What is the nondual view, and why is it important in meditation?

Over 26,000 scientific meditation studies have been published since 1970. I have yet to encounter one that explains the nondual view or the principle of nondual meditation, yet this is the concept at the heart of meditation and mindfulness.

The elusive nature of the nondual

Typically, humans flit between dual and nondual forms of consciousness without ever knowing or detecting the difference.  In this brief introduction, the critical thing to bear in mind is that we all have access to dual and nondual consciousness; both are integral to the human experience. However, it is highly problematic to recognise and then cultivate a nondual view without training and direction. It is not possible to provide a comprehensive explanation of dual or nondual consciousness here and now.  So I will attempt to use some simplified approximations to begin the conversation

In a typical western materialistic society such as mine, most people spend most of their time in dualistic consciousness.  We could characterise the dualistic state in many ways; as a starting point, let us regard it as the point of view where one believes, as truth, the conscious and subconscious impulses generated by a brain.  So while we can all find examples of irrational thoughts that we recognise as meaningless, our identity is made up of fabricated constructs that have no reality other than that which we attribute to them. So, for example, to think that others are responsible for your mental states is usually an expression of dualism, as is the belief that our wishes and goals are somehow different or more important than the wishes and goals of others. 

By contrast, a nondual view enables us to distinguish between reliable mental phenomena and transient unreliable thoughts and feelings. Thus we can achieve some relative freedom in how to think, speak and act. It is this freedom that is often associated with the happiness and stability observed in nondual practitioners. So from a nondual perspective, we make the presumption that the thoughts and feelings of others may be just as important and meaningful as ours. I will stop the definitions here for now and briefly discuss what these concepts mean for meditation practice.

In traditional meditation, people begin at the beginning; if they have a reliable teacher and methods and are diligent, they can make progress.  But until a practitioner realises which of the mental phenomena arising in their consciousness is transient and meaningless, then all meditation can be seen as relative.  That means your practice is relative to your mental state and a range of other causes and conditions.  A practitioner who has some modest experience of the nondual should be able to transcend belief in mundane phenomena knowing of their relative unimportance.  That is not to say that a nondual practitioner may have arrived at a transcendent mental state; it is simply that they know the limitations of their own worldview.  That, in a nutshell, is an elementary exploration of why the nondual view is essential to progress in meditation practice.  Without it understanding, the inner world of our consciousness remains uncertain. While much Buddhist meditation is not explicitly nondual, it all, by its very nature, increases the ability of the student to understand nonduality.

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.

Student Mental Health – University Mental Health Day

Always seek help if you need it. But many of us are able to take steps to boost our mental health as part of our daily routines.

Mental Health, it’s an issue for all of us

Today (the 4th of March) is University Mental Health Day. It’s a valuable moment to think about our own mental health and the wellbeing of the people around us, particularly in universities.  Before beginning my PhD research, I spent a year as a higher education mentor, supporting undergraduates and postgraduates diagnosed with poor mental health. I worked with people from several universities across the Southeast of England; they were of different ages and backgrounds. But one of the characteristics shared by all the students was that their mental health problems were linked to many issues.

Because of how the psychological sciences have developed, we often understand and treat mental health as separate from the rest of our lives. However, where we live, how we relate to people, our finances and many other factors are linked to our mental health. And they can get worse over time. Social isolation, a sense of underachievement, relationship problems, and financial worries can all affect our wellbeing long before a diagnosable mental health condition arises.

So while reliable diagnosis and treatment are essential when we become unwell, we should consider our health in the broadest sense. This is not just the responsibility of healthcare practitioners; we all could be creating the best possible conditions for our own mental health. We don’t need to wait for problems to become critical before we make changes. This is particularly true of student populations in higher education, where many people will be remote from their friends and families and face new and daunting challenges.

I generally think of mental illness as an effect that grows out of causes and conditions. It rarely arrives out of the blue without warning. If we can recognise those negative changes early enough, we have the opportunity to halt deterioration in our mental health. However, if we allow problems to grow unchecked and accumulate, we are more vulnerable to illness. If we become unwell, we should seek help as soon as possible. But the University Mental Health Day is also a reminder that support is available even before we reach a crisis or a low point.So I would urge everybody to consider their mental health as a work in progress; we have the potential in every moment to increase our happiness and wellbeing.  Reliable meditation methods are just one of the tools available to us. The most import ideas are that we recognise the need to treat our mental health seriously and actively build resilience, and never be afraid to ask for help when we need it. 

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.

Meditating in a time of crisis: survive or thrive?

What are the benefits of long-term meditation?

Meditation in a time of stress
Meditating in a time of stress

As a meditator and a meditation scientist, I have been frequently asked in recent days, what is the best meditation to do right now? This can be a hard question, there are hundreds of different meditation practices. I also need to consider ‘fitness for purpose’, that means balancing the goals and abilities of the meditator with an appropriate method. People generally approach me with two objectives, either boosting their health or working directly with disturbing emotions such as fear and anxiety. Whilst meditation can offer some short term benefits in both cases, stable improvements to mental and physical health are long term projects.

The rush to translate meditation into a modern cure-all, integrated into a materialistic lifestyle has often ignored relevant neuroscience. Radical changes to our mental health are rarely resolved by short term brain training. However, transient changes may be crucial in offering the meditator some stability in challenging moments. I know this to be true for both myself and many of my students. But to take my own case, although short-term meditation allowed me to survive. It was long-term practice that changed my life for the better. The reasons for this can be understood by looking at the science of meditation. In essence, the longer we practise meditation the more profound the changes to brain function and structure are likely to be. While some meditation scientists will tell you that even short periods of meditation lead to ‘brain changes’, they generally fail to mention that reorganisation in the brain’s connections happens all the time. And that these alterations can be positive, negative or neutral in terms of the quality of our life. So up to a point, it is long term practice that holds the potential for sustained benefits.

“Regular nondual compassion meditation transformed my life, it has had the same effect on many others I know personally. Although I started meditation simply to gain some mental stability, the long term results have led to unimaginable changes. “

Stephen Gene Morris

person holding head facing body of water

Using meditation as a short term ‘pick me up’ is a positive thing to do. Your mind (brain) is your own, you are free to use the systems which are right for you. Getting through today is a really important goal. But if you use meditation just to survive, you risk missing the big picture. Long term meditation tends to reveal the underlying problems that cause stress, anxiety and poor health. I still follow the maxim that the only bad meditation is the one you don’t do. But rather like eating fresh fruit and vegetables, if meditation is good for you, you might want to do it regularly.

The essence of meditation, it’s ultimate purpose as far as I’m concerned, is to reduce suffering and lead to greater happiness. Each person has to decide how they want to use brain training. In a time of crisis, survival is a worthy goal, but challenges are part of the human condition. Long term meditation practise enables us to thrive by altering the neural networks that lead to problematic thinking and bad mental habits. Enduring changes help us to thrive even in crisis, reducing suffering no matter what challenges life throws at us.

 

Notes

1Whilst there are many different methods available, my own research supports the use of nondual compassion as an antidote for fear. With regards to boosting health generally, most reliable meditation methods, if undertaken regularly, should contribute small improvements to our health in the short term.

 

Do people engage with mindfulness and meditation apps?

A new study shows few mental health apps are opened beyond 15 days after their download. This new insight raises the question, ‘how much do we know about the benefits of one to many mental health approaches?’.

Health apps appear to offer little long term engagement.
Limitations in the use of mental health apps.

A new study exploring mass self-treatment (MST) mental health technologies has indicated that although there are a large number of MST apps in widespread use, people rarely engage with them for more than a fortnight1. The available evidence raises important questions about the deployment of clinically-led meditation and mindfulness technologies. For example, what is the most beneficial context in which meditation should be practiced?

back view of a person carrying a backpack looking into the ocean

It has long been imagined that the growing use of apps would eventually lead to improved support for people experiencing problems with mental health. That the proliferation of MST technologies would lead to a ‘new age’ of health and wellbeing. But, the role of social isolation in declining mental health2 is well known and reliably documented. And although mental health apps offer access to both resilience building and treatment methods, they tend to lend themselves to isolated rather than group practice. So alongside the benefits of cost and flexibility through one-to-many mental health apps, the possible loss of the social engagement from face to face contact must be considered. I’ve seen no clear evidence that practising meditation and mindfulness through an app is more or less beneficial than traditional group practice. There is little replicated research in this regard. But we do know that a sense of social isolation can lead to limitations in brain functions, irregular sleep patterns and lower levels of physical and mental health.

“The key message of this latest research is that humans are complicated, both in terms of their mental health and its treatment. Given the potential reach of ‘one size fits all’ approaches, reliable, replicated research should be a foundational principle in the development of health apps.”

Stephen Gene Morris

The science supporting the long term use of MST mental health technologies is of a preliminary nature. More work needs to be undertaken regarding the benefits of using apps to support mental health. But perhaps comparative studies focusing on MST and face to face interventions should be seen as a high priority. However, as a general principle, engaging with any MST approach likely to increase a feeling of social isolation should be considered carefully.

 

Notes

1 Baumel, A., Muench, F., Edan, S., & Kane, J. M. (2019). Objective User Engagement With Mental Health Apps: Systematic Search and Panel-Based Usage Analysis. Journal of medical Internet research, 21(9), e14567.

2 Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and personality psychology compass, 8(2), 58-72.

 

Mindfulness in Rochester, Kent

Eight week mindfulness course in Rochester

background balance beach boulder

Eight Week Mindfulness Course (April 4th – May 23rd, Rochester, Kent)

“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.”

Mind wandering, compassion and happiness

Compassionate meditation appears to be linked to increased happy thoughts through mind wandering.

Mind wandering and happiness
Meditation, mind wandering and unhappiness?

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.

women s white and black button up collared shirt

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.

 

Notes

Review of the study can be found here.

Header photo by Dana Tentis on Pexels.com, smiling photo by bruce mars on Pexels.com

How to reduce stress and blood pressure

How to reduce stress and blood pressure. meditation and mindfulness linked to promising results

How to reduce stress and blood pressure
Looking for help dealing with stress and high blood pressure?

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.

How to reduce 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.

Notes

Details of the study can be found here.

Header photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com, meditation photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com