Meditating in a time of crisis: survive or thrive?

What are the benefits of long-term meditation?

Meditation in a time of stress
Meditating in a time of stress

As a meditator and a meditation scientist, I have been frequently asked in recent days, what is the best meditation to do right now? This can be a hard question, there are hundreds of different meditation practices. I also need to consider ‘fitness for purpose’, that means balancing the goals and abilities of the meditator with an appropriate method. People generally approach me with two objectives, either boosting their health or working directly with disturbing emotions such as fear and anxiety. Whilst meditation can offer some short term benefits in both cases, stable improvements to mental and physical health are long term projects.

The rush to translate meditation into a modern cure-all, integrated into a materialistic lifestyle has often ignored relevant neuroscience. Radical changes to our mental health are rarely resolved by short term brain training. However, transient changes may be crucial in offering the meditator some stability in challenging moments. I know this to be true for both myself and many of my students. But to take my own case, although short-term meditation allowed me to survive. It was long-term practice that changed my life for the better. The reasons for this can be understood by looking at the science of meditation. In essence, the longer we practise meditation the more profound the changes to brain function and structure are likely to be. While some meditation scientists will tell you that even short periods of meditation lead to ‘brain changes’, they generally fail to mention that reorganisation in the brain’s connections happens all the time. And that these alterations can be positive, negative or neutral in terms of the quality of our life. So up to a point, it is long term practice that holds the potential for sustained benefits.

“Regular nondual compassion meditation transformed my life, it has had the same effect on many others I know personally. Although I started meditation simply to gain some mental stability, the long term results have led to unimaginable changes. “

Stephen Gene Morris

person holding head facing body of water

Using meditation as a short term ‘pick me up’ is a positive thing to do. Your mind (brain) is your own, you are free to use the systems which are right for you. Getting through today is a really important goal. But if you use meditation just to survive, you risk missing the big picture. Long term meditation tends to reveal the underlying problems that cause stress, anxiety and poor health. I still follow the maxim that the only bad meditation is the one you don’t do. But rather like eating fresh fruit and vegetables, if meditation is good for you, you might want to do it regularly.

The essence of meditation, it’s ultimate purpose as far as I’m concerned, is to reduce suffering and lead to greater happiness. Each person has to decide how they want to use brain training. In a time of crisis, survival is a worthy goal, but challenges are part of the human condition. Long term meditation practise enables us to thrive by altering the neural networks that lead to problematic thinking and bad mental habits. Enduring changes help us to thrive even in crisis, reducing suffering no matter what challenges life throws at us.

 

Notes

1Whilst there are many different methods available, my own research supports the use of nondual compassion as an antidote for fear. With regards to boosting health generally, most reliable meditation methods, if undertaken regularly, should contribute small improvements to our health in the short term.

 

Meditation for self-isolation: overcoming coronavirus fear with compassion

Meditation expert recommends compassion meditation as a way to tackle Coronavirus linked fear and anxiety. Use compassion to support wellbeing during social-isolation.

Rock tower
Meditation to support self-isolation, generate wellbeing through compassion.

Follow this link if you’re looking for the online compassion meditation or other relevant resources. However, read on for more information about why compassion is essential at this difficult time.

Humans have all the necessary tools to overcome challenges, that’s self-evident from looking at our history. Not that we should underestimate the threat from Coronavirus, we must take appropriate precautions. But excessive stress and anxiety will not help us deal with difficult situations. In fact, fear is likely to undermine our ability to make good choices and may weaken our mental and physical health.

A growing body of scientific evidence supports claims that pro-social behaviours such as kindness and compassion are linked to reduced suffering. Compassion is an enduring quality present in almost all societies. Traditional meditation practices, particularly in Buddhism, are built on the foundations of kindness and compassion. This suggests that one of the worst things we can do in a time of threat is to turn inwards, to ignore the needs of others, the bigger picture.

As support for people self-isolating or anxious about the current situation, I’ve recorded a simple compassion meditation. It’s one I teach regularly and is based on a well known, traditional practice. It has been secularised so is suitable for almost everyone. It contains two of the cognitive elements central to successful meditation methods, compassion and a non-dual view. Put simply, it increases compassionate feelings for self and others.

We will be posting more free resources during these difficult times, contribute your comments below or send any questions to us here. Feel free to share our resources with anyone who is likely to benefit from them. People who feel alone, vulnerable or are self-isolating may find this kind of meditation particularly beneficial.

Compassion is the key to happiness: Just follow the science

Its seems increasingly likely that compassion meditation influences brain functions and structures able to increase happiness.

Kindness wins
Why is there an enduring link between kindness and happiness?

We live in materialistic times, many people find it hard to understand the enduring nature of compassion and kindness. Last January I saw a woman buy a young homeless guy a cup of coffee. I didn’t know either of these people although this happened close to my home. A passer-by, about the same age as the homeless man, cat-called ‘loser’ from the other side of the street. The homeless man responded with a few expletives, but the passer-by was quick to point out ‘not you, her’. It was the act of compassion that had provoked the insult!

It raised the question in my mind, why are humans compassionate, why do so many of us care about strangers, even if there is no profit to us? I don’t mean my own feelings, I worked out the benefits of compassion to me years ago. Although we all can have a bad day, at some point almost everyone feels compassion for another. People in diverse cultures from all periods of history have been shown to value altruism, it’s a universal human characteristic. The answer has to be that our brains are hard-wired towards helping others. If compassion is an enduring quality, present in different societies we can assume we’ve evolved like this.

person standing on hand rails with arms wide open facing the mountains and clouds

As humans, we can train our minds to increase or decrease our underlying mental states. Altruism and selfishness are not constants, if you watch any film or browse a website you can observe these emotions rise and fall in response to what you see. The whole social media culture of ‘liking’ and ‘not-liking’ feeds into these mental traits. The point of compassion meditation is to train those networks linked to the way we see ourselves and others. These practices have been associated with increased happiness for thousands of years. And the scientific evidence is now starting to show us why.

New psychological and neuroscience studies have found that altruism (selfless acts) are strongly correlated to reduced experience of suffering, even in cancer patients. Leading economist Richard Layard also claims, based on decades of research, that it is altruism that underpins our happiness. Although he also points out that not all forms of mindfulness or meditation may actually generate altruism. The bottom line is that considering the needs of others alongside your own, seems to make people happier. One note of caution, you can’t trick your brain. Our happiness originates in brain networks, you need to actually generate compassionate thoughts and feelings.

“If I could only do one thing to support my mental and physical health it would be compassion training. That training underpins and enriches every part of my life. It supports my relationships, my diet, my freetime my work. In the past selfishness reduced me to an army of one, competing against everyone else on earth. Compassion extended my circle of friends to include every living creature.”

Stephen Gene Morris

How to cope with Coronavirus, fear, you and meditation

Sustained fear and anxiety is the enemy. Use meditation to cope with Coronavirus

Fear, meditation and Coronavirus
Fear is the enemy, how to cope with Coronavirus

From time to time, we are faced with challenges and threats. These can become significant problems to deal with if we get them out of proportion. However, when the danger is global, like climate change or the Covid-19, virus it’s hard to maintain an even keel. Everywhere you look, you will find references to the danger from Coronavirus, even here in Britain where there are (at the time of writing) a relatively small number of cases. The first point to make is that when we are frightened, we make bad decisions, our perspectives become distorted. I don’t suggest that blind optimism is the answer to fear, just pretending that bad things don’t happen. But thousands of years of human experience have shown that brain training systems such as meditation offer great practical help in times of crisis.

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My experience as a meditation teacher and scientist converge when it comes to fear. The evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience is that sustained periods of fear or stress harm the brain and the body. When we worry or experience stress, our body produces chemicals such as cortisol that help us deal with a short term crisis. When fear or anxiety is prolonged, the effect of these chemicals becomes harmful. There is a considerable body of evidence that supports this basic idea. So when we enter a period of ‘global panic’, how can we establish an appropriate response?

I (and many of the people I taught) came to meditation because of problems with fear and stress. Over the years, I have experienced and seen how compassion-based meditation balances our perception of self and other (intrinsic and extrinsic neural networks)—allowing us to respond to real-life problems in a balanced and sustainable way. Threats to our health are always going to be present; they become more significant as we get older. But building compassion for ourselves and others is one of the most reliable methods for keeping things in perspective. Compassion meditation isn’t merely wishing away stress, it’s a tool to reconfigure our way of understanding the world. So that fear is kept proportionate to risk.

“The most useful health practice I have experienced over my lifetime is the compassionate view. That when I encounter any situation likely to provoke fear, I make the silent wish that no being may suffer; me, you, everybody. It has protected me from anxiety and stress for decades.”

Stephen Gene Morris

The benefits of mindfulness challenged by new claims

In his latest book, Richard Layard draws attention to a potential lack of altruism in contemporary mindfulness. The implications are profound.

basket blur boy child
If mindfulness reduces altruism could it also lower happiness?

Concerns linked to a lack of reliable evidence supporting the rapid growth of mindfulness are nothing new. Scientists have long complained about theoretical problems and the overstating of preliminary findings. But the key criticism has been that many mindfulness experiments are never replicated. This being a standard practice to establish causality in human behaviour. But new challenges about the relationship between happiness, altruism and brain training are emerging.

man in floral shirt covering his face with his hands sitting between potted yellow flowers

A new book has highlighted a potential problem attracting the attention of the meditation community. In Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics, Baron Richard Layard proposes that altruism mediates happiness. At the same time he acknowledges that mindfulness is accused of reducing altruism when compared to traditional Buddhist meditation. If Layard’s theories are substantiated, the beneficial effects of contemporary forms of mindfulness must be reviewed. In fact, all psychological therapies that reduce altruism will have to be re-evaluated.

Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics is being criticized for a lack of scientific objectivity. Many of the claims made in the book appear to be subjective. But the failure of mindfulness to replicate the implicit nondual aspects of Buddhist meditation has been of concern for over a decade. Meditation is a complex human behaviour, the mechanisms it engages are not yet fully understood by neuroscience or cognitive psychology. Any suggestion that some secular meditation methods can reduce happiness is particularly worrying.

We know relatively little about the long term effects of the practice of mindfulness, either in children or adults. But most experienced Buddhist meditators are aware that a meditation method alone doesn’t guarantee positive results. The ethical context of the meditation and the motivation of the practitioner are crucial to its success. Layard is an economist, not a scientist, so his views on scientific matters need to be treated with caution. But in his defence, he is really only repeating claims made by members of the scientific and academic community over many years.

Anti-social behaviour and brain size

Evidence has been published that suggests the benefits of compassion training may be mirrored by the drawbacks of anti-social behaviour.

Brain size linked to anti-social behaviour
Anti-social behaviour may limit the human brain

I have written extensively about the benefits of prosocial behaviour both here and in other places. That compassion and kindness are correlated to improved mental and physical health. It is widely known that traditional forms of meditation frequently focus on compassion and other positive behaviours. Linking the mental states created by meditation to a more stable and productive mind. As the evidence accumulates for the benefits of compassionate practices, an uncomfortable truth also arises. What happens to us if we choose to embrace negative anti-social behaviours?

broken glass on wooden surface

An important study into the dangers to ourselves from problem conduct (PC) was published in 2016 by Rogers and Brito1. In a review of brain imaging research, they found that youths with PC appear to have reduced grey matter volume in parts of the brain, including but not limited to the left amygdala and insula. Although this study presents interesting results, the precise causal mechanisms were not established. However, it clearly correlates problem behaviour in young people with limitations in the volume of brain structures.

Hot off the press this week was another study that broadly confirms the theory that anti-social behaviour is linked to brain size. A scientific paper by Carlisi et al. published in the Lancet2, suggests that people who persistently act in anti-social ways can expect to have some reduction in brain volume. However, that lifelong anti-social behaviour is probably required to maintain lifelong limitations in brain structure. In short that adolescence-limited antisocial behaviour did not necessarily lead to permanent differences. The evidence indicates that we have agency in developing and maintaining a healthy and fully functioning brain. It is still too early to claim that causality has been demonstrated, and as with all science these results need to be replicated and validated.

I’m inclined to see some positive signs from this evidence. That although anti-social behaviour appears to harm society and limit the brain development of the individual. We have a degree of control over these processes. By stopping negative behaviours, brain development may return to ‘normal’ levels. If anything, this further strengthens the case for the use of meditation, particularly nondual approaches that establish an understanding of the needs of self in harmony with others.

 

1Rogers, J. C., & De Brito, S. A. (2016). Cortical and subcortical gray matter volume in youths with conduct problems: a meta-analysis. JAMA psychiatry, 73(1), 64-72.

2 www.thelancet.com

Do people engage with mindfulness and meditation apps?

A new study shows few mental health apps are opened beyond 15 days after their download. This new insight raises the question, ‘how much do we know about the benefits of one to many mental health approaches?’.

Health apps appear to offer little long term engagement.
Limitations in the use of mental health apps.

A new study exploring mass self-treatment (MST) mental health technologies has indicated that although there are a large number of MST apps in widespread use, people rarely engage with them for more than a fortnight1. The available evidence raises important questions about the deployment of clinically-led meditation and mindfulness technologies. For example, what is the most beneficial context in which meditation should be practiced?

back view of a person carrying a backpack looking into the ocean

It has long been imagined that the growing use of apps would eventually lead to improved support for people experiencing problems with mental health. That the proliferation of MST technologies would lead to a ‘new age’ of health and wellbeing. But, the role of social isolation in declining mental health2 is well known and reliably documented. And although mental health apps offer access to both resilience building and treatment methods, they tend to lend themselves to isolated rather than group practice. So alongside the benefits of cost and flexibility through one-to-many mental health apps, the possible loss of the social engagement from face to face contact must be considered. I’ve seen no clear evidence that practising meditation and mindfulness through an app is more or less beneficial than traditional group practice. There is little replicated research in this regard. But we do know that a sense of social isolation can lead to limitations in brain functions, irregular sleep patterns and lower levels of physical and mental health.

“The key message of this latest research is that humans are complicated, both in terms of their mental health and its treatment. Given the potential reach of ‘one size fits all’ approaches, reliable, replicated research should be a foundational principle in the development of health apps.”

Stephen Gene Morris

The science supporting the long term use of MST mental health technologies is of a preliminary nature. More work needs to be undertaken regarding the benefits of using apps to support mental health. But perhaps comparative studies focusing on MST and face to face interventions should be seen as a high priority. However, as a general principle, engaging with any MST approach likely to increase a feeling of social isolation should be considered carefully.

 

Notes

1 Baumel, A., Muench, F., Edan, S., & Kane, J. M. (2019). Objective User Engagement With Mental Health Apps: Systematic Search and Panel-Based Usage Analysis. Journal of medical Internet research, 21(9), e14567.

2 Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and personality psychology compass, 8(2), 58-72.

 

Is mindfulness enough?

Many scientists claim that mindfulness is both a ‘non-judgemental’ approach and holds congruence with Buddhist forms of meditation. Are these two positions mutually exclusive?

Meditation without ethics is like a ship without a rudder - directionless

Mindfulness has attracted sustained criticism from within the scientific community over the last few years. Claims that the science supporting mindfulness lacks a reliable evidential base are growing. In addition, religious scholars1 and traditional meditation practitioners have discussed the implications of the lack of  judgement or ethical frameworks, closely associated with some mindfulness practices.

In a recent article2 a leading Buddhist teacher from the Tibetan Nyingma tradition, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, has stressed the need for meditation to be seen in a relevant ethical context. Rinpoche talks about not ‘blindly meditating’, that our meditation should be directed by study and understanding. Although these points are being made from a Buddhist perspective, their relevance can apply to both secular and spiritual meditation practices. Psychologically speaking, meditation and mindfulness are simply forms of brain training, changes in behaviour leading eventually to functional and structural modifications in the brain. So if your meditation practice is based on reducing judgement of the reality of your day to day life, this is likely to be the result of the practice. Developing an understanding of why you are meditating and what it means in the real world, ensures your practice has direction and is relevant to you.

“We can’t just blindly meditate”

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche

Practicing with forms of meditation that lack any coherent ethical or judgemental context may lead to a reduction of reasoning and introspection, two functions linked to essential intrinsic network activity in the brain. Whilst it can be acknowledged that non-judgemental practices are common in Buddhism, they are always set within a wider ethical framework. The points Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche made, are consistent with my own understandings of the science of mindfulness and meditation. That self-transformation (the goal of meditation technologies), requires a sound theoretical framework to be successful. A sound theoretical framework would include an explanation of our being (the ontology that supports meditation) and an understanding of the effectiveness of the methods used (epistemology).

policeThere are no restrictions of the forms of meditation that can be created and practiced, and there is evidence that mindfulness may be able to deliver some benefits. But based on the available data, it may be that meditation practices that are not embedded in stable frameworks might deliver unpredictable results. Not simply because ethical frameworks are in some way morally advantageous, but for the reason that they create the conditions where the practice becomes embedded in both the meditation student and the real world. I would suggest that anything less, risks strengthening dualistic concepts rather than weakening them.

 

Notes

1 King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham.

2 https://www.lionsroar.com/why-meditation-isnt-enough/

Student mental health in decline

Student mental health is in decline, financial pressure on undergraduates is a key issue. Meditation and mindfulness may be able to help.

University students are reporting increasing mental health issues
University students are reporting increasing mental health issues and problems with wellbeing.

Students are increasingly calling upon mental health and counselling support while at university according to Open Access Government1. Almost 9 out of 10 students are experiencing stress, and 3 out of 4 report feelings of anxiety. The proportion of students identifying as having a mental health condition grew five-fold in the last decade.

The exact reasons for the spiralling rates of poor mental health amongst students are unclear. However, because of the universality of the problems, widespread trends in society are likely to have a mediating role. Amongst the factors thought to be contributing to these high levels of stress, financial pressures play a prominent role. With more student taking on unprecedented levels of debt at a young age, there is inevitably a greater risk to mental health. Worry about student debt can lead to increased anxiety, linked to both academic performance and long term employment prospects.

adult blur business close up

The thought of having to pay back a large student loan can translate to increased pressure on individual assignments, ‘to pay back the loan I will have to get a well-paid job, for which I will need to get good grades’. Put simply, for some students, success in their undergraduate studies can appear to be absolutely essential for life long success. Given, the cost of buying a home, decreasing job security, worsening employment conditions, some undergraduates are experiencing a heightened fear of failure. Fear not only linked to their grades but the prospect of long term debt, low wages, and general financial insecurity.

When academic stress provokes a sense of challenge it is typically seen as a good thing, linked to self-efficacy and a sense of competence and achievement. However, if stress becomes a threat, a whole range of different mental constructs engage which can include fear and anxiety. A review of the evidence from cognitive psychology provides clear indications of how meditation and mindfulness can be used to develop resilience to stress in higher education, improving wellbeing and quality of life.

 

Notes

1 https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/student-mental-health-services/63324/

Can meditation help student wellbeing?

Students reporting mental health and wellbeing issues had risen fivefold in the last decade. Yet there is evidence that specifically designed meditation and mindfulness methods can help.

Can meditation halt the slide in student mental health?
Can meditation halt the slide in student mental health?

There is growing evidence that the mental health and wellbeing of young people in the UK is in decline. This pattern is particularly pronounced among students in higher education (HE). According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)1, the proportion of university students reporting a mental health condition grew five-fold in the last decade. However, studies from cognitive psychology and contemplative science have started to signpost approaches able to offer support for students dealing with issues such as anxiety, stress, procrastination, and motivation.

Not unsurprisingly, problems with mental health and wellbeing can have a profound impact on a student’s ability to perform academically and their willingness to complete their chosen course of study. Serious mental health problems are rarely restricted just to academic matters and can influence all areas of life. In some universities, as many as 25% of the total student body has engaged with or are waiting to access wellbeing services1.

man in black and white polo shirt beside writing board

From a scientific perspective, there is a range of mixed messages coming from meditation research. There are individual studies that suggest meditation or mindfulness can have a positive impact on specific mental health and wellbeing issues, but regrettably, the results are rarely replicated or strongly supported by strategic reviews. However, by approaching student mental health using instruments from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, some clear strategies for using meditation and mindfulness emerge. These centre mainly on understanding the known constructs that underpin obstacles to successful engagement with HE

Although every student is different and the challenges each faces is unique, the science indicates there are common factors to many of the academic obstacles they face. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the same meditation is beneficial for every student. But an appropriate method (one able to tackle their underlying problems) is likely to bring some benefit leading to a more positive engagement with academic work and improve all-round wellbeing.

 

Notes

Thorley C (2017) Not By Degrees: Not by degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities, IPPR. http://www.ippr.org/publications/not-by-degrees