Spiritual roots of mindfulness meditation

Hyland, T. (2015). The Limits of Mindfulness: Emerging Issues for Education. British Journal of Educational Studies, (ahead-of-print), 1-21.

Abstract. Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are being actively implemented in a wide range of fields – psychology, mind/body health care and education at all levels – and there is growing evidence of their effectiveness in aiding present-moment focus, fostering emotional stability, and enhancing general mind/body well-being.

However, as often happens with popular innovations, the burgeoning interest in and appeal of mindfulness practice has led to a reductionism and commodification – popularly labelled ‘McMindfulness’ – of the underpinning principles and ethical foundations of such practice which threatens to subvert and militate against the achievement of the original aims of MBIs in general and their educational function in particular.

It is argued here that mindfulness practice needs to be organically connected to its spiritual roots if the educational benefits of such practice are to be fully realised.

How attention is located within the body (in two types of meditation)

Hartelius, G. (2015). Body Maps of Attention: Phenomenal Markers for Two Varieties of Mindfulness. Mindfulness, 1-11.

Abstract. Mindfulness suffers from a lack of a satisfying consensus definition. This definitional challenge may be simplified by recognizing that there are at least two types of mindfulness: neo-traditional mindfulness, exemplified by Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction, consists of a shifted state of consciousness inherently carrying qualities associated with mindfulness; cognitive–behavioral mindfulness, exemplified by acceptance and commitment therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, is achieved more through a shift toward cognitive processes that reflect similar qualities.

Other varieties of mindfulness exist within both Buddhist and cognitive–behavioral traditions, but these two may provide a starting point and a method for further articulation. The distinction between these two varieties of mindfulness is proposed based on analysis using somatic phenomenology, a state-specific approach to the study of body-located phenomenal markers of attention.

In this context attention is described in terms of where it comes from, relative to the body, rather than in terms of where it is directed, and state of consciousness is defined as a change in how attention is located within the body. In cognitive–behavioral mindfulness, attention is seated in the head and is directed outward from that location; in neo-traditional mindfulness, attention is seated in the belly and is directed outward from there. These two types of mindfulness represent similar qualities taking place in two different states of consciousness, reflected by these two discrepant attentional postures.

Loving kindness: conceptual understanding vs meditation

Kang, Y., Gray, J. R., & Dovidio, J. F. (2014). The Head and the Heart: Effects of Understanding and Experiencing Loving Kindness on Attitudes Toward the Self and Others. Mindfulness, 1-8. Abstract.

Formation and maintenance of compassionate and loving attitudes toward the self and others is essential for adaptive social functioning. In this study, we use loving kindness meditation (LKM) to enhance positive attitudes toward the self and others. Meditation-based programs often include several components for which specific effects and dynamics are largely unknown, precluding conclusive support for their effectiveness. The present study tested actions underlying two main components of LKM programs: discussion and meditation.

Discussion focuses on a conceptual understanding of loving kindness, whereas meditation focuses on direct experiences and cultivation of loving kindness. Participants (n = 54) were randomly assigned either to attend a 6-week loving kindness discussion course or to be waitlisted for 6 weeks, both followed by attending a 6-week LKM course.

Attending the loving kindness discussion course alone had beneficial effects on attitudes toward the self, but not others. Attending the LKM course had additional positive impacts on attitudes toward the self and others.

These findings suggest that understanding ideas of lovingkindness through knowledge-based discussion without meditation may be sufficient to create positive changes in the view of self. However, for more comprehensive changes in attitude toward others, direct experiences of lovingkindness through meditation may be necessary.

Long meditation retreat and the experience of stress

Jacobs, T. L., et al. (2011). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(5), 664-681. Full text.  

From the Abstract. Telomerase activity is a predictor of long-term cellular viability, which decreases with chronic psychological distress. Buddhist traditions claim that meditation decreases psychological distress and promotes well-being. Therefore, we investigated the effects of a 3-month meditation retreat on telomerase activity and two major contributors to the experience of stress: Perceived Control (associated with decreased stress) and Neuroticism (associated with increased subjective distress).

Methods. We used mediation models to test whether changes in Perceived Control and Neuroticism explained meditation retreat effects on telomerase activity. In addition, we investigated whether two qualities developed by meditative practice, increased Mindfulness and Purpose in Life, accounted for retreat-related changes in the two stress-related variables and in telomerase activity.

Retreat participants (n = 30) meditated for ∼6 h daily for 3 months and were compared with a wait-list control group (n = 30) matched for age, sex, body mass index, and prior meditation experience. Retreat participants received instruction in concentrative meditation techniques and complementary practices used to cultivate benevolent states of mind. Psychological measures were assessed pre- and post-retreat. Peripheral blood mononuclear cell samples were collected post-retreat for telomerase activity.

Results. Telomerase activity was significantly greater in retreat participants than in controls at the end of the retreat. Increases in Perceived Control, decreases in Neuroticism, and increases in both Mindfulness and Purpose in Life were greater in the retreat group. Mediation analyses indicated that the effect of the retreat on telomerase was mediated by increased Perceived Control and decreased Neuroticism. In turn, changes in Perceived Control and Neuroticism were both partially mediated by increased Mindfulness and Purpose in Life. Additionally, increases in Purpose in Life directly mediated the telomerase group difference, whereas increases in Mindfulness did not.

Conclusions. This is the first study to link meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity. Although we did not measure baseline telomerase activity, the data suggest that increases in perceived control and decreases in negative affectivity contributed to an increase in telomerase activity, with implications for telomere length and immune cell longevity. Further, Purpose in Life is influenced by meditative practice and directly affects both perceived control and negative emotionality, affecting telomerase activity directly as well as indirectly.

Insight, loneliness, and depression

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Using mindfulness and insight to transform loneliness. Mindfulness. Download full text.

Abstract: It is probably fair to say that most people experience different degrees of loneliness at some point in their lives. This could be a short-lived sensation of loneliness that lasts for only a few minutes whilst waiting alone at an old and run-down train station, or it could be a more chronic and deep-seated form of loneliness that lasts for many years following a relationship breakup or a death of a loved one. Although these two different forms of loneliness affect people in very different ways, from the Buddhist perspective, their underlying causes are deemed to be the same.

Meditation Awareness Training (MAT)

Van Gordon, W., (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for Psychological Well-Being in a Sub-Clinical Sample of University Students: A Controlled Pilot Study. Mindfulness, 1-11. Abstract

Mindfulness has been practiced in the Eastern world for over twenty-five centuries but has only recently become popular in the West. Today, interventions such as “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy” are used within the Western health setting and have proven to be successful techniques for reducing psychological distress. However, a limitation of such interventions is that they tend to apply the practices of mindfulness in an “out of context” manner. To overcome this, a newly formed Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) program focusses on the establishment of solid meditative foundations and integrates various support practices that are traditionally assumed to effectuate a more sustainable quality of well-being.

The aim of this pilot study was to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of MAT for improving psychological well-being in a sub-clinical sample of higher education students with issues of stress, anxiety, and low mood. Utilizing a controlled design, participants of the study (n = 14) undertook an 8-week MAT program and comparisons were made with a control group (n = 11) on measures of self-assessed psychological well-being (emotional distress, positive affect, and negative affect) and dispositional mindfulness.

Participants who received MAT showed significant improvements in psychological well-being and dispositional mindfulness over controls. MAT may increase emotion regulation ability in higher education students with issues of stress, anxiety, and low mood. Individuals receiving training in mindfulness meditation may benefit by engendering a broader, more ethically informed, and compassionate intention for their mindfulness practice.

Developed over time and enhanced by practice

Leigh, J., & Anderson, V. N. (2013). Secure attachment and autonomy orientation may foster mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 14(2), 265-283.

Abstract. Although mindfulness research has burgeoned, questions regarding the development of mindfulness remain largely unanswered. Mindfulness correlates negatively with the anxiety and avoidance dimensions of adult attachment and positively with autonomy, competence, and relatedness, the three primary psychological needs postulated by self-determination theory.

It was hypothesized that secure attachment style and autonomy orientation would predict higher levels of self-reported mindfulness. After accounting for age, state self-esteem, and meditation practice, autonomy orientation predicted higher levels of self-reported mindfulness whereas secure attachment was no longer related to mindfulness. State self-esteem was found to be an important variable in understanding mindfulness.

Results suggest mindfulness might be an innate construct that can be developed over time and enhanced by practice. Further, autonomy orientation and high self-esteem may foster the development of mindfulness in those with little to no meditation/mindfulness practice. Additional research is needed to clarify the roles of autonomy, attachment style, and self-esteem in the development of mindfulness.

Review of mindfulness meditation as a self-help treatment for anxiety and depression

Edenfield, T. M., & Saeed, S. A. (2012). An update on mindfulness meditation as a self-help treatment for anxiety and depression. Psychology research and behavior management, 5, 131. Full text.

Abstract: In recent years, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments have increased in popularity. This is especially true for treatments that are related to exercise and mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in the treatment of both mental and physical illness. MBIs, such as Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which are derived from ancient Buddhist and Yoga philosophies, have become popular treatments in contemporary psychotherapy.

While there is growing evidence that supports the role of these interventions in relapse prevention, little is known about the role that MBIs play in the treatment of acute symptoms of depression and anxiety. Even less is known about the importance of specific components of MBIs (eg, mindfulness meditation [MM]) and the overall impact that these interventions have on the experience or expression of psychological distress. Moreover, few studies have rigorously evaluated the dose-response relationship that is required to effect positive symptom change and the mechanisms of change that are responsible for observed improvements.

This review will define meditation and mindfulness, discuss the relationship between stress and health and how MM relates to therapeutically engaging the relaxation response, and review the empirical findings that are related to the efficacy of MM in the treatment of depression and anxiety symptoms. Given the paucity of research that examines the applications of these treatments in clinical populations, the limitations of applying these findings to clinical samples will be mentioned.

A brief review of the issues related to the possible mechanisms of change and the dose-response relationship regarding MBIs, particularly MM, will be provided. Finally, limitations of the extant literature and future directions for further exploration of this topic will be offered.

Tracing enlightenment through scientific research?

Davis, J. H., & Vago, D. R. (2013). Can enlightenment be traced to specific neural correlates, cognition, or behavior? No, and (a qualified) Yes. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 870. Full text.

From the introduction: The field of contemplative science is rapidly growing and integrating into the basic neurosciences, psychology, clinical sciences and society-at-large. Yet the majority of current research in the contemplative sciences has been divorced from the soteriological context from which these meditative practices originate and has focused instead on clinical applications with goals of stress reduction and psychotherapeutic health.

In the existing research on health outcomes of mindfulness-based clinical interventions, for example, there have been almost no attempts to scientifically investigate the goal of enlightenment. This is a serious oversight, given that such profound transformation across ethical, perceptual, emotional, and cognitive domains are taken to be the natural outcome and principle aim of mindfulness practice in the traditional Buddhist contexts from which these practices are derived.

If short-term interventions as short as a few sessions are now beginning to produce neuroplastic changes, it may be that even in secular contexts, practitioners are already developing states and traits that are associated with progress towards enlightenment. In order to carefully assess the potential effects of meditative interventions it is of singular importance to ask whether enlightenment can be traced to specific neural correlates, cognition, or behavior.

Palliative caregiving, mindfulness, and the collaborative self

Bradbury, H. (2013). Collaborative Selflessness: Toward an Experiential Understanding of the Emergent “Responsive Self” in a Caregiving Context. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Epub ahead of print, Oct 1; doi: 0.1177/0021886313502729

Abstract: This collaborative inquiry reports the impact of mindfulness meditation practice in a hospital’s palliative care setting. Designed as action research, the collaborative program invited participants to investigate and deepen the benefits of practice for themselves with others over the course of 12 weeks. Participants expressed surprise by how liberating it  to learn to notice and drop their self-centered thinking.

Theorizing these findings by bringing perspectives from  and psychological perspectives on Buddhism, an experience-near understanding of the self also emerged. The article reflection on how combination of action research and mindfulness is practical and useful to participants in the of caregiving as it reports many benefits to participants.

The article ends with a definition of self as “encompassing that which can be responded to,” which also contributes a practical and useful direction for reconceptualizing the self a more collaborative self.