Meditation, mindfulness and suicide prevention

Can meditation help prevent suicide? The US Army is considering if mind training can boost mental resilience in military personnel.

Suicide, a leading cause of death worldwide

Author: Sochara Chumnoeur

Year: 2017

Title: Meditation as a Protective Factor Against Suicide In the US Army

Summary: We don’t often review qualitative papers produced from within the US military. However, the subject matter is so important that I wanted to draw some attention to this study. According to the World Health Organisation suicide is a significant cause of death globally, resulting in 800,000 fatalities each year; however, it is more common in some demographic groups than others. In the US, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people in the 15 to 35 age range, including around 250 active-duty soldiers each year.  According to background materials, the US Army has been making significant efforts to reduce suicide rates for almost two decades. This paper reports that ‘Many commonalities exist in the analysis of demographics and characteristics of suicide decedent within civilian and military populations.’ The claim suggests that research into suicide prevention in a military context may benefit wider society and vice-versa. The main recommendation is to integrate a bespoke meditation method into the US Army’s daily fitness programme. In summary, the paper argues that meditation could improve soldiers’ mental fitness, leading to greater resilience and lower levels of suicide.

This paper was written before the most recent scientific reviews of meditation research; it also predates evidence that meditation training can expose practitioners to unwanted adverse effects. But none the less the questions that it raises and the trajectory that it suggests are important. A key point made in the  study is

A recent reduction in force and budget have challenged the Army to find more efficient and effective methods to ensure readiness in its soldiers.

The idea that meditation offers a cheap and universal panacea is not without precedent and reflects some discussions about mindfulness from within social policy. The key questions to be asked at this early stage are linked to the theoretical understandings of suicide and meditation’s ability to meditate relevant mental traits and states. I’ve experienced meditation’s capacity to boost mental resilience; there’s plenty of individual studies that make this same point. But what meditation techniques might be appropriate for military personnel (or linked to suicide prevention more generally)? Is the non-judgement of medicalised mindfulness, or the nondual compassion of traditional meditation desirable training for combat troops? A final question is one most meditation scientists will be familiar with; how do you know if someone engages with meditation (in their mind). Physical training can be observed, but contemplative mind training is much more abstract to empirical measurement. Suicide is such a serious problem that any progress in prevention is welcome; I’d be interested to hear about any studies or anecdotes that could add to my understanding in this field.

Link: https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/AD1038585

Non-judgement and mindfulness meditation; costs and opportunities

The absence of judgement from medicalised mindfulness suggests an uncoupling from traditional meditation methods. Why did this happen, and what does it mean?

Why was judgement removed from medicalised meditations

Although definitions across contemporary forms of mindfulness are varied, we usually find mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are explicitly non-judgemental. In the context of meditation technologies, we think about ‘non-judgement’ being both operationalised in the meditation practice itself and in the broader ethical context surrounding meditation. This lack of judgement in MBIs appears to have been one of its foundational principles, present since its medicalisation1. This absence is somewhat surprising, given the presumed conceptual relationship with Buddhist forms of mindfulness, where judgement and ethics are woven into their theoretical frameworks.

Scholars and practitioners have considered if the non-judgemental approach in MBIs has uncoupled them from traditional forms of meditation, if so what have we lost or gained in the process?2 This debate has been illuminated recently by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, who wrote that meditation alone is not enough3. That understanding the ontology and epistemology of the method is an essential part of the meditation process. Although Rinpoche talked specifically about Buddhist practices, his view supports the notion that meditation, stripped of its ethical and judgmental elements, becomes different. We should be clear that although there are Buddhist methods which operationalise a non-judgemental view, they are conducted within an ethical/judgemental setting. However, the questions from a history of science perspective are more linked to how and why things developed this way. What does the apparent paradox (judgemental practices translated as non-judgemental), mean about the scientific context in which mindfulness was established and now resides?

“If we use these precious resources to examine things critically, we can understand both the way things appear and the way they truly are.”

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche3

From a psychological perspective, the separation of meditation from its foundational judgement and ethics raises three crucial questions. Firstly, given the widespread presence of spiritual practitioners in the research and teaching of meditation, are students of MBIs getting ad hoc judgement/ethics to fill the gap? Secondly, judgement and reflection require engagement with essential processes in the brain’s intrinsic networks; therefore, what are the differences between the results obtained from judgemental and non-judgemental approaches. And finally, if judgement is central to traditional meditation technologies, why has it been removed? It is this last question that holds the greatest significance.

Psychology is free to develop whatever forms of meditation it sees fit; it can also investigate spiritual meditation methods. But the creation of contemporary mindfulness interventions, based on traditional forms prompts questions. If we knew the Buddhist practice(s) mindfulness was translated from, their theoretical and operational components could be established. Then by conducting comparative studies with MBIs, an understanding of what was added or subtracted might be reached. However, the scientific provenance of MBIs is shrouded in mystery; this gap in our knowledge is a probable factor in the failure to establish reliable theoretical frameworks for MBIs.4 Therefore, although contemporary mindfulness stresses a close relationship with Buddhist meditation technologies, this is not generally supported with evidence. So why and how did things turn out this way? Understanding this issue may provide the insights needed to signpost the next stage in mindfulness’s development.

References

1 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skilful means, and the trouble with maps.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 281-306.

2 King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham. From a practitioners persective see Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 19-39.

3 Nyima Chokyi. “Why Meditation isn’t Enough.” Lion’s Roar (2019). https://www.lionsroar.com/why-meditation-isnt-enough/

4 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.

Mindfulness supports task performance but reduces motivation

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.

Year: 2018

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.”

Stephen Gene Morris

Link: www.sciencedirect.com