meditation in the UK

Nottingham Buddhist monks plan meditation cave

Buddhist monks are planning to open a meditation cave under Nottingham.

The cave below the Buddhist centre on Derby Terrace would be a place for people to be completely alone, said a spokesperson for the monks.

There are about 450 man-made sandstone caves in Nottingham dating back to the medieval period.

The caves have been used as dungeons, beer cellars, tanneries and air-raid shelters but there are no records of them being used for meditation before.

Venerable Edo Shonin and Venerable William Van Gordon opened the Bodhayati Vihara Buddhist centre near The Park in May.

The pair said the centre was home… Read the rest of this article…

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Transcendental meditation: don’t leave home without it

Shirley Lancaster: Looking after our minds should be as natural as brushing our teeth. The government’s Action for Happiness suggests daily habits – doing good to others, taking exercise and nurturing relationships – can improve our mental health, just as five-a-day fruit and veg portions improve our physical health.

The psychiatrist Dr Norman Rosenthal, best known for describing seasonal affective disorder, believes meditation is an essential daily habit. Addressing a seminar on Meditation and Mental Health in London this month – organised by Meditatio, the outreach programme of the World Community for Christian Meditation – Rosenthal said he wouldn’t leave the house without it.

Rosenthal recommends transcendental meditation (TM) to patients. Peer-reviewed research on the physical and psychological benefits of TM – from reduced anxiety to increased creativity is – impressive. Different forms of meditation and mindfulness will affect brain waves in different ways, said Rosenthal, but they all reap benefits. Our responses become less reactive. For prisoners and city school kids, “a couple more minutes to respond” can mean not hitting out.

But the benefits of meditation are not limited to anger management and lower cholesterol. At the seminar Read the rest of this article…

psychiatrists, therapists, mental health workers and spiritual teachers had come together to explore how the spiritual dimension of meditation contributes to wholeness and wellbeing. For Laurence Freeman OSB, the fourth-century desert monks were early psychologists of the soul. Impelled to control unruly thoughts and emotions they found that repeating a “word” anchors the mind. Confronting inner thoughts and compulsions leads to self-knowledge – a precondition for knowledge of God. In focusing the mind, and embracing inner conflict, modern meditation practice offers the deepest natural therapy for the soul.

But repetition can also be dysfunctional, said Freeman. Mentally going over the same ground, and addictive behaviour, shows where we get stuck. Freud revealed these unconscious processes. But in converting neurotic misery into “common unhappiness” he underestimated our capacity for wholeness and joy, suggested Freeman.

Treating the “whole” person is paramount, said Professor Peter Gilbert. Service users often wanted to talk about their spirituality but were not given the opportunity. When a bereaved man was asked what he found helpful to combat depression, he said attending his Catholic church was comforting. The professional reply was: “Yes, but putting that aside, where else do you find support?” Carers had ignored who he was, said Gilbert. We all have stories to tell, and we need space to hear them. Feeling a stranger in the world, which some feel, is a spiritual condition.

Christian, Buddhist and Muslim spiritual leaders made clear that we are “spiritual beings on a human journey rather than human beings on a spiritual journey”. So could our depression and stress-related illnesses be a “sane” reaction to the “madness” of modern living? If the pace of life is too fast, the pressure to compete and accumulate too dominant, and too much choice leads not to inner freedom but a consumer jadedness, is it surprising that we making ourselves ill? With an estimated £105bn mental health bill in England, can meditation and a spiritual perspective help?

Recent guidelines from the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence have brought mindfulness practice into the mainstream. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is recommended for depression because it helps. Paying attention with more focus, and being in the present moment in a non-judgmental way, has psychological benefits.

Chris MacKenna, a therapist and Anglican priest, said that “being with” ourselves is part of the therapeutic journey. This is not always pleasant. But by being with our anxiety or pain, we change our relationship to it. With greater self-knowledge we become agents of our own healing.

Meditation is also a way of “being with” ourselves at depth. It can be unsettling, as Ed Halliwell recently argued on Comment is free. But research shows meditation aids mental stability.

If practised regularly, the emotions that rise up become integrated. This “work” of meditation is emphasised by all spiritual traditions – and is not about looking beautiful sitting in the lotus position on a beach.

The reality is a busy teacher, office worker or mother grabbing 20 minutes to connect with a deeper centre from which to “be” before the “doing” takes over. Meditation prioritises our instinctive need for wholeness. It attends to the soul and spirit. For spiritual traditions it is a work of transformation that brings spiritual fruits: love, peace, compassion, joy. A daily habit shown to be good for mind and heart, as well as the body, could offer one important way to happiness and reducing our mental health bill – though smiling at the postman will probably help too.

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Life could be like a box of chocolates

Genevieve Fox: Mindfulness is hip. It’s as trendy as yoga or zone-eating. No surprises, then, that when I enter the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC), I see dawn-red soft furnishings, green plants, rubber mats and kneeling stools. Wellbeing gurus would feel right at home.

So would chocolate lovers. Mark Williams, clinical psychologist and the Centre’s director, suggests the best way to understand mindfulness is to try it and invites me to join him in a “chocolate meditation”.

Mindfulness, he says, is about being present in the moment, being aware of our thoughts and feelings – so that instead of being overwhelmed by them we are better able to manage them. Using meditation and other techniques such as breathing and yoga-based exercises, it helps us think about ourselves, and in turn others, with kindness and an overriding sense of acceptance. It’s about finding our innate joie de vivre and feeling able to cope just when we think we’re going under. It’s as irresistible as chocolate.

Prof Williams has created a series of mindfulness meditations, designed to steer us to an inner place of calm, no matter how frantic and demanding our lives. They form the basis of his new book on the topic, co-authored with journalist Danny Penman. The book offers an eight-week programme of exercises, supported by a CD and is aimed at anyone who feels depressed, unhappy or overwrought.

We start the chocolate meditation. Standing together, we each unwrap a chocolate, shut our eyes, inhale its aroma, Read the rest of this article…

then look at it and, finally, eat it. Guided by Prof Williams’s gentle voice, the world slows down as I create a pocket of space in which to enjoy a few moments of sensory awareness. I think about what I am doing; something usually rushed and unremarkable becomes a pleasurable experience. I glimpse the elation Charlie Bucket felt when he found the golden ticket.

“You enjoy the chocolate more than you would normally,” explains Prof Williams afterwards. The exercise, he says, “allows a sense of holiday atmosphere, here, right now, in the moment”.

Mindfulness may be a current buzzword but it is also eminently respectable, rooted in science and approved by Nice, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, as a treatment for clinical depression, in combination with another technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT helps patients manage their anxieties by challenging how they think and act; mindfulness gives them the skills to help prevent relapses of the illness.

This combined approach, called Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), was first developed in the 1990s by Prof Williams, psychologist Prof Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto, and John Teasdale, a research scientist at Cambridge University specialising in cognitive approaches to treating depression. It is the basis of the eight-week programmes Prof Williams conducts three times a year at OMC, which is part of Oxford University’s department of psychiatry; sufferers of clinical depression are referred to the centre by their GPs. During the programme, patients meet as a class for two hours a week, then follow 40-minute meditations daily for six days a week.

“MBCT is the first genuinely preventative treatment for serious depression,” says Professor Williams. Depression can be recurrent, he explains, so the aim is to teach patients in the periods when they are well the mindfulness skills they need when it returns. “MBCT has been clinically proven to halve the risk of depression in those who have suffered the most debilitating forms of the illness. It also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability, so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily.”

It is supported by clinical and scientific evidence: the latest study, published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging in January, found that meditating for half an hour a day for eight weeks can increase the density of grey matter in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory, stress and empathy, our ability to recognise and share others’ feelings.

The meditations in his book, designed to reach a wider audience, are shorter than those used at the Centre but, Williams explains, mindfulness practice helps both sufferers of clinical depression and those simply looking for tools to manage stress. This is because “the same patterns that keep us stuck in depression also prevent us from living a full life. We are always on our way to something. But it doesn’t take much of a shift to own the present moment,” he says.

Jeremy Lane [not his real name], 66, was never able to “own” the present moment: he was too busy worrying about both past and future. A former senior manager with a pharmaceuticals company, married with two adult children, he was for 30 years in a loop of negative thoughts – a “constant low mood”, he says. Driven, ambitious and self-critical, he was also deeply unhappy, so he pushed himself harder and the critical voice got louder.

After years of taking anti-depressants, Jeremy was referred by his GP to the OMC last year. The eight-week programme, he says, finally gave him a way of dealing with his feelings of dissatisfaction and self-loathing. “It’s made me more self-aware. I still have negative thoughts, but I step back, recognise them for what they are: thoughts, or historical things I can’t do anything about.”

Save for two brief occasions, Jeremy has managed without anti-depressants since completing the MBCT training. “It’s not a magic solution,” he is keen to stress. “If you suffer from depression it is always there, sitting in the undergrowth, ready to jump out and get you. But it’s a major plus in dealing with it.”

Many of us have a critical inner voice. It may not be as unforgiving as Jeremy’s, but it’s enough to make us unhappy, sometimes profoundly so, even when we know we’ve got everything going for us – an interesting job, a loving family, good health. And we try to talk our way out of the doldrums, often with a voice as harsh as Jeremy’s.

“We ask ourselves, ‘What have I got to be depressed about?’” says Williams. “What’s wrong with me? Snap out of it.’ It’s a brooding loop. Mindfulness gives us the resources to step outside that loop. It teaches us to objectify our thoughts for what they are: just thoughts. You don’t have to argue with them, just notice them.” The same applies to memories.

“If you think of the mind as the sky, then negative thoughts are dark clouds. It’s about learning to be with that weather, and not blaming yourself for it. It’s about seeing the mind’s patterns more clearly – and not taking them personally – and finding a place of stillness within yourself where the storm is not raging.”

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