How to Start and Sustain a Meditation Practice

yoga

In one of my earlier posts (‘How Meditation Can Change Your Brain’) I explored the scientific evidence behind meditation. Despite the growing body of evidence in its favour, the process of beginning and sustaining a meditation practice can still feel quite daunting. As many reasons as there are to begin meditating, there seem to be an equal number of reasons and excuses not to.

I’ve found it quite useful to acknowledge this underlying resistance and confront it head on. With this in mind, I will discuss some of my own objections to starting a meditation practice and the strategies I’ve used to overcome this resistance.

1) ‘I’m too busy to meditate’

The first and most common objection to meditating is the feeling that we simply do not have enough time. As busy students and academics, there never seems to be enough hours in the day as it is, so how can we justify an additional item on our to-do lists?

Each day we take the time to do a number of tasks that we deem to be essential (such as eating, brushing our teeth, showering and sleeping), yet when it comes to meditating it can feel like a struggle to find the time. Very often this struggle stems from the perception of meditation as an optional indulgence – something which we can do when we aren’t so busy. The truth is that meditating can be of equal, if not greater, importance than these other daily tasks, and it is actually when we at our busiest and most overwhelmed that we would benefit from it the most.

I’ve often found that when it comes to starting a meditation practice, what is crucial is not the actual amount of time we dedicate to it, but the simple act of showing up to meditate on a regular basis. So even if it means taking just a few minutes at the end of each day to centre yourself and focus on your breath, this small action can go a long way towards developing a daily meditation practice.

2) ‘I’m confused about what to do’

 As meditating has become increasingly popularized, so have the range of different meditating styles and techniques. This often leads to questions, and sometimes confusion, over which methods work best. Should I meditate with my eyes open or closed? Am I meant to repeat a mantra while I meditate? Should I listen to music or is it best to have complete silence? Are guided meditations recommended or not?

Irrespective of these different meditation styles and techniques, what they all have in common is an emphasis on slowing down our thoughts and becoming more present. None are better or worse than others and the key is to find what works best for you. This may involve a process of trial and error. It could be that on certain days you enjoy meditating in complete silence, whereas on other days you may find a guided meditation more comfortable.

It’s completely ok to experiment with different methods and then decide which you prefer. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong, and it’s simply a matter of finding out what suits you best.

3) ‘I’m not good at this’

The final part of resistance to meditating derives from our ever present inner critic – the one which constantly tells us we aren’t doing it right because we can’t get our thoughts to stop. Herein lies one of the greatest misconceptions relating to meditation. The goal is not (and never could be) to push away all distractions and to stop our thoughts. Instead, it is to simply slow down the pace of our thoughts, and to become more aware. In so doing, we learn to observe our thoughts without judgment.

Because of our over active human minds, there will inevitably be days when slowing down our thoughts will feel more challenging and when we will succumb to distractions – this is inevitable and it applies to even the most experienced meditators among us. The key is to accept these ups and downs with patience and compassion for ourselves, and then to bring these same qualities into our daily lives, and in our interactions with others.

This raises an important lesson I’ve learned about meditation, which continues to fascinate me and also comfort me on the days when I feel most distracted. Contrary to what many people believe, meditating actually has very little to do with what happens on our meditation cushion. The judgments relating to how good we are at it are not only misplaced, they also overlook the fundamental purpose of meditating.

The objective is not to measure how long we can sit in silence for; instead, the purpose of meditating is to actively cultivate certain qualities within ourselves that we can carry out into the world.

I hope you have found this discussion helpful. If you have any questions or would like some more tips on how to start and sustain your meditation practice, feel free to email me at academease@gmail.com.

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain

In my previous post I discussed the reluctance within academia to incorporate wellness tools in higher education institutions. Part of this reluctance may derive from the uncertainty surrounding the actual impact of wellness tools on health and wellbeing. In this post I will explore some of the latest scientific evidence, which objectively confirms the benefits of meditation for the brain.

Electric Brain

Just as humanity used to believe the world was flat, the medical community once considered the human brain to be a relatively static organ. On average, the brain was thought to reach its developmental peak around our mid-20s, after which we would experience the inevitable atrophy of one of our most complex and valued organs. This assumed trajectory of the brain’s development has provided little hope for reversing some of the most common neurological disorders of our time, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which has continued to steadily increase.

However, through the discovery of something called neuroplasticity, medical researchers have now begun to challenge many long-standing assumptions in the field of neuroscience. Far from being a static organ, neuroplasticity reveals the human brain to be much more dynamic and adaptable than previously thought. In conjunction with this discovery, advancements in technology have opened up the possibility of scientifically measuring changes in the brain over time. Among the types of activities that have recently been subject to scientific investigation is the impact of meditation on the brain.

A vast amount of literature has accumulated over the years on the positive impacts of meditation for general health and wellbeing. Across several studies, meditation has been correlated with alleviating symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Meditators have also reported experiencing lower levels of stress and a general improvement in their overall quality of life. Despite this continuously expanding body of evidence in favour of meditation, many of the studies that have been undertaken to date have relied upon entirely subjective research methods. It was this fact that inspired a team of neuroscientists at Harvard University to objectively assess the impact of meditation on the brain using a technique called Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

The experiments, which were led by neuroscientist Dr Sarah Lazar, consisted of selecting two groups across a similar demographic that had not previously meditated. Dr Lazar’s team put one of the groups on an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme involving a daily guided meditation while the control group were instructed to continue with their daily routines as normal. Participants in the MBSR group reportedly spent an average of 27 minutes per day meditating.

While MRI scans showed no significant changes among the control group, Dr Lazar’s team found some startling results in the group of meditators. After just 8 weeks of meditating, MRI scans revealed notable changes in a number of areas of the brain including an increase in cortical thickness or gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, pre-frontal cortex and the temporo-parietal junction – parts of the brain associated with memory, concentration, cognition, decision-making, problem-solving, and emotional regulation. The scans also revealed a decreased activation and stilling of the Default Mode Network (DMN), responsible for directionless thought and mind wandering, as well as a decrease in the size of the amygdala – the focal point of the brain’s fight or flight stress response mechanism. What these findings reveal is that meditation can literally change the structure of the brain!

Here is a clip of Dr Lazar explaining her motivations for this research, the methods her team applied and the implications of their findings:

This is a fascinating and powerful scientific discovery that objectively confirms the benefits of meditation for the brain. What is perhaps most exciting about these findings is that these positive neurological changes can be observed in as little as 8 weeks.

Please stay tuned for my next post, which will explore tips and techniques for integrating a meditation practice into your daily routine.

Photo Credit: ‘Electric Brain‘ © Michael Coghlan (2012) CC Licence

 

 

 

Bridging the Divide Between Academia and Wellness

Rainbow Bridge

On a sunny morning in September I met my friend Ashley at a cafe near Holborn station in central London. I was about to start a new job at the London School of Economics (LSE) – the same institution where I had been a student over a decade earlier. LSE had been a wonderfully vibrant place to study. During the many years I had spent there as a student I remember feeling inspired by my professors, energized by the lectures I attended and excited by the diversity of the student population. After holding academic positions at the University of Oxford and King’s College London I was delighted to be returning ‘home.’

At the same time I was aware that LSE had changed a lot over the years. To begin with the university grounds looked completely different. The LSE campus had expanded and now boasted an impressive collection of new academic buildings. There were also many more facilities for staff and students, including cafes and study spaces, as well as a brand new Student Union building. In addition to these improved amenities, the way in which courses were taught had significantly changed. Nowadays everything was administered online and students could conveniently access all course materials at the click of a button. Reflecting on the endless hours I spent photocopying from the course collection at LSE’s Social Science Library (and all the paper cuts I endured in the process!) I wondered if today’s students appreciated just how lucky they were.

But the more I reflected, the more I began to question just how lucky today’s students really are. Alongside the sprawl of shiny new buildings, the improved facilities and the convenience of new learning technologies, the experience of being a student today is undoubtedly much more daunting than it was in my day. Tuition fees have nearly doubled and the job prospects awaiting graduates are few and far between. Beyond these factors are the added pressures of studying in the midst of digital distractions. Whether it’s checking email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or WhatsApp, today’s students are overloaded with information and constantly connected. As I recounted to Ashley the types of pressures students faced today, she made a suggestion that I will never forget: “Why not begin your classes with a mindfulness meditation or a breathing exercise – something to centre your students at the start of the class and get them to focus?”

The first thought that came to my mind was that this was a crazy suggestion. There was no way I could begin my classes with a meditation or mindfulness exercise. This was a university after all, not a yoga class! What would my students think if I began my classes in this way? Meditation was something that I practiced at home in order to prepare myself for the day ahead and the idea of bringing this technique to work with me was pretty much the craziest thing I had ever heard. So I tried to find a gentle way to express to my friend that her idea was a bit out there. Breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises were simply not something that academics did in their classrooms and I was not prepared to be labelled a hippy and become the laughing stock of the University! Ashley then asked me an important question, which stayed with me for several weeks after: “But do you think your students would benefit from this technique?”

It was tough to deny the growing body of scientific evidence in favour of meditation and mindfulness strategies. Breathing and centring techniques have proven to be one of the quickest and most effective ways to calm the nervous system and alleviate stress. These types of techniques could also be applied beyond the classroom and in that sense, if I were actually willing to incorporate this into my class, I would be giving my students a tool they could draw upon for the rest of their lives.

In recent years there has been a burgeoning interest in mindfulness and meditation techniques across the UK. This has led to the emergence of organizations like the Mindfulness Initiative – an advocacy project that works in conjunction with parliamentarians, the media and policy makers to increase awareness of how mindfulness can benefit society. In 2015 the Initiative oversaw the publication of the Mindful Nation UK report – the first policy document which seeks to address mental health concerns and enhance wellbeing in the areas of education, health, the criminal justice system and the workplace through the application of mindfulness techniques.

After my conversation with Ashley I began to do a bit of research on the extent to which meditation and mindfulness tools have been applied in higher education settings. What I learned is that despite the growing popularity of these approaches and their demonstrated capacity in alleviating stress, surprisingly few universities have started to explore how these wellness strategies might be utilised by students – yet there clearly is a need. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the number of students with a declared mental health problem has more than doubled from 8,000 to 18,000 over the past 7 years.

Reversing these alarming statistics will require a substantial investment in student wellbeing. It will also require more awareness of the fact that how students approach their studies is equally – if not more – important as the content of what they study. My initial resistance to Ashley’s suggestion is indicative of the extent to which this has been overlooked. While I have practiced meditation and mindfulness strategies over the years in my own time, after spending most of my adult life in the higher education sector the prospect of applying these tools in the classroom is something that had never even crossed my mind. It really goes to show the degree to which the academic path has diverged from the field of wellness. I am indebted to Ashley for her seemingly crazy suggestion and for inspiring me to bring two ostensibly incompatible worlds together. Not only do I now believe it is possible to build a bridge between academia and wellness, I believe it is essential that we find ways to do this.