
However, ironically enough, if the alternative of returning to breathing or bodily sensations is excluded or diminished, then the suggestion to follow thoughts can become just as rigid an instruction. The outcome is the same; a suggestion which is meant to provide an alternative can be heard as a rigid instruction.
The basis of meditation is to provide the relaxation and calm to be able to move freely between resting on a meditation object and thinking. They can then both be integral to meditation. Using suggestion skilfully allows them both to be included.
For any teacher, creating their own style of guiding meditation is an important skill and becoming aware of suggestion, how it works, and the different kinds of suggestion, are an essential aspect of doing this.
Dt Graham Williams
Director, Lifeflow Meditation Centre; Board Member Meditation Australia
Adjunct Lecturer, School of Medicine, Flinders University