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
Obstacles to meditation include resistance to start and a failure to continue. Perhaps meditation groups in prison can offer us some inspiration?
Ongoing institutional meditation programmes demonstrate the ability of Buddhist approaches to benefit a wide range of people, even in challenging situations. Compassion Works for All is involved in activities including the running of meditation groups in US prisons.
Cliff Plegg has been volunteering for Compassion Works for a year, his primary role is leading a monthly meditation class in an Arkansas correctional institution. In addition to teaching meditation, Cliff is also compiling a list of yoga and meditation resources that prisoners can engage with when they are released. Plegg has overcome a plenty of challenges in his own life having been diagnosed with avascular necrosis. This pattern of someone overcoming personal obstacles, then moving on to trying to help others is a pretty common theme in meditators.
So what does a volunteer meditation programme in an Arkansas prison have to do with UK meditators? Meditation is taught by different organizations in prisons around the world, some more well known than others. The universal appeal of meditation transcends geographical and cultural barriers. Meditation has an appeal which inspires both teachers and practitioners from all parts of society. Unfortunately the challenge isn’t only getting people to start a practice, but also to continue it to the point where it has a lasting effect. This ‘biting point’ of meditation is the moment at which the benefits become apparent at the level of personal experience. When someone knows something is delivering a significant and sustainable benefit, it becomes much easier to make an informed choice regarding the value of the resource.
Just one session can be enough to get a sense that meditation is a useful or interesting activity, this however may not the ‘biting point’. Only when the student understands, (however fleetingly), that they have some control over their experience of the world can the meditator pass to an intermediate level of practice. I am a great believer that all meditation is useful on some level, most of my own students have tried meditation of some informal kind before they engage with a more regular practice. But such is the hype of the meditation ‘industry’ that a casual observer might imagine that sitting on a cushion once or twice may be sufficient to unravel years of negative thinking.
The common factor between meditators in Canterbury, Rochester or Arkansas is that we all see the potential of meditation to offer us solutions for our day to day problems. Once that important first step is taken, the next goal is to establish a practice, to continue to the point of realizing what the method is able to do. I don’t take a prescriptive approach to meditation, students must want to do it and feel it’s right for them. My advice has been the same for at least a decade, if you want to meditate, find a reliable teacher (or guidance), use an authentic and appropriate method and put in the necessary effort.
I offer good wishes to Cliff Plegg and all meditators, particularly those currently incarcerated.
Biome and meditation, what you eat and drink may be exerting a strong influence on your meditation practice.
One of the biggest problems in researching the benefits of meditation is understanding the potential confounds. In essence, what factors other than the meditation method itself exert an influence on subsequent behavior. Lifestyle questionnaires normally reveal significant differences between long standing meditators and the wider population. Given the range and diversity of meditation methods available, generalisations are quite difficult . However I’d expect experienced meditators from the Buddhist schools to eat less meat and take fewer intoxicants than the wider population. There are also more subtle variations. For example, in some approaches, meditators may drink alcohol yet abstain from scallions (the food group that includes garlic and onions). Another group might have a tendency to eat meat but not consume any food after their lunchtime meal. So does this matter and if so why?
The emerging research of the human microbiota (microorganisms living in or on humans, primarily in the gut) is demonstrating an increasingly close connection between gut bacteria, health and wellbeing. This is a dynamic area of enquiry but studies have implicated gut bacteria in conditions as diverse as obesity, migraine and depression. Typically science demonstrates a correlation between gut bacteria and a particular condition. For example people that suffer from migraines tend to have different bacteria when compared to people not suffering from migraines.
The key message is that meditators should think about what they eat if they want to maximize the benefits of their meditation practice.
The early signs are that the human biome may be more influential than causal in health. Meaning that your gut flora makes it more or less likely that you will or won’t suffer from a particular condition. Our gut flora is established at birth but it is subject to changes throughout our lives. We introduce bacteria from a range of sources, primarily from what we eat and drink. So if, for example, it was discovered that bacteria associated with eating chicken was linked to depression (which it isn’t as far as I know). It would have implications for meditators working with depression.
All this won’t come as any great surprise to long standing practitioners, many of the people in my own meditation circle already think about what they eat quite carefully. The influence of the biome on human health shouldn’t really make any difference to meditators. Reliable meditation is likely to have an effect in every instance, although your practice might be strongly influenced by what you eat.
Meditation for better health, how to build a successful meditation practice.
The evidence we highlight on these pages is generally of the empirical kind, contemporary scientific investigations, surveys and experimental research projects. This isn’t the only ‘proof’ to which we have access, but it is often what a significant part of our audience finds most compelling. Not that I see my role as to ‘compel’ or convince anyone to meditate, however discussions about the benefits of meditation or mindfulness can be supported by hard data. But over time personal experience has been more influential than sensationalized news headlines.
Meditation is one of the great human resources, it’s able to transcend a wide range of health and well-being problems, most people can engage with it, it’s easy to start, exists in multiple formats, crosses most cultural boundaries and once learned is a lifelong tool and support.
Stephen Gene Morris
Credible first hand accounts, traditional explanations and contemporary science have all been useful guides on my own path. Unfortunately they don’t deliver the motivation to carry on, this generally comes from within. In the early stages of my meditation development there were difficulties, the first few sessions felt OK but there was no real indication of the benefits that were going to unfold. Looking back I felt somewhat ambivalent, I was starting to get a sense of proportion but there was no sign of the great and positive changes to come. The support of my fellow meditators and meditation teacher were helpful at these early stages, but the commitment to practice had to come from me.
Building a long term meditation practice is filled with many obstacles, there are reasons why they occur and strategies to overcome them (these depend on what your practice is). But progress is always marked by your own determination to continue. The most important obstacles tend to be the first you encounter, typically when you start. Most beginners will have little to compare the experience of ‘sitting’ with. And so the initial discomforts and struggles with discursiveness tend to put many students off before they ever get going.
Unfortunately several of the people that I have taught to meditate didn’t persevere to the point where their health and wellbeing improved. I don’t have reliable records but I’d estimate the majority of people that meditate for ten consecutive weeks go on to develop a practice. They may not maintain it, but they have started on the path to meditation. Given that the evidence for the health benefits of meditation with, anxiety, depression, and stress are now overwhelming, there’s little logical excuse not to start, and even less not to persevere. But scientific evidence doesn’t amount to much when pitted against the human ego. Traditional Buddhist meditation rests on the idea of avoiding the extremes and to not follow the whim of every transient thought. Without being able to push through the basic resistance1 and to discipline your mind, meditation cannot be successful.
Meditation is a method for self-transformation, the direction and depth of that transformation depends on the meditator. Overcoming obstacles is a natural part of the dynamic nature of self-transformation. If you decide you’d like to meditate consider that you are the solution to your own problems, the meditation method simply offers a context within which you make it happen.
1 While most reliable forms of meditation are unlikely to create serious physical or psychological discomfort. If you experience any significant problems consult a qualified and experienced teacher. The resistance referred to in this article are issues linked to distraction, poor concentration and an unwillingness to ‘sit’.
By definition the best meditation is the one that you do. Those you miss are unlikely to bring any benefit.
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.
Nondual meditation is an established goal of authentic meditation practice. Leading to greater joy and clarity.
One of the characteristics of traditional meditation methods, and other forms of spiritual practice, is their ability to demonstrate the limitations of artificial constructs, such as the separation of self from other. Ideas that polarize our thinking of self and other into distant opposites, are generally thought of as forms of dualism. There are a range of explanations for how dualist thinking develops but we know that it doesn’t effect everyone in the same way. It’s also broadly accepted in both psychology and contemplative science that it is possible for people to access and work with their own world view (mind world) in this regard.
If all this sounds very theoretical and not of relevance to people who simply want to meditate to improve health or wellbeing read on! In materialist societies self-other dualism is everywhere, inequality, poverty and sexual harassment often manifest because a person or a group of people are working on the basis that their needs must be supreme. Unless you stop and think about it, this may seem to be a natural order. The fact that ‘I’ and ‘you’ exist, and that we are not the same person is a commonsense way of looking at the world. However the idea that my needs, thoughts and opinions take priority over all (or most) others is problematic. The interrelated nature of society means that not to recognize that others are in fact like ourselves, with real and pressing needs, is a great limitation. I’m not talking about any practical concerns in this regard, simply how we are able to understand the world and function within it.
I remember talking to a successful entrepreneur about the benefits of meditation. He explained to me how he was self created, his success was based only on his hard work and endeavor. I asked him about his education, work experience, family life and anything else that was important to him. He had been to good state schools and a leading university in the 1980’s, his first job was for a large international employer within a graduate recruitment and training programme. He said his childhood was “OK” but mentioned that significant financial support had come from his relatives. He spoke of the importance of his family. He also told me that the sport of cricket was an influence in his life.
To embrace self-other duality is to turn you back on partnership, mutual support and co-operation with every other living being in the universe.
Stephen Gene Morris
Just by talking about his past he started to unravel his own narrow view of the world. He acknowledged the benefits of a state funded education system, his debt to teachers, nurses, doctors, colleagues and friends. He never used the concept of ‘self made’ in my hearing again. This wasn’t an epiphany, and didn’t lead to any great change in his life (as far as I know). But is shows the persuasive and subtle nature of self-other duality. Inside our heads we can create a ‘mind world’, running in parallel to the actual world. The clearer our understanding of the real world, the better we function within it. This does not mean an abandonment of all of our individual concerns, but their integration with the real or material world. We do have agency, we can choose what we do and work towards our goals. But the idea that other people don’t have a right to the same freedoms is not helpful. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean we have to accept negative or disruptive influences into our lives.
Many people come to meditation to resolve conflicts between their ‘mind world’ and their material world. Problems develop when our view of self and other becomes detached, disengaged. We may think that others should be doing (or not doing) things for us, that life is unfair, or that something is really not working for us. It may be true! People don’t always do what they should and life can be hard. However if we have developed a disengagement between self and other, the chances are that we are not seeing the real world, rather interpreting it through our ‘mind world’. This is an ancient problem described in different cultures including contemporary western psychology1.
If you want to gain greater clarity and to reduce the distortion between your ‘mind world’ and the real world. Meditation can broadly help in three ways.
When a method tackles one side of self-other dualism, typically self cherishing or lack of compassion, it can only be one stage of the practice (an incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling stage).
When an authentic practice and the guidance of a reliable teacher are conducted in an implicit nondual context. This working over time can demonstrate the empty nature of dualistic concepts.
When the method and the teacher offer authentic, explicit nondual training.
Meditation can allow you to gain a greater clarity of how things fit together in reality. If you can subtract problems linked to self-other duality from normal day to day challenges, life becomes more joyful and dynamic.
Also consider that traditionally, addressing the distortions encountered through dualism can be supported by reasoning as well as meditation. Although accounts of the process suggest reasoning alone generally fails to deliver full clarity. However it does mean that through reliable observations we can become aware of dualistic phenomena and how they limit our thinking. Tools such as metaphors and thought experiments may be useful in this regard.
A range of perspectives in western psychology acknowledge the limitations of self other duality. Elements can be found in areas such as classic psychoanalysis, cognitive, embodied cognitive and developmental psychology, neuroscience, critical psychology and phenomenology. A problem is however that the basic theoretical frameworks (ontologies) of some of these approaches are dualistic. For further information look into subjects like, mirror neuron theory, theory of mind, fundamental attribution error and phenomenology.
An important truth about mindfulness and meditation practice
For centuries, meditation has offered a range of benefits to those that would understand and practice it. Contemporary forms of mindfulness now shows signs of providing practitioners with improvements to health and wellbeing. However the essence of meditation inevitably rests with what a meditator does with their mind, not only the method they use. This is a thorny issue that has pervaded Buddhist literature across the centuries. Traditionally meditation teachers talk about the capacity of students, the innate potential of a meditator to follow a particular method. This strongly supports the idea that there are a number of factors which can be regarded as either favorable or potentially limiting in the meditator. Among these factors motivation may be worthy of particular attention.
The majority of experimental studies of meditation I have reviewed have at least one thing in common;
not all participants receive the same level of benefit from meditation or mindfulness practice
One explanation of this from a psychological perspective is the individual differences between participants. This is the modern psychological equivalent of what Tibetan Buddhism calls capacity. However there is a characteristic of the Tibetan approach that might be able to shed light on the idea of capacity (or individual differences), it is Bodhicitta1. Progressing beyond the basic stages of meditation (in traditional Tibetan systems) is said to require a Bodhicitta motivation, a wish to use meditation to reduce suffering to self and other inseparably. This is an over simplification of course, there are hundreds of different methods among the Tibetan schools and the degree to which each teacher stresses the need for Bodhicitta is not consistent. However it’s probably reliable to say that compassion based motivation underpins access to and progress within many traditional systems.
No individual spiritual or secular tradition owns the definition of meditation or mindfulness, nor the practices that surround it. And so meditation can grow and develop into any direction demanded by human experience. On one level meditation takes place in a particular context, during a meditation class for example; this may reflect a particular view of the nature of mind and meditation. An alternatively perspective is that the same mind is present inside and outside of formal meditation in a completely integrated way. Some approaches regard meditation as a training of mental processes, effectively a form of behavioral therapy or cognitive development. Sit on a cushion, train for a period of time and acquire some new cognitive disciplines or skills. Other long standing meditation traditions take a different approach, seeing meditation leading to the development of the entire person. Tibetan traditions can also stress compassion as a necessary element for the progress of a meditator, not simply as a prerequisite of some abstract metaphysical paradigm.
We now live in conditions where one form of ‘Buddhist inspired meditation’ has been used by military personnel heading for active service, as well as by high flying business people in a corporate environment. Perhaps the terms meditation and mindfulness do not fully explain any method of meditation clearly, nor give insight into the potential of different approaches. Buddhist meditation systems have developed over centuries in the context of compassion, tolerance and loving kindness. The motivation of the practitioner in this regard is usually seen as key in the progress that they might make. Understanding practitioner motivation; why someone is meditating and what they hope to get from the experience could offer new possibilities in understanding relationships between meditation and wellbeing. But an important step for psychology and neuroscience may be to further explore how concepts like nondual compassion and Bodhicitta motivation may be able to influence the development of the meditator.