Whilst there is a general sense that meditation and mindfulness are always good for your health, it all depends on you.
One of the main weaknesses of the movement to medicalise Buddhist meditation is the creation of the myth that meditation and mindfulness are ‘one size fits all’ health interventions. To address the question, I have to separate meditation and mindfulness into two separate categories, traditional meditation and modern forms of mindfulness.
While mindfulness meditation is widely regarded as a cure-all, it has only been approved for clinical use in the UK for one instance, the use of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for people in danger of a third relapse into clinical depression. That doesn’t mean that all other forms of mindfulness are not beneficial, just that they haven’t been proven so by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence’s (NICE) exacting standards. So if you’re thinking about practising mindfulness for a specific health issue, you’d be wise to ask the teacher what the practice will achieve and about the scientific evidence to support the claims.
Most forms of traditional Buddhist meditation haven’t explicitly been designed as health or wellbeing treatments. However, there is a presumed relationship between spiritual health, physical health, and mental health in many Buddhist communities. In the Mahayana Buddhist schools, there are literally thousands of different meditation practices; many are not suitable for beginners or as therapies for mental or physical health problems. However, most appear to be correlated with resilience; once we practice them regularly, we may be less vulnerable to life’s ups and downs. Several of the most popular of these meditation methods, such as some simple mantra or compassion meditations, are generally regarded as being safe for anyone to learn. For more information, you need to ask a qualified Buddhist meditation teacher, describing your needs and your meditation goals. It’s also always appropriate to ask a meditation teacher how a meditation method works and if it is suitable for you.
A final point, Tibetan Buddhism also contains healing meditation methods; but these have rarely been investigated by cognitive psychology. Anecdotal evidence suggests these practices have great healing potential, but they are typically only suitable for practising Buddhists, an experienced Buddhist teacher will be able to give you more information.
Meditation can support your New Year’s resolutions. This relationship also highlights the importance of motivation and perseverance in mind training.
Motivation is central to meditation success
As we approach the end of the year, the nights start to draw out in the Northern hemisphere, and we begin to look forward to the springtime. This is the time of year when thoughts turn to new starts and resolutions. The concept of making commitments for renewal and development at the turn of the year comes down to us through Babylonia via Rome. The Babylonians made solemn promises to make good debts; a practice echoed later by Romans who pledged to the god Janus (January) to make positive changes in the New Year.
From a psychological perspective, the idea of changing established patterns of behaviour on a particular date is challenging. If we seek to stop or alter activities that have become routine for us, a long-term approach is likely to be more effective than an ‘all or nothing’ New Year’s resolution. Behavioural patterns are based on structure and functions in brains; merely saying ‘I’m going to change’ doesn’t alter the long-term cognitive conditioning we are all subject to. This fact of neuroscience is the main reason why around 80% of all New Year’s resolutions fail within six weeks.
Meditators following traditional methods are continually working to change behaviours. Rarely does the practice of starting to meditate bring instant results. It is a continual and evolving process where progress occurs over time. It is these principles of motivation and perseverance that characterise the journey of a meditator. If we applied the idea of progressive change rather than a ‘win or lose’ mentality to our resolutions, we would see a greater probability of success (science and Buddhist knowledge concur on this point). Although researchers of meditation and mindfulness rarely consider motivation and perseverance, they are essential characteristics in the success of traditional meditation training.
The New Year is a great time to take stock and make plans for the future; however, it is long term strategies that most likely to lead to lasting change. It’s unnecessary to start meditating if you just want to lose weight or give up smoking, but the knowledge accumulated in thousands of years of human engagement with meditation can provide useful help.
How to practice compassion meditation, an explanation of how it works and a description of its benefits.
Some of the greatest health benefits come from compassion.
If you are looking for an introduction to compassion meditation but don’t know where to start, you might benefit from this brief guide. I recorded the video during the first lockdown in 2020. I created it for people who are newcomers to compassionate meditation or who want a primer to nondual methods. Although this practice is based on Buddhist mind-training, I have adapted it as a modern secular practice. In common with all the meditation methods I teach, it is consistent with reliable teachings and supported by the latest evidence from neuropsychology.
This is an introductory training video as well as a guided meditation. Here I offer explanations of what the practice is, how to start and what to expect. If this is your first time, listen to the whole explanation, when you are confident with the method, you can simply follow the meditation and cut out the preamble. Please note; for brevity, I have edited out long sections of my meditation. If you want to use this resource as a guided meditation, you can go straight to the meditation and pause the clip when the practice begins; restarting when you come to a natural break in your own meditation. To get the full health and wellbeing benefits of the method, you will need to develop a clear insight into how the mind training works.
From my personal experience and the accounts of my students, this can be a life-changing practice. But its full effects take time to emerge, three times a week, over three months is a productive medium-term meditation goal. However, you should get immediate short term wellbeing benefits from just one focussed twenty-minute session. Expect to feel uplifted, happier and calmer from the first practice.
As a nondual meditation, this is a preliminary practice; once the results are obtained you may wish to seek, more complex methods to develop further. Always use reliable methods and the guidance of an accomplished teacher.
Early benefits that my students or I have experienced as a result of this practice are:
Significantly reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a general feeling of increased well being.
Lower levels of stress and anxiety
Boosted energy levels, movement away from passive activities and lifestyle.
Perception of positive relationships and interconnectivity with others
Increased self-efficacy, less uncertainty in professional and personal matters
Improved concentration and focus
A stronger sense of happiness and a more fulfilling experience of life
The key to compassionate meditation is to remember mind training is all about your mind. How you sit and breathe, where you meditation and who with are all secondary. The practice is about creating new and improve compassionate function and structure in your brain; you can’t fake it. A good teacher and/or method are essential. As always email us if you have any concerns. You are welcome to post your thoughts and experiences below.
There is growing interest in compassion based meditation and mind training, but what is it and does it work?
From the perspective of cognitive psychology, the term compassion is poorly defined and chronically under-researched. So at the outset, a priority is to explain what is meant by ‘compassion’. For many years I have been using a popular definition linked to Buddhist meditation from the Tibetan traditions:
Compassion: may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering
This explanation fits my understanding, my meditation goals and is consistent with what I have learned for the cognitive and neuropsychological evidence. A second clarification; I only practice the nondual forms of compassion meditation. There are other (dualistic) approaches that may be more appropriate or desirable for beginners. In this narrow context, and thinking in relative terms, nondual compassion is the wish that all (self and other) don’t suffer. The majority of medicalised meditation methods are dual, primarily focussed on self or other. I have extensive experience of compassion for other practice, with a reliable method and teacher they can be very beneficial. Meditation based on compassion only for self (self-compassion) is an approach I don’t have direct experience with, and it’s not something I would personally recommend.
In common with many meditation systems studied by psychology (including mindfulness), the scientific evidence for compassion meditation is mixed. However, this weakness reflects theoretical and methodological limitations in the way we understand meditation rather than the utility of compassion-based mind training. A recent strategic review of the evidence found that compassion meditation increased feelings of compassion, self-compassion, mindfulness and well-being. It also reduced the sense of depression, anxiety and psychological distress.1
From a personal perspective, I have experienced (and expect to see in my students) several changes related to regular (nondual) compassionate practice.
Lower levels of stress and anxiety often reflected in physiological changes such as lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a general feeling of increased well being
Increased energy levels and a greater sense of one’s potential
Awareness of positive relationships and interconnectivity with others
Improved sleep patterns (not necessarily longer but definitely better)
A greater sense of self-efficacy in professional and personal matters
Better levels of concentration and focus
Increased tolerance towards and concern for others
A greater sense of proportion, unimportant matters tend not to increase stress and anxiety
A stronger sense of happiness and a more fulfilling experience of life
The key to compassionate meditation is to remember mind training is all about your mind. How you sit and breathe, where you meditation and who with are all secondary. The practice aims to create new and improve compassionate function and structures in your brain; you can’t fake it. A good teacher and/or method are essential.
As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.
Kirby, J. N., Tellegen, C. L., & Steindl, S. R. (2017). A meta-analysis of compassion-based interventions: Current state of knowledge and future directions. Behavior Therapy, 48(6), 778-792.
Meditation and mindfulness can help to improve your sleep, but don’t allow them to hide or minimise an underlying problem.
Sleep-related problems are frequently a reason why people start meditation classes or ask me for advice. The reasons why our sleep is disturbed are many and varied, and although it’s hard to give general advice, regular meditation often leads to improved sleep. The key term to note is ‘improved’ rather than ‘longer’. We know that almost half of people over 50 experience some kind of sleep problem; for many a chronic sleep condition can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems.1 The good news is that meditation has been shown to help, but it does depend.
As a general principle, improved relaxation is correlated with better sleep; we all know that restlessness and agitation, particularly at bedtime, can make it hard for us to ‘drop off’. So at this most fundamental level, some regular meditation is likely to lead to a more relaxed state, and when the practice is established, better sleep patterns. But one of the critical differences between medicalised and traditional forms of meditation is the notion of ‘cure’ and ‘treatment’.
If you’re not sleeping, it’s often linked to other factors, such as an underlying health problem, stress from work or relationship issues. While meditation can make a difference, the actual solution to the problem might also rest in some clearer thinking. So the first question for you to resolve is why aren’t you sleeping? If you can go some way to answering this, it will make a big difference to the kind of meditation practice you should use. For example, if work-related stress is a root cause, you might want to tackle this as well as meditating for better sleep. Similarly, if you have a health problem that’s limiting your sleep, tackle that issue as well as thinking about meditation. Don’t use meditation to mask other issues.
Based on the feedback I receive, meditation usually helps people get better sleep, but there are typically several issues at play. For example, after undertaking an evening practice, I encourage students not to spend too much time on social media or watching TV. If you discover that engaging with social media at bedtime limits your sleep, you might wish to change that habit in addition to meditating.
In traditional meditation systems, there are practices linked to sleep and dreaming, but their role is to support the meditator in personal and spiritual development. It’s also not unusual to see more experienced meditators have less hours but better quality sleep, from the physiological perspective this makes sense although there are few scientific studies in this area.
As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.
1 Black, D. S., O’Reilly, G. A., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. C., & Irwin, M. R. (2015). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA internal medicine, 175(4), 494-501.
Can meditation increase your lifelong happiness? The answer is yes but some methods are more helpful than others.
Throughout the Western industrialised world, we have more psychological data than ever before, yet many nations are experiencing declining levels of happiness, particularly among young people. In the UK, as many as 25% of young women demonstrate signs of clinical depression. In the USA happiness scores, have been on a downward trend for decades. However, despite the importance of happiness, psychological understanding of the concept is limited. In particular, a paradox exists between our individual experience and scientific models. Experimental psychology uses objective measures to establish levels of happiness/unhappiness in groups of people. In reality, the happiness of everyday life is a unique and personal phenomenon. Several scientific studies have demonstrated the potential of modern mindfulness to influence happiness, but there’s almost no replicated evidence that the effects are permanent or long-lasting. Conversely, many traditional forms of meditation do not have the inbuilt paradox because there are not based on a dualistic world view; their goal is to address the long term causes of unhappiness rather than just the symptoms.
Traditional meditation is essentially nondual in nature; it allows an individual to mediate their own happiness. Medicalised or psychologised forms of meditation are dualistic, aggregating individual experience and thus categorising the world’s population into archetype models of human behaviour. Although this dichotomy is a limiting factor in meditation research, it’s not new to psychology. William James raised the question over a century ago; noting that observing a psychological phenomenon is not the same as the experience of that phenomenon. Meditation research is still wrestling with this problem; how can individual experience be understood using generalised measures? The obstacle of generalisability occurs because of the ontological nature of psychology; it is based on positivism, which is dualistic. It allows the artificial separation of people from their lived experience. Traditional meditation methods are generally nondual, so it seeks to address the problems encountered by people without reference to abstract, generalised models.
If we continue to emphasise treating symptoms rather than causes of unhappiness, there is a risk that chronic unhappiness will become normalised. Such a process might lead to sections of the population fluctuating between chronic and acute sadness for their whole lives. For people experiencing critical mental health problems, immediate action is necessary and desirable. But if we don’t attend to the underlying causes, we risk creating a treadmill of relative despair. For thousands of years, meditation has been used as a life-changing technology rather than a psychological bandaid. Despite the rise of meditation interventions within psychology, there are almost no operational models of traditional meditation describing their theoretical frameworks. This lack of understanding means that we still don’t know how traditional meditation works despite the publication of over 7,000 scientific studies during the last 80 years. Therefore the curative potential of spiritual types of meditation is still hidden from psychology.
Traditional meditation typically seeks to cure problems, to offer permanent solutions. By comparison, medicalised forms of meditation target a symptom rather than a cause, allowing new symptoms to manifest over time. These ideas of permanent and temporary solutions are central to the differences between nondual and dual forms of meditation. In psychological sciences, we tend to think about people from an objective perspective, even though we know mental health and human consciousness are, by their nature, subjective. Trying to understand the personal subjective experience by generalised objective measures is problematic on many levels.
Researchers have been aware of this issue for several decades. When Ruut Veenhoven considered if happiness was relative in 1990s, his conclusions suggested that processes may have commonality but individual circumstances play an important role.
Happiness in the sense of life-satisfaction depends only partly on comparison, and even standards of comparison do not fully adjust to circumstances.
Veenhoven, Ruut. “Is happiness relative?.” Social indicators research 24, no. 1 (1991): 1-34.
Unfortunately, psychology is still a long way from understanding what happiness is and how it is regulated. Medicalised meditation methods generally fall within this paradigm. Earlier this year Jennifer De Paola, Wolfgang Wagner, Anna-Maija Pirttilä-Backman and Josetta Lehtonen published a study researching understandings of happiness among Finnish Women. Their findings reflect some universal truths about how psychology evaluates human behaviour. Observing happiness is not the experience of happiness; this is an area of contrast between traditional and modern understandings of the mind. The failure of science to recognise the real-world importance of the subjective is visible in medicalised forms of meditation.
The two take away points from this short discussion are i) psychology’s understanding of happiness is at a preliminary stage and that, ii) traditional knowledge systems have a much more holistic appreciation of the human experience. It is precisely for these reasons that I usually recommend traditional meditation methods for people who are looking for solutions rather than treatment. Modern methods could harness the health and wellbeing potential of Buddhist forms of meditation. But first meditation scientists need to take a more systematic approach to the study of Eastern non-positivist models of meditation and mind.
As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.
Many scientists claim that mindfulness is both a ‘non-judgemental’ approach and holds congruence with Buddhist forms of meditation. Are these two positions mutually exclusive?
Mindfulness has attracted sustained criticism from within the scientific community over the last few years. Claims that the science supporting mindfulness lacks a reliable evidential base are growing. In addition, religious scholars1 and traditional meditation practitioners have discussed the implications of the lack of judgement or ethical frameworks, closely associated with some mindfulness practices.
In a recent article2 a leading Buddhist teacher from the Tibetan Nyingma tradition, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, has stressed the need for meditation to be seen in a relevant ethical context. Rinpoche talks about not ‘blindly meditating’, that our meditation should be directed by study and understanding. Although these points are being made from a Buddhist perspective, their relevance can apply to both secular and spiritual meditation practices. Psychologically speaking, meditation and mindfulness are simply forms of brain training, changes in behaviour leading eventually to functional and structural modifications in the brain. So if your meditation practice is based on reducing judgement of the reality of your day to day life, this is likely to be the result of the practice. Developing an understanding of why you are meditating and what it means in the real world, ensures your practice has direction and is relevant to you.
“We can’t just blindly meditate”
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche
Practicing with forms of meditation that lack any coherent ethical or judgemental context may lead to a reduction of reasoning and introspection, two functions linked to essential intrinsic network activity in the brain. Whilst it can be acknowledged that non-judgemental practices are common in Buddhism, they are always set within a wider ethical framework. The points Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche made, are consistent with my own understandings of the science of mindfulness and meditation. That self-transformation (the goal of meditation technologies), requires a sound theoretical framework to be successful. A sound theoretical framework would include an explanation of our being (the ontology that supports meditation) and an understanding of the effectiveness of the methods used (epistemology).
There are no restrictions of the forms of meditation that can be created and practiced, and there is evidence that mindfulness may be able to deliver some benefits. But based on the available data, it may be that meditation practices that are not embedded in stable frameworks might deliver unpredictable results. Not simply because ethical frameworks are in some way morally advantageous, but for the reason that they create the conditions where the practice becomes embedded in both the meditation student and the real world. I would suggest that anything less, risks strengthening dualistic concepts rather than weakening them.
1King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham.
Student mental health is in decline, financial pressure on undergraduates is a key issue. Meditation and mindfulness may be able to help.
Students are increasingly calling upon mental health and counselling support while at university according to Open Access Government1. Almost 9 out of 10 students are experiencing stress, and 3 out of 4 report feelings of anxiety. The proportion of students identifying as having a mental health condition grew five-fold in the last decade.
The exact reasons for the spiralling rates of poor mental health amongst students are unclear. However, because of the universality of the problems, widespread trends in society are likely to have a mediating role. Amongst the factors thought to be contributing to these high levels of stress, financial pressures play a prominent role. With more student taking on unprecedented levels of debt at a young age, there is inevitably a greater risk to mental health. Worry about student debt can lead to increased anxiety, linked to both academic performance and long term employment prospects.
The thought of having to pay back a large student loan can translate to increased pressure on individual assignments, ‘to pay back the loan I will have to get a well-paid job, for which I will need to get good grades’. Put simply, for some students, success in their undergraduate studies can appear to be absolutely essential for life long success. Given, the cost of buying a home, decreasing job security, worsening employment conditions, some undergraduates are experiencing a heightened fear of failure. Fear not only linked to their grades but the prospect of long term debt, low wages, and general financial insecurity.
When academic stress provokes a sense of challenge it is typically seen as a good thing, linked to self-efficacy and a sense of competence and achievement. However, if stress becomes a threat, a whole range of different mental constructs engage which can include fear and anxiety. A review of the evidence from cognitive psychology provides clear indications of how meditation and mindfulness can be used to develop resilience to stress in higher education, improving wellbeing and quality of life.
Students reporting mental health and wellbeing issues had risen fivefold before the Covid pandemic. Can #meditation help hold back the tide?
There was growing evidence that young people’s mental health and wellbeing in the UK was in decline long before COVID. This problem is particularly pronounced among students in higher education (HE). According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)1, the proportion of university students reporting a mental health condition grew five-fold in the last decade. However, studies from cognitive psychology and contemplative science have started to signpost approaches that offer support for students dealing with anxiety, stress, procrastination, and motivation.
Not unsurprisingly, problems with mental health and wellbeing can profoundly impact students’ ability to perform academically and their willingness to complete their chosen course of study. Serious mental health problems are rarely restricted just to academic matters and can influence all areas of life. In some universities, 25% of the total student body has engaged with or are waiting to access wellbeing services.
From a scientific perspective, there is a range of mixed messages coming from meditation research. There are individual studies that suggest meditation or mindfulness can have a positive impact on specific mental health and wellbeing issues. Still, regrettably, the results are rarely replicated or strongly supported by strategic reviews. However, by approaching student mental health using instruments from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, some straightforward strategies for using meditation and mindfulness emerge. These centre mainly on understanding the known constructs that underpin obstacles to successful engagement with HE.
Although every student is different and the challenges each faces is unique, the science indicates there are common factors to many of the academic obstacles they face. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the same meditation is beneficial for every student. But an appropriate method (one able to tackle their underlying problems) is likely to bring some benefit leading to a more positive engagement with academic work and improve all-round wellbeing.
“Training in mindfulness, like anything needs to be consistent to bring results and that’s what a structured eight week course, complete with group work and individual home practice is designed to do. It is perfect for those who are completely new and those looking to commit more to their current practice with the support of the course, the group and an instructor.
The course will provide you with the opportunity to learn a combination of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Cognitive Therapy techniques, through formal and informal practices that can be easily integrated into your daily life, including mindfulness of eating, breath, bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, sounds and movement, as well as a number of other positive psychology techniques and thought experiments that support the process.”