Does compassion meditation work?

There is growing interest in compassion based meditation and mind training, but what is it and does it work?

Can compassion training support your health and wellbeing

From the perspective of cognitive psychology, the term compassion is poorly defined and chronically under-researched. So at the outset, a priority is to explain what is meant by ‘compassion’. For many years I have been using a popular definition linked to Buddhist meditation from the Tibetan traditions:

Compassion: may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

This explanation fits my understanding, my meditation goals and is consistent with what I have learned for the cognitive and neuropsychological evidence. A second clarification; I only practice the nondual forms of compassion meditation. There are other (dualistic) approaches that may be more appropriate or desirable for beginners. In this narrow context, and thinking in relative terms, nondual compassion is the wish that all (self and other) don’t suffer. The majority of medicalised meditation methods are dual, primarily focussed on self or other. I have extensive experience of compassion for other practice, with a reliable method and teacher they can be very beneficial. Meditation based on compassion only for self (self-compassion) is an approach I don’t have direct experience with, and it’s not something I would personally recommend.

In common with many meditation systems studied by psychology (including mindfulness), the scientific evidence for compassion meditation is mixed. However, this weakness reflects theoretical and methodological limitations in the way we understand meditation rather than the utility of compassion-based mind training. A recent strategic review of the evidence found that compassion meditation increased feelings of compassion, self-compassion, mindfulness and well-being. It also reduced the sense of depression, anxiety and psychological distress.1

From a personal perspective, I have experienced (and expect to see in my students) several changes related to regular (nondual) compassionate practice.

  • Lower levels of stress and anxiety often reflected in physiological changes such as lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a general feeling of increased well being
  • Increased energy levels and a greater sense of one’s potential
  • Awareness of positive relationships and interconnectivity with others
  • Improved sleep patterns (not necessarily longer but definitely better)
  • A greater sense of self-efficacy in professional and personal matters
  • Better levels of concentration and focus
  • Increased tolerance towards and concern for others
  • A greater sense of proportion, unimportant matters tend not to increase stress and anxiety
  • 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 aims to create new and improve compassionate function and structures 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. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.

Notes

  1. Kirby, J. N., Tellegen, C. L., & Steindl, S. R. (2017). A meta-analysis of compassion-based interventions: Current state of knowledge and future directions. Behavior Therapy, 48(6), 778-792.

Does meditation help you sleep better?

Meditation and mindfulness can help to improve your sleep, but don’t allow them to hide or minimise an underlying problem.

Mindfulness and sleep, it’s all about balance

Sleep-related problems are frequently a reason why people start meditation classes or ask me for advice. The reasons why our sleep is disturbed are many and varied, and although it’s hard to give general advice, regular meditation often leads to improved sleep. The key term to note is ‘improved’ rather than ‘longer’. We know that almost half of people over 50 experience some kind of sleep problem; for many a chronic sleep condition can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems.1 The good news is that meditation has been shown to help, but it does depend.

As a general principle, improved relaxation is correlated with better sleep; we all know that restlessness and agitation, particularly at bedtime, can make it hard for us to ‘drop off’. So at this most fundamental level, some regular meditation is likely to lead to a more relaxed state, and when the practice is established, better sleep patterns. But one of the critical differences between medicalised and traditional forms of meditation is the notion of ‘cure’ and ‘treatment’.

If you’re not sleeping, it’s often linked to other factors, such as an underlying health problem, stress from work or relationship issues. While meditation can make a difference, the actual solution to the problem might also rest in some clearer thinking. So the first question for you to resolve is why aren’t you sleeping? If you can go some way to answering this, it will make a big difference to the kind of meditation practice you should use. For example, if work-related stress is a root cause, you might want to tackle this as well as meditating for better sleep. Similarly, if you have a health problem that’s limiting your sleep, tackle that issue as well as thinking about meditation. Don’t use meditation to mask other issues.

Based on the feedback I receive, meditation usually helps people get better sleep, but there are typically several issues at play. For example, after undertaking an evening practice, I encourage students not to spend too much time on social media or watching TV. If you discover that engaging with social media at bedtime limits your sleep, you might wish to change that habit in addition to meditating.

In traditional meditation systems, there are practices linked to sleep and dreaming, but their role is to support the meditator in personal and spiritual development. It’s also not unusual to see more experienced meditators have less hours but better quality sleep, from the physiological perspective this makes sense although there are few scientific studies in this area.

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

Notes

1 Black, D. S., O’Reilly, G. A., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. C., & Irwin, M. R. (2015). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA internal medicine, 175(4), 494-501.

Meditation and long lasting happiness

Can meditation increase your lifelong happiness? The answer is yes but some methods are more helpful than others.

Happiness is dependent on how you view the world

Throughout the Western industrialised world, we have more psychological data than ever before, yet many nations are experiencing declining levels of happiness, particularly among young people. In the UK, as many as 25% of young women demonstrate signs of clinical depression. In the USA happiness scores, have been on a downward trend for decades. However, despite the importance of happiness, psychological understanding of the concept is limited. In particular, a paradox exists between our individual experience and scientific models. Experimental psychology uses objective measures to establish levels of happiness/unhappiness in groups of people. In reality, the happiness of everyday life is a unique and personal phenomenon. Several scientific studies have demonstrated the potential of modern mindfulness to influence happiness, but there’s almost no replicated evidence that the effects are permanent or long-lasting.  Conversely, many traditional forms of meditation do not have the inbuilt paradox because there are not based on a dualistic world view; their goal is to address the long term causes of unhappiness rather than just the symptoms.

Traditional meditation is essentially nondual in nature; it allows an individual to mediate their own happiness. Medicalised or psychologised forms of meditation are dualistic, aggregating individual experience and thus categorising the world’s population into archetype models of human behaviour. Although this dichotomy is a limiting factor in meditation research, it’s not new to psychology. William James raised the question over a century ago; noting that observing a psychological phenomenon is not the same as the experience of that phenomenon. Meditation research is still wrestling with this problem; how can individual experience be understood using generalised measures? The obstacle of generalisability occurs because of the ontological nature of psychology; it is based on positivism, which is dualistic. It allows the artificial separation of people from their lived experience. Traditional meditation methods are generally nondual, so it seeks to address the problems encountered by people without reference to abstract, generalised models.

If we continue to emphasise treating symptoms rather than causes of unhappiness, there is a risk that chronic unhappiness will become normalised. Such a process might lead to sections of the population fluctuating between chronic and acute sadness for their whole lives. For people experiencing critical mental health problems, immediate action is necessary and desirable. But if we don’t attend to the underlying causes, we risk creating a treadmill of relative despair. For thousands of years, meditation has been used as a life-changing technology rather than a psychological bandaid. Despite the rise of meditation interventions within psychology, there are almost no operational models of traditional meditation describing their theoretical frameworks. This lack of understanding means that we still don’t know how traditional meditation works despite the publication of over 7,000 scientific studies during the last 80 years. Therefore the curative potential of spiritual types of meditation is still hidden from psychology.

Traditional meditation typically seeks to cure problems, to offer permanent solutions. By comparison, medicalised forms of meditation target a symptom rather than a cause, allowing new symptoms to manifest over time. These ideas of permanent and temporary solutions are central to the differences between nondual and dual forms of meditation. In psychological sciences, we tend to think about people from an objective perspective, even though we know mental health and human consciousness are, by their nature, subjective.  Trying to understand the personal subjective experience by generalised objective measures is problematic on many levels.

Researchers have been aware of this issue for several decades. When Ruut Veenhoven considered if happiness was relative in 1990s, his conclusions suggested that processes may have commonality but individual circumstances play an important role.

Happiness in the sense of life-satisfaction depends only partly on comparison, and even standards of comparison do not fully adjust to circumstances.

Veenhoven, Ruut. “Is happiness relative?.” Social indicators research 24, no. 1 (1991): 1-34.

Unfortunately, psychology is still a long way from understanding what happiness is and how it is regulated. Medicalised meditation methods generally fall within this paradigm. Earlier this year Jennifer De Paola, Wolfgang Wagner, Anna-Maija Pirttilä-Backman and Josetta Lehtonen published a study researching understandings of happiness among Finnish Women. Their findings reflect some universal truths about how psychology evaluates human behaviour. Observing happiness is not the experience of happiness; this is an area of contrast between traditional and modern understandings of the mind. The failure of science to recognise the real-world importance of the subjective is visible in medicalised forms of meditation.

The two take away points from this short discussion are i) psychology’s understanding of happiness is at a preliminary stage and that, ii) traditional knowledge systems have a much more holistic appreciation of the human experience. It is precisely for these reasons that I usually recommend traditional meditation methods for people who are looking for solutions rather than treatment. Modern methods could harness the health and wellbeing potential of Buddhist forms of meditation. But first meditation scientists need to take a more systematic approach to the study of Eastern non-positivist models of meditation and mind.

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

Trump, Biden and meditation: staring the nondual in the face

Politicis is in crisis, polarisation is leading to harmful unproductive divisions. Nonduality is the only solution

Trump and Biden cannot both be always right or wrong, so what’s happening?

By the time you read this, the US 2020 election will probably be over, but it is only after the crisis, the battle, where taking stock can begin. In most of the polls I saw, support for Biden and Trump was almost wholly polarised. In America as elsewhere, we face a political landscape where as much as 90% of the voting population holds opposite views on the same subjects. This reality, of course, defies all reason; polarised sectarian views can never represent the full potential of any situation. I guess most people realise this already. The reality of this level of partisan discipline is that at times, people are advocating policies which are against their own best interests. Such behaviour can only be fully understood from the perspective of human consciousness. External conditions, extraordinary people and times, cannot be entirely blamed for the way we create reality. It is at the intersection of the external world, and our consciousness that meditation technologies are of most use, both from curative and heuristic perspectives.

Let’s be clear; the object of this short article isn’t to promote any particular political position. I, of course, have my views about politics but that’s not an issue here. If we can agree that it is irrational to support a course of action that leads to harm for ourself and others, then the concepts of duality and nonduality may be useful to you. If you devolve your thinking, your rights, your self-determination to a politician (of any persuasion) you might want to look away now. The simplest way of understanding the extreme polarisation present in much of world politics is duality.

In terms of human consciousness, we constantly fluctuate between dual and nondual states. From our perspective, this presents as a completely normal and natural state. However, many philosophical and spiritual traditions have understood that the tendency towards dualism correlates with several problems, including mental conditions of unhappiness and suffering. There is a deal of neuropsychological evidence that supports this basic premise, particularly in terms of intrinsic-extrinsic network correlation. But there is a much simpler way of understanding the increasing duality present in public life; the metaphor of gods and demons. The idea that one politician is the complete problem or solution to complex issues is naive in the extreme.

Although I concede that some public figures appear to act out of self-interest and pursue agendas very different from mine, how can I imagine that they are always wrong and I (or my politician of choice) is always right? The polarisation that is influencing many people is ultimately self-generated. External conditions matter in the creation of duality, if you surround yourself with concepts of ‘enemy’ ‘evil’ ‘threat’ and ‘harm’, dualistic brain networks are likely to be more active. Alternatively, if you protect yourself from such extremes, maintain objectivity, your ability to make real choices is much greater. I’m not suggesting compromise or capitulation to the aggression of others. Instead, the best option is to keep the freedom to choose the most appropriate response in every situation.

Many of the most reliable traditional meditation methods target harmful dualistic mental processes. A desire to reduce tendencies to hate and division is not an attempt to create an impossible utopia; it is a concrete movement towards reducing suffering and harm—both for ourselves and others. I’ll repeat again; this is not a manifesto for inactivity and compromise, quite the opposite. Nondual training, in its fullest sense, leads to the abandonment of refuge in concepts such as political parties and institutions, concepts we know are flawed. What remains is reason and the ability to distinguish what is meaningful to us beyond simple partisan mantras.

Harm does exist; governments produce damaging polices. The lessons of nondual meditation are that until we address our own harmful and damaging tendencies, we may struggle to do more than simply react by entering the downward spiral of polarisation.

As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below. For a simple introduction to the nondual, try the nondual podcast.

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.

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.

 

Meditation for self-isolation: overcoming coronavirus fear with compassion

Meditation expert recommends compassion meditation as a way to tackle Coronavirus linked fear and anxiety. Use compassion to support wellbeing during social-isolation.

Rock tower
Meditation to support self-isolation, generate wellbeing through compassion.

Follow this link if you’re looking for the online compassion meditation or other relevant resources. However, read on for more information about why compassion is essential at this difficult time.

Humans have all the necessary tools to overcome challenges, that’s self-evident from looking at our history. Not that we should underestimate the threat from Coronavirus, we must take appropriate precautions. But excessive stress and anxiety will not help us deal with difficult situations. In fact, fear is likely to undermine our ability to make good choices and may weaken our mental and physical health.

A growing body of scientific evidence supports claims that pro-social behaviours such as kindness and compassion are linked to reduced suffering. Compassion is an enduring quality present in almost all societies. Traditional meditation practices, particularly in Buddhism, are built on the foundations of kindness and compassion. This suggests that one of the worst things we can do in a time of threat is to turn inwards, to ignore the needs of others, the bigger picture.

As support for people self-isolating or anxious about the current situation, I’ve recorded a simple compassion meditation. It’s one I teach regularly and is based on a well known, traditional practice. It has been secularised so is suitable for almost everyone. It contains two of the cognitive elements central to successful meditation methods, compassion and a non-dual view. Put simply, it increases compassionate feelings for self and others.

We will be posting more free resources during these difficult times, contribute your comments below or send any questions to us here. Feel free to share our resources with anyone who is likely to benefit from them. People who feel alone, vulnerable or are self-isolating may find this kind of meditation particularly beneficial.

Compassion is the key to happiness: Just follow the science

Its seems increasingly likely that compassion meditation influences brain functions and structures able to increase happiness.

Kindness wins
Why is there an enduring link between kindness and happiness?

We live in materialistic times, many people find it hard to understand the enduring nature of compassion and kindness. Last January I saw a woman buy a young homeless guy a cup of coffee. I didn’t know either of these people although this happened close to my home. A passer-by, about the same age as the homeless man, cat-called ‘loser’ from the other side of the street. The homeless man responded with a few expletives, but the passer-by was quick to point out ‘not you, her’. It was the act of compassion that had provoked the insult!

It raised the question in my mind, why are humans compassionate, why do so many of us care about strangers, even if there is no profit to us? I don’t mean my own feelings, I worked out the benefits of compassion to me years ago. Although we all can have a bad day, at some point almost everyone feels compassion for another. People in diverse cultures from all periods of history have been shown to value altruism, it’s a universal human characteristic. The answer has to be that our brains are hard-wired towards helping others. If compassion is an enduring quality, present in different societies we can assume we’ve evolved like this.

person standing on hand rails with arms wide open facing the mountains and clouds

As humans, we can train our minds to increase or decrease our underlying mental states. Altruism and selfishness are not constants, if you watch any film or browse a website you can observe these emotions rise and fall in response to what you see. The whole social media culture of ‘liking’ and ‘not-liking’ feeds into these mental traits. The point of compassion meditation is to train those networks linked to the way we see ourselves and others. These practices have been associated with increased happiness for thousands of years. And the scientific evidence is now starting to show us why.

New psychological and neuroscience studies have found that altruism (selfless acts) are strongly correlated to reduced experience of suffering, even in cancer patients. Leading economist Richard Layard also claims, based on decades of research, that it is altruism that underpins our happiness. Although he also points out that not all forms of mindfulness or meditation may actually generate altruism. The bottom line is that considering the needs of others alongside your own, seems to make people happier. One note of caution, you can’t trick your brain. Our happiness originates in brain networks, you need to actually generate compassionate thoughts and feelings.

“If I could only do one thing to support my mental and physical health it would be compassion training. That training underpins and enriches every part of my life. It supports my relationships, my diet, my freetime my work. In the past selfishness reduced me to an army of one, competing against everyone else on earth. Compassion extended my circle of friends to include every living creature.”

Stephen Gene Morris

How to cope with Coronavirus, fear, you and meditation

Sustained fear and anxiety is the enemy. Use meditation to cope with Coronavirus

Fear, meditation and Coronavirus
Fear is the enemy, how to cope with Coronavirus

From time to time, we are faced with challenges and threats. These can become significant problems to deal with if we get them out of proportion. However, when the danger is global, like climate change or the Covid-19, virus it’s hard to maintain an even keel. Everywhere you look, you will find references to the danger from Coronavirus, even here in Britain where there are (at the time of writing) a relatively small number of cases. The first point to make is that when we are frightened, we make bad decisions, our perspectives become distorted. I don’t suggest that blind optimism is the answer to fear, just pretending that bad things don’t happen. But thousands of years of human experience have shown that brain training systems such as meditation offer great practical help in times of crisis.

pexels-photo-225017.jpeg

My experience as a meditation teacher and scientist converge when it comes to fear. The evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience is that sustained periods of fear or stress harm the brain and the body. When we worry or experience stress, our body produces chemicals such as cortisol that help us deal with a short term crisis. When fear or anxiety is prolonged, the effect of these chemicals becomes harmful. There is a considerable body of evidence that supports this basic idea. So when we enter a period of ‘global panic’, how can we establish an appropriate response?

I (and many of the people I taught) came to meditation because of problems with fear and stress. Over the years, I have experienced and seen how compassion-based meditation balances our perception of self and other (intrinsic and extrinsic neural networks)—allowing us to respond to real-life problems in a balanced and sustainable way. Threats to our health are always going to be present; they become more significant as we get older. But building compassion for ourselves and others is one of the most reliable methods for keeping things in perspective. Compassion meditation isn’t merely wishing away stress, it’s a tool to reconfigure our way of understanding the world. So that fear is kept proportionate to risk.

“The most useful health practice I have experienced over my lifetime is the compassionate view. That when I encounter any situation likely to provoke fear, I make the silent wish that no being may suffer; me, you, everybody. It has protected me from anxiety and stress for decades.”

Stephen Gene Morris