In his latest book, Richard Layard draws attention to a potential lack of altruism in contemporary mindfulness. The implications are profound.
Concerns linked to a lack of reliable evidence supporting the rapid growth of mindfulness are nothing new. Scientists have long complained about theoretical problems and the overstating of preliminary findings. But the key criticism has been that many mindfulness experiments are never replicated. This being a standard practice to establish causality in human behaviour. But new challenges about the relationship between happiness, altruism and brain training are emerging.
A new book has highlighted a potential problem attracting the attention of the meditation community. In Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics, Baron Richard Layard proposes that altruism mediates happiness. At the same time he acknowledges that mindfulness is accused of reducing altruism when compared to traditional Buddhist meditation. If Layard’s theories are substantiated, the beneficial effects of contemporary forms of mindfulness must be reviewed. In fact, all psychological therapies that reduce altruism will have to be re-evaluated.
Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics is being criticized for a lack of scientific objectivity. Many of the claims made in the book appear to be subjective. But the failure of mindfulness to replicate the implicit nondual aspects of Buddhist meditation has been of concern for over a decade. Meditation is a complex human behaviour, the mechanisms it engages are not yet fully understood by neuroscience or cognitive psychology. Any suggestion that some secular meditation methods can reduce happiness is particularly worrying.
We know relatively little about the long term effects of the practice of mindfulness, either in children or adults. But most experienced Buddhist meditators are aware that a meditation method alone doesn’t guarantee positive results. The ethical context of the meditation and the motivation of the practitioner are crucial to its success. Layard is an economist, not a scientist, so his views on scientific matters need to be treated with caution. But in his defence, he is really only repeating claims made by members of the scientific and academic community over many years.
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.
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”
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.
Let go of resentment, abandon negativity, move towards enduring happiness.
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.
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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