The three secrets to meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness can offer great benefits but many people fail to engage with the practice, here are some simple rules.

The three secrets to meditation and mindfulness
The three secrets to meditation and mindfulness

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.

buddha-buddhism-statue-religion-46177.jpegAt first sight it might seem that these three ‘secrets’ are  general 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 not to start, the benefits of regular meditation practice are so great that not to at least try it a great pity in my opinion. 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 much more advice, but it depends on 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 practice. 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.

 

(Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on on Pexels.com)

Meditation and brain health

Meditation and brain health, the latest research urges that we prioritize dementia prevention.

Meditation and brain health
Meditation and brain health

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”

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation

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.

Keep your brain healthy; it’s the only one you’ve got

Evidence indicates that brain structure and function can be maintained and augmented through particular forms of meditation.

pexels-photo-339620.jpeg

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

If you are interested in learning more about how meditation may be able to help keep the brain in better shape, sign up to to this blog or drop us an email. If you’d like to know more about the hard science behind meditation and brain health visit the Science of Meditation website.

Meditate in Canterbury, meditate anywhere!

pexels-photo-289586.jpeg

News this morning that Canterbury was successful in its bid to bring a medical school to the city has been widely acclaimed. For those that don’t know, the city is an important global centre of education. It boasts three universities, a regional further education college and a wealth of private educational institutions along with some excellent primary and secondary schools. This latest announcement underlines what a great place the city is to live and work in. Teaching meditation here feels like a privilege, there’s always new meditation students, as well as interaction with scholarly Buddhist academics and advanced practitioners.

And yet the numbers of homeless people in Canterbury has never been higher (in living memory), the inequality in living standards is shocking and there are a number of areas described as economically deprived nearby.  The local NHS trust is also one of the most lowly ranked in the UK. So what is the real picture? There are opportunities and challenges everywhere, how you view where you live and the people you live with is central to your happiness and wellbeing. If you are not happy with your conditions you need to try and improve them… but the worst option is to be unhappy and not do anything about it.

This is not about blind optimism, don’t ignore the problems and issues in your community, try to contribute to the improvement of your environment. But to denigrate your conditions and to imagine the grass is always greener somewhere else won’t make you feel great with life. You need to find real positives and build upon them. One of the root causes of unhappiness that I encounter in my day to day life is the idea that the conditions aren’t right for development and progress. In reality the conditions to improve things are never perfect, it’s much more a question of making a choice rather than waiting for your problems to resolve themselves.

“find real positives and build upon them”

choose happiness
Happiness !

From the nondual perspective thinking of things constantly as better or worse builds  limitations, particularly if you apply this thinking to yourself. Relatively there is no perfect time to meditate, no perfect place to meditate and no perfect meditation practice. You have to work with what you have and progress to where you want to be. If happiness is your goal, start to think about your own happiness and the happiness of others, work towards greater happiness generally and disengage with things that you know create unhappiness or harm.

Compassion and depression

Can compassion based training help with depression?

pexels-photo-214574.jpeg

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?

pexels-photo-208099.jpeg

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.

good meditation
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.