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 in the last decade. Yet there is evidence that specifically designed meditation and mindfulness methods can help.
There is growing evidence that the mental health and wellbeing of young people in the UK is in decline. This pattern 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 able to offer support for students dealing with issues such as anxiety, stress, procrastination, and motivation.
Not unsurprisingly, problems with mental health and wellbeing can have a profound impact on a student’s 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, as many as 25% of the total student body has engaged with or are waiting to access wellbeing services1.
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, but 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 clear 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.”
Katy Perry and how she used meditation to deal with anxiety and stress.
Katy Perry meditation and anxiety
In a Newsweek feature from earlier this year Katy Perry revealed in detail how she uses meditation to deal with stress and anxiety. Katy is not the only celebrity to talk openly about the role of meditation in their challenges of day to day living. She has also spoken and written about meditation on numerous occasions. The internationally recognised singer makes some crucial points about meditation reported by the article, in particular that we have to invest in our brain health. While some people may be resilient enough never to suffer from mental health difficulties this is not the common experience. Research is showing that increasing numbers of young people are suffering from depression, and the ranks of adults with dementia is set to double over the next 30 years.
“Brain health impacts on all aspects of our mind and body, meditation is one of the most reliable methods we have to maintain and improve brain function and structure.”
Stephen Gene Morris
Katy goes beyond using meditation to simply cope with her busy life, declaring that the stillness she finds in practice gives her greater mental and physical strength, and enables her to realise her ‘authentic self’. She uses meditation based breathing exercises to gain some instant relief when she feels anxious. According to the report, the particular form of meditation favoured by Katy is Transcendental Meditation (TM), a method brought to the West from India over 60 years ago. Anxiety and stress can impact on different people in different ways and one form of treatment may not suit everyone. But there is growing anecdotal and scientific evidence that regular forms of meditation can have profound and long lasting effects on both stress and anxiety.
If you’d like to attend a meditation class, receive 1 to 1 training, or engage with online meditation guidance get in touch.
Newsweek feature can be found here. Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com
Compassionate meditation appears to be linked to increased happy thoughts through mind wandering.
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.
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.
How to reduce stress and blood pressure. meditation and mindfulness linked to promising results
How to reduce stress and blood pressure
I estimate there have been up to 15,000 peer reviewed studies linked to meditation and mindfulness published over the last 40 years. They have offered all kinds of academic and scientific insight. Many claim to signpost potential health and wellbeing breakthroughs, but few are actually replicated (repeated) sufficiently to be regarded as clinically reliable. However I recently came across a study carried out at the Massachusetts General Hospital that offers some interesting evidence that meditation might be able reduce both stress and blood pressure.
In a randomised trial one half of the participants followed an eight week course of mindfulness meditation, the other half engaged with traditional stress management training, coupled with some lifestyle advice. At the end of the experiment some members of the mindfulness group were found to have lower levels of the adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) stress hormone than the control group (stress hormones can be correlated with high blood pressure). The meditation group also performed better in a mock interview and test scenario specifically designed to raise stress levels. Thereby indicating that mindfulness meditation led to ‘real world’ benefits. In a third finding the meditation group also had a reduced inflammatory reaction to stress, a possible factor linked to Type 2 diabetes.
This investigation offered the first immunological and hormonal data that mindfulness meditation may be able to boost resilience to stress. Some parts of the media hailed this study as a breakthrough. I’m a little more cautious but clearly if we see other experiments achieving the same findings it provides import insights into low cost and effective treatments for stress. However the popularity of mindfulness means that most participants are likely to know something about the reputed effects of meditation ahead of going into a trial, raising concern about the reliability of data derived from these kinds of studies.
Meditation and mindfulness can offer great benefits but many people fail to engage with the practice, here are some simple rules.
Looking for the three secrets to meaningful meditation?
Traditionally obtaining long lasting results from meditation practice can take years. Famously H.H. the Dalai Lama advised Buddhist meditators to assess their progress over a five year period. This kind of long term investment challenges modern notions of what self transformation might be and how quickly individuals should expect to reach their meditation goals. As such both new and experienced meditators are increasingly looking for help, advice and tips to allow them to maximize the time they spend in meditation. As an experienced meditation practitioner, teacher and now researcher, I have reviewed much of the published evidence to offer you the three secrets of meditation.
The three secrets to successful meditation and mindfulness
Do some research – understand your goals, find a reliable method and teacher.
Start – unless you start you won’t get anywhere.
Keep going – perseverance is probably the most important quality needed in a meditator.
At first sight it might seem that these three ‘secrets’ are generic and not really that helpful, however just pause for a moment to consider them. From my own experience the single biggest mistake people make when they decide that they want to meditate is to not consider fully what they want to achieve and which approach would be most useful. Generally speaking meditation can have a number of short term transient benefits, for example an improvement in self reported well being. But how long do you have to meditate to get the short term benefits and what comes after the initial ‘feel good’ phase? I’m not suggesting for a moment that meditators need to access scientific studies, but you should have some general ideas of what you want to learn and who should be teaching you.
Traditionally the biggest meditation mistake is described as not starting, the benefits of regular meditation practice are so great that not to at least try it is wasted potential. Traditional forms of meditation have been shown to help with everything from smoking cessation to lowering the risks of developing dementia. Once the basic skill of ‘sitting’ has been acquired a whole range of methods become instantly more accessible. Consider that ‘not starting’ doesn’t mean simply never to have tried meditation but also not to have given it a chance. It can take a few sessions to achieve any real benefit, particularly is your mind is typically ‘busy’ and you find it difficult to put down the worries of your day to day life. Many people feel the benefits of meditation after the first lesson, it might take others a bit longer. A good teacher will be able to help if you are unsure about your progress. A simple analogy is that of learning to drive a car, many people pause driving lessons after a few hours training, disheartened by the challenge. There is an initial ‘biting point’ for people at the start of the meditation journey, if you haven’t reached it you haven’t really started to meditate.
Most meditators who practice two or three times a week can gain great benefit. They may work to change negative and limiting behaviours, address mental or physical health problems, feel a bit more comfortable in their own skin and take more control over their thought processes. But progress fluctuates and if you meditate for any length of time sooner or later you will feel like things aren’t moving as quickly as you would like. This impatience is natural and simply reflects resistance to change, many people put their meditation on hold at this point. Sometimes people do return to the practice but this might be many months or even years later. Consider that ultimately regular meditation leads to functional and structural change in the brain, if you don’t maintain the behaviour linked to the change, neural connections may weaken and you can go back to square one. It might feel like you have all that previous meditation related change still inside you but this probably isn’t the case. If it feels like you need a break, a change of practice might be more beneficial than stopping altogether. It should always be stressed that if you think a meditation method is having a negative impact on you, stop it immediately.
With each specific form of meditation a skillful teacher or experienced student will be able to offer advice, but specific help will be linked to your own experience and the nature of the practice. For example some traditional practices are more suited to the morning or evening or are not suitable for beginners or people taking medication. How you sit, breath and when you last ate might influence the quality of your meditation. Consider that most traditional meditation methods have been used by tens of millions of people for hundreds of years so there is a lot of useful information out there.
Meditation and brain health, the latest research urges that we prioritize dementia prevention.
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”
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. For a summary of the current advice on taking care of your brain visit the Brain Renewal website.
Evidence indicates that brain structure and function can be maintained and augmented through particular forms of meditation.
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