Is meditation able to help you stop you smoking?

Can mindfulness help you to stop smoking?

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I have just reviewed a recent (2017) meta study that pooled the results of ten research papers exploring the connection between mindfulness and stopping smoking? The headline is that there was no apparent benefit to giving up smoking attributable to mindfulness meditation.

The findings are somewhat surprising because speaking from experience, there is a very low incidence of smoking among meditators in general. It should be pointed out that the review highlighted a number of significant methodological weaknesses in the research (an unfortunate recent trend in contemplative science). However smoking cessation and meditation can be regarded as still being at the preliminary stage.

A distinction should be drawn between secular mindfulness meditation studies and traditional forms of meditation practice. Particularly where mindfulness participants are encouraged or ‘obliged’ to meditate as part of university undergraduate programmes. In traditional schools, meditation tends not to be used as a specific therapeutic intervention. Rather it offers holistic development to the meditator, enabling them to make choices about what they want to do with their lives and it hopefully supports them by providing the necessary mental surplus.

Meditate in Canterbury, meditate anywhere!

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News this morning that Canterbury was successful in its bid to bring a medical school to the city has been widely acclaimed. For those that don’t know, the city is an important global centre of education. It boasts three universities, a regional further education college and a wealth of private educational institutions along with some excellent primary and secondary schools. This latest announcement underlines what a great place the city is to live and work in. Teaching meditation here feels like a privilege, there’s always new meditation students, as well as interaction with scholarly Buddhist academics and advanced practitioners.

And yet the numbers of homeless people in Canterbury has never been higher (in living memory), the inequality in living standards is shocking and there are a number of areas described as economically deprived nearby.  The local NHS trust is also one of the most lowly ranked in the UK. So what is the real picture? There are opportunities and challenges everywhere, how you view where you live and the people you live with is central to your happiness and wellbeing. If you are not happy with your conditions you need to try and improve them… but the worst option is to be unhappy and not do anything about it.

This is not about blind optimism, don’t ignore the problems and issues in your community, try to contribute to the improvement of your environment. But to denigrate your conditions and to imagine the grass is always greener somewhere else won’t make you feel great with life. You need to find real positives and build upon them. One of the root causes of unhappiness that I encounter in my day to day life is the idea that the conditions aren’t right for development and progress. In reality the conditions to improve things are never perfect, it’s much more a question of making a choice rather than waiting for your problems to resolve themselves.

“find real positives and build upon them”

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Happiness !

From the nondual perspective thinking of things constantly as better or worse builds  limitations, particularly if you apply this thinking to yourself. Relatively there is no perfect time to meditate, no perfect place to meditate and no perfect meditation practice. You have to work with what you have and progress to where you want to be. If happiness is your goal, start to think about your own happiness and the happiness of others, work towards greater happiness generally and disengage with things that you know create unhappiness or harm.

Abandon unhappiness; understanding forgiveness

Let go of resentment, abandon negativity, mov towards enduring happiness.

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The rewards of nondual practice are immense, this form of meditation opens a window into a world where suffering and joy become a choice rather than mere chance. That doesn’t mean that challenges don’t arise for nondual practitioners, rather the conditions that give rise to problems, and the approaches of dealing with them are altered. Buddhist forms of meditation have defined theoretical frameworks describing the degree of non-duality in different practices. Secular meditation is a bit more problematic to explain. For students embarking on meditation for the first time, it’s essential to set realistic expectations whilst explaining how the system works.

A useful starting point is to talk about forgiveness, although we don’t teach forgiveness practice per se’,  it is a useful way of describing the secular non dual approach.

How would it feel if you forgave yourself for every negative action you had ever carried out?

The idea of forgiving yourself is generally compelling for most people struggling to make sense of the world. The nondual approach take the same view of the negative actions carried out by yourself and others. But to release all regret and resentment is not to abandon common sense. Whilst you may wish to unburden yourself of  negative feeling towards others, you may still be aware that certain people might not be useful to know or engage with. Forgiveness isn’t passive, it’s about giving you control. You may not be able to change how other people act but you can choose how you feel about their actions. By forgiving, you ‘let go’ of your negative emotions, you don’t forget or accept what people may have done, you just stop preciously preserving negativity in your emotional baggage.

Self forgiveness works in a similar war, if you carry around negative feelings about things you have done in the past, they don’t cease to exist. You still remember what they are but you don’t have to beat yourself up over what is passed. Learning from the past is essential for personal development, blaming oneself for past actions is not.  The nondual approach is to integrate forgiveness of self and other as inseparable. The process should be liberating, one chooses to disengage from resentment and blame, not ignore unproductive or foolish behavior. Whilst there are systems that can focus on forgiveness of self or other, the nondual approach treats blame as a limitation irrespective if it focussed on self or other.

The three rules of non dual forgiveness:

  • Forgive completely but don’t necessarily forget, don’t repeat mistakes or permit others to engage you in a manner that’s not beneficial.
  • Let go of resentment, let go of blame, there are no scores to settle just lessons to learn.
  • Actively choose the path of sustainable happiness.

The non dual approach is neither simple nor quick but it offers the opportunity to experience life as a joyful learning experience, where you have both the right and responsibility to be happy.

Is diet a key factor in meditation?

Biome and meditation, what you eat and drink may be exerting a strong influence on your meditation practice.

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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: you are the answer

Meditation for better health, how to build a successful meditation practice.

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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.

 

Footnote

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’.

Spirituality leads to better health?

Is spirituality a factor in better health? If so does this have implications for meditation?

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In a recent article William Sears wrote about the health benefits of being on the spiritual path. He contends that religious belief  may be linked to a longer and happier life as well as good all round general health. The idea is probably supported by the experience of many traditional meditation teachers. This has generally been my own experience, people that commit to meditation in a Buddhist context seem to achieve an improvement in the quality of their lives; notwithstanding their spiritual goals.

There is a particular paradox at work here, improved conditions for oneself being linked to a lessening of the attention on oneself. Most people that I have meditated with appeared to have come to meditation to achieve a particular goal, typically linked to health and wellbeing. In this regard as I become more experienced, the less attention I pay to the reasons why someone wants to meditate. I would of course hesitate to teach meditation to someone who explicitly wanted to pursue a negative goal, this fortunately  has never happened. But the point is that an authentic meditation method is forgiving of a degree of selfishness.  Experience has taught me that an openness to the method is the key to reaping the health and wellbeing rewards of meditation practice.

So I would generally advise people who seek the benefits of meditation to simply practice. Agonizing over the authenticity of one’s own meditation is much less productive that just meditating. Clearly if someone is seeking to enter a spiritual path a degree of understanding is necessary. But if you simply want to feel better, most of your energy should be directed towards mind not ego.

Typically a meditation master discourages students from commenting on other people’s meditation achievements. This is useful in itself but it almost certainly helps to stop self examination, as well as as the critiquing of the people you might be meditating with. As a meditation scientist I’m inclined to think this is linked to the balancing of our intrinsic and extrinsic networks. However much more importantly it’s simple to test for yourself. Try to make a point of criticizing others less for a week, see if this has an effect on your own self criticism.

Meditation for health and wellbeing are positive goals to maintain, meditating for the health and wellbeing of yourself and others may be a more effective method.

 

The only bad meditation is…

By definition the best meditation is the one that you do. Those you miss are unlikely to bring any benefit.

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Sleeping meditation?

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.