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.

 

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

Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of dementia

#Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of #dementia. If you suffer from moderate or high levels of anxiety act today!

Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of dementia
Could anxiety in your middle years make you more vulnerable to dementia

Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of dementia

It is no surprise that anxiety at any age is not good for you, anyone that has experienced strong feelings of anxiousness knows how unpleasant they can be. But the recent revelations that there is a proven link between anxiety in middle aged and late onset dementia is shocking news. Details of research published at the BMJ Open website describe how over an interval of a decade, midlife anxiety is linked to increased risk of dementia.

“The main point is to protect yourself from increased risks of developing late stage dementia”

Stephen Gene Morris

smiling man holding woman s left shoulder
Choose happiness, why not?

There are three issues that jump out of the report for me. Firstly that medium and strong forms of anxiety are dangerous, they should carry government health warnings. If you suffer from anxiety don’t let this report worry you further, take it as a sign that it’s time to do something. Secondly I don’t like the ten year interval between the reported anxiety and a diagnosis of dementia. It suggests that day to day living doesn’t return brain function and structure to ‘normal’ after strong bouts of anxiety, we don’t automatically recover from the wear and tear. But on a more positive note the study describes anxiety as a ‘modifiable risk factor’. That means you can probably do something about it!

Anxiety is not the only lifestyle or behavioral factor associated with dementia but the science shows it does matter.  So if you suffer from anxiety what can you do? Firstly take action to roll back the behaviours that lead to medium and strong forms anxiety. As someone who has suffered with this condition I know that is easier said than done, but at least acknowledge that you need to do something. Meditation was the intervention that worked for me, compassionate meditation! It might seems strange I know, but by generating compassion I gradually dissolved almost all of the strong anxiety I had. The main point is to protect yourself from increased risks of developing late stage dementia. Your solution doesn’t have to be linked to meditation, but if you only do one thing today plan to reduce your levels of anxiety.

 

Stephen Gene Morris is a meditation teacher and trained scientist, he has taught meditation to hundreds of students of all ages. If you’d like to attend a class or take part in an online session get in touch. Sign up to the free newsletter  for all the latest brain health news and help.

 

Notes

Header photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.com, embrace phots by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com