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.

 

The only bad meditation is…

By definition the best meditation is the one that you do. Those you miss are unlikely to bring any benefit.

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Sleeping meditation?

Probably one of the oldest clichés in the meditators’ handbook but as true today as it ever was…

“The only bad meditation is the one you don’t do”

I should say at the outset, no personal criticism is intended, many meditators struggle with motivation even after many years of practice. People must be free to choose to meditate or not. However as a long standing meditator and teacher of meditation, the most common reason why people fail to achieve their meditation goals is a lack of perseverance. On occasion even the most motivated practitioner sustains their practice just by ‘pushing through’. I have heard highly regarded teachers say that meditation should always be a joyful experience. Whilst I’d generally agree with this, the joy is often more palpable at the end of meditation rather than the beginning. I can’t think that I have ever once regretted sitting on the cushion; but I have felt inertia, and apathy before I started. The point is… how do you create the meditation habit if not by meditating?

Like many useful maxims this saying can be understood on different levels. The outer understanding is that without effort, any skill or expertise is unlikely be accomplished. It is not intended to suggest that all meditation brings great benefit and that meditation will always be a sublime experience. Rather it stresses that meditation is a practice, an activity which improves through repetition. By lengthening the intervals between repetition the effectiveness of the practice is weakened, like most things in life.

There is a second level of understanding, that without overcoming distraction or laziness meditation will never be mastered. In one sense meditation is the practice of maintaining either focus or non engagement. The failure to meditate because of distraction can be thought of as the failure of the meditation practice itself.

Another point to consider,  particularly for experienced meditators, is the clinging to a sense of good or bad meditation or good or bad conditions to meditate. This is perhaps my  problem, a bad day at work, setbacks with my research, domestic disturbance and the conditions for meditation feel less than auspicious. However time and again it’s these difficult moments that meditation provides the greatest support with. And yet the ego still wants to negotiate, give it a miss today then meditate twice tomorrow or I am too tired, too stressed or too demotivated. And yet years of meditation have taught me that my practice is one of the few activities that increases my energy levels, lifts the spirit and provides the clarity to overcome my obstacles.

This is perhaps the challenge I’d offer to anyone who has meditated for more than a couple of months? If you  know that meditation helps you overcome obstacles why would you let obstacles stop you meditating? Clearly if you feel that meditation generally doesn’t give you any great benefit it would be pointless to continue. But if you (like most of us) actually feel that practice is useful why stop? Is it that there is something compelling on the TV, on your diner plate or on your mind?  Were these the very reasons why you came to meditation in the first place?

I’m not a great believer in resolutions, however it is the time of year when one can find the motivation to abandon activities that have proven to be meaningless and return to practices that have something meaningful to offer.

 

May all the beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.

How much does science know about meditation?

The idea that a meaningful understanding of meditation can be reached through scientific research alone is being challenged.

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Meditation Brings Benefits Outside of Practice

Evidence of a lasting impact of meditation

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As the body of research into meditation grows, the evidence of the actual effect of meditating increases. Western science rarely provides clear evidence of causality, particularly when it comes to understanding complex human behavior such as meditation. However there are a significant number of studies that document a relationship between meditation and brain activity.

In 2012 a study was carried out into the effects of meditation (mindfulness and compassion methods) that had a direct effect on the response of a part of the brain called the amygdala to emotional stimuli. The headline findings from this study are that the changes to the amygdala response were measured while people were not meditating, meaning that the effects of an eight week meditation programme were experienced outside of meditation practise. Meditation had been able to exert an influence on people’s brains during a non-meditative state.

More details of this study at Science Daily.

 

A crisis in mental health; can meditation help?

Can meditation impact on growing mental health challenges facing society?

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Although Meditation for Health doesn’t specifically offer therapeutic interventions, I am mindful that many of the people who meditate with us are looking for a solution to one or more issues. I started to meditate for this very reason. It was only after seeing the effect meditation had on my own mental health that I decided to graduate first as a psychologist and subsequently take postgraduate studies in cognitive psychology and neuropsychology.

The last few months have seen very worrying data coming from the UK. A study from Liverpool University published recently had a headline finding that 1 in 4, 14 year old females are showing signs of depression. Childline reported a 15% year on year increase in contact with young people with suicidal thoughts. Manchester University found steep rises in identified cases of self harm in girls between 13 and 16 (although the data may be influenced by GPs being better able to see the signs of self harm – but there was no recorded increase among younger and older females!).

The actual mental health of young people and the long term implications of these studies (should the findings prove to be robust) is very worrying. In the UK we have an ageing population living longer, we can expect to have significant increases in the numbers of people with long term chronic health problems. We know about the implications of obesity in terms of impact on population health. If there is a decline in the mental health of young people, and a lowering of resilience generally it suggests very challenging times for society in the years ahead.

As a long term meditator I’m certain that meditation can offer some answers. However it’s hard to imagine that it could play a significant role in children as young as 10 and 11. There are also some other concerns, removing the spiritual dimension from traditional forms of meditation, such as mindfulness, may strip meditation of some of its long term wellbeing potential. In particular separating meditation into systems that benefit self or other may be deconstructing the very qualities that drew psychologists towards traditional forms of meditation practice in the first place. The disconnection of concepts such as, self and other, subject and object, needs to be studied much more closely if secular forms of meditation are to fulfill their full potential.

(Copy of an answer originally posted to Research Gate on 24/10/17)

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