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’.

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.

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.

How much does science know about meditation?

The idea that a meaningful understanding of meditation can be reached through scientific research alone is being challenged.

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Meditators must engage more with science

Are meditators contributing to confusion and uncertain about meditation in contemporary society?

Meditate for improved health and well being
What do meditators know about meditation?

A significant amount of media coverage is dedicated to the benefits (or not) of working with mind. Frequently scientific studies are cited to support a particular position or opinions about aspects of meditation. However there is little public engagement with the science of meditation more generally. The last 30 years has seen an increasing interest in both traditional and contemporary forms of meditation and mindfulness. As someone who has received great benefits from ‘practice’, I welcome wider discussion on the subject. Regrettably the voices of practitioners are rarely heard in the empirical debate, even though they hold a significant body of knowledge not necessarily accessible to the scientists. It is true that many meditation scientists are in fact practitioners, I am a case in point. But I’m not sure that I can be a representative for, or of the wider meditation community with regards to my own research.

In every instance there are significant differences in the roles of subjective observer (practitioner) and objective observer (scientist). Within contemporary experimental psychology the quantitative, objective approach is generally kept distant from issues connected to actual real world experience. This makes the input of a large and influential meditation community essential to a balanced understanding of meditation. For example for a considerable time nondual forms of meditation were not being recognized by most researchers, despite the fact that duality is a central pillar of Buddhist teaching and a context for all related practices.

Traditionally scientific research is evaluated by other scientists through a peer review system. Influential research can remain within the maze of academic publications and scientific reviews for years. If a paper is regarded as being of particular interest it can be brought into the mainstream by journalists or other commentators. But it is also possible for research to influence public policy without a conversation with the wider community. In general terms I think people should be free to develop their own ideas about meditation. But it’s probably not useful for scientists to be evaluating what a practice is, without a clear understanding of how it is undertaken and what the meditator is doing with their mind. Published meditation and mindfulness studies can now be measured in tens of thousands (just check on Google Scholar). But the contribution of many of these papers is uncertain. Most studies report some ‘effect’ from a training in meditation, but when a range of studies are compared (meta reviewed), patterns are less than clear. In fact the methodological and theoretical basis of many meditation studies does not stand up to close scientific scrutiny. The relationship between traditional meditation and contemporary mindfulness practices is also somewhat confused.

As a Buddhist meditator (rather than a dharma scholar) my training has largely been based on challenging self rather than other. However as a meditation scientist a critical perspective is essential to both understand and engage with meditation studies. Many practitioners may feel that the scientific community are in a good position to inform society about the value of meditation and mindfulness. It is perhaps this view that has allowed meditation to be a partner in an appropriation process, both directly and by association. From my current vantage point, as a long standing meditator and post grad researcher, I can see a need for greater interaction between the meditation and scientific communities.

Meditation is by its very nature an experiential  practice, what happens to the meditator is of crucial importance in the process. And yet meditation research has been dominated by ‘objective’ scientific measurement. Broad acceptance of the need to better understand the experience of the meditator (e.g. the phenomenological matrix) has only been around for a few years.  There are almost no authoritative surveys focusing specifically on either meditators, meditation practice or the meditation communities at large. Even in strictly secular forms of meditation such as MBIs there is a need for a wider discussion about the processes involved and the relationship with traditional approaches. Mindfulness has existed for centuries in Buddhist practices but the terminology is evolving into new areas in a contemporary setting. Some teachers of traditional meditation now draw a distinction between MBIs as ‘bare attention’ and Buddhist understandings of mindfulness. Does this mean we now need to distinguish between different forms of mindfulness? Recent investigations has suggested that mindfulness research can be based on one of dozens of operational definitions. This confusion has in part been caused because the field of contemplative science has little input from contemplatives.

There are I think, three things that could be done immediately.

  • If as a meditator you encounter unclear information about meditation in your sphere of activity you may wish to attempt to discuss it.  A polite engagement is likely to be enriching even if your original thoughts prove to be wrong.
  • Those individuals and organisation regarded as stakeholders in meditation (traditional and secular), should offer greater public comment regarding scientific matters linked to meditation.
  • Finally a forum should be created where meditators and meditation scientists can come together to discuss the science of meditation. Not a limited contact between senior Buddhist figures and leading neuroscientist, but a dialogue in every community where meditators and scientists share this common interest.

Many traditional practitioners are taught  not accept teachings just because they come from someone who seems knowledgeable, like a monk for example. Rather to test the teachings for themselves. Given the known and demonstrated problems in the research of meditation perhaps the same logic should be applied to statements from scientists?

Beginners mindfulness weekend retreat

Beginners mindfulness and compassion retreat in Eastbourne, East Sussex

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Mindfulness retreat for beginners

I’d like to highlight two projects being run by the experienced and qualified meditation teacher Cesare Saguato.

There is a beginners weekend retreat in mindfulness and compassion based in Eastbourne from Friday 9th to Sunday 11th of February 2018. Secondly a public eight week mindfulness course that begins in Rochester on January 12th 2018.

Full information including prices and booking details can be obtained from Cesare’s own website.

Understanding mindfulness and meditation – The role of compassion

An important truth about mindfulness and meditation practice

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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.

Notes.

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.