Committed to a greater understanding of mindfulness and meditation in all their forms.
Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential?
A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health.
Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.
As its name suggests (The Science of Meditation and Mindfulness), this blog is focussed on understanding, evaluating and sharing news about meditation. The scientific study of meditation has led to the publication of over 7,000 academic papers in recent decades. Most of this research has focussed on fewer than ten meditation methods. But as there are at least 3,000 different ways of meditating there are considerable gaps in the modern psychological appreciation of meditation. Alongside the science of meditation, a more applied understanding of the subject is provided at the Meditation for Health website.
Meditation for Health shares practical understandings of how meditation works and how you can benefit from practices. While reliable scientific insights are linked to its content, its main focus is providing general information about how meditation works in day to day settings. The meditation for health newsletter brings together updates from the scientific and practice perspectives. For your regular updates sign up to the newsletter here or visit the contact page.
A review of the origins of compassion and the benefits of compassionate mind training. from spiritual and scientific perspectives
Author: Paul Gilbert
Title: Explorations into the nature and function of compassion
Summary: Paul Gilbert has been researching and writing about compassion for much of his career. In this paper from 2019, Gilbert offers a general introduction to current thinking and research in the field. The article doesn’t concentrate on scientific evidence from a cognitive or neuropsychological perspective, although there are some useful citations. In the opening definitions of compassion, potential evolutionary origins discussed, highlighting the foundational influence of ‘mammalian caregiving’. According to this model, it is the caregiving instinct of mammals that eventually gives way to more complex processes leading to the forms of compassion that we recognise in human behaviour. In describing compassion used in spiritual traditions, Gilbert signposts approaches from Buddhism and Jainism. And in an attempt to homogenise definitions from East and West, he offers us his synthesis of explanations from different knowledge traditions. There is a discussion of clinical and experimental progress in the field, focussing on both medicalised and Buddhist compassion training methods. In conclusion, Gilbert makes the case that compassion is an inherent trait that can be developed through training and motivation.
Compassion (and compassionate values and moral) is not just automatic but something that can be deliberately chosen and worked at with a deepening of understanding over time.
Discussion: I want to acknowledge that Gilbert has made significant contributions to the western positivist understanding of the construct of compassion. This paper describes some complex ideas simply and at times, elegantly. But the overall impression is the presentation of the author’s particular perspective, a notion supported by a lack of critical insight. Citations of recent scientific studies are grouped logically, but I would have also valued some expert guidance on theoretical or methodological limitations in these papers. As a general principle, I find the use of evolutionary psychology to support definitions of complex human behaviours speculative, so it is perhaps unsurprising I wasn’t convinced by the accounts of the origins of compassion. The conclusions do offer a helpful overview of the subject, particularly to people new to this area. However, my central reservation was the selective use of concepts from different knowledge systems, particularly as the paper makes universal and generalised claims.
It is legitimate to draw on illustrations from Eastern spiritual tradition, but appropriate contextualisation is essential. So, for example, the discussion of Mahayana Buddhist concepts of compassion indicates that there are different understandings in Buddhism. These contrasting positions in Buddhism are supported by alternative ontological and epistemological frameworks that underpin interpretations of compassion, meditation and mind-training. I accept that this is a complex area, but if we fail to consider human understanding in its relevant context, we risk defining universal human traits and states from a narrow Western positive perspective. And in doing so, essential psychological constructs known and evidenced in traditional knowledge systems, such as non-dual compassion and relative compassion, will continue to be excluded from scientific study and consideration.
A significant overlap between self-compassion and neuroticism is offering new challenges and opportunities in meditation and mindfulness research.
Authors: Pfattheicher, S., Geiger, M., Hartung, J., Weiss, S., & Schindler, S
Title: Old Wine in New Bottles? The Case of Self-compassion and Neuroticism
Summary: Self-compassion reflects an approach to relating to oneself with kindness in times of suffering. The self-compassion approach reflects the human ability to create better or worse mental conditions when dealing with our own problems. Psychologised self-compassion comprises three positive states; self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. In 2017 Pfattheicher and colleagues investigated the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS), the psychometric instrument designed to measure self-compassion. However, their research found, when approached from a personality perspective, there were strong similarities between the constructs of neuroticism and self-compassion (or lack of). If confirmed to be accurate, we may need to consider self-compassion and neuroticism as similar constructs.
“From this conceptual analysis and existing conclusive empirical evidence, we assumed that those who score high on measures of neuroticism score low on measures of self-compassion, and vice versa.”
Pfattheicher, S., Geiger, M., Hartung, J., Weiss, S., & Schindler, S
The original paper conceded that it was a preliminary investigation, and identifies several potential limitations. And not unsurprisingly, advocates for the uniqueness of self-compassion, Neff, Tóth‐Király and Colosimo published a response to the Pfattheicher et al. findings in 2018.1
Discussion: Now that the dust has settled somewhat, there is a general acceptance that congruence (overlaps) exist between psychometric profiles for low levels of neuroticism and high levels of self-compassion. The key point to consider is the extent of similarities and differences between the two constructs. The current uncertainty is only likely to be resolved by further research, in particular replication of the Pfattheicher et al. study. One puzzling aspect of this controversy is that a correlation between mindfulness and spiritual practices has been known about for many decades.2 Why this subject has become a contentious issue at this time if hard to explain.
From the science of meditation perspective, the potential relationship between self-compassion and neuroticism signposts some interesting problems and opportunities. There is already a body of research that indicates a solid relationship between the practice of mindfulness and reduction of neuroticism. It would be interesting to understand any similarities and differences in how mindfulness (in isolation from self-kindness and common humanity) and self-compassion meditate measures of neurotism. Similarly a comparative understanding of the relationships beween traditional (non-dual) meditation and medicalised meditation (mindfulness) could provide new scientific understandings.
However, progress in meditation research continues to be hampered by a lack of theoretical stability. In recent years several authoritative studies highlighed a failure to establish the operational cognitive components of mindfulness. Further, there is still a lack of construct validity confirming the precise natures of trait and state mindfulness. These limitations are a factor in the reliability of research utilising mindfulness from positivist perspectives. Further progress in developing the curative potential of meditation/mindfulness is linked to two long-standing questions; how did a spiritual practices become scientifically validated, and what has been lost or gained in the process?
1 Kandler, C., Pfattheicher, S., Geiger, M., Hartung, J., Weiss, S., & Schindler, S. (2017). Old wine in new bottles? The case of self–compassion and neuroticism. European Journal of Personality, 31(2), 160-169.
2 Neff, K. D., Tóth‐Király, I., & Colosimo, K. (2018). Self‐compassion is best measured as a global construct and is overlapping with but distinct from neuroticism: A response to Pfattheicher, Geiger, Hartung, Weiss, and Schindler (2017). European Journal of Personality, 32(4), 371-392.
3 Tartt, C., Deikman, A. J. (1991). Mindfulness, spiritual seeking and psychotherapy. The Journal, 23(1), 29.
The scientific history of meditation reveals that we may be overlooking many important findings from the past.
A history of meditation and mindfulness
In the last century, we have seen four or five (it depends on how you categorise the research) waves of engagement between science and spiritual/meditation technologies. Careful attention to the successes and failures of each of these waves gives us important insights into the current crisis in meditation research. Understanding how the curative potential of meditation has been altered by its relocation to science should accelerate the development of more effective interventions. However, there are few reliable accounts of the scientific history of meditation from which to evaluate our progress. This short introduction highlights some of the important and often disregarded progress from past decades.
Buddhist meditation had been migrating for two and a half thousand years. From its conceptual birthplace in Northern India, Buddhism developed many schools and approaches, all loosely tied to foundational theoretical frameworks. Buddhist meditation methods became transnational spiritual practices, frequently adapted to local conditions whenever they established a foothold.
The relocation of Buddhism from Asia to the West gained momentum in the first half of the twentieth century, bringing Buddhist knowledge and meditation to many Westerners for the first time. But as well as introducing Zen Buddhism to many in the West, academic and Zen teacher Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki was also redrawing the boundaries between psychology and religion. Suzuki’s ideas were shaped by the time he spent living and working with Paul Carus at the start of the twentieth century. Carus was an advocate of monism, a concept expressed through the Religion of Science (RoS).  The RoS held that a positivist symmetry existed between elements of science and religion. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, Suzuki had become increasingly influential with Western academics and opinion formers such as Alan Watts and Erich Fromm.
Fromm drew on Suzuki’s reformed, psychologised version of Zen to develop Zen psychotherapy in the late 1950s. Fromm’s interest in Zen was part of a broader movement, and during the 1960s Eastern spiritual traditions became increasingly important in America and Britain. Promoted by poets, philosophers and global celebrities such as The Beatles, meditation in general and Transcendental Meditation, in particular, expressed the aspirations of a generation. The growing Counter Culture became increasingly suspicious of mechanistic approaches to health and wellbeing. Meditation and spiritual world views were seen by many as an antidote to the restlessness caused by an overbearing ‘technocracy’ and processes of dehumanisation.
Alongside the Carus-Zuzuki-Fromm confluence of psychology and traditional spiritual thought, there was a second, more scientific engagement with Eastern meditation traditions. Early accounts of the effects of meditation on the brain can be found in the electroencephalographic (EEG) literature from the 1930s. The following decades were punctuated with several important peer reviewed papers from philosophical, psychoanalytical, physiological and psychological perspectives. A key breakthrough in the scientific understanding of the effects of meditation came with NN Das’s and Henri Gastaut’s research in 1955. By studying brain wave activity alongside other physiological indicators, Das and Gastaut helped to establish the methodology that dominated meditation research for the following two decades.
EEG studies became much more commonplace during the 1960s. Researchers from several countries (France, Germany, India and Japan in particular) confirmed a correlation between the frequency and strength of alpha brain waves and meditative states. But in 1970, a study of Transcendental Meditation (TM) published in Science took the scientific and public interest in meditation to new levels. Keith Wallace’s claims that alongside a range of potential health benefits, TM practitioners could access a novel state of consciousness, inspired meditation researchers for a decade. The 1970s saw a rapid growth in TM studies in experimental and applied settings. In the early 1970s, Wallace joined forces with the cardiologist and health researcher Herbert Benson. Using novel methodological approaches, Benson and Wallace provided further evidence that the practice of TM could lead to improved health and wellbeing.
By 1974 Benson’s research had changed direction, he went on to describe the relaxation response (RR), a ‘grand theory’ that made sweeping claims for a relaxed cognitive state. Benson aggregated operational elements from many different spiritual practices into four essential components that could deliver the relaxation response. Despite a successful book about the RR (written by Benson and Miriam Klipper), the science underpinning the hypothesis never received universal scientific acceptance. By 1980 the scientific community had begun to evaluate‘progress’ made in the study of meditation. Deep-seated methodological and theoretical issues with TM research led to critical reviews from scientists such as Michael West.
However, setbacks to the reputation of meditation research did not thoroughly dampen enthusiasm for the technology. Several new approaches were delivering positive findings, such as Vikram Patel’s combination of biofeedback and meditation to reduce stress. At the start of 1980, there was a growing acceptance of the curative potential of Eastern non-positivist interventions, such as meditation (as well as yoga and acupuncture). But a critical view of meditation research had raised questions about how psychology might best harness the curative potential of meditation.
When viewed from a history of science perspective, many of the strengths and weaknesses in contemporary meditation research are visible in previous ‘waves’. I acknowledge the Western-centric nature of this account. Some potentially important research originating outside of America and Britain, remains to be fully reviewed. But a clear conclusion from this brief summary is that if we don’t pay attention to reliable science from the past, we risk repeating the same mistakes and also missing important findings from earlier work.
(Based on a history of meditation paper prepared for the ERC BodyCapital conference October 2020).
 Ronkin, Noa, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition (London: Routledge, 2005).
 Stephen C. Berkwitz, Buddhism in World Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2006).
 N Das and H Gastaut, ‘Variations in the Electrical Activity of the Brain, Heart, and Skeletal Muscles during Yogic Meditation and Trance’, Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 6 (1955), 211-219.
A 2020 review of mindfulness research highlights a reluctance to acknowledge potential adverse effects.
Scientists and clinicians, generally speaking, attempt to make the world a better place. Many of us working with mindfulness have confidence that this human technology has significant curative potential. But a health and wellbeing intervention cannot be built on my confidence or compassionate aspiration. It requires objective results produced through reliable scientific methods. Such results should offer a comprehensive understanding, including indications of problematic side effects. This summer, perhaps for the first time, a journal article has summarised adverse events linked to meditation practice (MAE).1
In a recent review of Richard Layard’s manifesto for happiness, I highlighted the tension between wanting mindfulness to be an effective panacea and making the scientific case for its widespread use. This dilemma is well known to psychologists. We direct our research towards a desired outcome, a plausible hypothesis, reliant on the scientific method to ensure our work remains objective and unbiased. Methodologically robust results of experiments and clinical trials should deliver a balanced and replicable set of data. If the data is not objective or if a later investigation cannot repeat the results, the scientific reliability may be open to question. Within the psychological sciences, these conflicting forces have long been a major source of concern.
Psychology has been locked into a so called replication crisis for several decades.2 Meditation research shares characteristics of this malaise, but scientists working in this field have highlighted several additional concerns. Meditation based mind training ultimately mediates brain function and structure; none of our higher (cortical) brain functions work in isolation. When activity in one area attenuates, we may see a correlated augmentation in an anatomically separate region. Put simply: brain training can simultaneously have different effects, these effects can vary from person to person. This truism of neuroscience should ensure that when meditation based health interventions are studied, both beneficial and adverse potentials are considered.
In August of this year, a research team (Farias, Maraldi, Wallenkampf and Lucchetti) published a strategic review of meditation studies in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. ‘Adverse events in meditation practices’ investigated almost half a century of meditation research, a total of 6,742 citations. Of those papers, only 83 met the project’s inclusion criteria. Across this sample, the study found MAEs in 8.3% of cases. That meditation practice has been scientifically correlated with problems in some practitioners is a significant finding in its own right. But a second issue, the tendency of meditation and mindfulness research to focus on positive outcomes to the exclusion of other considerations also needs to be taken very seriously. When the science of meditation is explored from a historical perspective, this lack of objectivity has been a recurrent problem for a long time, at least fourty years. Its root causes go back to early engagements between non-positivist knowledge systems and psychology.
The Farias et al. paper signposts a potential new trajectory for the science of meditation. It doesn’t, however, offer any explanation of why adverse side effects receive a low research priority. Given the codes of ethics and conduct underpinning experimental and clinical psychology, future research will need to take the question of MAEs more seriously. However, two overarching consideration require urgent attention. Firstly, on the theoretical and operational level what happened to spiritual meditation when it relocated to psychology? And why, despite thousands of experiments over at least eighty years, is our scientific knowledge of meditation still described as ‘preliminary’?
1 Farias, M., Maraldi, E., Wallenkampf, K. C., & Lucchetti, G. (2020). Adverse events in meditation practices and meditation‐based therapies: a systematic review. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.
2 Maxwell, S. E., Lau, M. Y., & Howard, G. S. (2015). Is psychology suffering from a replication crisis? What does “failure to replicate” really mean?. American Psychologist, 70(6), 487.
Scientists are challenging claims being made for the benefits of mindfulness. A project to fill in the gaps in our scientific knowledge is an urgent priority.
Scientists studying the benefits of mindfulness meditation are still coming to terms with a systematic review entitled ‘Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.‘1 The criticisms made in that study pose questions for the use of meditation in contemporary secular settings. This crisis of confidence is not linked to a lack of clinical potential; there are preliminary indications of meditation’s curative effects. The problems rest in the widespread absence of replicated evidence for many of the claims made for meditation technologies. The overview now emerging from the scientific study of meditation is the lack of a ‘big picture’. Psychological science has studied the impact of meditation extensively over the last seventy years, but further progress appears limited by three intractable problems.
The long term sustainability of clinical meditation is threatened by an inability to reflect its successes and failures in equal measure. While it is not uncommon to find pilot studies with small numbers of participants hyped in the media, established theoretical and methodological problems receive modest scholarly or scientific interest. This is not a minor nor recent problem; issues of scientific reliability have stalked meditation research since the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Reviews of published meditation research frequently cite flaws in the methodologies used. For example, many studies find an effect; that when people meditate some measurable change takes place. However, this effect is often established in isolation without any control group. Or on many occasions, the control is a ‘waiting list’ of participants who receive no appropriate intervention or placebo, meaning all the experiment can show is that in one instance the meditation appeared to have a more substantial effect than nothing. As any neuroscientist or neuropsychologist can tell you, a repeated novel activity of almost any kind can lead to an effect, and if continued for long enough new brain function and structure will be observed.
But the failure to establish strong scientific evidence cannot be only put down to an absence of scientific introspection and methodological flaws. The lack of a coherent theoretical framework presents the biggest obstacle to meditation research. Put simply, despite thousands of published papers over recent decades; we still can’t quite settle on definitions of what secular meditations are and how they should work. Many meditation studies reference religious traditions alongside scientific papers with little explanation of how positivism and spirituality can share a common world view. Peer-reviewed studies which contain limitations continue to be cited in recent work, their influence extending well beyond experimental environments.
Scientists working in this field are likely to be familiar with these three areas of concern (lack of reflexivity, methodological and theoretical weaknesses). But elevating the standard of published research remains a challenge. The Van Dam et al. study makes several recommendations, which if adopted, could improve matters, but the critical challenges haven’t been addressed; we lack authoritative accounts of what meditation and mindfulness are. This overarching question is directly linked to the gaps in our knowledge of how meditation relocated to science, what processes were lost and gained. A more rigorous epistemological and ontological understanding of the science of meditation may be our best hope to deliver the stable conceptual foundations urgently needed in the contemplative sciences.
1 Van Dam, N. T., Van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., … & Fox, K. C. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on psychological science, 13(1), 36-61.
Research demonstrates that mindfulness may alter our desire to undertake a task but not our ability to carry it out.
Authors: Hafenbrack, A. C., & Vohs, K. D.
Title: Mindfulness meditation impairs task motivation but not performance.
Summary: An established criticism of meditation and mindfulness research is a failure to address possible negative impacts. While meditation is linked to a range of health benefits, it is rare for scientists to consider if the positive results come at a cost. Hafenbrack and Vohs explored how state mindfulness mediated task motivation and performance. Mindfulness appears to be able to detach a meditator from task-related stress, but could this also be linked to a reduction in the motivation to undertake the task? Data from experiments indicated that using mindfulness to decrease future focus and arousal could influence task motivation. However, in four out of the five experiments studied, task performance was unaffected.
Discussion: Secular mindfulness aims to produce a nonjudgmental mental state that focusses on awareness of the present moment. The removal of meditation from its traditional Buddhist ethical (judgemental) framework has been of concern to scholars of meditation. Whilst mystical forms of meditation are designed to reduce attachment and aversion (the sources of suffering); this typically forms sets up a ‘virtuous cycle’ where spiritual motivation is increased. The cognitive effect of focussing on the present moment without being grounded in a particular view or perspective is uncertain. If the results of this study were to be replicated, consideration of the broader implications of mindfulness’s demotivational effects should become a priority. For example, if mindfulness was used to address stress related to work or academic performance, reducing motivation to work or study might prove to be counter-productive. I also have a sense that this study may be tapping into the effect of negative correlation between the brain’s intrinsic and extrinsic networks.
“If these results are replicated, meditation scientists need to give serious consideration to the potential relationship between nonjudgement and motivation. The unplanned reduction of motivation in the context of work, study or relationships should be a cause for concern.”
Mindfulness meditation finds itself under sustained scientific criticism, could quantum physics explain why?
Experimental psychology has been the main object of The Science of Meditation project. The scientific papers featured in this blog are recent, generally published after 2010. But yesterday evening I came across a study from 1975 that addresses many of the issues which are currently limiting the research and practice of contemporary meditation. Fritjof Capra’s paper, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism describes the world views of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, comparing them with Western equivalents.1 In doing so, Capra highlights more than a dozen problems manifest in the contemporary (positivist) scientific understanding of Buddhist meditation. One of which I’m going to discuss here briefly; world views as either organic or mechanistic.
Having experienced the benefits of meditation first hand, I find the failure of psychology to demonstrate the potential of meditation both wasteful and confusing. As many as ten thousand meditation and mindfulness experiments have been conducted over the last forty years. Yet cognitive psychology describes research in this area as preliminary! Over time two questions have shaped my academic and scientific work; i) how does a spiritual practice become a secular (scientific) practice and ii) what is lost and gained in this transition? Put concisely, how well has the West understood traditional meditation systems?
Strategic reviews of research published since 2016 generally identify two limitations in the science of meditation. An absence of theoretical frameworks and widespread methodological flaws. The lack of a cohesive ontology (framework) is the greater of the two problems. Without a guiding rationale, the scientific method can become directionless, entangling the means with the ends. Capra’s paper sets out his interpretation of the characteristics of ‘Eastern’ spiritual understandings, thus offering signposts to how the West could shape meditation research.2
So what are these organic and mechanistic world views that could alter the trajectory of research? Capra’s paper is 45 years old; much has changed in physics, psychology and our understandings of meditation.3 But as a theoretical study, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism deals with overarching concerns that are timeless. Capra argues that the view of ‘reality’ developed in the West rests on certain principles, such as those set out by the anatomist Democritus. It was the progression of this view that led to the creation of classical physics and established dualism as the ‘Western’ way of understanding almost everything.
Conversely Eastern understandings see nature as much more interconnected, that the categories and laws of nature are constructs, built by mental processes rather than absolute ‘truths’. Capra offers a deal of evidence from quantum physics to demonstrate how this proposition might work with the inanimate. But for the psychological sciences, the value of this insight is self-evident, humans rarely respond to complex phenomena in a universally predictable manner. And where experiments reveal ‘universality’ in complex human behaviours, there are generally several factors influencing the data, including society and the experimental method.
So what does this piece of ‘dated’ quantum physics mean for our contemporary understanding of meditation? The essence of this work highlights fundamental differences between ontologies (theories of being) between the societies where meditation was created and is now investigated. That the West follows a culturally relevant mechanistic presumption of causality, even when considering human nature.4 Not to suggest that Newtonian physics doesn’t ‘work’, rather that it is part of a much more sophisticated understanding of nature. Psychology’s failure to recognise that different ontologies exist in different cultures, even when appropriating their technologies has implications to the study of meditation and mindfulness.5
1 Capra, F. (1976). Modern physics and eastern mysticism. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 8(1).
2 Capra also discusses Hinduism and Taoism in this paper. Although grouping ideas from different Buddhist schools or diverse religio-philosophical systems can lead to over-generalisations, each of the points made needs to considerer on its individual merit.
3 I’m unfamiliar with Capra’s later studies; his views may have changed radically since this paper was published. I’d be delighted to hear from you if you are familiar with his recent work, feel free to email me or post comments in the text box below.
4 Capra’s thinking embraces physics generally, the emphasis on human behaviour here is my focus rather than a reflection of the paper under discussion.
5 While the existing positivist ontologies present in cognitive psychology offer investigatory potential, there are two problems if traditional meditation is based on a Western world view. Firstly without cognisance of the spiritual frameworks, the contemporary interpretation of the original practices may lack elements foundational to its understanding. Secondly, while positivist approaches will produce data, what is being measured, and how it is understood may be unrelated to the spiritual meditation.
If you’re worried about covid19, self isolation or your future generally, there are actions you can take to reduce fear and anxiety.
At the start of any discussion about suffering, and this definitely includes fear, I like to stress that the information I provide is focussed on solutions. The objective of this article is to highlight ways of decreasing fear and improving health and wellbeing.
Underestimating Coronavirus is not an option, and it’s not the object of this short discussion of fear and mental health. But the reality is that each of us will face challenges during our lives. This is part of the nature of being human, to overcome obstacles. And while we know that Covid-19 is putting peoples lives at risk, it is just one of many dangers we face. However, both modern psychological medicine and traditional understandings of the human experience agree that disproportionate fear is a cause of suffering.
Threats exist, to be aware of potential risks and to take appropriate preventative action is both reasonable and desirable. However, awareness of risk is not the same thing as fearof the threat. Fear is largely an emotional response that each of us has some control over. While most of us manage anxiety well, there may be times when it can overwhelm us. If we experience sustained periods of acute fear, it is likely to have a detrimental impact on our physical and mental health. What’s important to recognise is that much of the anxiety we experience is under our control.
The way we think has a direct effect on our emotions. While we often claim that ‘you make me angry’ or ‘this song makes me sad’, the reality is, we are choosing to feel angry or sad. It is usually our reaction to what happens that creates our sense of happiness or sadness. This is as true of Coronavirus as any other perceived danger. At the time of writing, we face health risks from Covid-19, instability in the employment and financial markets and many other related problems. But these are not the cause of fear in a strictly scientific sense, it is our reaction to events that rests at the heart of how we experience life. It has been said that fear is healthy, it keeps us alive. While this might be true in rare examples (popular psychology often talks about our fight or flight mechanism), this visceral fear manifests in the form of a reflex and requires little conscious thought. However, the rumination about a threat is an entirely different matter, humans can turn relatively benign concerns into the source of prolonged stress and anxiety.
“Compassion training is the most important support to my health and wellbeing, it has given me improved mental health, greater resilliance and a good deal of happiness. “
Stephen Gene Morris
So what does all this mean for our health during the current challenging times? It goes without saying that we should take sensible precautions. But, we should pay attention to the way we think about risk. Too much fear will affect our health and reduce our ability to make rational choices. A number of nonrandomised studies indicate that compassionate practices may be useful in combatting fear-related conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.1 In this regard, compassionate meditation may be a helpful tool to combat fear. Nondual forms may be particularly important to maintain a proportionate sense of ‘self and other’, particularly in lockdown and social isolation.
So the take-home points; take Covid-19 seriously but know that compassionate practices can build resilience to fear and anxiety.
1 Graser, J., & Stangier, U. (2018). Compassion and loving-kindness meditation: an overview and prospects for the application in clinical samples. Harvard review of psychiatry, 26(4), 201-215.
Summary: There has been a trickle of studies investigating the health benefits of prosocial behaviour in recent years. And research into altruism has remained at the periphery of psychological enquiry. A search of academic databases reveals greater scientific interest in ‘self-compassion’ than ‘compassion for others’ in recent years. The paper by Wang et al. poses some problems for current thinking in psychology. That selfless acts may hold the key to reducing the experience of pain. But, in common with all experiments involving complex human behaviours, the findings of this paper need validating through replication.
As a starting point, this study built on the foundations of two pilot investigations. Its cognitive insights are underpinned by the results of brain imaging technology (fMRI). The researchers found that altruism relieved pain in both experimental and clinical settings. The clinical participants were cancer patients suffering from chronic pain. The goal of the experiment was to test the hypothesis that altruism could reduce physical suffering. In this regard, the results were significant. People undertaking altruistic acts did experience less pain than participants in control groups. More experienced experimental psychologists might like to comment on the methods, but they appear to be robust. We should treat such radical findings with caution of course, but also bear in mind this is not a new idea. Compassion and altruism exist in every culture; they are universal human traits.
Successful repetition of these experiments would open up new areas of research into pain management. While also signposting new understandings of the mind. For example, a link between pro-social behaviour and mental and physical wellbeing more generally. This latest study should encourage scientists and clinicians working with compassion meditation.
“If found to be reliable, these findings may put behavioural sciences on a new trajectory.”