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

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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.

 

Meditation for self-isolation: overcoming coronavirus fear with compassion

Meditation expert recommends compassion meditation as a way to tackle Coronavirus linked fear and anxiety. Use compassion to support wellbeing during social-isolation.

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Meditation to support self-isolation, generate wellbeing through compassion.

Follow this link if you’re looking for the online compassion meditation or other relevant resources. However, read on for more information about why compassion is essential at this difficult time.

Humans have all the necessary tools to overcome challenges, that’s self-evident from looking at our history. Not that we should underestimate the threat from Coronavirus, we must take appropriate precautions. But excessive stress and anxiety will not help us deal with difficult situations. In fact, fear is likely to undermine our ability to make good choices and may weaken our mental and physical health.

A growing body of scientific evidence supports claims that pro-social behaviours such as kindness and compassion are linked to reduced suffering. Compassion is an enduring quality present in almost all societies. Traditional meditation practices, particularly in Buddhism, are built on the foundations of kindness and compassion. This suggests that one of the worst things we can do in a time of threat is to turn inwards, to ignore the needs of others, the bigger picture.

As support for people self-isolating or anxious about the current situation, I’ve recorded a simple compassion meditation. It’s one I teach regularly and is based on a well known, traditional practice. It has been secularised so is suitable for almost everyone. It contains two of the cognitive elements central to successful meditation methods, compassion and a non-dual view. Put simply, it increases compassionate feelings for self and others.

We will be posting more free resources during these difficult times, contribute your comments below or send any questions to us here. Feel free to share our resources with anyone who is likely to benefit from them. People who feel alone, vulnerable or are self-isolating may find this kind of meditation particularly beneficial.

Compassion is the key to happiness: Just follow the science

Its seems increasingly likely that compassion meditation influences brain functions and structures able to increase happiness.

Kindness wins
Why is there an enduring link between kindness and happiness?

We live in materialistic times, many people find it hard to understand the enduring nature of compassion and kindness. Last January I saw a woman buy a young homeless guy a cup of coffee. I didn’t know either of these people although this happened close to my home. A passer-by, about the same age as the homeless man, cat-called ‘loser’ from the other side of the street. The homeless man responded with a few expletives, but the passer-by was quick to point out ‘not you, her’. It was the act of compassion that had provoked the insult!

It raised the question in my mind, why are humans compassionate, why do so many of us care about strangers, even if there is no profit to us? I don’t mean my own feelings, I worked out the benefits of compassion to me years ago. Although we all can have a bad day, at some point almost everyone feels compassion for another. People in diverse cultures from all periods of history have been shown to value altruism, it’s a universal human characteristic. The answer has to be that our brains are hard-wired towards helping others. If compassion is an enduring quality, present in different societies we can assume we’ve evolved like this.

person standing on hand rails with arms wide open facing the mountains and clouds

As humans, we can train our minds to increase or decrease our underlying mental states. Altruism and selfishness are not constants, if you watch any film or browse a website you can observe these emotions rise and fall in response to what you see. The whole social media culture of ‘liking’ and ‘not-liking’ feeds into these mental traits. The point of compassion meditation is to train those networks linked to the way we see ourselves and others. These practices have been associated with increased happiness for thousands of years. And the scientific evidence is now starting to show us why.

New psychological and neuroscience studies have found that altruism (selfless acts) are strongly correlated to reduced experience of suffering, even in cancer patients. Leading economist Richard Layard also claims, based on decades of research, that it is altruism that underpins our happiness. Although he also points out that not all forms of mindfulness or meditation may actually generate altruism. The bottom line is that considering the needs of others alongside your own, seems to make people happier. One note of caution, you can’t trick your brain. Our happiness originates in brain networks, you need to actually generate compassionate thoughts and feelings.

“If I could only do one thing to support my mental and physical health it would be compassion training. That training underpins and enriches every part of my life. It supports my relationships, my diet, my freetime my work. In the past selfishness reduced me to an army of one, competing against everyone else on earth. Compassion extended my circle of friends to include every living creature.”

Stephen Gene Morris

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

Mind wandering, compassion and happiness

Compassionate meditation appears to be linked to increased happy thoughts through mind wandering.

Mind wandering and happiness
Meditation, mind wandering and unhappiness?

Mind wandering compassion and happiness

The Science of meditation and mindfulness recently featured a study that investigated the relationship between mind wandering and how we feel. In particular can mind wandering and spontaneous thought be correlated with happiness and can meditation mediate the effects? So put simply the premise behind this study is that the more mind wandering and day dreaming you do the less happy you are likely to be. A second question asked by the study was do specific forms of meditation and mindfulness decrease mind wandering and therefore contribute to increased happiness.

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On face value this seems like an intuitive experiment, we know that abnormally high levels of mind wandering can reduce our ability to perform tasks. Further that frequent mind wandering to negative or harmful subject matter can lead to mental health issues. But this is a very complex area and one not yet fully understood. The brain nodes associated with mind wandering, the Default Mode Network (DMN) have a range of diverse functions including maintaining our autobiographical memory and making sense of ourselves in relation to the wider world. Reduced activity in the DMN is correlated to increased activity in the task focussed networks (more mind wandering means less task focus and vice versa).

“In conclusion the evidence supports the view that compassionate meditation is able to increase  a tendency to happy thoughts and positive behaviours towards self and others. “

Stephen Gene Morris

Another consideration is that mind wandering can be either a positive or negative experience. The object of mind wandering can be almost anything, a cherished memory from the past, a plan for great success in the future or worries able to generate fear and anxiety. The findings of the featured study indicated that compassion based meditation was able to reduce the negative and increase positive mind wandering in participants. The research also found that the meditators generally experienced an augmentation in  their caring behaviours.

In conclusion the evidence supports the view that compassionate meditation is able to increase  a tendency to happy thoughts and positive behaviours towards self and others.

 

Notes

Review of the study can be found here.

Header photo by Dana Tentis on Pexels.com, smiling photo by bruce mars on Pexels.com

Leading meditation master to teach in Kent

September will welcome a leading international Meditation Master to Rochester.

ringutuklurinpoche

A leading Tibetan Meditation Master, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche will be giving an evening lecture in  Rochester this September. The reknown Buddhist teacher, is a former translator to HH the 14th Dali Lama and the founder of the Bodhicharya movement

Rinpoche will be giving public lectures (open to all) on the 24th and 25th September, 7:00pm – 9:00pm, Corn Exchange, Northgate, 51-55 Rochester High Street, Kent, ME1 1LS. More details from bodhicharya-kent.org.

Most adults have nobody to talk to about problems

Rising loneliness and increasing social isolation can be helped by meditation

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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.

Mindfulness & compassion beginners weekend retreat

Mindfulness and compassion beginners retreat Kent and Sussex

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Mindfulness & Compassion Beginners Weekend Retreat (Friday 9th – Sunday 11th February 2018, Eastbourne, East-Sussex)

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.

For more details visit www.cesaremindfultherapy.com  or email info@nicoleperkinsmindfulness.com

 

Compassion and depression

Can compassion based training help with depression?

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Details of a new study involving second year medical students. Compassion training appeared to reduce feelings of depression and loneliness.

via Compassion Meditation and Depression

 

Spirituality leads to better health?

Is spirituality a factor in better health? If so does this have implications for meditation?

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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.