Advanced scientific knowledge, traditional meditation methods
Author: Stephen Gene Morris
Post graduate researcher of relationships between meditation and wellbeing. Decades of practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation. Teaching and research of compassionate and nondual practice. Extensive exposure to Buddhist and other spiritual systems. Training in diverse forms of psychology and reasoning.
I have just reviewed a recent (2017) meta study that pooled the results of ten research papers exploring the connection between mindfulness and stopping smoking? The headline is that there was no apparent benefit to giving up smoking attributable to mindfulness meditation.
The findings are somewhat surprising because speaking from experience, there is a very low incidence of smoking among meditators in general. It should be pointed out that the review highlighted a number of significant methodological weaknesses in the research (an unfortunate recent trend in contemplative science). However smoking cessation and meditation can be regarded as still being at the preliminary stage.
A distinction should be drawn between secular mindfulness meditation studies and traditional forms of meditation practice. Particularly where mindfulness participants are encouraged or ‘obliged’ to meditate as part of university undergraduate programmes. In traditional schools, meditation tends not to be used as a specific therapeutic intervention. Rather it offers holistic development to the meditator, enabling them to make choices about what they want to do with their lives and it hopefully supports them by providing the necessary mental surplus.
Running mindfully in the Medway towns. One day course with Stuart McLeod and Cesare Saguato. Full details at their Facebook page.
“This one-day workshop has been designed to provide a full introduction to a range of mindfulness skills and practices and their application to running. The day will be suited for beginners in both running and meditation as well as those who have experience in one or both.
Running is now one of the most popular forms of exercise in the UK, with studies suggesting a range of benefits for the health of our body and mind, such as helping to prevent obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure, and boosting sleep quality and mood.
At RUNZEN, our new workshops combine mindfulness meditation methods in movement through running, enabling the act of running to become a medium through which mindfulness can be practised and established. We believe the integration of mind-body awareness can both improve mental health and our running simultaneously for greater all-round wellbeing, which can then be brought back into our everyday life.
We will cover core themes and practices during the day – which will also act as an introduction for anyone interested in attending our four-week Mindfulness for Runners course.”
News this morning that Canterbury was successful in its bid to bring a medical school to the city has been widely acclaimed. For those that don’t know, the city is an important global centre of education. It boasts three universities, a regional further education college and a wealth of private educational institutions along with some excellent primary and secondary schools. This latest announcement underlines what a great place the city is to live and work in. Teaching meditation here feels like a privilege, there’s always new meditation students, as well as interaction with scholarly Buddhist academics and advanced practitioners.
And yet the numbers of homeless people in Canterbury has never been higher (in living memory), the inequality in living standards is shocking and there are a number of areas described as economically deprived nearby. The local NHS trust is also one of the most lowly ranked in the UK. So what is the real picture? There are opportunities and challenges everywhere, how you view where you live and the people you live with is central to your happiness and wellbeing. If you are not happy with your conditions you need to try and improve them… but the worst option is to be unhappy and not do anything about it.
This is not about blind optimism, don’t ignore the problems and issues in your community, try to contribute to the improvement of your environment. But to denigrate your conditions and to imagine the grass is always greener somewhere else won’t make you feel great with life. You need to find real positives and build upon them. One of the root causes of unhappiness that I encounter in my day to day life is the idea that the conditions aren’t right for development and progress. In reality the conditions to improve things are never perfect, it’s much more a question of making a choice rather than waiting for your problems to resolve themselves.
“find real positives and build upon them”
From the nondual perspective thinking of things constantly as better or worse builds limitations, particularly if you apply this thinking to yourself. Relatively there is no perfect time to meditate, no perfect place to meditate and no perfect meditation practice. You have to work with what you have and progress to where you want to be. If happiness is your goal, start to think about your own happiness and the happiness of others, work towards greater happiness generally and disengage with things that you know create unhappiness or harm.
Let go of resentment, abandon negativity, mov towards enduring happiness.
The rewards of nondual practice are immense, this form of meditation opens a window into a world where suffering and joy become a choice rather than mere chance. That doesn’t mean that challenges don’t arise for nondual practitioners, rather the conditions that give rise to problems, and the approaches of dealing with them are altered. Buddhist forms of meditation have defined theoretical frameworks describing the degree of non-duality in different practices. Secular meditation is a bit more problematic to explain. For students embarking on meditation for the first time, it’s essential to set realistic expectations whilst explaining how the system works.
A useful starting point is to talk about forgiveness, although we don’t teach forgiveness practice per se’, it is a useful way of describing the secular non dual approach.
How would it feel if you forgave yourself for every negative action you had ever carried out?
The idea of forgiving yourself is generally compelling for most people struggling to make sense of the world. The nondual approach take the same view of the negative actions carried out by yourself and others. But to release all regret and resentment is not to abandon common sense. Whilst you may wish to unburden yourself of negative feeling towards others, you may still be aware that certain people might not be useful to know or engage with. Forgiveness isn’t passive, it’s about giving you control. You may not be able to change how other people act but you can choose how you feel about their actions. By forgiving, you ‘let go’ of your negative emotions, you don’t forget or accept what people may have done, you just stop preciously preserving negativity in your emotional baggage.
Self forgiveness works in a similar war, if you carry around negative feelings about things you have done in the past, they don’t cease to exist. You still remember what they are but you don’t have to beat yourself up over what is passed. Learning from the past is essential for personal development, blaming oneself for past actions is not. The nondual approach is to integrate forgiveness of self and other as inseparable. The process should be liberating, one chooses to disengage from resentment and blame, not ignore unproductive or foolish behavior. Whilst there are systems that can focus on forgiveness of self or other, the nondual approach treats blame as a limitation irrespective if it focussed on self or other.
The three rules of non dual forgiveness:
Forgive completely but don’t necessarily forget, don’t repeat mistakes or permit others to engage you in a manner that’s not beneficial.
Let go of resentment, let go of blame, there are no scores to settle just lessons to learn.
Actively choose the path of sustainable happiness.
The non dual approach is neither simple nor quick but it offers the opportunity to experience life as a joyful learning experience, where you have both the right and responsibility to be happy.
Obstacles to meditation include resistance to start and a failure to continue. Perhaps meditation groups in prison can offer us some inspiration?
Ongoing institutional meditation programmes demonstrate the ability of Buddhist approaches to benefit a wide range of people, even in challenging situations. Compassion Works for All is involved in activities including the running of meditation groups in US prisons.
Cliff Plegg has been volunteering for Compassion Works for a year, his primary role is leading a monthly meditation class in an Arkansas correctional institution. In addition to teaching meditation, Cliff is also compiling a list of yoga and meditation resources that prisoners can engage with when they are released. Plegg has overcome a plenty of challenges in his own life having been diagnosed with avascular necrosis. This pattern of someone overcoming personal obstacles, then moving on to trying to help others is a pretty common theme in meditators.
So what does a volunteer meditation programme in an Arkansas prison have to do with UK meditators? Meditation is taught by different organizations in prisons around the world, some more well known than others. The universal appeal of meditation transcends geographical and cultural barriers. Meditation has an appeal which inspires both teachers and practitioners from all parts of society. Unfortunately the challenge isn’t only getting people to start a practice, but also to continue it to the point where it has a lasting effect. This ‘biting point’ of meditation is the moment at which the benefits become apparent at the level of personal experience. When someone knows something is delivering a significant and sustainable benefit, it becomes much easier to make an informed choice regarding the value of the resource.
Just one session can be enough to get a sense that meditation is a useful or interesting activity, this however may not the ‘biting point’. Only when the student understands, (however fleetingly), that they have some control over their experience of the world can the meditator pass to an intermediate level of practice. I am a great believer that all meditation is useful on some level, most of my own students have tried meditation of some informal kind before they engage with a more regular practice. But such is the hype of the meditation ‘industry’ that a casual observer might imagine that sitting on a cushion once or twice may be sufficient to unravel years of negative thinking.
The common factor between meditators in Canterbury, Rochester or Arkansas is that we all see the potential of meditation to offer us solutions for our day to day problems. Once that important first step is taken, the next goal is to establish a practice, to continue to the point of realizing what the method is able to do. I don’t take a prescriptive approach to meditation, students must want to do it and feel it’s right for them. My advice has been the same for at least a decade, if you want to meditate, find a reliable teacher (or guidance), use an authentic and appropriate method and put in the necessary effort.
I offer good wishes to Cliff Plegg and all meditators, particularly those currently incarcerated.
Biome and meditation, what you eat and drink may be exerting a strong influence on your meditation practice.
One of the biggest problems in researching the benefits of meditation is understanding the potential confounds. In essence, what factors other than the meditation method itself exert an influence on subsequent behavior. Lifestyle questionnaires normally reveal significant differences between long standing meditators and the wider population. Given the range and diversity of meditation methods available, generalisations are quite difficult . However I’d expect experienced meditators from the Buddhist schools to eat less meat and take fewer intoxicants than the wider population. There are also more subtle variations. For example, in some approaches, meditators may drink alcohol yet abstain from scallions (the food group that includes garlic and onions). Another group might have a tendency to eat meat but not consume any food after their lunchtime meal. So does this matter and if so why?
The emerging research of the human microbiota (microorganisms living in or on humans, primarily in the gut) is demonstrating an increasingly close connection between gut bacteria, health and wellbeing. This is a dynamic area of enquiry but studies have implicated gut bacteria in conditions as diverse as obesity, migraine and depression. Typically science demonstrates a correlation between gut bacteria and a particular condition. For example people that suffer from migraines tend to have different bacteria when compared to people not suffering from migraines.
The key message is that meditators should think about what they eat if they want to maximize the benefits of their meditation practice.
The early signs are that the human biome may be more influential than causal in health. Meaning that your gut flora makes it more or less likely that you will or won’t suffer from a particular condition. Our gut flora is established at birth but it is subject to changes throughout our lives. We introduce bacteria from a range of sources, primarily from what we eat and drink. So if, for example, it was discovered that bacteria associated with eating chicken was linked to depression (which it isn’t as far as I know). It would have implications for meditators working with depression.
All this won’t come as any great surprise to long standing practitioners, many of the people in my own meditation circle already think about what they eat quite carefully. The influence of the biome on human health shouldn’t really make any difference to meditators. Reliable meditation is likely to have an effect in every instance, although your practice might be strongly influenced by what you eat.
Rising loneliness and increasing social isolation can be helped by meditation
Loneliness is one of the many challenges in our daily lives. A survey by Time to Change found that 66% of adults felt that they didn’t have anyone to talk to. This news closely follows government commitments to try to tackle problems linked to social isolation, including the creation of a Loneliness Minister. Research also recently discovered that up to nine million people in the UK described themselves as “always or often lonely”.
I’m supportive of attempts to reduce suffering, the surveys draw attention to a real problem and the appointment of a Loneliness Minister should be applauded. But perhaps this is addressing symptoms rather than causes.
Most of us will feel alone at some stage in our lives but the sheer scale of the problem indicates that there is something structurally wrong here. I’m not suggesting the causes will be simple to identify or resolve but what are the underlying conditions leading to such misery? Social isolation has a number of factors both social and personal. But I would argue that declining compassion in society is a key issue in this debate. On the level of the individual we all may be part of the problem to a greater or lesser extent. Do we engage with the people around us, or create the conditions for others to appropriately engage with us? To what extent would we seek out those friends and relatives we know to be generally on their own?
The idea that meditation is the panacea that can resolve all of societies woes is I think overworked. But nondual compassion based practices are particularly good at providing a degree of perspective on self and other, even in dire circumstances. By considering isolation as a condition created by both the individual and society, solutions can manifest effortlessly. The nondual approach also offers some protection against sentimental outcomes that might make an individual feel good without improving the problem.