The RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences has established a new Centre for Positive Psychology and Health. In March, it launched a ten-lecture public programme called the Science of Health and Happiness. Sharing the lecture content with thegloss.ie, this week, Dr Pádraic Dunne considers the benefits of meditation.
If you want to be a better leader, meditate. If you want to be a better parent, meditate. If you want to be a better colleague and friend, meditate. It is important to dispel some myths surrounding meditation practice. Firstly, meditation is not about stopping thinking. No matter how tranquil you feel in the body and how calm your mind is at any given time, there will always be thoughts, sensations, emotions and memories being detected and/or made by the brain, especially at the start of meditation practice and for those new to sitting still without doing. It is the nature of the mind to be constantly active. The goal is not to stop thinking or sensing; the goal is to disengage, moving around, beyond and above thoughts, sensations, emotions and memories.
Secondly, you don’t need to practice for hours each day to receive any benefit from meditation practice. Our research and others’ show that positive effects can be observed after only five minutes of practice, twice daily for four weeks. Finally, although meditation practice is a core aspect of Buddhism and many religions around the world, including early Christianity, you don’t have to be religious to gain the benefits. The atheist’s brain can gain the same rewards from regular practice as the devout religious one. These core practices are thousands of years old, with clear guidelines and benefits that science is now beginning to confirm.
You are not your thoughts. This is a very important statement; one that many of us forget from time to time. This concept is especially important during times of accumulating stress and anxiety, which can often have negative effects on mental and physical health. Your brain will respond in the same manner to a paper tiger and a real one, if you tell it that both represent a significant threat. In the face of either threat, your perception and thinking processes will combine to activate the brain and nervous system, resulting in a cascade of stress hormones, including adrenaline. The consequences are accelerated heart rate and increased blood pressure, increased oxygen intake, decreased digestion, enhanced energy consumption, sweating, dilated pupils and tunnel vision. Additionally, activity in the logical/cognitive part of the brain is often reduced, as the brain’s emotional and reactive centre takes control. This is all very fine and necessary, if you need to run from the real tiger. However, it’s not all that helpful if you are sitting in a meeting with colleagues, feeling that your career is being threatened. Furthermore, while these necessary stress responses help us in the heat of battle, they can have serious negative impacts on our body, if activated over long periods of time. The outcome can be burnout and chronic anxiety, which is associated with heart and gut problems, loss of immune system function, as well as fatigue-related issues.
If the thinking process is the problem, it is also the source of the solution. Remember, you are not your thoughts: you have the choice to attribute meaning to these thoughts that emerge in your mindscape. You can choose whether to engage these thoughts or not.
More often than not, when we engage these first (often negative) thoughts, they initiate a domino effect that can lead to narratives of thinking, which can be catastrophic in nature, as they project into the future. As I mentioned at the beginning, you can’t stop your thinking process. However, you can disengage from these initial thoughts, thereby stopping this cascade of negative and threatening thinking processes.
We can use meditation to help us practice this disengagement on a moment-by-moment basis. Eventually and over time, we learn how much choice we actually have in relation to engaging thoughts, memories, sensations and emotions. We can’t stop thoughts, memories, sensations and emotions but we can choose how we react to them. Meditation limits these engagements, stops the development of catastrophic narratives and reduces the perceived threat. This can only be a good thing and is, in essence, the first and central aim of meditation practice.
Meditation practice consistently seems to have a positive impact on mental health, especially anxiety, stress and burnout as well as on pain, the immune, hormone and cardiovascular systems. There is also some tantalising evidence that meditation practices can have an effect at the epigenetic level – a fascinating, relatively new area in genetics.
Although we are all time-poor these days, most of us can find just two minutes in which to sit and disengage. Be your own researcher – test the experience for yourself. Research from University College London shows that it takes on average 66 days to form new habits. Practise for two minutes in the morning and evening for 66 days:
Sit, set a timer for two minutes. Close your eyes. Breathe normally. Each time you become distracted by memory, thoughts, sensations and emotions, disengage and return to your normal breathing. When your timer goes off, get on with your day.
Remember, you are not your thoughts. Use this simple meditation practice to retrofit your brain and help take control of your daily reactions. www.rcsi.com.
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