This week I have been asked to write a blog on the science behind how best to learn meditation. Unfortunately, there is a limited evidence base on this topic. However, I will do what I can!
One of the best books I have read on the evidence base for meditation is ‘The Science of Meditation’, also published as ‘Altered Traits’ by Daniel Goldman and Richard Davidson (2017). Their advice is basically to choose a practice that suits you, stick to it and avoid Charlatans.
Choose a practice that suits you
The meditation practice that you choose depends on what you are hoping to get out of the practice. For example, a practice of attending to the present moment, such as focussing on the breath or body may be associated with increased attention, but not increased compassion or theory of mind. A practice of cultivating positive emotions, such as loving kindness, compassion and gratitude may be associated with improved attention and compassion, but not theory of mind. A practice of observing thoughts may be associated with improved theory of mind (Singer, 2018).
Davidson and Goleman (2017) describe at length how different types of meditation practice generate different results. To summarise, attention meditation may be associated with the mind becoming quieter, improved emotional regulation and reduced stress and anxiety. Loving kindness and compassion meditation may be associated with generating positive mood, generosity and empathy. Meditation which involves observing thoughts may be associated with improved meta-awareness enabling more mental activity to be noticed that was previously unseen as well as enabling awareness of mental activity without becoming swept away by it.
So you might want to choose a course of meditation which includes these three different components:
- attention meditation, eg. focus on breath and/or body awareness;
- loving kindness and compassion meditation; and
- meditation on thoughts.
Stick to it
The key premise of Davidson and Goleman (2017) is that a meditator experiences particular states of mind while they are practising. However, with long term practice (the longer the better) more of these states become traits, ie. they are experienced in our daily lives and become part of our personality. This is due to the well-established process within the brain of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity has been studied rigorously in the field of neuroscience and provides evidence that the more you practice something, the stronger the brain networks that are involved become. The brain rewires in accordance with repeated experience, including experience during meditation. Research so far indicates that the key parts of the brain where neural pathways transform with meditation are: those for reacting to disturbing events, those for compassion and empathy, those for attention and those for supporting our sense of self.
The yogis from the East who commit to years of retreats demonstrate the most impressive changes, such as deep equanimity and selflessness, demonstrating remarkable human potential, as seen in the brains of Tibetan yogis. A strong commitment to long term daily meditation practice and regular meditation retreats generates the best results for us Westerners, if we are not able to devote years of our lives to cloistered retreats. Doing an eight week mindfulness meditation course and following short practices on apps, while beneficial are less impactful (Davidson and Goleman, 2017).
In the UK the British Association of Mindfulness Based Approaches (BAMBA) hosts a list of Mindfulness meditation teachers who meet the requirements of the UK Good Practice Guidelines for Mindfulness Teachers. All of the tutors employed by the Mindfulness Association are on this list and meet the BAMBA Good Practice Guidelines and all have a strong commitment to long term daily meditation practice and regular meditation retreats.
Before engaging in a meditation training find out about the qualifications, training and meditation practice of the teacher you will be working with. If your meditation teacher is from a spiritual tradition research the lineage of meditation teachers within which they have trained. Be aware that much of the media and marketing hype are far removed from what the research has so far established.
The good news is that research suggests that in general practising meditation promotes a healthy mind and body. The not so good news is that sustained practice is required for the most transformative results. Meditation is not a ‘quick fix’!
Written by Heather Regan-Addis
Heather Regan-Addis is a Founder Member and Director of the Mindfulness Association.
Heather delivers training for the Mindfulness Association on our two Post Graduate Master’s degree courses as well as on our regular courses in Mindfulness, Compassion, Insight and on our Teacher training programmes.
Goleman & Davidson (2017) – https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/533719/altered-traits-by-daniel-goleman-and-richard-j-davidson/
The Mindfulness Association’s 8 week MBLC course includes all three components and our longer term training includes:
- Level 1: Being Present with a prime focus on attention meditation, but also introducing meditations on loving kindness, compassion and on thoughts;
- Level 2: Responding with compassion with a prime focus on compassion and loving kindness meditation; and
- Level 3: Seeing Deeply with a prime focus on meditation on thoughts.