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.