The Psychology of Meditation: Research and Practice
Janki Foundation Lecture – September 2016
The topic of mindfulness and meditation, both rapidly becoming buzzwords in some circles, was taken up by Michael West, Senior Fellow at The King’s Fund and Professor of Organisational Psychology at Lancaster University’s Management School. Professor West gave this year’s JF Annual Lecture, in September 2016.
Meditation has been practised worldwide in different spiritual and religious guises for millennia, Prof West explained, but today there is a huge body of research into the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, both in clinical and non-clinical applications. The interest in mindfulness, he said, is difficult to separate from meditation, except, perhaps, for the fact that mindfulness is mainly secular.
The components of mindfulness he explained, are awareness of both external and inner worlds, sustaining of attention, non-judgemental acceptance and being present in the moment. These characteristics are primarily responsible for the changes seen, for example, in addictions studies, which show reduced dependence on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or food, including self-reporting by participants of being less reactive to previous ‘cues’ for the addiction eg smoking after meals.
Participants also report more self-compassion and a reduction in worry, rumination and anxiety—they could see the spinning of the hamster’s wheel rather than being caught up in running on it. This is not surprising as, since 1998, research has shown meditation to be associated with improvements in depression and anxiety, specifically in regulation of attention and emotion, and in the management of stress.
Meditation has also brought significant improvements in managing disease states such as cancer, IBS, diabetes, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, with general benefits such as a decrease in inflammation, healthier immune status, and improved well-being. Modern studies confirm some well-documented payback such as improved sleep, lower blood pressure and a lowered need for oxygen, a metabolism marker.
Researchers in healthcare tend to compare meditation with other treatments, but this means that even small improvements can be significant, especially when the results of a number of studies are pooled and subject to meta-analysis.
A meta-analysis of 47 studies into pain control has shown significant improvement in chronic pain sufferers, much of this indicated by a reduced desire for opioids. There is strong evidence in cancer patients for improved relationships with others, through greater self-compassion, and being able to ask for support.
The results in non-therapeutic contexts replicate these findings. They report improvements in compassion, peace of mind, kindness, joy, equanimity, awareness, being present and also a greater sense of connection and meaning.
What’s not to like, when the ‘side-effects’ of this lifestyle practice border on the radiant!
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