Meditation can support your New Year’s resolutions. This relationship also highlights the importance of motivation and perseverance in mind training.
Motivation is central to meditation success
As we approach the end of the year, the nights start to draw out in the Northern hemisphere, and we begin to look forward to the springtime. This is the time of year when thoughts turn to new starts and resolutions. The concept of making commitments for renewal and development at the turn of the year comes down to us through Babylonia via Rome. The Babylonians made solemn promises to make good debts; a practice echoed later by Romans who pledged to the god Janus (January) to make positive changes in the New Year.
From a psychological perspective, the idea of changing established patterns of behaviour on a particular date is challenging. If we seek to stop or alter activities that have become routine for us, a long-term approach is likely to be more effective than an ‘all or nothing’ New Year’s resolution. Behavioural patterns are based on structure and functions in brains; merely saying ‘I’m going to change’ doesn’t alter the long-term cognitive conditioning we are all subject to. This fact of neuroscience is the main reason why around 80% of all New Year’s resolutions fail within six weeks.
Meditators following traditional methods are continually working to change behaviours. Rarely does the practice of starting to meditate bring instant results. It is a continual and evolving process where progress occurs over time. It is these principles of motivation and perseverance that characterise the journey of a meditator. If we applied the idea of progressive change rather than a ‘win or lose’ mentality to our resolutions, we would see a greater probability of success (science and Buddhist knowledge concur on this point). Although researchers of meditation and mindfulness rarely consider motivation and perseverance, they are essential characteristics in the success of traditional meditation training.
The New Year is a great time to take stock and make plans for the future; however, it is long term strategies that most likely to lead to lasting change. It’s unnecessary to start meditating if you just want to lose weight or give up smoking, but the knowledge accumulated in thousands of years of human engagement with meditation can provide useful help.
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.
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?
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.
Students reporting mental health and wellbeing issues had risen fivefold before the Covid pandemic. Can #meditation help hold back the tide?
There was growing evidence that young people’s mental health and wellbeing in the UK was in decline long before COVID. This problem is particularly pronounced among students in higher education (HE). According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)1, the proportion of university students reporting a mental health condition grew five-fold in the last decade. However, studies from cognitive psychology and contemplative science have started to signpost approaches that offer support for students dealing with anxiety, stress, procrastination, and motivation.
Not unsurprisingly, problems with mental health and wellbeing can profoundly impact students’ ability to perform academically and their willingness to complete their chosen course of study. Serious mental health problems are rarely restricted just to academic matters and can influence all areas of life. In some universities, 25% of the total student body has engaged with or are waiting to access wellbeing services.
From a scientific perspective, there is a range of mixed messages coming from meditation research. There are individual studies that suggest meditation or mindfulness can have a positive impact on specific mental health and wellbeing issues. Still, regrettably, the results are rarely replicated or strongly supported by strategic reviews. However, by approaching student mental health using instruments from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, some straightforward strategies for using meditation and mindfulness emerge. These centre mainly on understanding the known constructs that underpin obstacles to successful engagement with HE.
Although every student is different and the challenges each faces is unique, the science indicates there are common factors to many of the academic obstacles they face. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the same meditation is beneficial for every student. But an appropriate method (one able to tackle their underlying problems) is likely to bring some benefit leading to a more positive engagement with academic work and improve all-round wellbeing.