All in the mind

Tick off in your mind which of these benefits you would value: reduction of anxiety and irritability, improvement in memory, speeding up reaction times, control of chronic stress, lowered hypertension, increase in cognitive performance, a stronger immune system and improved pain control. That reads to me like one of those Victorian patented panaceas claiming to cure anything from gout to ingrowing toenails. Yet all these effects have been established in scientific, peer-reviewed, studies of mindfulness meditation. 

The last time I wrote about meditation, some three years ago, I confined myself to deep relaxation and mantra meditation. Now I want to go beyond this and look at mindfulness meditation. You can scarcely have missed press mention of this as more and more studies, often using brain scans for confirmation, have been published.
It all sounds a zany idea, doesn’t it? But in fact the essential instructions for its use were provided some 2,500 years ago, and attributed to Buddha. Within the limitations of this column I will attempt an overview.

Our minds tend to be continually busy. As we go through our day the brain is taking in, and processing, innumerable stimuli – and these are compounded by our memories on the one hand and our anticipations of the future on the other. And the problem of these two is that they have a way of clogging the mind. We find ourselves ruminating about our memories (particularly those we would rather not have) and our anticipations (often the fearful ones). We do not, in fact, have the quiet mind which the philosopher Epicurus (who wrote only a little after Buddha) claimed was the ultimately desirable state.

Think of mindfulness meditation as having a dialogue with ourselves. Perhaps for 10 minutes, or for 10 hours, we become aware of all our feelings and immediate experiences — from our contact with the chair to the deeper awareness of our breathing. Into our minds will creep the worrisome thoughts which interfere with our internal awareness. We notice these, at least momentarily, and then gently shepherd our focus back to ourselves – and this is often achieved by attending to our sensations of breathing. To begin with, these distractions come frequently – and that is good, because we are training ourselves in their control. Later they become less frequent. As George Harrison of the Beatles described it, he eventually only needed his mantra at long intervals, as an aid to focus. Distractions have been described as clouds scudding across: they come, we notice them, they disappear, leaving the sky blue again until the next cloud comes.

How does mindfulness work? One important element, often subjectively reported, is a realisation of the difference between the “I” who is meditating, and the sensations and emotions which the “I” is consciously contemplating.  I found this out many years ago as a marriage counsellor. It was only when clients saw that their feelings were not them, but things which they had, that it was possible to get down to useful work. If I am a “bitter person” I am saddled with it. If I admit to having “bitter feelings” then I am free to examine whether I need them or not. Indeed, the people who are truly open to the possibility of improvement put themselves straight into the hands of the Holy Spirit, irrespective of their creed.

Neuroscientists describe the effects through changes in the waves of the brain, each of which has its own frequency band. Put simply, the faster beta waves, used for problem-solving and active attention to the outer world, recede as the slower alpha waves (which introduce creative energy) increase, bringing a sense of peace and well-being. They increase our capacity to modulate and filter our sensory and emotional sensations and allow us to regulate attention. Other levels of brain wave such as theta or delta become more important at advanced levels of meditation. 

I hope that I have told you enough to decide whether you want to try mindfulness for yourself. You will find plenty about it on the internet. On Secondsightblog.com I give you a link to a reliable site. But you might get even further with the book Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (Piatkus, £13.99), which gives you a very good overall picture. It includes a CD of very helpful meditations which, after several weeks, I still use (an ebook may not include the CD, so check). (But see publisher’s comment, May 29 1:58)

You will have realised that mindfulness meditation does not necessarily produce early results; it needs practice and persistence. We are so used to being busy, busy, busy that actually spending time with ourselves alone may not come naturally. You may be helped by teaming up with a friend, or even starting a little group of like-minded meditators. There are, of course, different types of meditation such as mantra and deep relaxation, but the usual advice, with which I agree, is to use the method which suits you best: you are more likely to keep it up.

You may wonder how the secular skills I describe relate to religious meditation. Valuable though eastern meditation may be in its own terms, it is not part of the Christian tradition. But the application is direct: a mindful contemplation which considers how we recognise and experience the mysteries can deepen our prayer. It teaches us not to agonise over our relationship with God but simply to rest in his presence. It is just being quietly together with Him.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience, Spirituality and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to All in the mind

  1. Horace says:

    With respect your paragraph :-
    “Neuroscientists describe the effects through changes in the waves of the brain, each of which has its own frequency band. Put simply, the faster beta waves, used for problem-solving and active attention to the outer world, recede as the slower alpha waves (which introduce creative energy) increase, bringing a sense of peace and well-being. They increase our capacity to modulate and filter our sensory and emotional sensations and allow us to regulate attention. Other levels of brain wave such as theta or delta become more important at advanced levels of meditation. ”
    This does not – after 40 years of studying electrical brain activity – make sense to me. Perhaps you could give us a link to the source document. In particular I would like access to a sample of a full (10-20, 19 channel record, illustrating such changes) and possibly the author might be prepared to provide this.

    • Quentin says:

      http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-02/bu-anb021313.php Will give you a summary, and a contact email.

      You may find the following helpful, if you have access. Journal of Psychiatric Practice Vol. 18, No. 4, WILLIAM R. MARCHAND, MD Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Zen Meditation for Depression, Anxiety, Pain, and Psychological Distress

    • Horace says:

      Apologies!
      I have now discovered that the brainwave studies referred to by Quentin are conducted using MEG (not EEG) technology.
      In EEG studies ‘alpha rhythm’ is fairly well localised to the occipital region and is closely related to vision – or rather lack of it, because it is best seen when the subject’s eyes are closed.
      The ‘alpha rhythm’ referred to here is clearly not the same phenomenon.
      EEG examines electrical potentials recordable from the scalp.
      MEG (Magnetoencephalography) measures the magnetic field produced by electrical currents in the brain (specifically in the neurones of nerve cells). Although first described in the 1960s this technique has only recently become sufficiently developed to be useful in practice (and because I retired in 1994 I have never had the opportunity to use it myself).
      Incidentally fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is a variant of MRI which reveals regions of increased blood flow, which in turn is signalling regions where the brain is particularly active. Time resolution is of the order of seconds whereas EEG and MEG resolve in a timescale of milliseconds.

      The ‘alpha rhythms’ said to be associated with mindfulness meditation training are recorded from the sensory cortex and are reduced in amplitude when attention is focused on the relevant region (e.g. hand or foot). It is credibly claimed that people trained in mindfulness displayed quicker and larger changes in this alpha wave amplitude reflecting their ability to enhance or suppress desired or unwanted mental activity.

      The main point, as I see it, is that these techniques give a detailed and measurable indication of how the activity of the brain relates to the behaviour of the mind.

  2. John Candido says:

    You state that, ‘On Secondsightblog.com I give you a link to a reliable site.’ Can you point me to this site; I cannot find it in your introduction.

  3. Nektarios says:

    I see dangers in all this scientific western approach to meditation/ mindfulness or more accurately, awareness being a little more than a conditioning, technique, philosophy and so on.
    We know of course that there are many schools of meditation, Tibetan, Bhuddist, Hindu, Sufi, Islamic,
    and many other schools of western meditation which seem to require vast resources of concentration.

    In a `how to practice -mindfulness – meditation’ there is a presumed method – that is to condition, another,
    but is that meditation? I think not. It is just a product of thought. Meditation starts where thought stops.

    Now, if I may, can I ask, if I say, I don’t know anything about meditation, what is this awareness or minfulness, and how does such a thing come into being?

    • Quentin says:

      I agree — verbal descriptions can only go so far. You really have to try it. Meanwhile I copy a note from a friend of mine in America. She read the blog and said:

      ” Hi, you may know of him, but I am reading Eckhart Tolle – I think he’s Dutch or German, but he studied at Oxford I think and has well known books on exactly this topic. He basically teaches you to be in complete control of your mind. It’s quite incredible and really effective. It’s very well-known here and he does lots of TV appearances and talks. I’m only bothering to tell you really because it’s really helped me with what was a growing sleep problem – aaaargh!!!! He teaches you to separate the mind from the self. It’s very complicated, so not for idiots by any means! He’s really teaching you to meditate all the time, in that it’s about conscious choosing of decisions and thoughts and emotional reactions. I think the book’s called The Power of Now. It has taught me to switch off my mind if I can’t fall asleep or back to sleep or find myself harboring useless and negative thought patterns. “

  4. John Candido says:

    ‘Meditation starts where thought stops.’ (Nektarios)

    You have hit the nail on its head Nektarios! When I am meditating I use the word ‘Maranatha’, in order to distract my normal manic flow of thinking. Everyone’s mind goes from one thought to another. The use of a word or ‘mantra’, (which means the same thing), or the use of mindfulness, helps one to achieve a state of ‘no thinking’. This is the goal of meditation; no thinking. A state of no thinking is easier said than done, because your mind never stops unless you are trying to meditate.

    Instead of your normal state of thinking about whatever comes into your head, meditation gets you to focus on a word, mantra, feeling, or an awareness of your breath, or some other thing. Anything but your normal state of going from one thought to another. This is my 21st year of meditating. I have been using Christian Meditation. If you want to find out more on the subject, point your mouse to, http://www.wccm.org/ . If you are interested in knowing how I go about my own meditation, click on ‘How to Meditate’ on the front page of the link.

    • Nektarios says:

      John Candido

      Many thanks for your link. Very informative I must say.

      It does not come as a surprise to me, to see meditation practiced all over the world.
      Man is the same all over the world. You are the world and the world is you.

      I did not care very much for the discussion between the Dalai Lama and Freeman OSB
      and gave a very wrong impression to me. The idea that Buddhist Meditation and Freeman’s idea of Christian meditation, thought about, and talked about the same thing
      was misleading on the part of the Dalai Lama.
      He sought to demonstrate that Christian teaching of the Gospel and Buddhist teaching
      on meditation produced the same ends. This is FALSE!

      The list Quentin gave in his prologue to all this, is desireable by anyone, but one thing meditation does not do, is give man Salvation.
      The Gospels OT and NT are unique to this world. It is a revelation of God to this world.
      Here is one of the dangers I saw. That credability is given to these other Faiths as on a par with the Gospel, supposedly speaking about the same things and so on, is to detract from the uniqueness of the Gospels and the Salvation of God through His Son Jesus Christ – neither is there Salvation in any other.
      Salvation is not an improved lifestyle, religiously, morally and so on, it may be all that,
      but that is not Salvation.of God in Jesus Christ. That Salvation is a total new nature, making one who has it, a new creature and indeed a new creation, toally different from
      the past as light is different from darkness.

      But to return to the subject on meditation, you still have not answered my question,
      where is this mindfullness or awareness coming from?

  5. John Candido says:

    ‘Now, if I may, can I ask, if I say, I don’t know anything about meditation, what is this awareness or mindfulness, and how does such a thing come into being?’ (Nektarios)

    Perhaps if I could define some things for you, things may become clearer to you.

    ‘Meditation’ is the effort to focus your attention on a mantra or word, in order to still the train of thought that you would have, if you were not meditating. This practice, if done regularly, is what produces more contentment and inner peace in one’s life. It produces more contentment and inner peace; not total contentment and inner peace.

    ‘Mindfulness’ is the outcome of focussing on your word or mantra thorough meditation. It is a form of self-awareness of what you are doing. You are focussed or mindful of on your ‘word’, in order to produce a state of no thinking. It is this state of ‘no thinking’ that you can at times experience contentment and peace. You have to keep reminding yourself to go back to the mantra or word, whenever you become mindful that you are lost in your own train of thoughts.

    ‘Awareness’ is something that can come to you in ordinary life, or through the practice of meditation. What we are talking of here is self-awareness. It is not something extraordinary, but a natural outcome of your own thought, or through meditation. I suppose you can slowly become sensitised to self-awareness through regular meditation. You can slowly become more aware of certain dissatisfactions in your life, or more aware of certain things to avoid or accept in life. All of these things can come about through common-sense, and/or through meditation.

    People need to get away from the notion that it is some form of ‘Eastern magic’. You still have rows with people, get physically or mentally ill, (depending on the individual in question), make bad mistakes, have accidents, fail in various things, get depressed, etc. Even if I were to use a very disturbing example in the shocking murder of British soldier Lee Rigby; meditation would not have saved him from the overwhelming depravity and vile crime that was to be his fate.

    So why bother with it, you may well ask. Meditation helps generate more contentment, peace and happiness in your life, so you can better cope when your life goes off the rails at times. Christian Meditation is not some pernicious attempt at converting you from one religion to another; not even subtly. Nor is it some insidious tool of Satan, or of anyone else, which seeks to convert you to another political belief or philosophical position. Neither does it promote irresponsibility or irrationality, or a constant state of daydreaming; however pleasant daydreaming may be at times. If you were to take on the practice of meditation seriously and regularly practice it, you alone can be the judge of its efficacy for your own self.

  6. Nektarios says:

    John Candido
    Many thanks for that.
    I did not say, I did not know anything about meditation of meditating, I did say, If I were to say, I did not know anything about meditation.
    From the website you provided it supplied sufficient information on meditation as you understand it.
    I am sure we can discuss much on the subject of meditation, but not on the blog.
    If you would like to discuss about meditation further, and believe me, there is a lot more further to explore and discuss. Just as Quentin for my email address.
    Don’t feel in anyway you need to or pressurized to do so.

  7. Singalong says:

    John, your comment is very helpful to me. I have read Fr. Bede Griffiths and Fr. John Freeman, and had enthusiastic recommendations, and also read very exaggerated claims for this kind of meditation, but have never felt inspired enough to find the time it must need, even though it might have helped me to cope better at those times when life, as you put it, has gone off the rails.

    Perhaps age and experience helps to achieve similar results, helped just as much now, I find personally, by activities such as a good long walk, singing with others, a good book, a meal in good company . . . . .

  8. John Candido says:

    Yes Singalong, that is a fair comment.

  9. John Candido says:

    I would also like to add for the sake of balance, that meditation is practiced by millions of people around the world. Not all of them have major personal problems that potentially require the intervention of mental health professionals. They continue to practice meditation because they find value in doing it. Therefore, meditation is not something that is only applicable to people who have had their life interrupted by having it go off the rails.

  10. Nektarios says:

    Although I sounded negative about the discussion I watched between the Dalai Lama and Freeman OSB, and inherant problems associated with so much that passes as meditation.
    So let me address that now.
    What is Meditation? Meditation is the investigation or examination of fear, the examination and understanding of pleasure and the ending of sorrow. Not the repitition of some mantra, sitting in a corner going off into some nonsensical visions – but this is the foundation – please see it – this is the foundation of meditation. If one is not deeply established in that foundation ones meditation is bound to lead to illusion and meaningless.

  11. Anne Lawrance says:

    In your recent article on mindfulness, you mention the bestselling title ‘Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. This is just to let your readers know that if they buy the ebook version, they will be able to access a link to download the meditations contained on the free CD so they won’t miss out.

  12. Brian Hamill says:

    Quentin, you say, ‘Valuable though eastern meditation may be in its own terms, it is not part of the Christian tradition.’ That is only partially true since the Christian tradition is fundamentally what Christians do with good and creative outcomes. This means that, if Christians make good use of Eastern meditative methods, these can become, and are in fact becoming, part of the Christian tradition in the same way as the pagan Greek philosophical traditions became part of the Christian tradition in the early centuries. One of the great misunderstandings in this area rests on the assumption that, if a tradition from outside has not entered the Christian tradition in the last two thousand years, it never will or should. The Holy Spirit in bringing us into ‘All Truth’ is not under any time constraints, as far as I read it.

  13. mike Horsnall says:

    I’m sure you are all pretty familiar with the early Jesuit involvement with meditation and the subsequent infusion of contemplation and meditation-around 15-1600 ad I think it was. If you go to loyola hall Ignatian spirituality centre (quick before it closes!) you will see the pictures of the monks in lotus pose. I think there is much overlap between these techniques simply because there is only one nervous system, only one body, only one mind broadly speaking that is. I also think it is a mistake to identify meditation with any particular tradition exclusively since meditation is fundamentally a technique. I don’t think learning meditative techniques neccessarily helps or hinders spiritual life but it may well give an individul greater use of their own faculties and help them see things a bit more clearly in order to choose right actions. Right actions of course are pleasing to God per sec -a cursory glance through psalms and proverbs should underline this abundantly. There is a sense in which meditation can lead one towards unthinking pantheism and a kind of nature worship -also the sense of balance gained may give, from the Catholic perspective an illusory sense of harmony unrelated to God. Anthony DeMello was the contemporary Jesuit regarding Christian Meditation I think. You can google him if you want.

  14. John Candido says:

    If I may add some potatoes to my meat; in case anyone is wondering, I have not experienced a single problem in my practice of Christian meditation, over the last 21 years. Not one! I might be pressed for time, or upset, or my mind is too active to settle down in order for me to meditate. But there has never been any problem whatsoever in its practice, or in terms of any side effects.

    The goal of meditation is unity with God and unity with other people. It is through that unity with God that we experience some peace and contentment. It is never a shortcut to perfection. There are no shortcuts in life, only difficulty. The point of meditation is that it makes your life a little easier, not perfect.

    And for anyone concerned that the practice is not Christian and therefore something to be wary about, Christian Meditation has deep historical roots in Christianity. Saint John Cassian was a holy man, a hermit, and a desert father who practised meditation during the 4th century.

    Enjoy!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cassian

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurence_Freeman

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_meditation

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