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.