An important truth about mindfulness and meditation practice
For centuries, meditation has offered a range of benefits to those that would understand and practice it. Contemporary forms of mindfulness now shows signs of providing practitioners with improvements to health and wellbeing. However the essence of meditation inevitably rests with what a meditator does with their mind, not only the method they use. This is a thorny issue that has pervaded Buddhist literature across the centuries. Traditionally meditation teachers talk about the capacity of students, the innate potential of a meditator to follow a particular method. This strongly supports the idea that there are a number of factors which can be regarded as either favorable or potentially limiting in the meditator. Among these factors motivation may be worthy of particular attention.
The majority of experimental studies of meditation I have reviewed have at least one thing in common;
not all participants receive the same level of benefit from meditation or mindfulness practice
One explanation of this from a psychological perspective is the individual differences between participants. This is the modern psychological equivalent of what Tibetan Buddhism calls capacity. However there is a characteristic of the Tibetan approach that might be able to shed light on the idea of capacity (or individual differences), it is Bodhicitta1. Progressing beyond the basic stages of meditation (in traditional Tibetan systems) is said to require a Bodhicitta motivation, a wish to use meditation to reduce suffering to self and other inseparably. This is an over simplification of course, there are hundreds of different methods among the Tibetan schools and the degree to which each teacher stresses the need for Bodhicitta is not consistent. However it’s probably reliable to say that compassion based motivation underpins access to and progress within many traditional systems.
No individual spiritual or secular tradition owns the definition of meditation or mindfulness, nor the practices that surround it. And so meditation can grow and develop into any direction demanded by human experience. On one level meditation takes place in a particular context, during a meditation class for example; this may reflect a particular view of the nature of mind and meditation. An alternatively perspective is that the same mind is present inside and outside of formal meditation in a completely integrated way. Some approaches regard meditation as a training of mental processes, effectively a form of behavioral therapy or cognitive development. Sit on a cushion, train for a period of time and acquire some new cognitive disciplines or skills. Other long standing meditation traditions take a different approach, seeing meditation leading to the development of the entire person. Tibetan traditions can also stress compassion as a necessary element for the progress of a meditator, not simply as a prerequisite of some abstract metaphysical paradigm.
We now live in conditions where one form of ‘Buddhist inspired meditation’ has been used by military personnel heading for active service, as well as by high flying business people in a corporate environment. Perhaps the terms meditation and mindfulness do not fully explain any method of meditation clearly, nor give insight into the potential of different approaches. Buddhist meditation systems have developed over centuries in the context of compassion, tolerance and loving kindness. The motivation of the practitioner in this regard is usually seen as key in the progress that they might make. Understanding practitioner motivation; why someone is meditating and what they hope to get from the experience could offer new possibilities in understanding relationships between meditation and wellbeing. But an important step for psychology and neuroscience may be to further explore how concepts like nondual compassion and Bodhicitta motivation may be able to influence the development of the meditator.
This posting was adapted from blog posting on the http://www.whymeditationforhealth.wordpress.com from June 29th, 2015.
1 Bodhicitta can be thought of as a naturally arising wish to attain enlightenment in order to free all beings from suffering. However definitions vary from tradition to tradition.
Evidence of a lasting impact of meditation
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.
More details of this study at Science Daily.
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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The Science of Meditation blog explores recent research in the contemplative sciences
Although it might appear that meditation holds a place in mainstream society, its precise role and the benefits it can bring are very much a subject of academic debate. Western science, particularly psychology, is struggling to establish a coherent definition of meditation which can be used to create a theoretical framework within which meditation might be fully understood. In plain speaking meditation is not always defined reliably, what its components are and how it works is subject to a degree of interpretation. One of the strengths of experimental psychology is replication, when the results of an experiment are repeated by different scientists at different times then the results tend to be viewed more favorably. Because of a lack of consistent definitions, satisfactory replication is big issue in meditation research.
This is not a criticism of meditation. I have seen and experienced the benefits of meditation over many years. But I would like to see significant reforms in the way meditation is researched. The Science of Meditation is a website that highlights and reviews some of the latest research into meditation. Recent blog entries include studies investigating the effectiveness of meditation in a clinical setting as well as workable definitions of the term mindfulness.