Thursday, 28 July 2011

Society's Perception of Meditation

Imagine going to your local doctor and suddenly discovering a shamanic healer has been made partner in the practice. Not only that, but all the conventional doctors are referring their most difficult cases to him, murmuring reverentially about his evidence-based magic skills. It would seem pretty surprising, no?

Well, that's about the size of the seismic shift that's taking place in our culture's perception of meditation. In 1970, or even 2001, a meditating politician, teacher or policeman in the West would probably have deemed it prudent to keep their practice a secret, for fear of public ridicule—now we have openly mindful congressmen (see video below) and parliamentarians, and meditation is enthusiastically championed in government reports, school curricula and a vast range of other establishment settings.

There's little question that scientific research has been the driver for this remarkable transformation. Scientific data is the gold standard for validity in our society, and a robust body of research pointing to effectiveness cuts like a sharp knife through bloated old assumptions, especially given that meditation has tended to get lumped in with 'unscientific' approaches such as alternative therapy and religion. If you're able to explain how mindfulness cultivates awareness and compassion in terms of mirror neurons (as Mark Matousek, author of the newly-released Ethical Wisdom, does in this recent interview), it creates the potential for connecting with a certain demographic in a way that asking them to trust their intuition doesn't. And if that's enough to get people past the cliches about self-indulgent hippies and actually into meditation, then that's wonderful—with practice, there's a greater chance they'll trust their intuition soon too.

There are risks in approaching mindfulness as a science. Research study results can seem cut and dried, as if all you have to do to garner the benefits is rock up to an eight-week course and wait for inevitable serenity to arise. As anyone who's ever sat down to meditate knows, it doesn't quite work like that. And there's that tricky word 'benefits' too, mention of which can lurch many of us into patterns of goal-seeking that can actually sabotage our practice, which requires working patiently at re-connecting to the present moment, and letting go of striving for future gain. Science can be a heady affair, too, all cognitive and clinical, whereas the art of mindfulness practice is embodied and messy. Manual labour, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to call it.

I think we're gradually stumbling towards a middle way, and the term contemplative science (with all that it implies) has a lot to offer. While science is a third person process of investigation and observation (you do the experiment on others, keep yourself out of it as much as possible, and watch the results), the contemplation process balances this with a first-person perspective (you do the experiment on yourself, engage with it as fully as you can, and watch the results). A contemplative scientist needs to be proficient in both approaches, and willing to give weight to the evidence that comes from each view.

As practitioner-researchers, many of those working in the mindfulness field can already lay just claim to such a title, which is perhaps why so much high quality work is starting to get done. The scientist or clinician who recommends practice but doesn't engage with it is liable to be much less effective, while the meditator with no mainstream credentials will have trouble connecting with a secular audience.

It's interesting to see religion-bashers like Sam Harris giving mindfulness instructions and espousing contemplative science (albeit in rather an intellectual and defensive way, which you could argue somewhat misses the point). It suggests there is some meeting place where positivists can dialogue creatively with more noetic or even religious souls.

“Wisdom is inclusive, expansive, and non-sectarian by definition,” says Mark Matousek in the above-mentioned interview. Yes indeed—and mindfulness itself is a key to finding some way to that wisdom, as it means daring to peer into our own presumptions and engage gracefully with those who disagree with us. If we can do that, it looks an interesting road ahead, for meditation and for science.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Go Forth And Flashmob

At 6.34pm on Thursday, June 2, several hundred people quietly strolled between the fountains in London's Trafalgar Square, sat down together, and began to meditate. They remained seated on the ground in the crisp summer sunshine for almost half an hour, before getting up again and going their separate ways. The English capital had just played host to its first meditation flashmob.

For those who aren't in the know, flashmobs are gatherings of people who meet up to perform apparently spontaneous and unusual acts in public, and like most, this one was organised over the internet. A Facebook page gave the time, place and instructions, and word spread through online social networks. By the day of the event, more than 500 people had signed up, and from the looks of this video, most of them were actually there. Organizer Elina Pen says she was "astonished" at the level of interest, describing it as "a wonderful 30 minutes of serenity amidst the busyness of Central London..."

Meditation flashmobs have been springing up across the United States and elsewhere over the last year or so, and June 2nd's might have been the largest yet. There's something of a movement happening – websites such as Medmob are promoting the sit-ins, and while many flashmobs thrive on a sense of absurdity or lack of explicit purpose, the meditation variety seem grounded in an underlying ethos – to normalize practice through bringing people together and supporting them to sit in public spaces, and by piquing the interest of bystanders.

There's an enduring misconception in some quarters that meditation is a purely personal, even self-centred act. It's in part a hangover from its associations with the hippie and new-age/alternative scene, both of which have sometimes been accused of promoting narcissism, with an over-involved focus on "me" and "my"
development. So it's refreshing when practice is explicitly undertaken as social experiment, designed not just for individual gain but to make an offering and invitation to others.

Flashmobs are good art, too. At a time when the primary mover in promoting the virtues of meditation is scientific research and medical protocol, it's nice to see meditators injecting some joie de vivre into the fray – if the Trafalgar Square sitters didn't persuade onlookers to take up mind training, they at least gave them a decent spectacle, an unexpected memento from their day to treasure and laugh about when they got home. And maybe one or two did get inspired by seeing a large bunch of strangers (wearing everything from saffron robes to business suits) suddenly and simultanousely parking their arses in one of England's premier tourist spots.

There will be scoffers, for sure - staying silent and engaging with one's inner environment are still viewed as suspicious behaviour in sections of our go-getting, externally-focused culture. Meditation practice ("doing nothing") and social action may even be seen as incompatible, despite the fact that observing one's own mind stream can often be the first step to more skillful, empathic and compassionate relationships. If meditation doesn't lead to greater social responsibility, we probably aren't doing it right.

The flashmob groundswell is growing. Anyone can organize a local event, and if you're looking for solidarity and support, Medmob are working to inspire loosely co-ordinated events around the world, with a monthly event planned for the last Sunday of each month. So for the benefit of all, go forth and flashmob...

NB Another meditation flashmob took place yesterday evening, in London - see report here

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Of Course The Dalai Lama Is A Marxist

I've written a new piece for The Guardian. Taster below...

Of course the Dalai Lama's a Marxist

The leader's statement shocked some in the west, but reminds us of Buddhism's commitment to social as well as individual good
The Dalai Lama has a refreshing tendency to confound western caricatures. As a cuddly old monk, he could comfort fans by fuzzily connecting us to an imagined Shangri-La that contrasts favourably with our own material world. Only he won't play the game, regularly making ethical, political, scientific and (ir)religious statements that rudely pop the projections laid on to him. He was at it again the other day, telling Chinese students that he considers himself a Marxist...
You can read the rest of the piece here.

The Dalai Lama has a refreshing tendency to confound western caricatures. As a cuddly old monk, he could comfort fans by fuzzily connecting us to an imagined Shangri-La that contrasts favourably with our own material world. Only he won't play the game, regularly making ethical, political, scientific and (ir)religious statements that rudely pop the projections laid on to him.
He was at it again the other day, telling Chinese students that heconsiders himself a Marxist

Monday, 13 June 2011

Waking Up To Mindfulness

I'm writing a new regular blog for which will also be posted here. On this page, I will continue to post other writing and news updates as well...

Here's the first blog post below..

Waking Up to Mindfulness

Ten years ago last March, I decided to seek help for my mind. It was near the beginning of a third (and most crippling) episode of anxiety and depression, and I realized that whatever the outer circumstances behind my despair, resolution had to come from within.
Swamped by distressing thoughts and feelings, I felt there must be a way to manage this inner turmoil. The question was, how? Normally, I would use my mind to solve problems in life—but now my mind was the problem in life. Something different was needed, but I'd no real idea what that something might be.

I found myself embarking on a self-help odyssey. In psychotherapy, I explored why my mind was how it was, and gained useful insights into some habitual patterns and tendencies. But I remained acutely depressed and tense, nowhere near discovering how to manage the unrelenting onslaught of negativity and emotional pain. I read a mountain of psychology books, and went to support groups, alternative therapists, and even a psychic—each to little or no avail. Having tried antidepressants, increasingly desperate visits to the GP were also proving fruitless.

It was about two years into this journey that my therapist suggested learning to meditate. It took me several months to act on my therapists' advice, but doing so changed my life. I discovered a meditation center five minutes' walk from my home, and the instructors there were kind and helpful. Too strung-out to sit for long periods, I was advised to begin with "mindful tea-drinking" (just sit and notice the experience of lifting the cup, tasting the tea, putting the cup down again), and perhaps five minutes a day of focusing on the breath. This felt torturous at first—suddenly there was no distraction from my raging mind and body—but at the same time, I sensed some magic happening. I started to sense there was a part of me that wasn't consumed by depression and fear, and that there was a way to sit still—even peacefully—through deep difficulty. So began a love affair with meditation that continues to this day—I've discovered no better way to work with life than this gentle, precise, liberating practice.

A lot has changed in the last decade. Here in the UK, around 70% of family doctors believe mindfulness meditation would be helpful for their patients, and some even have government-funded courses they can refer people to. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is available in most areas, and  newspapers regularly report on meditation's effectiveness for conditions such as depression, chronic pain and addiction. Scientific literature on the subject has exploded: until 2003 there were less than 50 mindfulness research studies a year, while in 2010 this had mushroomed to more than three hundred and fifty. We are learning more and more how meditation practice can be beneficial for the brain, help with illness, and enable us to reach our human potential.

Mindfulness programs are thriving in schools, workplaces, and most other settings where people congregate. Major health charities and government agencies are recommending mindfulness, dozens of books on the subject are published each year, and people who might never have previously encountered meditation are beginning to seek out instruction as a way to manage lives that often seem frenetic or out of control.

The world seems to be waking up to mindfulness. For those of us who believe meditation can bring healing to many of our individual and social wounds, these are exciting times. I'll do my best to chronicle this fledgling process of awakening here,  however it continues to emerge. I'll report on the burgeoning science and practice of mindfulness in our 21st century culture—how it grows, develops and transforms. I'll try to highlight areas of interest and concern to practitioners, and warmly invite you to offer your comments too. And because mindfulness requires engagement as well as observation, I hope you'll indulge me if I say some more about my own experience of meditation—some of the joys and obstacles that are part of what seems to be an ever-unfolding practice. I'd be delighted if you shared your stories too...

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Mindfulness news March-April 2011

Here's a round-up of some of the most recent news stories on meditation from the world media...
April 2011
March 2011
Use mindfulness to manage pain (Irish Independent)

Meditation is an emotional rollercoaster

I've written a new piece for Guardian comment is free belief. Some interesting comments at the end - what do you think?

Meditation is an emotional rollercoaster

With its surges of rage, disappointment, doubt, yearning or regret, meditation isn't all about relaxation
About four days into my first meditation retreat, I started crying. Not little droplets of tears, but great, big, uncontrolled sobs – it felt like I was throwing up wave after wave of stale sadness. I'd expected the long days of sitting to be boring, annoying, physically demanding and (with a bit of luck) illuminating, so to find myself repeatedly breaking down into a noisy heap of grief came as a shock. These spontaneous outbursts of wailing continued throughout the month-long programme – it says much for the teachers' equanimity that they didn't chuck me out...
You can read the rest of the piece here