Set your Brain to Meditate: Part 2

Image: Photostock

The Buddhist understanding holds that meditation is a mindful state that leads to ‘right action’. When combined with mindfulness it has the same effect not just for the health of the individual but also for greater society.

Our tendency to look at the negatives, to put outcomes ahead of actually doing things and by making faulty comparisons with others can leave us like feeling like robots at the mercy of daily events. In essence mindfulness is about preserving our individuality – through openness to the new, reclassifying the meaning of our knowledge and experience and by an ability to see our daily actions in a bigger consciously chosen perspective.

When good categories turn bad

Rather than always look at things afresh and anew – we create categories – and let things ‘fall into them’. We do this for the sake of convenience. These categorisations can be small such as defining a flower as a rose, a person as a boss – or a wider categorization – such as a religion or a political system. These categories help to give us psychological certainty and save us from the effort of constantly challenging our own beliefs. In this way we define animals as ‘livestock’ or ‘pets’ so that we can feel OK eating one and loving the other.

Shhhh….there’s a secret to being a genius

Mindlessness is when we accept these categories without really thinking about them. In contrast, mindfulness is about questioning old categories and creating new ones. In fact ‘genius’ has been described as perceiving things afresh, in a non habitual way.

Let me leave you with a quote from Marcel Proust’s great novel In Search of Lost Time Past to illustrate what I mean and check back in later this week for Part 3 of this meditation series.

We commonly live with a self reduced to its bare minimum; most of our faculties lie dormant, relying on habit; and habit knows how to manage without them.

Read the first part of this series here

Set Your Brain to Meditate

Ursula Bates, Billy O'Connor

Ms Ursula Bates, keynote speaker, UL Research Forum and Professor Billy O'Connor

I was delighted to host the  Fourth Annual  University of Limerick Medical School Research Forum last Wednesday, 19 January, where over twenty researchers from the University of Limerick and local teaching hospitals made presentations on topics ranging from pharmaceuticals, biomedical devices, medical technology, community health, gastrointestinal and vascular surgery, psychiatry and communications.

A leading clinical psychologist and Director of Psychosocial and Bereavement Services at Blackrock Hospice, Dublin, Ms Ursula Bates, delivered the keynote address  Mindfulness Based Interventions in Oncology and Palliative Care and Bereavement-Research Advances”.

Ursula’s talk has prompted me to explore in more detail the nature of mindfulness and how its practice can lead to improved brain function and  mental health.

Let’s start by taking a look at the latest scientific research which has shown that  the practice of meditation  actually changes the shape of the brain, allowing specific areas in the brain to grow or change.  This finding has established a new field of contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation – and helps to explain how meditation acts to improve brain function and mental health.

Mindfulness and mindlessness

Have you ever written a cheque in January with the previous years date? …for most of us the answer is probably yes. Scientists now know that these small mistakes are actually the tip of a mindlessness iceberg!  Mindfulness harnesses one of the great themes in all self help literature – the need to be free of unconsciously accepted habits and norms.

Five qualities of a mindful person

  1. Ability to create new categories
  2. Openness to new information
  3. Awareness of more than one perspective
  4. Attention to process (i.e. ‘doing’) rather than outcome or results.
  5. Trusting in one’s own intuition

Over the coming week we will explore these points in more detail and look at ways in which we can learn to break free from the trap of mindlessness.