How to start a successful meditation practice

Up to half of all new meditators stop the practice before they gain any benefits. Here’s the explanation why and some clues to building a great meditation habit.

Need help to get your meditation practice going?

How can I learn how to meditate? The answers are pretty simple and backed by centuries of experience in meditation.

Sometimes even experienced meditators find it difficult to meditate, although the obstacles we encounter later on are different from those that trouble us at the beginning.  But please remember that meditation and mindfulness are forms of mind-training; this means we are literally changing brain function and structure over time.  So in the first weeks, when you start to meditate, you are likely to be doing something quite unnatural; meditation practice is simply about training yourself in a new way of working with your body, speech and mind.  Therefore, it can be difficult to begin with, just like  learning how to; run, play a musical instrument, or learn a new language. The first principle of meditation, therefore, is that practice makes perfect. 

However, before committing yourself to a particular method or a teacher, you should satisfy yourself that they are suitable for you and consistent with your goals. Only when you feel confident with the technique can you dedicate yourself to regular practice.  I think this is the case with secular medicalised meditation and mindfulness as well as traditional methods.  Your starting point as a new meditator is to find something that appears to be reliable.  However, meditation should never cause pain or suffering, so if your practice leads to physical or psychological difficulties you should stop immediately.

If you have reached the point where you have a method that you’re confident with and a teacher that is reliable, you have the foundations to build a regular meditation practice.  If my own new students still find difficulty meditating at this point, I encourage them to commit to three weeks of practice or take a break.  Practising four times a week over three weeks is usually sufficient for a new meditation student to get comfortable with sitting still, holding a normal meditation posture and working with the psychological concepts of the practice.  In short, they should know how to sit and what they are supposed to be doing with their mind.  Typically even at this stage, the major obstacle is controlling one’s thoughts, which is the ultimate goal of meditation.

Meditation and mindfulness are not for everybody, almost everyone has the capacity for some meditation, but they may lack the motivation.  If you’ve undertaken three weeks of practice in a reliable method with a competent teacher and are still not making any progress, you may want to rethink your strategy.  Your meditation teacher may have some explanations and guidance for you.  But eventually, you may need to identify a more suitable teacher or method, or just ‘park’ the idea of meditation for a while and return to it at a later point.

Some meditators experience almost immediate benefits from practising and have visible signs of: improved emotional stability,  mental health, and happiness. At this point, meditation practice becomes much easier because we can see the effects. Many people stop meditating or develop bad habits before they reach this point and so never really create the relationship between meditation and its great potential. But if you don’t see immediate benefits, don’t be distracted by the progress of those around you; meditation is a highly personal experience.  Your progress as a meditator is dependent on many causes and conditions, sometimes physical, sometimes psychological.  My understanding from teaching hundreds of people to meditate is that those with the greatest persistence tend to reap the most significant rewards. 

This is an excellent moment to summarise.  Firstly find a method that meets your meditation goals and connect with a knowledgeable teacher. If you experience difficulties meditating at the beginning, talk to your teacher and consider committing to three solid weeks of practice to develop a basic meditation capacity.  If the meditation leads to physical and mental suffering, stop immediately and seek advice. Once the basic skills have been acquired, it is usually a matter of training.  In traditional meditation, it is typical to change meditation teachers and meditation methods as you develop, but the fundamental challenge of working with your mind remains the same.

It is frequently said “the only bad meditation is the one you don’t do”.

Good wishes to you all for your meditation practice and drop us an email to let us know how you are getting on.

Free online compassion meditation

How to practice compassion meditation, an explanation of how it works and a description of its benefits.

Some of the greatest health benefits come from compassion.

If you are looking for an introduction to compassion meditation but don’t know where to start, you might benefit from this brief guide. I recorded the video during the first lockdown in 2020. I created it for people who are newcomers to compassionate meditation or who want a primer to nondual methods. Although this practice is based on Buddhist mind-training, I have adapted it as a modern secular practice. In common with all the meditation methods I teach, it is consistent with reliable teachings and supported by the latest evidence from neuropsychology.

This is an introductory training video as well as a guided meditation. Here I offer explanations of what the practice is, how to start and what to expect. If this is your first time, listen to the whole explanation, when you are confident with the method, you can simply follow the meditation and cut out the preamble. Please note; for brevity, I have edited out long sections of my meditation. If you want to use this resource as a guided meditation, you can go straight to the meditation and pause the clip when the practice begins; restarting when you come to a natural break in your own meditation. To get the full health and wellbeing benefits of the method, you will need to develop a clear insight into how the mind training works.

From my personal experience and the accounts of my students, this can be a life-changing practice. But its full effects take time to emerge, three times a week, over three months is a productive medium-term meditation goal. However, you should get immediate short term wellbeing benefits from just one focussed twenty-minute session. Expect to feel uplifted, happier and calmer from the first practice.

As a nondual meditation, this is a preliminary practice; once the results are obtained you may wish to seek, more complex methods to develop further.  Always use reliable methods and the guidance of an accomplished teacher.

Early benefits that my students or I have experienced as a result of this practice are:

  • Significantly reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a general feeling of increased well being.
  • Lower levels of stress and anxiety
  • Boosted energy levels, movement away from passive activities and lifestyle.
  • Perception of positive relationships and interconnectivity with others
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased self-efficacy, less uncertainty in professional and personal matters
  • Improved concentration and focus
  • Greater tolerance
  • A stronger sense of happiness and a more fulfilling experience of life

The key to compassionate meditation is to remember mind training is all about your mind. How you sit and breathe, where you meditation and who with are all secondary. The practice is about creating new and improve compassionate function and structure in your brain; you can’t fake it. A good teacher and/or method are essential. As always email us if you have any concerns. You are welcome to post your thoughts and experiences below.

Nonduality and the health benefits of meditation: an introduction

Despite 7,000 scientific studies over 80 years, psychology still hasn’t understood the health benefits importance of duality.

Binary code over a human face.
Duality or non-duality, that is the question

For over two decades I have been meditating, initially to support my day to day life, improve mental and physical health and build resilience. But later, as a Buddhist, my goals evolved, and my understanding of health and wellbeing changed. Having tried secular meditation first, coming to Buddhist practice later, I developed an early, comparative experience of the strengths and weaknesses of the different systems. An understanding of the similarities and differences between secular and spiritual methods has taught me much about the curative potential of meditation and mindfulness.

My development as a meditator owes much to the teachers and teachings I encounter in those early years. But my progress has also been constructed on an experiential understanding of nonduality, something a teacher can only suggest to a student. Even though most conscious human experience is built on fluctuations between the dual and nondual, it is a challenging idea to get to grips with. Let me be more precise; it is easy to recognise duality in others, each of us does this every day; to see it in ourselves is the problem. You will find many spiritual and philosophical teachers willing to describe the nature of non-duality, but few can talk about it from the level of experience. However, from my research as a meditator and neuropsychologist, I am confident that nonduality is the key to unlocking the full health potential of meditation.

Meditation is a human technology, a brain training tool that can be used for multiple purposes. No one has a monopoly on what meditation is. But, most medicalised meditation that is used by psychology has its roots in traditional spiritual practices, typically Buddhism and Hinduism. Science has been conducting experiments on meditators for at least eighty years. In that time the full health potential of traditional forms of meditation has rarely been seen in replicated medicalised equivalents. There are many reasons why spiritual practices do not easily locate to the psychological sciences; one of the most important and least discussed is the role of nonduality.

To be continued…

As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.

Something all meditators need to consider, are you an island?

One of the most important concepts lost in the medicalisation of spiritual meditation is the balance between the needs of self and other. A key factor largely ignored by psychology.

What is meditation
What is meditation, and why are you doing it?

The use of meditation and mindfulness is now so widespread that generalised descriptions or advice are only relatively useful. At this moment in history, we have large numbers of people meditating in secular and religious contexts. And while there may be broad conceptual differences between scientific and spiritual forms, they also have several things in common. Most importantly, all meditation practised regularly is brain training; it is likely to lead to alteration in your brain function and structure. So all meditators should think about the method they practice and how they expect to change.

One of the most meaningful ways of evaluating the kind of meditation you undertake (and how it is likely to influence your brain and behaviour) is the thorny issue of duality. In general most spiritual forms of meditation are either nondual or at the very least not dualistic (If you are unfamiliar with the terms dual – nondual concerning meditation visit the short introduction at the Science of Meditation website). Breaking it down, the vital point to think about is, does your meditation practice draw you to thinking more about yourself, others or a combination of the two?

crowd reflection color toy
duality, self  or other

There is plenty of evidence that suggests using meditation to benefit yourself, and others offers significant health and wellbeing benefits. However, there is a growing trend to use meditation and mindfulness to focus on one’s own needs and concerns. The point of this short article isn’t to discuss the evidence for or against self-interest meditation. Instead, it is to highlight this simple division, common to almost all forms of meditation, dual or nondual.

The self – other duality discussed here is very common in meditation, but it is one of many ways that duality expresses itself in our lives. Its use will typically increase the focus on oneself (even in a nonjudgemental sense). Conversely, a nondual practice will engage the brain networks that maintain the awareness of our connection to and relationships with others. So next time you sit down to meditate you may wish to ask yourself (or your meditation teacher) what kind of meditation is this?

As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.

The joy of meditation, unlimited happiness

The joy of meditation, unlimited happiness
Meditation is designed to bring greater happiness

The joy of meditation, unlimited happiness

Reflecting on my time spent with regular meditators and participants in meditation experiments I noted several differences between the groups. Participants in scientific studies are generally university students so they tend to be younger, healthier and better educated than the average spiritual practitioner. But alongside trendier clothes and even trendier phones the strongest impression of what separates the meditators from the participants is happiness. Generalisations are not necessarily the most reliable way of understanding cause and effect, I have known grumpy meditators, miserable Buddhists and extremely happy university students. However most of my experience as a meditator has been spent with people who enjoyed living.

“If you need more happiness in your life you should think about meditating, if you meditate or practice mindfulness and don’t feel any happier you should review your practice.”

sunset beach people sunrise

Let’s be clear, the link between meditation and happiness isn’t a new idea, we have known for a long time that meditation and mindfulness can reduce self reported levels of depression and anxiety. It should also be pointed out that most meditation experiments are short term projects, whereas regular meditators may have decades of daily practice behind them. But when you think about it, any meditation method used by Buddhists or inspired by Buddhist teachings (such as mindfulness) has one primary goal, to reduce suffering and therefore increase happiness. Meditation isn’t magic, it can’t pay your mortgage, make your boss a nicer person or stop your neighbours playing loud music in the night. But by developing a greater sense of social inclusion and happiness, it seems that meditators tend to create and experience less friction in their day to day lives. They can often diffuse negative situations and naturally gravitate towards productive, beneficial engagement. I’m not talking about the initial sense of euphoria that often grips new meditators in the first few weeks of practice, rather the deep seated sense of joy and contentment that often comes with long term meditation.

There’s a lot to be said for happiness ‘for it’s own sake’, going to a meditation class with the expectation of having all concerns lifted off my shoulders is something I’ve enjoyed for decades. Over time the feeling of happiness experienced in meditation seeps into everyday life and eventually becomes a semi-permanent state of mind. Alongside the cognitive impact of meditation methods that are of interest to psychologists, the meditator’s sense of joy plays out, often unnoticed. But I wonder to what extent can we attribute the health benefits of meditation to simple everyday happiness as well as the more narrow functional changes that meditation and mindfulness create in the brain?

 

Notes

Header photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Meditate your way to a younger, smarter brain

Meditate your way to a younger, smarter brain
Meditators can have brains years younger than non-meditators

Meditate your way to a younger smarter brain

Several features in the media this week have giving some clear indications about the science behind keeping our brains in the best possible shape. Some of the advice falls into the generic wellbeing wisdom which now seems to be be associated with most health messages;

  • eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, consume less processed meat
  • take regular exercise
  • give up smoking
  • stay socially engaged
  • keep active
  • avoid stress, relax and sleep the right amount
  • keep the brain working with appropriate activity and brain training

The last item on this wish list is unsettlingly vague given that it probably has the most significant impact on brain health. For example how can we define brain training (as almost everything we do can train the brain)? What is an appropriate level of activity and which parts of the brain should we focus on?

“In one study the brains of regular meditators were found to be years younger than non meditators”

In today’s Guardian, attention was drawn to a key finding of the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging; that typically lifestyle and environment are more influential in our quality and length of life than genetic factors. This is also the general direction that brain science seems to be moving in with regards neurodegeneration. That although there are many questions left to be answered, limiting cognitive decline and reducing the risk of dementia may rest largely in our own hands.

close up of a man

Returning to the question of brain training, the big issue is to establish what kinds of intervention bring the greatest overall benefit? It is becoming increasingly apparent that narrow single task training such as Sudoku or word searches have a limited effect. Whereas maintaining high levels of brain activity and cognitive challenge are likely to keep a much broader area of the cortex young and healthy. The same principle needs to be applied if meditation systems are being used to maintain cognitive function. That the meditation or mindfulness method should be broad based and able to tap into both the intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (task or external) networks. Activity in and between different neural networks is a key element in brain health and one frequently overlooked and poorly understood. To illustrate consider tonglen meditation, it combines compassion, nondual awareness and mindfulness, it allows the meditator to work with our internal visualisation and empathy systems. In addition it engages the important connectivity between introspection and external awareness.

Given what we know already about neurodegeneration, it seems likely that long term protection against cognitive impairment can be found in meditation methods built on  nondual compassionate approaches.

Notes

header photo by Kelvin Valerio on Pexels.com

How to protect your brain from dementia

No simple answers to dementia prevention but some clear signposts are starting to emerge.

How to protect your brain from dementia
How to protect yourself from dementia

How to protect your brain from dementia

This is not a simple question and there isn’t just one answer. Dementia is a term used to describe symptoms from a number of different illnesses, so different forms of dementia may require alternative approaches. However an article about how Jessica Langbaum keeps her brain young makes some points that we all can learn from. Jessica is the Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, so she knows a thing or two about reducing the risk of developing dementia.

There is an enduring belief that activities such as Sudoku or app based brain training  can offer some benefit is the battle against neurodegeneration. But Dr Langbaum makes the point that any exercise as narrow in scope as single task brain training is probably too limited to be of significant benefit. So that while Soduko for example, might help to keep the parts of the brain linked to simple calculations in good working order, this may offer little protection against Alzheimer’s dementia. The presumption is that maintaining large areas of brain function at high levels of performance is likely to keep overall brain health for longer. This idea is often described at the use it or lose it hypothesis, that once we start to scale down the demands on our brain we may unwittingly increase the risks of permanently losing function and structure.

“regular meditators have been observed to have both younger brains and thicker cortex than non-meditators”

The use it or lose it approach isn’t an ultimate answer but it does give us some great signposts about how to maintain brain health. I have often considered that continued use of meditation into middle and old age by Buddhists may be directly linked to the anecdotal evidence suggesting lower rates of dementia in certain groups of meditators. Many long term Buddhists increase their meditation practice in retirement and can frequently be found working for a range of good causes in voluntary and paid capacities, even at advanced ages. There is research that suggests spiritual practice per se might have a preservative effect on cognitive function but I think we must also consider the more direct influence of meditation methods on the regular renewal of brain function and structure.

adult antique architecture art

Many well established Buddhist meditation practices such as tonglen have been designed as mind training systems. Their original goal was almost certainly not to reduce the risks of dementia, but they have long been associated with increasing wisdom, clarity and compassion. From the neuroscience point of view this means the methods are linked to activity in several of the most important brain networks, such as those connected to empathy, memory, attention, visualization and planning. This is specifically why Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) has been developed with reference to reliable traditional methods and is also supported with research from neuroimaging and cognitive psychology.

The best advice we can offer to reduce your risks of developing dementia is to,

  • start early, cognitive decline begins in our late 20s
  • stop smoking
  • keep your brain as active as possible for as long as possible
  • stay socially engaged
  • challenge yourself
  • stay physically active
  • watch your diet
  • try forms of brain training able to keep a range of brain structures firing

Meditation for seniors; boost your own brain

Meditation for seniors. Meditation supports a healthy brain at any age.

Meditation for seniors
Meditation for seniors

Meditation for seniors; boost your own brain

Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) is a simple system developed by meditation expert and trained neuroscientist Stephen Gene Morris. It offers methods designed to improve brain health and slow down the rate of cognitive (brain) decline. Aspects of our brain function such as memory and attention begin to deteriorate in our late 20s, however most of us don’t start to notice any changes until we reach our 40s. The point of BRM is that there are a number of things we can do to slow or perhaps even reverse aspects of  cognitive decline at any point in our lives, even at 60, 70 or 80. If you have the capacity to concentrate there is a good chance that you can make a positive impact on your brain’s function and structure.

Meditation and dementia
Meditation and a younger brain

Meditation is probably the single most useful thing a person can do to help maintain brain health. There are hundreds of scientific studies that show an effect on cognitive performance linked to regular meditation. A key point to make is that different forms of meditation lead to different effects. BRM draws together elements of compassion, nondual and mindfulness meditation into one integrated practice. It is a secular practice which requires no previous experience of meditation, it can be undertaken sitting in any chair that allows you to keep your back straight. It can be practiced in a traditional meditation class or through online training in your own home.

Almost all of the evidence from neuroscience, psychology and traditional meditation systems points to our ability to improve our own brain function throughout our lives. For example a major strategic review of research into strategy-based cognitive training in older adults, strongly indicated than brain function can be enhanced even in middle and old age. The crucial point is that no mater what your age your brain remains plastic and can adapt to the demands of brain training in many forms, particularly meditation.

A healthy brain; it’s all about you

The key to successful meditation. You! Your motivation is key to Brain Renewal Training.

Your brain age
The rate your brain ages is your responsibility

Taking control of your brain

There is no cliche’ or slogan I can use that will persuade you to take better care of your brain, it’s all about you. This website can simply explain what is known on the subject and share appropriate brain training meditation methods. For meditation to be effective the desire to achieve optimum brain health must be developed and nurtured in each of us.

There is no compulsion implied, I write about and teach Brain Renewal meditation (BRM) only for people that want the benefits of a younger, healthier brain. Many people are happy to allow nature to take its course and allow their genes to decide the way their brain ages, that is a legitimate and common choice. Problem is it’s not that simple, the way we live, how we think, where we go and what we do will all influence our brain’s structure and function. Our genes are only one  factor in brain aging, the evidence indicates that making small but important changes in our daily life will greatly benefit long term brain health.

“the number of people living with dementia is expected to treble in the next 20 year”

It is this ability to choose one path over another that rests at the heart of brain health. Our brain is designed to help us, its sole function is to follow our commands. This may sound self evident but it is an idea which is often absent from much of contemporary scientific thinking. In psychology for example, meditation research rarely pays sufficient attention to the motivation of meditators, preferring to allow the method of meditation to be the dominant object of research. It’s a great challenge for psychology because meditation is ultimately about what you do with your mind, not how you sit, what you say and the expression on your face. And so with BRM the first question you should ask yourself is, do you want to maintain optimum cognitive function? Only then should the methods gain any real importance.

There is an enduring paradigm in cognitive psychology, that cognitive decline is age related. That there is a ‘natural’ reduction in brain structure and function from the late 20s onward. This seems kind of intuitive at first sight, older people do appear to suffer from ongoing cognitive decline, just look at our parents and grandparents. However this view is contradicted by the research, certain lifestyle choices are consistently linked to cognitive decline and attenuation in brain structure. At best our chronological age is one of several factors correlated with how our brain will be working in middle and old age.

midsection of man holding hands over white background

How can we explain those individuals that appear to enjoy near peak cognitive performance into their 70s, 80s and 90s? Sir Jonathan Miller (originally a neurology specialist) is just one of many examples.

After many years of study and practice the first question I ask new meditation students is “why to do want to meditate?”. Most of the benefit you are likely to get from meditation will be linked to this question, meditation isn’t primarily about me or the science, it’s about you!