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.
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 spirituality a factor in better health? If so does this have implications for meditation?
In a recent article William Sears wrote about the health benefits of being on the spiritual path. He contends that religious belief may be linked to a longer and happier life as well as good all round general health. The idea is probably supported by the experience of many traditional meditation teachers. This has generally been my own experience, people that commit to meditation in a Buddhist context seem to achieve an improvement in the quality of their lives; notwithstanding their spiritual goals.
There is a particular paradox at work here, improved conditions for oneself being linked to a lessening of the attention on oneself. Most people that I have meditated with appeared to have come to meditation to achieve a particular goal, typically linked to health and wellbeing. In this regard as I become more experienced, the less attention I pay to the reasons why someone wants to meditate. I would of course hesitate to teach meditation to someone who explicitly wanted to pursue a negative goal, this fortunately has never happened. But the point is that an authentic meditation method is forgiving of a degree of selfishness. Experience has taught me that an openness to the method is the key to reaping the health and wellbeing rewards of meditation practice.
So I would generally advise people who seek the benefits of meditation to simply practice. Agonizing over the authenticity of one’s own meditation is much less productive that just meditating. Clearly if someone is seeking to enter a spiritual path a degree of understanding is necessary. But if you simply want to feel better, most of your energy should be directed towards mind not ego.
Typically a meditation master discourages students from commenting on other people’s meditation achievements. This is useful in itself but it almost certainly helps to stop self examination, as well as as the critiquing of the people you might be meditating with. As a meditation scientist I’m inclined to think this is linked to the balancing of our intrinsic and extrinsic networks. However much more importantly it’s simple to test for yourself. Try to make a point of criticizing others less for a week, see if this has an effect on your own self criticism.
Meditation for health and wellbeing are positive goals to maintain, meditating for the health and wellbeing of yourself and others may be a more effective method.
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.