Many scientists claim that mindfulness is both a ‘non-judgemental’ approach and holds congruence with Buddhist forms of meditation. Are these two positions mutually exclusive?
Mindfulness has attracted sustained criticism from within the scientific community over the last few years. Claims that the science supporting mindfulness lacks a reliable evidential base are growing. In addition, religious scholars1 and traditional meditation practitioners have discussed the implications of the lack of judgement or ethical frameworks, closely associated with some mindfulness practices.
In a recent article2 a leading Buddhist teacher from the Tibetan Nyingma tradition, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, has stressed the need for meditation to be seen in a relevant ethical context. Rinpoche talks about not ‘blindly meditating’, that our meditation should be directed by study and understanding. Although these points are being made from a Buddhist perspective, their relevance can apply to both secular and spiritual meditation practices. Psychologically speaking, meditation and mindfulness are simply forms of brain training, changes in behaviour leading eventually to functional and structural modifications in the brain. So if your meditation practice is based on reducing judgement of the reality of your day to day life, this is likely to be the result of the practice. Developing an understanding of why you are meditating and what it means in the real world, ensures your practice has direction and is relevant to you.
“We can’t just blindly meditate”
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche
Practicing with forms of meditation that lack any coherent ethical or judgemental context may lead to a reduction of reasoning and introspection, two functions linked to essential intrinsic network activity in the brain. Whilst it can be acknowledged that non-judgemental practices are common in Buddhism, they are always set within a wider ethical framework. The points Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche made, are consistent with my own understandings of the science of mindfulness and meditation. That self-transformation (the goal of meditation technologies), requires a sound theoretical framework to be successful. A sound theoretical framework would include an explanation of our being (the ontology that supports meditation) and an understanding of the effectiveness of the methods used (epistemology).
There are no restrictions of the forms of meditation that can be created and practiced, and there is evidence that mindfulness may be able to deliver some benefits. But based on the available data, it may be that meditation practices that are not embedded in stable frameworks might deliver unpredictable results. Not simply because ethical frameworks are in some way morally advantageous, but for the reason that they create the conditions where the practice becomes embedded in both the meditation student and the real world. I would suggest that anything less, risks strengthening dualistic concepts rather than weakening them.
1King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham.
Students reporting mental health and wellbeing issues had risen fivefold in the last decade. Yet there is evidence that specifically designed meditation and mindfulness methods can help.
There is growing evidence that the mental health and wellbeing of young people in the UK is in decline. This pattern is particularly pronounced among students in higher education (HE). According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)1, the proportion of university students reporting a mental health condition grew five-fold in the last decade. However, studies from cognitive psychology and contemplative science have started to signpost approaches able to offer support for students dealing with issues such as anxiety, stress, procrastination and motivation.
Not unsurprisingly problems with mental health and wellbeing can have a profound impact on a student’s ability to perform academically and their willingness to complete their chosen course of study. Serious mental health problems are rarely restricted just to academic matters and can influence all areas of life. In some universities, as many as 25% of the total student body has engaged with or are waiting to engage with wellbeing services1.
From a scientific perspective, there is a range of mixed messages coming from meditation research. There are individual studies that suggest meditation or mindfulness can have a positive impact on specific mental health and wellbeing issues, but regrettably, the results are rarely replicated or strongly supported by strategic reviews. However by approaching student mental health using instruments from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, some clear strategies for using meditation and mindfulness emerge. These centre largely on understanding the known constructs that underpin obstacles to successful engagement with HE
Although every student is different and the challenges each faces is unique, the science indicates there are common factors to many of the academic obstacles they face. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the same meditation is beneficial for every student. But an appropriate method (one able to tackle their underlying problems) is likely to bring some benefit leading to a more positive engagement with academic work and improve all-round wellbeing.
How to reduce stress and blood pressure. meditation and mindfulness linked to promising results
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.
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.
Meditation and mindfulness can offer great benefits but many people fail to engage with the practice, here are some simple rules.
Looking for the three secrets to meaningful meditation?
Traditionally obtaining long lasting results from meditation practice can take years. Famously H.H. the Dalai Lama advised Buddhist meditators to assess their progress over a five year period. This kind of long term investment challenges modern notions of what self transformation might be and how quickly individuals should expect to reach their meditation goals. As such both new and experienced meditators are increasingly looking for help, advice and tips to allow them to maximize the time they spend in meditation. As an experienced meditation practitioner, teacher and now researcher, I have reviewed much of the published evidence to offer you the three secrets of meditation.
The three secrets to successful meditation and mindfulness
Do some research – understand your goals, find a reliable method and teacher.
Start – unless you start you won’t get anywhere.
Keep going – perseverance is probably the most important quality needed in a meditator.
At first sight it might seem that these three ‘secrets’ are generic and not really that helpful, however just pause for a moment to consider them. From my own experience the single biggest mistake people make when they decide that they want to meditate is to not consider fully what they want to achieve and which approach would be most useful. Generally speaking meditation can have a number of short term transient benefits, for example an improvement in self reported well being. But how long do you have to meditate to get the short term benefits and what comes after the initial ‘feel good’ phase? I’m not suggesting for a moment that meditators need to access scientific studies, but you should have some general ideas of what you want to learn and who should be teaching you.
Traditionally the biggest meditation mistake is described as not starting, the benefits of regular meditation practice are so great that not to at least try it is wasted potential. Traditional forms of meditation have been shown to help with everything from smoking cessation to lowering the risks of developing dementia. Once the basic skill of ‘sitting’ has been acquired a whole range of methods become instantly more accessible. Consider that ‘not starting’ doesn’t mean simply never to have tried meditation but also not to have given it a chance. It can take a few sessions to achieve any real benefit, particularly is your mind is typically ‘busy’ and you find it difficult to put down the worries of your day to day life. Many people feel the benefits of meditation after the first lesson, it might take others a bit longer. A good teacher will be able to help if you are unsure about your progress. A simple analogy is that of learning to drive a car, many people pause driving lessons after a few hours training, disheartened by the challenge. There is an initial ‘biting point’ for people at the start of the meditation journey, if you haven’t reached it you haven’t really started to meditate.
Most meditators who practice two or three times a week can gain great benefit. They may work to change negative and limiting behaviours, address mental or physical health problems, feel a bit more comfortable in their own skin and take more control over their thought processes. But progress fluctuates and if you meditate for any length of time sooner or later you will feel like things aren’t moving as quickly as you would like. This impatience is natural and simply reflects resistance to change, many people put their meditation on hold at this point. Sometimes people do return to the practice but this might be many months or even years later. Consider that ultimately regular meditation leads to functional and structural change in the brain, if you don’t maintain the behaviour linked to the change, neural connections may weaken and you can go back to square one. It might feel like you have all that previous meditation related change still inside you but this probably isn’t the case. If it feels like you need a break, a change of practice might be more beneficial than stopping altogether. It should always be stressed that if you think a meditation method is having a negative impact on you, stop it immediately.
With each specific form of meditation a skillful teacher or experienced student will be able to offer advice, but specific help will be linked to your own experience and the nature of the practice. For example some traditional practices are more suited to the morning or evening or are not suitable for beginners or people taking medication. How you sit, breath and when you last ate might influence the quality of your meditation. Consider that most traditional meditation methods have been used by tens of millions of people for hundreds of years so there is a lot of useful information out there.
Why do people meditate? You might be surprised by the answer.
Want to know why people meditate?
Having introduced hundreds of people to meditation over the last fifteen years, the question of why do people meditate has always fascinated me. When I used to teach traditional Buddhist meditation many people would declare an interest in Buddhism or spirituality, but there was generally another reason that encouraged them to come to a class. Many came because they wanted some support with a health problem, either mental or physical and they thought that Buddhist meditation could offer them something. People attended classes to accompany their friends or because they were suffering a sense of loss, or were looking for direction in their life. But only a small minority meditated because they wanted to become a Buddhist or for some kind of spiritual development.
So interested was I in this question that I undertook some research while at the university, running a project asking people about their reasons for starting meditation. Health and wellbeing proved to be the single most popular answer both for traditional practitioners and secular mindfulness students, accounting for 55% of respondents. Although it now appears widely accepted that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to increased levels of self reported happiness how this is achieved is still somewhat obscured. In particular if meditation has a lasting effect on behaviour then it must have a role in maintaining/changing brain structure and function.
“regular meditators with younger brains than non meditators”
This is the new frontier for contemporary meditation research, how does meditation change the brain and what are the likely effects of it? Evidence is suggestive that meditation can make a positive impact on your overall brain health and in one study regular meditators had brains seven years younger than non-meditators. The point is that meditation’s real potential is in changing brain structure, this is particularly relevant when talking about, the ageing brain, mild cognitive impairment and neurodegeneration. We are starting to see the first wave of meditation methods specifically designed to allow people to improve brain health generally. Given the pessimistic predictions surrounding dementia this seems like a trend set to continue.
Like to run? Want to learn mindfulness? A four week course starts this weekend in the Medway towns.
This weekend will see the start of the four week Mindfulness for Runners course in Chatham Kent.
The course will take place at Fort Amhurst, under the guidance of two experienced and qualified meditation teachers Stuart McLeod and Cesare Saguato. The innovative programme has been designed to;
immerse participants in a range of mindfulness skills and practices and their application to running. Participants will be required to commit to a programme of home practice between sessions to support their learning. Session notes will be provided at the end of each meeting including links to recordings of guided meditations.
The course is accessible to runners and meditators of different levels. However all participants should be able to run 5km without frequent stops.
More details, costs, terms and conditions are available from the runzen.co.uk website.
September will welcome a leading international Meditation Master to Rochester.
A leading Tibetan Meditation Master, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche will be giving an evening lecture in Rochester this September. The reknown Buddhist teacher, is a former translator to HH the 14th Dali Lama and the founder of the Bodhicharya movement
Rinpoche will be giving public lectures (open to all) on the 24th and 25th September, 7:00pm – 9:00pm, Corn Exchange, Northgate, 51-55 Rochester High Street, Kent, ME1 1LS. More details from bodhicharya-kent.org.