Advanced scientific knowledge, traditional meditation methods
Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential?
A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health.
Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.
Times and venues for the University of Kent Compassion Meditation group.
Compassion meditation at Kent, on-campus and online
The compassion meditation group is free, suitable for beginners and is supported by Kent’s PG Community Experience Awards, the group meets at 5 pm in person and 7 pm online every Thursday. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org, or just turn up!
The group practices self-other compassion specifically linked to health, happiness and wellbeing. We use a secular form of traditional Tonglen meditation, designed to integrate compassion for self and other. Following meditation, refreshments are provided and there is a change to chat or ask questions. For details of meetings and meditation advice follow the @KentCompassion Twitter account or sign up to the WhatsApp group (email email@example.com for the link).
Meeting dates for this term (please not that we use two different rooms).
17-02-2022 – CNWsr5
24-02-2022 – CNWsr5
03-03-2022 – CESR5
10-03-2022 – CESR5
17-03-2022 – CESR5
24-03-2022 – CESR5
31-03-2022 – CESR5
07-04-2022 – CNWsr5
Online meetings take place at 7pm every Thursday for those people self-isolating or not on campus. Wherever possible compassion meditation is best supported by a guided group meditation.
The group is led by Stephen Gene Morris, a meditation neuropsychologist with twenty five years experience of spiritual and secular meditation.
Compassion meditation practice is designed to support health, happiness and wellbeing. A new compassion meditation group has been created at the University of Kent. Supported by funding from the Postgraduate Community Experience Awards, the group meets on the Canterbury campus every Thursday.
A new meditation group has been formed at the University of Kent to teach students compassion-based methods. Funded by the Postgraduate Community Experience Awards, the group will learn traditional approaches that focus on health, happiness and wellbeing. Stephen Gene Morris, an experienced meditation teacher, researcher and neuropsychologist, will be leading the weekly sessions.
The group’s founder, Stephen, has practised meditation for 25 years and studied its structures and operational components. He will teach a secular compassion practice, rooted in traditional methods, supported by reliable scientific evidence. Care for oneself and the wider community is a foundational concept in many spiritual traditions, and compassionate meditation has been used in Mahayana Buddhism for almost a thousand years. But in recent decades, scientists have been investigating the relationship between compassion and health; several interventions such as Compassion Focused Therapy have demonstrated the importance of kindness towards others in our thoughts and feelings. The group will be using self-other compassion training to think positively about oneself and the wider community, bringing benefits to the meditator and a sense of interconnectivity with the people around us.
‘The goals of this self-other compassion meditation are health, happiness and wellbeing. I use a well known Buddhist form of compassion training, Tonglen, as the basis for this method. But while the original psychological elements have been retained, the imagery and context are adapted for a modern secular audience. In my experience, this is a form of meditation that can bring long-lasting benefits to practitioners, and it’s suitable for beginners and more experienced meditators
Stephen Gene Morris
Compassion meditation classes take place every Thursday at 5 pm in room CNWsr5 on the University of Kent Campus in Canterbury. The meditation is followed by a brief social when people can ask questions and share experiences. Soft drinks and snacks are provided. A second session is held two hours later online using the Zoom platform (7 pm) for those who wish to participate remotely. For more details or to register for the online session, email Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. To keep in touch with the group’s activities, follow the @KentCompassion Twitter account.
Meditation is likely to be a useful tool in the journey to sleep better, but you need the right method.
Meditation is a wide range of ancient mind-training techniques which are now used widely to support health and wellbeing. One of the less well-known applications is to create relaxed states that support better quality sleep. A short evening meditation practice can lead to significantly improved quantity and quality of sleep. It’s not just that meditation can increase alpha brain activity, leading to sleep-friendly lower metabolic rates. But evening meditation methods can use visualisations that create serenity and contentedness allowing relaxing sleep patterns to develop naturally.
What is Meditation?
There are literally thousands of traditional meditation methods, and scientists are only just beginning to understand how they work. And although we don’t yet fully understand the psychological and physiological processes that link meditation to better sleep, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that indicates it really does help. So, at the risk of overgeneralising, we can consider meditation as a process that allows better control over your own thought processes, allowing you to develop practices that support relaxation and a great night’s sleep. Mindfulness forms of meditation may also give you space to focus on the here and now in a non-judgemental way. Finally, unlike many other practices, such as behavioural modification techniques, building a regular meditation habit anywhere, anytime, is easy. You don’t have to change your routine or beliefs; just focus on techniques that help you sleep better.
The Benefits of Meditation for Your Sleep
Many meditation scientists regard the altered metabolic state indicated by changes to alpha brain wave activity as a form of relaxation. And while meditation should not be sleep-inducing per se, the calmness and relaxation meditation brings should allow sleep to come without difficulty when you are ready. In one sense, regular meditation restores healthy balances in body, speech, and mind, supporting sleep and waking activity in equal measure. If the brain rests, natural healing and rejuvenation can take place. Adopting meditation can help improve sleep cycles. Different meditation styles have different focuses to help your sleeping patterns and dreams. In addition, meditation can help to calm your mind and reduce anxiety. A recent study found meditation positively impacted lowering cortisol levels in the blood, linked with stress. There is a suggestion that it may even decrease muscle tension and improve alertness.
How to Meditate Before Sleep
If you are new to meditation, your first step should be to find a reliable meditation teacher and a method appropriate for you and your meditation goals. Different practices have different functions in traditional meditation, so make sure you use a technique designed for the evening to support better sleep. Then, when you have the right method and reliable instructions, you can set aside twenty or thirty minutes in the evening to meditate. Don’t worry about doing everything perfectly or according to strict guidelines; evening practice does not normally work that way; you’re looking to calm down, not get hyped up. So to support your evening practice, you might want to think about your use of social media, consider what you eat and generally avoid unsettling influences.
The rhythms of modern living and how we think about ourselves and others can be counter-productive to a good night’s sleep. With extended working hours, multiple appointments, commuting, eating on the run, and constantly looking at screens, we’re all trying to keep up with modern living, but somehow we’re barely getting by. This isn’t to suggest that sleep is an option we’d consider to be a luxury because sleep should be available whenever we need it. Instead, we need to find ways to take our health and wellbeing into our own hands to help the process. Meditation has an impressive track record of tackling many modern problems and health challenges, including stress and anxiety, loneliness, depression, and sleep issues. But meditation is not a magic solution, and you will get the best results if you combine your practices with relevant lifestyle changes.
Compassion, according to Buddhism, means the wish for other living beings not to suffer. I’ve been practicing Buddhism for about 6 years, and I genuinely appreciate the power and pragmatism of Buddhism. Today, I’ll share a little about the importance of Compassion in our Burning world.
Covid-19 is causing a lot of negative implications including sickness and death of the people who catch the disease, and anxiety, sadness, isolation, and a host of negative emotions for those who don’t catch the disease. It’s fair to assume that there aren’t really any humans that are not affected by the disease. NOW more than ever, we need compassion, so I want to talk about some things that, if contemplated, can help you become more compassionate.
All living beings have the same mind. What I mean by the is is that although we don’t recognize our similarities, we all have naked, pure awareness…
To access the immense benefits of compassion meditation, you will need to understand the concept as a prerequisite of creating a compassionate mind.
Over the past 80 years, science has been investigating the health benefits of belief-based meditation methods. Mindfulness is perhaps the best-known family of practices that have been medicalised. Since Gary Deatherage used mindfulness as therapy in the mid-1970s, scientists and health practitioners have been looking to harness its curative benefits. However, when a spiritual meditation practice is translated into scientific terms, changes are inevitably made to the method. One of the most frequent omissions in the adaptation of meditation is the role of compassion. I’m not talking about compassion as a tool of faith or belief, but rather its function as meditation’s conceptual engine. The connection between Buddhism and compassion is well known throughout the world; Buddhist teaching and practice are synonymous with care for self and others.
The psychological understanding of compassion is preliminary; we still lack reliable psychometric instruments to measure and test human insights and experience of compassion. In his attempts to define compassion, the scientist and researcher Paul Gilbert found that “different languages and cultures do not always have exactly the same meaning for the words they use, and heated debates can arise because people are actually talking at cross purposes. Hence, striving for precision and clarity are important, but we also recognize different definitions for different functions.” The point is that we meditation scientists have not yet understood Western concepts of compassion, and we have almost no tools to evaluate what compassion means in ancient belief-based practices. Gilbert is one of the few Western clinicians who delves into traditional understandings of compassion and tries to make sense of them.
The precise use and meaning of meditation concepts are crucially important. Meditation is a systematic way of changing your brain function and structures (yes, quite literally). So before you undertake any regular meditation practice, you need to think about how you are reshaping your mind. In traditional meditation, mainly in the Mahayana Buddhist schools, thousands of scholarly texts and commentaries define and explain all concepts present in meditation practice. One such foundational idea is compassion; The Nalanda philosophical tradition holds that the Buddha is the embodiment of compassion for all beings; thus, it is central to all meditation. So, a clear definition is essential for practitioners.
Although you will find several ways of describing compassion in different Buddhist schools, many find resonance in the wish that “may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering”. While this explanation is regarded as a reliable definition based on centuries of meditation research and practice, the point for meditators is not to obey it but rather to understand it. The goal of traditional compassion meditation is to generate the mental states linked to the practice. So without a clear understanding of the concept and your engagement with it, meditation progress is abstract because you have not developed a point of departure or arrival. The potential of compassion meditation is still emerging in the West, in part because of known incongruence between belief-based and scientific worldviews. However, in traditional meditation systems, compassion is a quality that has long been associated with happiness, health and sustainable relationships. Once science develops a clear understanding of compassion, we can begin the much more complex task of defining the dual, nondual and integrated forms, concepts still abstract to psychology
Over 26,000 scientific meditation studies have been published since 1970. I have yet to encounter one that explains the nondual view or the principle of nondual meditation, yet this is the concept at the heart of meditation and mindfulness.
The elusive nature of the nondual
Typically, humans flit between dual and nondual forms of consciousness without ever knowing or detecting the difference. In this brief introduction, the critical thing to bear in mind is that we all have access to dual and nondual consciousness; both are integral to the human experience. However, it is highly problematic to recognise and then cultivate a nondual view without training and direction. It is not possible to provide a comprehensive explanation of dual or nondual consciousness here and now. So I will attempt to use some simplified approximations to begin the conversation
In a typical western materialistic society such as mine, most people spend most of their time in dualistic consciousness. We could characterise the dualistic state in many ways; as a starting point, let us regard it as the point of view where one believes, as truth, the conscious and subconscious impulses generated by a brain. So while we can all find examples of irrational thoughts that we recognise as meaningless, our identity is made up of fabricated constructs that have no reality other than that which we attribute to them. So, for example, to think that others are responsible for your mental states is usually an expression of dualism, as is the belief that our wishes and goals are somehow different or more important than the wishes and goals of others.
By contrast, a nondual view enables us to distinguish between reliable mental phenomena and transient unreliable thoughts and feelings. Thus we can achieve some relative freedom in how to think, speak and act. It is this freedom that is often associated with the happiness and stability observed in nondual practitioners. So from a nondual perspective, we make the presumption that the thoughts and feelings of others may be just as important and meaningful as ours. I will stop the definitions here for now and briefly discuss what these concepts mean for meditation practice.
In traditional meditation, people begin at the beginning; if they have a reliable teacher and methods and are diligent, they can make progress. But until a practitioner realises which of the mental phenomena arising in their consciousness is transient and meaningless, then all meditation can be seen as relative. That means your practice is relative to your mental state and a range of other causes and conditions. A practitioner who has some modest experience of the nondual should be able to transcend belief in mundane phenomena knowing of their relative unimportance. That is not to say that a nondual practitioner may have arrived at a transcendent mental state; it is simply that they know the limitations of their own worldview. That, in a nutshell, is an elementary exploration of why the nondual view is essential to progress in meditation practice. Without it understanding, the inner world of our consciousness remains uncertain. While much Buddhist meditation is not explicitly nondual, it all, by its very nature, increases the ability of the student to understand nonduality.
One of the great successes of meditation research is the evidence that both medicalised mindfulness and belief-based methods such as shamatha and tonglen reduce the physiological effects of stress, such as high cortisol and elevated blood pressure levels.
There are several symptoms connected with abnormally high stress levels. These include pain, tiredness, headaches and dizziness, elevated levels of blood pressure, muscle tension and related problems such as jaw clenching and a wide range of issues linked to the stomach and digestive systems. Stress is quite a complicated concept, with many triggers related to emotional, psychological or physiological states. Circumstances in our day-to-day lives such as overwork, relationship problems and financial worries can create conditions where higher stress levels are much more likely. Ironically, stress can be self-perpetuating, where for example, worries over one problem can lead to poor health, triggering further long-term stress and anxiety.
Meditation’s potential to reduce stress’s physiological and psychological symptoms, such as high blood pressure, has been known about for more than 50 years. So it’s not a surprise to find scientific studies demonstrating that regular meditation correlates with lower levels of damaging chemicals created by stress reactions, like cortisol. Because of its relationship with stress, cortisol is called the ‘stress hormone’, and it plays a vital role in the human stress response. Although cortisol has some critical functions, such as regulating blood sugar levels and metabolic states, too much in the blood can be a serious health problem. Among the symptoms of high cortisol levels include weight gain, thinning skin and a tendency to bruise easily, problems concentrating and high blood pressure. Although all of the symptoms can be severe, elevated blood pressure levels for prolonged periods is particularly dangerous.
Details of several scientific experiments linking meditation to lower levels of cortisol have been published in recent decades. Convincing data illustrates both medicalised mindfulness and Buddhist meditation methods can lower cortisol levels in the blood; however, reliable comparative data are scarce. The point is that most of these studies show that following meditation, serum cortisol levels are significantly lower. As you might expect, meditation also mediates blood pressure and breathing, but we still don’t know how these relationships work. Does meditation lower all of these physiological signs of stress, or just one leading to a knock-on effect, or does the cause lie elsewhere?
There are several exciting experiments in published journals, Kees Blase and Adeline van Waning explored heart rate variability, cortisol and attention focus during shamatha quiescence meditation in 2019. They found that six weeks of practice in methods including tonglen and loving-kindness reduced stress and increased attention focus. The experiment was written up in the Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback journal. The take-away message is that regular meditation is correlated with lower levels of stress; the bonus is that all positive brain functions impeded by stress will experience a boost as well.
Tonglen meditation is a compassion mind-training practice., but the method and purpose are frequently misunderstood in the West.
Tonglen is a meditation practice where you exchange suffering for happiness, both literally and as a metaphor. It highlights the unlimited nature of human compassion. That we can at any moment, make our experience of the world more joyful by altering our cognitive understanding of self and others. By transforming ourselves into the solution of suffering for others, we also become the catalyst for positive self-development. In any meaningful way, tonglen cannot simply be used to benefit one’s health without reference to others. This truth is self-evident to people seeking holistic solutions to health problems. The idea that only I matter doesn’t seem to be positively correlated with good physical and mental health.
Through tonglen meditation, we transform ourselves, but not necessarily in any mystical way, we reorganize our understanding of the interdependence between people. In doing so, we gain the confidence to challenge the self-centred dualistic thoughts that are the source of many of our day-to-day problems. Tonglen is a compassionate practice; traditionally, you breathe in others’ suffering and breathe out the solution to solve their problems. It is this selfless act that also brings benefits to the practitioner. Depending on the knowledge of teacher and student, the nondual foundations of the practice might also be taught as part of the preliminaries, but this is becoming quite rare.
As a simple example of how to apply this meditation consider when you have a difficult day at work, you can practice tonglen, taking on the problems of workers who have also had a challenging day. You mentally exchange their problems with compassionate wishes and solutions. If you can generate a strong sense of relative compassion, then your ability to overcome your own problems can be greatly increased. Tonglen meditation also develops your own real world compassion. This same approach can be used to address almost any aspect of suffering. But be advised; you can’t trick your own mind; the curative potential rests in the compassion for others.
Where does tonglen come from?
Tonglen (giving and taking) has a documented history of at least 1,000 years in Buddhism. The theoretical framework of this practice can be found in the slogans used to illustrate the Seven Points of Training the Mind (lojong). Tonglen has been popularized in the West by a range of meditation teachers, and modifications to the original practice appear from time to time. New meditators often undertake compassionate meditation as an essential preliminary to tonglen. It is also possible to encounter Westernised forms of Tonglen more accessible to non-Buddhists. However, it is essential that modified versions of the meditation are consistent with the original elements of the training. I tend to base my tonglen teaching on the Jamgon Kongtrul commentary translated by Ken McLeod. This is generally regarded as one of the most reliable expositions. As I’ve already suggested, because of ontological conflicts, there are no secularised equivalents of tonglen.
What do you have to do?
No text can fully explain what tonglen is and how to practice it. I highly recommend you receive training from a qualified and experienced meditation master if you wish to practice. In its essence, tonglen meditation is the breathing in of suffering and problems followed by the exhalation of happiness, virtue and solutions. The breath is the device, the method by which the meditator exchanges suffering for happiness as a psychological and physiological training. A key point to remember is that you begin the practice with your own conditions; you (the meditator) are always included in the transformation of suffering into happiness and joy. The object of the meditation can be as narrow or as wide as you wish, for example you can exschange with someone in particular, such as a sick relative or perhaps everyone in a hospital or even all living beings.
You should not think of yourself as a filter that absorbs suffering but rather as a catalyst to solve problems and transform negativity. This is a crucial point and one an experienced teacher can help you with. The tonglen meditation should not be seen as a passive, passionless exercise, but the meditator should attempt to generate a sense that they are transforming suffering. You visualize all suffering, limitations and obstacles as thick black smoke; you imagine it entering your nostrils on the in-breath. On the out-breath the black smoke is transformed into white smoke or’ rays of moonlight’ bringing happiness, surplus and solutions to the object of your meditation. Consider that in one breath you have taken in many difficulties and instantly transformed them into joyful solutions. You can’t trick your own mind; if you don’t generate compassion, the practice will be limited and may even make things worse for you. If you naturally struggle to feel compassion for others, tonglen should be seen as progressive training, starting with some simple objects of compassion and extending your reach as you become more experienced.
Tonglen is a spiritual practice that should be taught by someone of relevant experience and practiced within the appropriate context. This is a meditation method to persevere with, if you put your heart into tonglen and practice diligently, it can offer significant benefits to both experienced and novice meditators alike.
How does tonglen work?
From the neuropsychological perspective, we don’t have a complete understanding of the brain networks and cognitive processes linked to compassionate behaviour. For example, the scientific understanding of absolute compassion is in its infancy. However, there is preliminary evidence that compassion for others might be associated with increased health and wellbeing through mirror neurones and network correlations. The Buddhist theoretical framework of tonglen considers that selfishness and lack of compassion are causes of mental and physical suffering. By training ourselves in compassion, we rebalance the brain networks to restore our ‘natural state’. It is the return to this condition that improves our health and wellbeing.
As always, email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.
Despite the health potential of nondual meditation, this is the area of contemplative science that we know the least about.
What is nondual meditation?
Although explanations of nondual meditation are often complex, the broad concept is accessible to all of us because we think in the dual and nondual all the time. The human brain has structures that emphasise both the relationship and separation of people and concepts. So, for example, when you decide to recycle your bottles, you may be thinking about just yourself, or your family, the community or perhaps even the whole world. The focus only on yourself is an example of dualistic thought, but to consider the needs of others and the environment is nondual thinking. Humans fluctuate between the dual and nondual all of the time; we all carry the potential for greater or lesser nondual thinking. Some forms of meditation can teach us to recognise nondual thoughts and use nonduality systematically. We call the ability to recognise the difference between our dual and nondual thoughts nondual awareness (NDA). Although many meditators claim to have NDA, it is relatively rare and can be simple to spot in a meditation teacher when you know what to look for. With training, NDA gives way to the nondual view (NDV), a more permanent condition where nondual cognitive processes become established as mental states.
Is nonduality good for health?
NDA and the NDV are under-researched in the West, but extensive work has been done in Buddhist spiritual traditions to study, document and explain nondual cognitive processes. However, science indicates abnormal levels of dualistic thinking are likely to be linked to many health problems. Put simply, if your only concern is for yourself and your short term needs, this can give rise to several physical and mental health problems. It will impact how you relate to people and society more generally. We associate NDA with a balanced outlook on life, where the wellbeing of self and others are equally important. Some anecdotal evidence supports the theory that nondual meditators live longer, happier lives.
How does it work?
From a scientific perspective, we know that there are brain networks that regulate our interaction with others. It seems highly likely that we humans have developed to care both for ourselves and those around us. Society would not function without significant levels of cooperation between individuals. The phenomenon of super-rich individuals uncaring for the needs of those around them is, in terms of human evolution, a relatively recent phenomenon. Attending to those brain networks that allow us to care for ourselves and others may represent the ‘natural state’ of being human, and one where we can be happiest and healthiest.
How to find out more
This explanation is only the briefest introduction and hasn’t dealt with key concepts such as integrating the dual and nondual and the correlations between brain networks. Modern psychological research barely recognises NDA and although all Buddhist meditation is either implicitly or explicitly nondual, we have few scientific studies on which to consider these states. Many spiritual texts (perhaps thousands), particularly in the Mahayana, Dzogchen and Mahamudra schools of Buddhism, offer explanations about NDA. But most traditional roads to NDA begin with compassion training.