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.
Nicole Perkins and Cesare Saguato are running a Mindfulness Retreat in February. The venue is Gayles, a beautiful retreat centre in outstanding countryside on the South Downs in the South East of England.
Nicole and Cesare trained to teach mindfulness with Bangor University and Oxford Mindfulness Centre respectively, and are both UK Network registered teachers who run 8-week courses, talks and workshops on mindfulness. Nicole is currently completing a research PhD in compassion at King’s College London and Cesare runs a private psychotherapy practice. They are delighted to come together to offer this retreat.
Is there a relationship between selfishness and mindfulness?
A warning from the Royal College of Psychiatrists appeared in the media over the last two weeks. The College’s spirituality special interest group chair, Dr Alison Gray, has suggested that solitary mindfulness practice could lead to a tendency towards selfishness.
The idea that mindfulness or meditation could support the creation of negative emotions or increasing instability is a perfectly sensible observation to make. However it perhaps reveals how little western science really known about meditation. Two of the most important safeguards for traditional meditators are:
Beginners are typically taught by a knowledgeable teacher
Learning meditation usually takes place in an ethical framework
At one extreme, a knowledgeable teacher is someone who has meditated for thousands of hours, has accomplished the practice they teach and have many years of experience of teaching. As a starting point the student will be taught, for at least part of the time by the teacher able to offer guidance and training. If the student demonstrates a tendency to selfishness, or sentimentality the teacher will offer appropriate advice.
Secondly by meditating within an ethical framework students are given protection from a range of potential adverse reactions to working with mind, such as selfishness. Whilst traditional meditators are associated with compassion, this isn’t simply an aspirational aspect of practice, it’s also to keep the student rooted on a meaningful path. In fact there are some traditional methods for which a compassionate view is an essential per-requisite.
The idea that meditation is beneficial per se’ is at best naive’. There are accounts of mindfulness being taught to combat troops and executives working in banking and finance. What is the likely effect of mindfulness in these situations?
However there is also a technical aspect to consider. I would expect that an excessive internal or external focus to lead to the development of neural networks to reflect this focus. I have known many selfless meditators who retained very high levels of compassion after extended periods meditating alone. I am satisfied that meditating alone in itself does not create selfishness. I am minded to think that they key is in the motivation of the meditator. In a healthy adult meditator, the motivation behind the meditation practice is likely to be strengthened by the process of meditation. It is perhaps in this regard that experienced teachers refer to compassion as a ‘protection’ to the meditator.
Beginners mindfulness and compassion retreat in Eastbourne, East Sussex
I’d like to highlight two projects being run by the experienced and qualified meditation teacher Cesare Saguato.
There is a beginners weekend retreat in mindfulness and compassion based in Eastbourne from Friday 9th to Sunday 11th of February 2018. Secondly a public eight week mindfulness course that begins in Rochester on January 12th 2018.
Full information including prices and booking details can be obtained from Cesare’s own website.
An important truth about mindfulness and meditation practice
For centuries, meditation has offered a range of benefits to those that would understand and practice it. Contemporary forms of mindfulness now shows signs of providing practitioners with improvements to health and wellbeing. However the essence of meditation inevitably rests with what a meditator does with their mind, not only the method they use. This is a thorny issue that has pervaded Buddhist literature across the centuries. Traditionally meditation teachers talk about the capacity of students, the innate potential of a meditator to follow a particular method. This strongly supports the idea that there are a number of factors which can be regarded as either favorable or potentially limiting in the meditator. Among these factors motivation may be worthy of particular attention.
The majority of experimental studies of meditation I have reviewed have at least one thing in common;
not all participants receive the same level of benefit from meditation or mindfulness practice
One explanation of this from a psychological perspective is the individual differences between participants. This is the modern psychological equivalent of what Tibetan Buddhism calls capacity. However there is a characteristic of the Tibetan approach that might be able to shed light on the idea of capacity (or individual differences), it is Bodhicitta1. Progressing beyond the basic stages of meditation (in traditional Tibetan systems) is said to require a Bodhicitta motivation, a wish to use meditation to reduce suffering to self and other inseparably. This is an over simplification of course, there are hundreds of different methods among the Tibetan schools and the degree to which each teacher stresses the need for Bodhicitta is not consistent. However it’s probably reliable to say that compassion based motivation underpins access to and progress within many traditional systems.
No individual spiritual or secular tradition owns the definition of meditation or mindfulness, nor the practices that surround it. And so meditation can grow and develop into any direction demanded by human experience. On one level meditation takes place in a particular context, during a meditation class for example; this may reflect a particular view of the nature of mind and meditation. An alternatively perspective is that the same mind is present inside and outside of formal meditation in a completely integrated way. Some approaches regard meditation as a training of mental processes, effectively a form of behavioral therapy or cognitive development. Sit on a cushion, train for a period of time and acquire some new cognitive disciplines or skills. Other long standing meditation traditions take a different approach, seeing meditation leading to the development of the entire person. Tibetan traditions can also stress compassion as a necessary element for the progress of a meditator, not simply as a prerequisite of some abstract metaphysical paradigm.
We now live in conditions where one form of ‘Buddhist inspired meditation’ has been used by military personnel heading for active service, as well as by high flying business people in a corporate environment. Perhaps the terms meditation and mindfulness do not fully explain any method of meditation clearly, nor give insight into the potential of different approaches. Buddhist meditation systems have developed over centuries in the context of compassion, tolerance and loving kindness. The motivation of the practitioner in this regard is usually seen as key in the progress that they might make. Understanding practitioner motivation; why someone is meditating and what they hope to get from the experience could offer new possibilities in understanding relationships between meditation and wellbeing. But an important step for psychology and neuroscience may be to further explore how concepts like nondual compassion and Bodhicitta motivation may be able to influence the development of the meditator.