Is there a relationship between selfishness and mindfulness?
A warning from the Royal College of Psychiatrists appeared in the media over the last two weeks. The College’s spirituality special interest group chair, Dr Alison Gray, has suggested that solitary mindfulness practice could lead to a tendency towards selfishness.
The idea that mindfulness or meditation could support the creation of negative emotions or increasing instability is a perfectly sensible observation to make. However it perhaps reveals how little western science really known about meditation. Two of the most important safeguards for traditional meditators are:
Beginners are typically taught by a knowledgeable teacher
Learning meditation usually takes place in an ethical framework
At one extreme, a knowledgeable teacher is someone who has meditated for thousands of hours, has accomplished the practice they teach and have many years of experience of teaching. As a starting point the student will be taught, for at least part of the time by the teacher able to offer guidance and training. If the student demonstrates a tendency to selfishness, or sentimentality the teacher will offer appropriate advice.
Secondly by meditating within an ethical framework students are given protection from a range of potential adverse reactions to working with mind, such as selfishness. Whilst traditional meditators are associated with compassion, this isn’t simply an aspirational aspect of practice, it’s also to keep the student rooted on a meaningful path. In fact there are some traditional methods for which a compassionate view is an essential per-requisite.
The idea that meditation is beneficial per se’ is at best naive’. There are accounts of mindfulness being taught to combat troops and executives working in banking and finance. What is the likely effect of mindfulness in these situations?
However there is also a technical aspect to consider. I would expect that an excessive internal or external focus to lead to the development of neural networks to reflect this focus. I have known many selfless meditators who retained very high levels of compassion after extended periods meditating alone. I am satisfied that meditating alone in itself does not create selfishness. I am minded to think that they key is in the motivation of the meditator. In a healthy adult meditator, the motivation behind the meditation practice is likely to be strengthened by the process of meditation. It is perhaps in this regard that experienced teachers refer to compassion as a ‘protection’ to the meditator.
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.
As the body of research into meditation grows, the evidence of the actual effect of meditating increases. Western science rarely provides clear evidence of causality, particularly when it comes to understanding complex human behavior such as meditation. However there are a significant number of studies that document a relationship between meditation and brain activity.
In 2012 a study was carried out into the effects of meditation (mindfulness and compassion methods) that had a direct effect on the response of a part of the brain called the amygdala to emotional stimuli. The headline findings from this study are that the changes to the amygdala response were measured while people were not meditating, meaning that the effects of an eight week meditation programme were experienced outside of meditation practise. Meditation had been able to exert an influence on people’s brains during a non-meditative state.
Can meditation impact on growing mental health challenges facing society?
Although Meditation for Health doesn’t specifically offer therapeutic interventions, I am mindful that many of the people who meditate with us are looking for a solution to one or more issues. I started to meditate for this very reason. It was only after seeing the effect meditation had on my own mental health that I decided to graduate first as a psychologist and subsequently take postgraduate studies in cognitive psychology and neuropsychology.
The last few months have seen very worrying data coming from the UK. A study from Liverpool University published recently had a headline finding that 1 in 4, 14 year old females are showing signs of depression. Childline reported a 15% year on year increase in contact with young people with suicidal thoughts. Manchester University found steep rises in identified cases of self harm in girls between 13 and 16 (although the data may be influenced by GPs being better able to see the signs of self harm – but there was no recorded increase among younger and older females!).
The actual mental health of young people and the long term implications of these studies (should the findings prove to be robust) is very worrying. In the UK we have an ageing population living longer, we can expect to have significant increases in the numbers of people with long term chronic health problems. We know about the implications of obesity in terms of impact on population health. If there is a decline in the mental health of young people, and a lowering of resilience generally it suggests very challenging times for society in the years ahead.
As a long term meditator I’m certain that meditation can offer some answers. However it’s hard to imagine that it could play a significant role in children as young as 10 and 11. There are also some other concerns, removing the spiritual dimension from traditional forms of meditation, such as mindfulness, may strip meditation of some of its long term wellbeing potential. In particular separating meditation into systems that benefit self or other may be deconstructing the very qualities that drew psychologists towards traditional forms of meditation practice in the first place. The disconnection of concepts such as, self and other, subject and object, needs to be studied much more closely if secular forms of meditation are to fulfill their full potential.
(Copy of an answer originally posted to Research Gate on 24/10/17)
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