Advanced scientific knowledge, traditional meditation methods
Author: Stephen Gene Morris
Formally trained neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist, post graduate researcher of how compassion and nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation. Alongside teaching and research of compassionate and nondual practices, Stephen trains his own brain every day with traditional Dzogchen methods.
Katy Perry and how she used meditation to deal with anxiety and stress.
Katy Perry meditation and anxiety
In a Newsweek feature from earlier this year Katy Perry revealed in detail how she uses meditation to deal with stress and anxiety. Katy is not the only celebrity to talk openly about the role of meditation in their challenges of day to day living. She has also spoken and written about meditation on numerous occasions. The internationally recognised singer makes some crucial points about meditation reported by the article, in particular that we have to invest in our brain health. While some people may be resilient enough never to suffer from mental health difficulties this is not the common experience. Research is showing that increasing numbers of young people are suffering from depression, and the ranks of adults with dementia is set to double over the next 30 years.
“Brain health impacts on all aspects of our mind and body, meditation is one of the most reliable methods we have to maintain and improve brain function and structure.”
Stephen Gene Morris
Katy goes beyond using meditation to simply cope with her busy life, declaring that the stillness she finds in practice gives her greater mental and physical strength, and enables her to realise her ‘authentic self’. She uses meditation based breathing exercises to gain some instant relief when she feels anxious. According to the report, the particular form of meditation favoured by Katy is Transcendental Meditation (TM), a method brought to the West from India over 60 years ago. Anxiety and stress can impact on different people in different ways and one form of treatment may not suit everyone. But there is growing anecdotal and scientific evidence that regular forms of meditation can have profound and long lasting effects on both stress and anxiety.
If you’d like to attend a meditation class, receive 1 to 1 training, or engage with online meditation guidance get in touch.
Newsweek feature can be found here. Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com
Mindfulness meditation in Rochester. Eight week course starting in January.
Mindfulness in Rochester – Public eight week course (January 17th – March 7th, 2019)
Cesare Saguato will be running his next public mindfulness eight week course between the 17th of January and 7th of March, 2019. Some details are copied below but for more information and any general enquiries visit the Cesare Mindful Therapy website.
“Training in mindfulness, like anything needs to be consistent to bring results and that’s what a structured eight week course, complete with group work and individual home practice is designed to do. It is perfect for those who are completely new and those looking to commit more to their current practice with the support of the course, the group and an instructor.
The course will provide you with the opportunity to learn a combination of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Cognitive Therapy techniques, through formal and informal practices that can be easily integrated into your daily life, including mindfulness of eating, breath, bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, sounds and movement, as well as a number of other positive psychology techniques and thought experiments that support the process.
The Course will be supported by
An e-booklet helping you explore and deepen you understanding of the themes covered in your weekly sessions. It will also include weekly Home Practice Guidance and Record Sheets to help you keep track of your progress.
Online guided Audio Meditations to guide and support you in your home practice.
Email support in between sessions with Cesare to discuss or elucidate any points emerging during your home practice.
Certificate of completion (issued only if attendance is 75% or more)”
Compassionate meditation appears to be linked to increased happy thoughts through mind wandering.
Mind wandering compassion and happiness
The Science of meditation and mindfulness recently featured a study that investigated the relationship between mind wandering and how we feel. In particular can mind wandering and spontaneous thought be correlated with happiness and can meditation mediate the effects? So put simply the premise behind this study is that the more mind wandering and day dreaming you do the less happy you are likely to be. A second question asked by the study was do specific forms of meditation and mindfulness decrease mind wandering and therefore contribute to increased happiness.
On face value this seems like an intuitive experiment, we know that abnormally high levels of mind wandering can reduce our ability to perform tasks. Further that frequent mind wandering to negative or harmful subject matter can lead to mental health issues. But this is a very complex area and one not yet fully understood. The brain nodes associated with mind wandering, the Default Mode Network (DMN) have a range of diverse functions including maintaining our autobiographical memory and making sense of ourselves in relation to the wider world. Reduced activity in the DMN is correlated to increased activity in the task focussed networks (more mind wandering means less task focus and vice versa).
“In conclusion the evidence supports the view that compassionate meditation is able to increase a tendency to happy thoughts and positive behaviours towards self and others. “
Stephen Gene Morris
Another consideration is that mind wandering can be either a positive or negative experience. The object of mind wandering can be almost anything, a cherished memory from the past, a plan for great success in the future or worries able to generate fear and anxiety. The findings of the featured study indicated that compassion based meditation was able to reduce the negative and increase positive mind wandering in participants. The research also found that the meditators generally experienced an augmentation in their caring behaviours.
In conclusion the evidence supports the view that compassionate meditation is able to increase a tendency to happy thoughts and positive behaviours towards self and others.
How to reduce stress and blood pressure. meditation and mindfulness linked to promising results
How to reduce stress and blood pressure
I estimate there have been up to 15,000 peer reviewed studies linked to meditation and mindfulness published over the last 40 years. They have offered all kinds of academic and scientific insight. Many claim to signpost potential health and wellbeing breakthroughs, but few are actually replicated (repeated) sufficiently to be regarded as clinically reliable. However I recently came across a study carried out at the Massachusetts General Hospital that offers some interesting evidence that meditation might be able reduce both stress and blood pressure.
In a randomised trial one half of the participants followed an eight week course of mindfulness meditation, the other half engaged with traditional stress management training, coupled with some lifestyle advice. At the end of the experiment some members of the mindfulness group were found to have lower levels of the adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) stress hormone than the control group (stress hormones can be correlated with high blood pressure). The meditation group also performed better in a mock interview and test scenario specifically designed to raise stress levels. Thereby indicating that mindfulness meditation led to ‘real world’ benefits. In a third finding the meditation group also had a reduced inflammatory reaction to stress, a possible factor linked to Type 2 diabetes.
This investigation offered the first immunological and hormonal data that mindfulness meditation may be able to boost resilience to stress. Some parts of the media hailed this study as a breakthrough. I’m a little more cautious but clearly if we see other experiments achieving the same findings it provides import insights into low cost and effective treatments for stress. However the popularity of mindfulness means that most participants are likely to know something about the reputed effects of meditation ahead of going into a trial, raising concern about the reliability of data derived from these kinds of studies.
Dan Harris suffered a very public panic attack in 2004. Trevor Noah talks to him about meditation mindfulness and how it changed him.
Mindfulness meditation and panic attacks; Dan Harris and Trevor Noah
Among the more interesting meditation book releases from 2018 is “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” written by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren with Carlye Adler. Harris is an ABC news anchor who talks in an interview on The Daily Show about a panic attack he experienced during the Good Morning America broadcast in 2004. Millions saw the attack unfold both live on TV but also as a YouTube clip. Although originally a meditation skeptic, when Harris came into contact with evidence that meditation can lower your blood pressure boost the immune system and lead to functional and structural change in the brain he started to take the idea more seriously.
Harris recounted to fellow TV personality Trevor Noah how the ability to find a secular approach had been important in his meditation journey. But he revealed that mindfulness didn’t solve all of his problems, rather it made him “less of a moron”. He described his own practice as a simple form of breathing meditation accessible to anyone, and that as little as a minute of mindfulness might be worth attempting. In the interview meditation is broadly defined as paying attention to what you are doing, whilst this is not a universally accepted explanation, it does indicate the functional approach the book is trying to promote.
Can meditation make you “less of a moron”?
It’s clear that Dan Harris is a convert to meditation, he speaks in glowing terms about the simplicity of the concept and the ability of mindfulness to deliver real world benefits. His panic attack appears to have been the catalyst to his meditation journey, it may be part of the reason why he talks about meditation in such a down-to-earth and open way. Ending the interview on a lighter note Harris strongly suspects that Donald Trump does not meditate but welcomes enquiries from the President by call or Tweet!
Meditation and mindfulness can offer great benefits but many people fail to engage with the practice, here are some simple rules.
Looking for the three secrets to meaningful meditation?
Traditionally obtaining long lasting results from meditation practice can take years. Famously H.H. the Dalai Lama advised Buddhist meditators to assess their progress over a five year period. This kind of long term investment challenges modern notions of what self transformation might be and how quickly individuals should expect to reach their meditation goals. As such both new and experienced meditators are increasingly looking for help, advice and tips to allow them to maximize the time they spend in meditation. As an experienced meditation practitioner, teacher and now researcher, I have reviewed much of the published evidence to offer you the three secrets of meditation.
The three secrets to successful meditation and mindfulness
Do some research – understand your goals, find a reliable method and teacher.
Start – unless you start you won’t get anywhere.
Keep going – perseverance is probably the most important quality needed in a meditator.
At first sight it might seem that these three ‘secrets’ are generic and not really that helpful, however just pause for a moment to consider them. From my own experience the single biggest mistake people make when they decide that they want to meditate is to not consider fully what they want to achieve and which approach would be most useful. Generally speaking meditation can have a number of short term transient benefits, for example an improvement in self reported well being. But how long do you have to meditate to get the short term benefits and what comes after the initial ‘feel good’ phase? I’m not suggesting for a moment that meditators need to access scientific studies, but you should have some general ideas of what you want to learn and who should be teaching you.
Traditionally the biggest meditation mistake is described as not starting, the benefits of regular meditation practice are so great that not to at least try it is wasted potential. Traditional forms of meditation have been shown to help with everything from smoking cessation to lowering the risks of developing dementia. Once the basic skill of ‘sitting’ has been acquired a whole range of methods become instantly more accessible. Consider that ‘not starting’ doesn’t mean simply never to have tried meditation but also not to have given it a chance. It can take a few sessions to achieve any real benefit, particularly is your mind is typically ‘busy’ and you find it difficult to put down the worries of your day to day life. Many people feel the benefits of meditation after the first lesson, it might take others a bit longer. A good teacher will be able to help if you are unsure about your progress. A simple analogy is that of learning to drive a car, many people pause driving lessons after a few hours training, disheartened by the challenge. There is an initial ‘biting point’ for people at the start of the meditation journey, if you haven’t reached it you haven’t really started to meditate.
Most meditators who practice two or three times a week can gain great benefit. They may work to change negative and limiting behaviours, address mental or physical health problems, feel a bit more comfortable in their own skin and take more control over their thought processes. But progress fluctuates and if you meditate for any length of time sooner or later you will feel like things aren’t moving as quickly as you would like. This impatience is natural and simply reflects resistance to change, many people put their meditation on hold at this point. Sometimes people do return to the practice but this might be many months or even years later. Consider that ultimately regular meditation leads to functional and structural change in the brain, if you don’t maintain the behaviour linked to the change, neural connections may weaken and you can go back to square one. It might feel like you have all that previous meditation related change still inside you but this probably isn’t the case. If it feels like you need a break, a change of practice might be more beneficial than stopping altogether. It should always be stressed that if you think a meditation method is having a negative impact on you, stop it immediately.
With each specific form of meditation a skillful teacher or experienced student will be able to offer advice, but specific help will be linked to your own experience and the nature of the practice. For example some traditional practices are more suited to the morning or evening or are not suitable for beginners or people taking medication. How you sit, breath and when you last ate might influence the quality of your meditation. Consider that most traditional meditation methods have been used by tens of millions of people for hundreds of years so there is a lot of useful information out there.
Why do people meditate? You might be surprised by the answer.
Want to know why people meditate?
Having introduced hundreds of people to meditation over the last fifteen years, the question of why do people meditate has always fascinated me. When I used to teach traditional Buddhist meditation many people would declare an interest in Buddhism or spirituality, but there was generally another reason that encouraged them to come to a class. Many came because they wanted some support with a health problem, either mental or physical and they thought that Buddhist meditation could offer them something. People attended classes to accompany their friends or because they were suffering a sense of loss, or were looking for direction in their life. But only a small minority meditated because they wanted to become a Buddhist or for some kind of spiritual development.
So interested was I in this question that I undertook some research while at the university, running a project asking people about their reasons for starting meditation. Health and wellbeing proved to be the single most popular answer both for traditional practitioners and secular mindfulness students, accounting for 55% of respondents. Although it now appears widely accepted that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to increased levels of self reported happiness how this is achieved is still somewhat obscured. In particular if meditation has a lasting effect on behaviour then it must have a role in maintaining/changing brain structure and function.
“regular meditators with younger brains than non meditators”
This is the new frontier for contemporary meditation research, how does meditation change the brain and what are the likely effects of it? Evidence is suggestive that meditation can make a positive impact on your overall brain health and in one study regular meditators had brains seven years younger than non-meditators. The point is that meditation’s real potential is in changing brain structure, this is particularly relevant when talking about, the ageing brain, mild cognitive impairment and neurodegeneration. We are starting to see the first wave of meditation methods specifically designed to allow people to improve brain health generally. Given the pessimistic predictions surrounding dementia this seems like a trend set to continue.