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.

Most adults have nobody to talk to about problems

Rising loneliness and increasing social isolation can be helped by meditation

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Loneliness is one of the many challenges in our daily lives. A survey by  Time to Change found that 66% of adults felt that they didn’t have anyone to talk to. This news closely follows government commitments to try to tackle problems linked to social isolation, including the creation of a Loneliness Minister. Research also recently discovered that up to nine million people in the UK described themselves as “always or often lonely”.

I’m supportive of attempts to reduce suffering, the surveys draw attention to a real problem and the appointment of a Loneliness Minister should be applauded. But perhaps this is addressing symptoms rather than causes.

Most of us will feel alone at some stage in our lives but the sheer scale of the problem indicates that there is something structurally wrong here. I’m not suggesting the causes will be simple to identify or resolve but what are the underlying conditions leading to such misery? Social isolation has a number of factors both social and personal. But I  would argue that declining compassion in society is a key issue in this debate. On the level of the individual we all may be part of the problem to a greater or lesser extent. Do we engage with the people around us, or create the conditions for others to appropriately engage with us? To what extent would we seek out those friends and relatives we know to be generally on their own?

The idea that meditation is the panacea that can resolve all of societies woes is I think overworked. But nondual compassion based practices are particularly good at providing a degree of perspective on self and other, even in dire circumstances. By considering isolation as a condition created by both the individual and society, solutions can manifest effortlessly. The nondual approach also offers some protection against sentimental outcomes that might make an individual feel good without improving the problem.

Mindfulness & compassion beginners weekend retreat

Mindfulness and compassion beginners retreat Kent and Sussex

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Mindfulness & Compassion Beginners Weekend Retreat (Friday 9th – Sunday 11th February 2018, Eastbourne, East-Sussex)

Nicole Perkins and Cesare Saguato are running a Mindfulness Retreat in February. The venue is Gayles, a beautiful retreat centre in outstanding countryside on the South Downs in the South East of England.

Nicole and Cesare trained to teach mindfulness with Bangor University and Oxford Mindfulness Centre respectively, and are both UK Network registered teachers who run 8-week courses, talks and workshops on mindfulness. Nicole is currently completing a research PhD in compassion at King’s College London and Cesare runs a private psychotherapy practice. They are delighted to come together to offer this retreat.

For more details visit www.cesaremindfultherapy.com  or email info@nicoleperkinsmindfulness.com

 

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.

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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’.

Compassion and depression

Can compassion based training help with depression?

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Details of a new study involving second year medical students. Compassion training appeared to reduce feelings of depression and loneliness.

via Compassion Meditation and Depression

 

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.

 

Can mindfulness increase selfishness?

Is there a relationship between selfishness and mindfulness?

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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:

  1. Beginners are typically taught by a knowledgeable teacher
  2. 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.