Is mindfulness a medical or spiritual practice, and does it matter?

Mindfulness comes in many forms, not all may be right for you or your health and wellbeing goals.

Is mindfulness spiritual?

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

Meditation and brain health

Meditation and brain health, the latest research urges that we prioritize dementia prevention.

Meditation and brain health
Meditation and brain health

The need to prevent dementia highlighted in latest research

The latest large scale research into dementia, Parkinson’s disease and stroke has confirmed that one in two women and one in three men will develop at least one of these diseases during their lifetime. The research offers insight into the long term health of people in their 40s. But in addition to highlighting the stark statistical probability of succumbing to neurodegeneration, the study suggests that delaying the onset of the these illness for 1 – 3 years may reduce the risk of avoiding them altogether by 20% to 50%.

It is widely recognised that a number of lifestyle factors can increase the probability of avoiding dementia. Stopping smoking, adopting a healthy diet and taking regular exercise have long been associated with improved physical and mental health. Recent scientific studies have also given the strongest indications yet that some forms of meditation might be directly reducing the rate at which a brain ages, enabling us to maintain full brain (cognitive) function for longer. We know that cognitive decline begins in our late 20s and early 30s. It will normally be visible by the age of 45. If our cognitive ability continues to shrink through middle age it can lead to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment and eventually even dementia.

“one study revealed that at the age of 50, regular meditators had brains several years younger than non-meditators”

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation

Research has shown that meditation can lead to a slowing of brain ageing and an improvement to certain brain functions such as memory and attention. Although the understanding of how meditation is able to help create new brain structure is still at a preliminary stage. There is compelling evidence that some forms of meditation are related to maintaining, and in some respects improving our brain health. Although brain training (including meditation) can reduces the risk of developing dementia it is just one of a number of things we can do to live longer healthier lives.

Keep your brain healthy; it’s the only one you’ve got

Evidence indicates that brain structure and function can be maintained and augmented through particular forms of meditation.

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Taking responsibility is the key to brain health

In recent decades psychology and neuroscience have made progress in explaining brain functions and dysfunctions. But we still know far too little about how the human brain ages. In studies linked to meditation and mindfulness the vast majority of research (I’d estimate in excess of 80%) has been undertaken with participants under the age of 25. There is some research interest in people of retirement age and with people suffering from particular health problems. But if you trawl the academic databases for investigations of the effects of meditation on people in the 30 to 65 age range you will find relatively few studies and even fewer reliable conclusions. The irony of this lack of research is that this is the age at which cognitive decline is supposed to happen (from the early 30’s onward). It’s also supposed that dementia typically starts its journey in middle age, perhaps decades before the full symptoms manifest.

A concept that can be found throughout psychology and neuroscience is ‘age related cognitive decline’; the general correlation between age and brain function/structure. It is a pretty uncontroversial idea, we all carry around the stereotype that as we get older we can expect to experience ‘senior moments’, a lowering in cognitive ability. I’m not going to dispute that this does appear to be the pattern. But my experience of meditation is that the rate of cognitive decline is flexible. I’ve seen the transformation in people’s ability to think, problem solve and remember. There is also some evidence from neuroscience to support the premise that decline in cognitive function can be influenced by a range of activities, meditation in particular. This is not to say that meditation may keep your brain forever young, rather that you have a degree of control over how your own brain ages.

Whilst certain forms of meditation do appear to be linked to improved cognitive function, the neuroscience is at a preliminary stage. It’s clear that different forms of meditation have different effects, and meditation isn’t the only thing we can we can do to influence the development of brain function and structure. It should always be considered that just as some activities appear to support brain rejuvenation, others have the opposite effect. Anyone over the age of 30 is likely to benefit from maintaining, and where possible increasing cognitive function, meditation however is a cornerstone of this process. Keeping your body in good shape takes some time, effort and commitment, this is also true of mind training

If you are interested in learning more about how meditation may be able to help keep the brain in better shape, sign up to to this blog or drop us an email. If you’d like to know more about the hard science behind meditation and brain health visit the Science of Meditation website.

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