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.
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.
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.
There’s plenty of evidence that links meditation and mindfullness to lower blood pressure, but there’s a few factors to consider.
It should not be a surprise to hear that meditation might be related to our health and wellbeing. We know, for example, stress, anxiety and anger can all increase our blood pressure and heart rate. It, therefore, follows that calming and relaxing activities might help to reduce blood pressure. Scientists have been studying the relationship between meditation and the performance of the heart and circulatory system for at least 60 years. Many scientific studies have been produced that indicates meditation and mindfulness have a calming effect. If you have a simple blood pressure monitor at home, you can test this for yourself.
However, from a scientific perspective, the problems occur when we try to repeat these experiments. Just because positive results are achieved in one scientific study, it doesn’t automatically follow that this can be scaled up to all populations. There are many reasons why in psychological experiments, an individual study may not reflect typical human behaviour. Therefore the scientific method requires that we repeat the study in different times and places to see if the same effect is evidenced in other circumstances. Within the psychological sciences, only at this point can we say that there is clear evidence.
Many of the hundreds of experiments looking at the relationship between blood pressure and meditation are individual studies, very few of which have been replicated. This doesn’t mean that meditation doesn’t lower blood pressure; I’m very confident that it does. But we need much better scientific evidence before we use it as a universal mainstream clinical treatment. There is also a second problem; it’s essential to understand how effective meditation is in lowering blood pressure in relation to other therapies. Unfortunately, many studies don’t compare the effects of meditation with any other potential treatments. For example, we know that art therapy, spending time in nature, gardening or other relaxing activities can reduce blood pressure. But we have very little data on the effectiveness of meditation compared to other potential treatments.
There are thousands of different forms of meditation, and each method can influence our mind and body in different ways. How often you practice and for how long may impact the health benefits of meditation. Your meditation teacher’s knowledge and experience are also essential, as is where you meditate and the people you meditate with. From my research, I know that achieving a lowering of blood pressure while meditating or shortly afterwards is a relatively simple effect to achieve. But to translate that short-term effects to permanent 24/7 improvements is much more problematic.
So if you are concerned about high blood pressure, you might want to talk to your doctor about the best possible course of action for you. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that meditation is likely to be a helpful tool, but the amount of benefit you receive may depend on several factors, not least what you do with your mind while you meditate.
“I’ve been meditating for seven weeks; it’s having a big effect on my mental health, I know monks meditate every day, if I meditate more often or for longer, will I see more progress?”
Consider medicalised meditation as a treatment and follow the instructions given by your health care practitioners. Spiritual meditation practice offers much more freedom but it has a spiritual rather than a wellbeing goal.
There is no simple answer to the question. Most medicalised meditation forms have been studied over relatively short periods, eight or ten weeks, for example. And three or four sessions a week is a fairly typical level of practice. Few scientific studies reliably explain the cognitive mechanisms underpinning meditation’s benefits, and we have even less data regarding the optimal frequency and duration of meditation in clinical contexts. From the scientific history of meditation and mindfulness, it appears that experiments used eight to tend week cycles of treatments on an arbitrary basis, and that has just been repeated ever since. As a starting point, you should ask your meditation teacher or Doctor to explain if more meditation is likely to be helpful in your particular case.
Although the use of meditation in a medical context assumes that most people meditate in a similar fashion and receive the same benefits, this is far from true. Individual differences are amplified during mind-training. While one person may experience little benefit, someone sitting right beside them can be transformed by the practice. Typically, in scientific studies, we average the effects of meditation across a group; this makes it hard to predict the benefits of medicalised methods in individual cases. In thinking about the frequency of meditation practise, we need to consider; the current state of your health, the particular technique you use and your overall capacity as a meditator.
Things are different when we think about spiritual-based meditation. It’s not unusual for experienced Buddhists to meditate more than once a day or for several hours at a stretch when on a retreat. But in many cases, experienced practitioners have developed their ability to meditate over many years. Secondly, they are likely to be meditating for spiritual rather than wellbeing goals. Buddhists access methods that are supported by hundreds of years of anecdotal and observational experience. A traditional meditation master may have taught tens of thousands of students. In contrast, some new forms of meditation and mindfulness have only been around for a short time, and the data supporting their clinical use may be based on studies of just a few dozen people. However, even in spiritual practice, there are occasions when too much meditation can be counterproductive.
An important distinction to make here is that traditional meditation is often regarded as a practice, which means it is not the goal. Instead, the meditation method is likely to lead to new ways of thinking more generally. Medicalised forms of meditation and mindfulness rely on the method itself as the treatment without the support of more broad-based changes to the patient’s world view.
Mindfulness comes in many forms, not all may be right for you or your health and wellbeing goals.
This is a question asked my many scientists and therapists over the last fifty years, and you can find spiritual, medicalised and blended forms of mindfulness in use today. There is also an obvious follow-up question: does it matter? The answer will depend on each person, why they wish to meditate, and what kind of method they feel more comfortable with.
In the context of meditation, mindfulness was first translated into English from the Buddhist pali term sati at the end of the 19th century by the scholar of Asian languages Monier Williams. By the 1970s, scientific research into spiritual forms of meditation was already quite advanced, and meditation scientists started investigating how spiritual meditation could improve human health and wellbeing. In the mid-1970s, psychotherapists were using Buddhist meditation in therapy sessions. Jon Kabat-Zinn took the use of meditation in psychology a stage further in 1979 when he created his own Americanised version of Buddhist mindfulness and called it Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Over the last 40 years, MBSR has been used in many different ways. The most successful application is the combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (MBCT). MBCT is now used as a low-cost group therapy to support patients at risk of relapsing into a third phase of clinical depression.
Although there are hundreds of forms of secular/medicalised mindfulness (MBIs), the scientific evidence supporting their clinical use is mixed. There are now concerns about some of the claims made by scientists for the benefit of medicalised mindfulness. If you’re thinking about using mindfulness to support your physical or mental health, you need to ask your doctor or therapist about the reliability of the method they recommend.
So how is this similar or different to spiritual or Buddhist mindfulness? Although the term mindfulness was translated from Buddhist texts, its original meanings are more complex than today’s psychological definitions. Firstly, in its original settings, mindfulness is one of eight interrelated elements, so its use in isolation fundamentally changes its psychological effect. Also, different schools of Buddhism have different ways of understanding mind and matter. For example, the meaning of mindfulness in Tibetan Buddhism may differ from Sri Lankan Buddhist insights. We should also remember that Buddhist meditation is concerned with spiritual progress, which in traditional understandings, is linked to physical and mental health. The health benefits of spiritual practice inspired the relocation of meditation to psychology. But by removing its spiritual elements, meditation changed, perhaps altering its curative potential. Comparing spiritual and medicalised meditation is complex; maybe it’s easiest to consider them similar but definitely not the same.
We know from individual research studies that there is a wide range of potential health benefits in meditation. But we don’t always understand the underlying cognitive mechanisms, and when seen collectively, the results from individual studies are not always reliable. There are thousands of different meditation methods, and even with medicalised forms such as mindfulness, recommending a practice can be problematic. Typically medicalised mindfulness is run over a relatively short period, typically eight or ten weeks. It usually is designed to tackle a specific health problem, such as depression, but rarely addresses the root causes. Spiritual based forms of mindfulness are used as holistic practices to enable progress along a path. Spiritual progression appears to be linked to wide-ranging health and wellbeing improvements, but these are not the practice’s primary goals. For people approaching mindfulness meditation for the first time, understanding your own needs and identifying the appropriate method is essential. Make sure your meditation teacher/therapist is appropriately experienced or qualified, and ask them to explain how their form of meditation works and what evidence there is for its effectiveness before you begin.
Can meditation reduce feelings of stress and anxiety? It depends if you are looking for a short term treatment or a permanent solution.
This is quite a common question asked of meditation teachers; it reveals that we have uncertainty about our ability to improve our own mental health. Stress is a complex and often bewildering area of psychology. Even today, definitions of stress, underlying cognitive mechanisms and the effects of stress are still not fully understood. So I will begin this short discussion by making a few general points. The traditional view from psychology is that stress is neutral (not necessarily negative), meaning that it is nonspecific and universal (we can all suffer from it). But each of us might react to stress in different ways. Psychology defines stress as the result of demands on the mind, body or emotions. How each of us deals with the causes of stress (stressors) is related to a wide range of factors based on our own personality, life experience and social conditions. In worst-case scenarios, stress can lead to severe physical and psychological problems. Stress can be located in four categories: i) major catastrophes, ii) significant life events, iii) micro stressors or daily challenges and iv) background stress. While we don’t react to different categories of stress in the same way, major stress causes are more likely to have serious health consequences. And minor or ambient stress is a less common cause of severe health problems. A final clarification before we start to talk about stress and meditation; our perception of stressors plays a key role in how we cope with life. In general, the less in control we feel about things that happen to us, the more likely we are to be harmed by stress. Traditional meditation places the meditator at the centre of their activity; it gives back responsibility (control) for actions and consequences to the meditator.
Based on these definitions, we can consider the role of meditation in stress management in two ways; the treatment and the cure. Meditation and mindfulness provide some support for reducing the effects of stress. However, the evidence is mixed. Scientific studies that consider the potential of meditation to cure the causes of stress are few and far between; psychology tends to consider symptoms of stress rather than root causes. Conversely, traditional forms of meditation typically create cognitive reorganisations that alter our perspective on life. Rather than merely changing the way we react to stress, these methods allow us to reconsider our relationships with society more generally; leading (potentially) to permanent solutions. Leaving aside major catastrophic events over which we have little control, how we live and think about our lives is linked to how much stress we experience. Changing how we think and how we feel is a complex and long term project, some people don’t want to challenge underlying causes of stress, they just want to be free of the health problems that stress brings. I’ve been in this position myself; it’s one of the reasons why I started to meditate. But once we gain more control over our mental health, looking for cures rather than treatments becomes natural. Finding a quick fix through medicalised forms of meditation is sometimes necessary, but a permanent or quasi-permanent cessation of health problems linked to stress requires a comprehensive understanding of the human condition.
It is an oversimplification to say that medicalised forms of meditation offer only treatment and not cure. But any health intervention that doesn’t consider the root causes of a problem is unlikely to deliver a long term solution. However, the reductionist model of human consciousness favoured by the psychological sciences is dualistic, its worldview (ontology) separates humans from their environment. By contrast, traditional meditation tends to follow a nondual holistic worldview that sees human mental states in relation to other phenomena. These opposed insights reflect a fundamental difference and one which psychology is only just beginning to consider. Traditional meditation methods aren’t for everybody, but their potential may be vital to understanding the mind and mental health. Therefore if you are thinking about using meditation to help you cope with stress, you might want to consider if you are looking for a cure or a treatment at the outset.
Does the effect of saunas and showers on mental health tell us anything new about meditation and mindfulness?
How does meditation improve mental health? A possible link between cold water swimming, saunas, meditation and depression.
I’ve recently come into contact with some exciting research linked to depression and dementia. Several academic papers suggest changes to blood circulation may positively affect mental health. A scientific study of middle-aged men who practised sauna bathing in Finland indicated they were less likely to experience dementia than peers who didn’t take saunas. A degree of support in this general direction comes from other evidence that cold showers may have a beneficial effect on depression. Over the last decade, we have also started to see claims linking open water swimming (cold water swimming) with improved mental health.
Saunas, cold showers and cold water swimming affect us in different ways, but they all share the ability to alter the body’s temperature. A rapid increase in body temperature leads to a widening (dilation) of the blood vessels, increasing the blood flow. The reverse is true when we get cold, the blood vessels become narrower, constricting the flow. We are uncertain of exactly how rapid temperature changes alter blood flow in the brain, but we can be sure it does have an impact.
So what have showers, sauna and swimming got to do with meditation? What may surprise many people is meditation can also change our heart rate and blood pressure. Since the beginnings of the scientific investigation of meditation, both physiological and psychological effects have been visible. If we go back to the 1930s, the first studies of meditators using electroencephalographic (EEG) technology observed changes to alpha waves in the brain. However, by the 1950s, scientists looked at a much more comprehensive range of changes in meditators, such as the lowering of heart rate blood pressure and increases in skin conductivity. So from its earliest origins, contemplative science has recognised that practising meditation can lead to physical changes correlated with our mental states.
There is no question that meditation acts differently compared to physical activities in warm or cold environments. But we may find, coincidentally, that cold water swimming, saunas and meditation can all lead to fluctuations in blood flow to the brain.
The term meditation is imprecise; there are, of course, thousands of different meditation and mindfulness methods. Each distinct method is likely to have a particular effect on your mind and body. Rather like physical exercise, mind-training will make most of us ‘fitter’ but not in the same way and at the same rate. So when we think about physical and mental changes from meditation, we should always be mindful of not overgeneralising. But even with the limited evidence available, there is a case to argue that circulatory changes during meditation may be linked to improved mental health. And that other activities like open water swimming may possess a similar potential to mediate mental states and traits through changes to blood flow.
The secret to better meditation. It’s much closer to home than you realise!
The influence of your physical environment on the quality of your meditation is an under-researched area. All the time that neuropsychology struggles to demonstrate what meditation is and how it works, the impact of your meditation environment will remain a secondary issue for scientists. But there is a risk that this creates a ‘catch 22’ situation in research, where failing to attend to the meditation environment contributes to inconclusive results. So let me draw your attention to the importance of your meditation space. Looking across the psychological evidence, there is every reason to assume, where, when and why you meditate are just as important as the method you use. Scientific studies from educational psychology have demonstrated that the place where you learn is correlated to your academic progress. As medicalised meditation has been reduced to simple mind-training, there is every reason to see this as a useful comparison with modern meditation and mindfulness.
On a practical level, I can tell you that when I created a calm and appropriate meditation space in my small house, the benefits from my practice multiplied. If someone has a very high or very low motivation to meditate, the room they choose to practice in rarely matters. But for the 95% of people who have ’normal’ levels of motivation, factors such as ambience, quality of method and teacher reliability become directly linked to the success of the practice. So what do you need to think about?
My first principle of meditation is to always to find a reliable teacher; someone who will be able to instruct you on all matters, including where and with whom to meditate. But there are a few principles that everyone working with meditation should consider. In all probability, few people have a perfect space to meditate in, so the chances are you will have to think about creating one. From the options you have available to you, where does your practice work best? From this starting point, you must pay particular attention to this space; it can be a spare bedroom or a corner of your own bedroom. Exclude all physical and mental obstacles to your meditation practice from that space. Create the best possible sensory experience, no bad smells, distracting noises or unpleasant images. Ensure you keep your mind stable whenever you are in the space, even if you are not meditating. In this way, you build up supportive embodied cognition; this means that when you sit down on the cushion there, your mind is already ‘in the zone’.
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