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Breathe & Start Again Guide to Meditation: the what, the how, why and science

Breathe & Start Again Guide to Meditation: the what, the how, why and science

Why do I meditate?

I meditate daily for the single and simple reason that I feel better when I do. Life seems easier, more manageable, less stressful, happier, more beautiful and more fun.

I turned to- meditation at times when I really, really needed it. But I found it hard at those times to create a daily habit. I would either struggle to meditate because of the way I felt, or meditate until I felt better and then let the practice drop off. When I started teaching meditation I saw the same pattern in my clients. There was no doubt the meditation helped but a majority of them struggled to make it a habit. That’s why I created Sunshine Brain, a meditation programme that not only teaches meditation but also gives you the tools, inspiration and support needed to make it part of your everyday life.

Want to give it a try, get a Mini 1 min Meditation here

I know it works for me, but how does it work? Does it make a physical difference to the brain? Meta-analysis (studies of studies) are the most reliable way scientists and researchers get an overview of a particular subject. Regular meditation improves brain function, as the authors of a 2015 analysis of MRI scan research shows.

“Meditation leads to activation in brain areas involved in processing self-relevant information, self-regulation, focused problem-solving, adaptive behaviour, and interoception. Results also show that meditation practice induces functional and structural brain modifications in expert meditators, especially in areas involved in self-referential processes such as self-awareness and self-regulation. These results demonstrate that a biological substrate underlies the positive pervasive effect of meditation practice.”

Maddalena Boccia, Laura Piccardi, Paola Guariglia The Meditative Mind: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of MRI Studies US National Library of Medicine, 2015

There is a growing body of research around the effectiveness of meditation for specific health conditions. You can read about it later in “The science of meditation”.

How do I benefit from meditation?

I try to meditate for at least 10 minutes a day. I really notice a difference and a balance in my moods and, over time, am learning to observe my thoughts and emotions and not get so pulled into them. It helps me manage the anxiety, depression and fear that have at times paralysed me.

You need to meditate regularly to receive the many benefits. You don’t need to spend hours and hours gazing at a candle, but you do need a daily practice.

That, of course, is easier said than done. We all know that we should eat more fruit and vegetables, less meat and sugar, but how good at we at following through on that knowledge? You should exercise for at least 40 minutes at least three times a week every week, but do you? I have found that it is not enough for people to know something is good for them in a general sense. They need to know how it will benefit them personally. And they need help turning that practice into a habit that will last a lifetime.

That’s where Sunshine Brain comes in. I developed Sunshine Brain as a programme for beginners and people who haven’t kept to a practice to develop a meditation habit that works for them. You will find out how meditation will improve your life, not Arnold Schwarzenegger’s or Oprah Winfrey’s. We use schedules, records, video tutorials, exercises and peer support to help you on the journey.

Meditation today is not difficult to sell. Meditation app Headspace has been downloaded more than 11 million times and has 400,000 paying subscribers. It’s a phenomenal success story and will be worth billions when it issues shares on the stock market, but for all that success it shows how few people that try meditation continue on the journey. Some people need a more personal touch. Sunshine Brain gives you help and personal support to make meditation part of your life.

What is meditation?

The Oxford English Dictionary says to meditate is: “Focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.”

Modern practitioners take a broader and more relaxed view, particularly those with health and wellbeing training. My meditations are rarely silent – guided mediations where you are talked through the process make it easier to get started – and chanting is only used in some practices. Where I do use mantras, I keep them in my head!

One of the most widely adopted modern forms of meditation, the mindful bodyscan, is usually guided and has no chanting. Mindfulness is increasingly being adopted by health services around the world, including the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Meditation can be done in many different ways and I find that the mindfulness exercises and practices in Sunshine Brain really help people find a way of meditating that works for them.

The earliest written references to meditation are from around 1,500 BCE in the Hindu tradition of Vedantism. Other forms of meditation have been observed from 500-600 BCE in Indian Buddhism and Taoist China. Meditation spread along the Silk Road and was taken up by Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Despite the eastern tradition, the roots of the word meditate are mid-16th century Latin. My point is that the dictionary does not associate the practice with Eastern Mysticism and the meditation I practice is not about achieving spiritual enlightenment (though anything that fosters a more loving view of the world can be seen as spiritual growth), but about living better with the stresses and strains of 21st century life.

Science and spirituality

Meditation is definitely not a religious practice, though it is used by most religions. Spirituality is a belief in “wholeness” and the connection of things. Any activity – be it physical, emotional or intuitional – that leads towards greater perfection, goodness and wholeness is spiritual.

I don’t use words like religion and spirituality as that’s not how I use meditation in my life. For me it is about achieving a balance in my mental health, wellbeing and my overall health.

Far from being at odds with modern science, spirituality is interlinked with it. Physics today is about the connectedness of things. Celebrity physicist Professor Brian Cox observes that if you heat an object in your hands, then the electrons change their energy levels and, since electrons cannot have the same energy level (the Pauli Principle), then the energy in other electrons outside the object must change. Confused? Don’t worry, it’s just an example of how all things are connected at the atomic level and how changing one thing inevitably causes changes in others.

What are the benefits?

Today, meditation is a tool of healthcare practitioners. Britain’s NHS runs meditation programmes for everything from insomnia to depression and pain relief.

“It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour.

“An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs.
Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment. It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”

Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre From NHS Choices (UK)

Who meditates?

Take a look at some of the people who have “come out” about their meditation practices:

  • Athletes: Kobe Bryant (basketball), Michael Jordan (basketball), Arthur Ashe (tennis), 
Derek Jeter (baseball), Lionel Messi (football)
  • Business leaders: Steve Jobs (Apple), Evan Williams (Twitter) Rupert Murdoch (News 
Corp), Bill Ford (Ford), Oprah Winfrey, Larry Brilliant (great name!), Jeff Weiner 
(Linkedin), Rick Rubin (Def Jam Records)
  • Artists: Gwyneth Paltrow, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eva Mendes, Angelina Jolie, 
Richard Gere, Demi Moore, Katy Perry, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Aniston, Russell Brand, Miguel, Ringo Starr, Paul MaCartney, Tina Turner, Sheryl Crowe, Sting, Leonard Cohen, Halle Berry, Madonna
  • Soldiers: The military is too macho to call it meditation, but “tactical breathing” is part of pre-combat preparation for US Special Forces Units 
In short, people who frequently engage in high-stress situations or want a broader perspective of the world find meditation helps them.

What people say about meditation

There are many wise – and some not so wise – people who have spoken on the meaning of meditation to them. Here’s a few, but if you want more put the name of your chosen person and the word meditation into Google and be prepared for a surprise. Here is a small selection:

“It’s tapping into something so deep that when I reap the rewards, I do not even know

I’m reaping them.”
“The thing about meditation is that you become more and more YOU.”

“Meditation is a lifelong gift. It’s something you can call on at any time.”

Sir Paul McCartney, musician

“Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?”

David Bader, computer science researcher

“It feels good. Kinda like when you have to shut your computer down, just sometimes when it goes crazy, you just shut it down and when you turn it on, it’s okay again. That’s what meditation is to me.”

Ellen DeGeneres, TV personality and talk show host

“This withdrawal from the day’s turmoil into creative silence is not a luxury, a fad, or a futility. It dissolves mental tensions and heals negative emotions.”

Paul Brunton, theosophist and spiritualist

“He who lives in harmony with himself, lives in harmony with the universe.”

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome

“One hour of contemplation surpasses sixty years of worship.”

Muhammad, Prophet of Islam

“The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained to liberation from the self.”

Albert Einstein, physicist

“Every time you create a gap in the stream of mind, the light of your consciousness grows stronger. One day you may catch yourself smiling at the voice in your head. This means that you no longer take the content of your mind all that seriously, as your sense of self does not depend on it.”

Eckhart Tolle, philosopher

Eva Mendes, actress David Lynch, film director

Can you meditate?

Yes you can. I’ve worked with clients from many backgrounds, from teachers to new and expecting parents, schoolchildren and corporate executives. Everyone at some point experiences stresses in their life many turn to meditation as a solution. The fantastic thing is that meditation acts to prevent to stress by allowing people to be aware of trigger signals before significant physical or emotional harm is done.

Anyone can meditate. Meditation is easy, free and safe (see “Is meditation safe?”). Perhaps the easiest way to see that you can meditate is to look at what meditation isn’t and what doesn’t happen when you meditate. Deepak Choprah, one of the most famous names in the meditation game, says there are 7 big myths about meditation:

  • Myth #1: Meditation is difficult
  • Myth #2: You have to quiet your mind in order to have a successful meditation practice
  • Myth #3: It takes years of dedicated practice to receive any benefits from meditation
  • Myth #4: Meditation is escapism.
  • Myth #5: I don’t have enough time to meditate
  • Myth #6: Meditation is a spiritual or religious practice.
  • Myth #7: I’m supposed to have transcendent experiences in meditation. 
You can read Choprah’s “truths” here: http://www.chopra.com/articles/7-myths-of- meditation#sm.0003aohjn111afdqt7d2dubg2wyzd

The science of meditation

What can meditation be used for? Psychological problems like anxiety, depression, stress, affect (mood), attention, sleep and substance abuse are all being treated with meditation programmes, as well as physical ailments such as chronic pain.

Scientists are conducting an ever-expanding array of studies on the benefits of meditation for specific conditions. A meta-analysis of 41 studies from a population of 17,801 citations by the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ) in the US concluded:

“Moderate strength of evidence (SOE) that mindfulness meditation programs are beneficial for reducing anxiety, depression, and pain severity, and low SOE that they may lead to improvement in any dimension of negative affect when compared with nonspecific active controls. There was no advantage of meditation programs over specific therapies they were compared with.”

Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (US), 2014

The authors, who aimed for total impartiality, found meditation programmes improve general wellbeing, but that there are limitations to the design of some studies. Meditation works best as part of a physical and mental well-being programme.

“Many studies have shown that mind/body interventions like the relaxation response can reduce stress and enhance wellness in healthy individuals and counteract the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions like hypertension, anxiety, diabetes and aging. Now for the first time we’ve identified the key physiological hubs through which these benefits might be induced.”

Herbert Benson Harvard Medical School Professor of Medicine Massachusetts General Hospital (US), 2013

Physical Benefits of Meditation

  • Improves brain function
Electroencephalography (EEG) studies on mindfulness meditation have linked lower frequency alpha waves, as well as theta waves, to meditation. These findings suggest that in a meditative state a person is more relaxed but maintains a sharp awareness. Meditation States and Traits: EEG, ERP, and Neuroimaging Studies
Cahn & Polich (2006)

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies have shown heightened activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex during meditation
Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators

Holzel, Ott, Hempel, Hackl, Wolf, Stark, Vaitl (2007)

Neuroimaging studies found eight brain regions were found to be consistently altered, including areas key to meta-awareness (frontopolar cortex/Brodmann area 10), exteroceptive and interoceptive body awareness (sensory cortex and insular cortex), memory consolidation and reconsolidation (hippocampus), self and emotion regulation (anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex), and intra- and interhemispheric communication (superior longitudinal fasciculus; corpus callosum) Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta- analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners

Fox, Nijeboer, Dixon, Floman, Ellamil, Rumak, Sedlmeier, Christoff (2014)

  • Slows the ageing process
Studies have compared brain morphology of experienced meditators with matched controls, and findings include increased cortical thickness along with reduced age- related cortical thinning. A caveat to this research is that people who meditate regularly may pursue generally healthier lifestyles.
The neurobiology of meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders Rubia (2009)
  • Decreases tension-related pain
Jon Kabat-Zinn put mindfulness on the map and brought it into mainstream healthcare system, initially as a way of treating chronic pain. After taking patients through a 10- week programme, the researchers found statistically significant reductions in measures of present-moment pain, negative body image, inhibition of activity by pain, symptoms, mood disturbance, and psychological symptomatology, including anxiety and depression. Pain-related drug utilisation decreased and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased. Improvement appeared to be independent of gender, source of referral, and type of pain.
The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, Burney (1985)
  • Improves pain perception and management
Pain is influenced by a number of factors, ranging from attention, beliefs, conditioning, expectations, mood, and the regulation of emotional responses to noxious sensory events. Mindfulness meditation has been found attenuate pain through some of these mechanisms including enhanced cognitive and emotional control, as well as altering the contextual evaluation of sensory events. Converging lines of neuroimaging evidence reveal that mindfulness meditation-related pain relief is associated with unique appraisal cognitive processes depending on expertise level and meditation tradition.
Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain
Zeidan, Grant, Brown, McHaffie, Coghill (2009)
  • Encourages the parasympathetic nervous system
The parasympathetic nervous system is anabolic and helps the body rest, digest and recover. It works alongside the sympathetic nervous system, which is activated in times of mental or physical stress to trigger a fight or flight response. Busy modern lives are filled with stresses and events that trigger the SNS. Regular meditation encourages the PNS. For example, runners who practiced meditation had lower levels of lactic acid after exercise, which in turn allowed them to perform better for short periods of time (such as in races) because of delayed lactic acid build-up.
Stress reactivity to and recovery from a standardised exercise bout
Solberg, Ingjer, Holen, Sundgot-Borgen, Nilsson, Holme (2000)
  • Improves the immune system
Many studies have shown a link between meditation and a healthy immune system. Black & Savich studied the effects of mindfulness meditation on circulating and stimulated inflammatory proteins, cellular transcription factors and gene expression, immune cell count, immune cell aging, and antibody response. The findings suggest possible effects of mindfulness meditation on specific markers of inflammation, cell- mediated immunity, and biological aging, but these results are tentative and require further replication. Mindfulness meditation may be salutogenic for immune system dynamics, but additional work is needed to examine these effects.
Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials
Black, Slavich (2016)
  • Lowers blood pressure
Meditation techniques appear to produce small yet meaningful reductions in blood pressure either as monotherapy or in conjunction with traditional pharmacotherapy. Transcendental meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction may produce clinically significant reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Meditation is an intervention for hypertension and prehypertension that is perhaps best characterized as being in its adolescence. There is clearly considerable promise, with a variety of studies demonstrating efficacy in the short-term reduction of BP similar to that achieved with single-agent drug therapy.
Current Perspectives on the Use of Meditation to Reduce Blood Pressure
Goldstein, Jospephson, Xie, Hughes (2012)
  • Reduces inflammatory problems
Mindfulness meditation training, when compared to relaxation training, reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker, in high-stress, unemployed adults. The biological health-related benefits occur because mindfulness meditation training fundamentally alters brain network functional connectivity patterns and the brain changes statistically explain the improvements in inflammation.
Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial Creswell , Taren, Lindsay, Greco, Gianaros, Fairgrieve, Marsland, Brown, Way, Rosen, Ferris (2016)
  • Improves breathing and heart rate
Voluntary or device-guided slow breathing exercises can slow down heart rate by prolonging the RR interval, by increasing vagal inputs to the sinoatrial node. In addition, by the mechanism of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), paced slow breathing can be employed to achieve balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic system, increasing heart rate variability as a possible contributor to cardiovascular health, among other benefits. Exercises such as yoga, tai chi, mindfulness meditation and other forms of “mind training” which can slow down breathing can be beneficial in stress reduction.
Psychophysiology of Slow Breathing Exercises Using Heart Rate Variability Measurements for Stress Reduction: A Preliminary Qualitative Study and Review of the Technique
Simbulan (2015)
  • Improves metabolic performance
Investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that eliciting the relaxation response – a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing and prayer – produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion. Biological pathways identified as being regulated by relaxation response practice are known to play specific roles in stress, inflammation and human disease. Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways
Bhasin, Dusek, Chang, Joseph, Denninger, Fricchione, Benson, Libermann (2013)
  • Helps treat menstrual and pre-menstrual symptoms
Independent of menstrual attitudes, mindfulness predicted less premenstrual symptom severity in each symptom assessed. There was an inverse relationship between mindfulness and premenstrual pain, negative affect, and water retention. The research found that while a measureable amount of discomfort persisted, the individual developed a changed relationship with their symptoms through increased awareness and decreased reactivity, reducing the negative impact of their symptoms. Relationships Among Premenstrual Symptom Reports, Menstrual Attitudes, and Mindfulness
Lustyk, Gerrish, Douglas, Bowen, Marlatt (2011)
  • Encourages a healthy lifestyle
As described earlier, regular meditation is associated with healthy lifestyles, slower ageing and improved health in older age. It is not clear to what extent meditation leads 
to these improved outcomes or to what extent people who meditate generally look after their physical and mental health more than the general population.
However, recent research into the behavioural benefits of meditation at Liverpool John Moores University found that “lower levels of dispositional mindfulness (awareness) were shown to be associated with greater difficulties in emotion regulation, habitual negative self-thinking and both emotional and uncontrolled eating tendencies”.

Fisher (2014)

  • Improves sleep
Experienced meditators showed significantly higher plasma melatonin levels in the period immediately following meditation compared with the same period at the same time on a control night. The researchers concluded that meditation can affect plasma melatonin levels. High melatonin levels are associated with better sleep.
Acute increases in night-time plasma melatonin levels following a period of meditation Tooley, Armstrong, Norman Sali (2000)

Mental Benefits of Meditation

  • Improves mood
The body of evidence supporting Mindfulness Based Treatment of depression and anxiety is growing every year. In 2010 a research team led by Stefan Hoffman undertook a meta-analysis, noting that two prior analyses (in 2003 and 2007) had reached different conclusions as to the efficacy of MBT. The researchers concluded: “Our findings are encouraging and support the use of MBT for anxiety and depression in clinical populations. This pattern of results suggests that MBT may not be diagnosis- specific, but, instead, may address processes that occur in multiple disorders by changing a range of emotional and evaluative dimensions that underlie general aspects of wellbeing. Therefore, MBT may have general applicability”.
The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review
Hofmann, Sawyer, Witt & Oh (2010)
  • Prevents depression relapse
Meditation is being used in healthcare to treat depression, particularly the relatively ne technique of Mindful Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MBCT). MBCT has been associated with reduced risk of depressive relapse/recurrence over 60 weeks compared with those who did not receive MBCT. The researchers found the impact of MCBT was greater in patients who had higher levels of depressive symptomns, suggesting that MBCT may be especially helpful to those patients who still have significant depressive symptoms.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Linked to Reduced Depressive Relapse Risk
Kuyken (2016)
  • Fosters gratitude
A meditation practice that focuses on gratitude would be expected to lead to a more grateful and positive perspective, which in turn has positive health benefits. Gratitude may be defined as the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself, representing a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.
Research supports an association between gratitude and an overall sense of well being, although occasional negative findings are also evident. There are a number of potential nuances in the relationship between gratitude and well being that may eventually be relevant to the effective integration of gratitude techniques into psychotherapy treatment.
Gratitude and Well Being
Sansone & Sansone (2010)
  • Builds self esteem
Jon Kabat-Zinn found statistically significant reductions in measures of present- moment pain, negative body image, inhibition of activity by pain, symptoms, mood disturbance, and psychological symptomatology, including anxiety and depression. Pain-related drug utilisation decreased and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased for patients who underwent a 10-week stress reduction and relaxation programme.
The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain Kabat-Zinn (1985)
  • Reduces stress
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), characterized by worry that is difficult to control, and symptoms such as poor sleep, muscle tension, and irritability, is relatively common, with a lifetime prevalence rate of 5.7%. With 30-60% of patients not achieving remission after pharmacotherapeutic treatments, health practitioners are increasingly using Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programmes.
A detailed 2013 study led by Hoge found MBSR can reduce anxiety symptoms in patients with GAD even when compared to an active control condition, and is a treatment option worth pursuing in larger investigational trials. Patients who had learned mindfulness meditation had improved coping during a laboratory stress paradigm, raising the possibility that mindfulness may imbue some resilience to stressful psychological challenges.
Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity
Hope, Bui, Marques, Metcalf, Morris, Robinaugh, Worthington, Pollack, Simon (2013)
  • Improves attention and memory
A number of research studies have indicated that meditation enhances attention (Lutz et al., 2008), working memory, and executive functioning (Zeidan et al., 2010), as well as leading to increased grey matter in the hippocampus (Holzel et al., 2011) and prefrontal cortex (Zeidan et al., 2013).

Researchers led by Lutz looked at brain activity using spectral analysis and phase- synchrony detection, finding that regular meditators experienced increased relative and absolute and gamma power. Their results were consistent with the idea that attention and affective processes, which gamma-band EEG synchronisation may reflect, are flexible skills that can be trained and that, whilst there was no evidence that the EEG signatures werecaused by long-term training itself and not by individual differences before the training, the positive correlation with hours of training and other randomized controlled trials suggested that they were training-related effects. Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice

Lutz, Grischa, Rawlings, Ricard, Davidson (2004)

  • Improves decision-making
Making decisions requires a thought processes during which a judgment or course of action is identified and selected from several alternative possibilities based on one’s values and preferences. Meditation has been shown to improve attention and focus, which should lead to better decisions, and may also play a role in reducing economic decision biases, and enhancing the empathy, compassion, and altruism involved in social decisions.
Clinical evidence has demonstrated that meditation can be a useful tool to reduce substance abuse, alcohol addiction, and the craving to smoke, disorders which are associated with impulsive behaviors (e.g., taking risks) and suboptimal decision making.
Calm and smart? A selective review of meditation effects on decision making
Sun, Yao, Wei, You (2015)

“Other” Benefits of Meditation

Meditation is recognised as bringing benefits beyond the individual’s mental and physical health. It is good for the “spirit”. Talk of spirituality raises the hackles of many scientifically- minded people, but it need not.

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to

both.”

Carl Sagan, author

  • Improves creativity
Psychologists believe that there are two main process involved in creativity: divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is where different ideas are generated in a context where no one idea is correct, for example in a brain-storming session. Convergent thinking is the process of generating one possible solution to a particular problem, emphasising speed and relying on high accuracy and logic.
Dutch researchers looked at the impact of focused-attention meditation (such as breath meditation) and open-monitoring meditation (such as mindfulness) on divergent and convergent thought. They found both types of meditation practice elevated mood, and that OM meditation promoted divergent thinking. The results for convergent thinking were less clear, with meditation practice affecting convergent thinking in two opposite ways: the focused character of the meditation might have improved convergent thinking performance while the relaxing aspect of the procedure might have hampered it.
Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking
Colzato, Ozturk, Hommel (2012)
  • Facilitates healthy goal setting
Conditional goal setting (CGS, the tendency to regard high order goals such as happiness, as conditional upon the achievement of lower order goals) is observed in individuals with depression and recent research has suggested a link between levels of dispositional mindfulness and conditional goal setting in depressed patients. Patients participating in a pilot randomised controlled trial of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) who experienced increases in dispositional mindfulness were significantly associated with decreases in CGS, although this effect could not be attributed specifically to the group who had received training in meditation. Dispositional Mindfulness, Meditation, and Conditional Goal Setting
Crane, Jandric, Barnhofer, Williams (2010)
  • Promotes empathy and compassion
Meditation is often regarded as a solitary, self-reflective practice. Yet regular meditators (think of Buddhist monks) are known for their peaceful and compassionate behavior.
Kristeller and Johnson observed a two-stage process. First comes awareness of habitual patterns and responses, followed by de-conditioning or dis-engagement from usual daily pre-occupation with self-reinforcing, self-defeating, or self-indulgent behaviours and reactions. Second, through focused engagement with one’s own capacity for empathy, compassion and altruistic behaviour, these characteristics are cultivated.
Cultivating Loving-Kindness: A Two-Stage Model for the Effects of Meditation on Compassion, Altruism and Spirituality
Kristeller, Johnson (2003)

Is meditation safe?

Not wanting to cast aspersions on the motives of newspapers and internet opinion-makers, but after singing the praises of meditation – and mindfulness in particular – there has been a slew of articles in the past couple of years on the dangers of meditation.

“Descriptions are emerging of problems brought on by mindfulness practice, including panic, depression, and anxiety. In some more extreme cases, mania and psychotic symptoms have been reported. These problems seem to be rare, but nonetheless significant, and require further investigation and guidance,” says the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

Of course, physical exercise is not without risk, neither is crossing the road or driving to work. There are a few simple factors to consider:

  • The intensity of the practice
There is no evidence that low intensity practices cause harm. In fact, they are likely to help people discern what they like and dislike and what leads to good and bad outcomes. This is the level of Sunshine Brain.
Moderate intensity practices are used in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and other evidence-based mindfulness programmes. Students are invited to orient their attention both to the pleasant and the unpleasant, can bring to mind difficult or unwanted memories, emotions, and sensations. Learning to work with such experiences, which are understood to be normal, can lead to substantial improvements in mental health and wellbeing.
The most intensive way to practice mindfulness is on meditation retreats, where participants meditate for many hours each day, often entirely in silence, for a week or more. Reports of adverse effects to date come from participants in intensive retreats.
  • The vulnerability of the person
Consensus opinion is that the more vulnerable a person is, the greater the need to attend carefully to when, how and if mindfulness should be taught. Research shows that even highly vulnerable participants can practice mindfulness safely if their needs are carefully addressed.
  • The quality of the instruction
Contemplative traditions have long recognized that intensive mindfulness practice can lead to challenging emotional or bodily experiences that require expert guidance. The developers of secular, evidence-based mindfulness programs also emphasize the importance of competent mindfulness teaching. 
“Any program with the potential to be therapeutic may involve risk. Ensuring participants’ wellbeing and minimising any chance of harm requires that mindfulness practices are offered with skill and care. Until we understand the risks more clearly, the wisest course for anyone interested in mindfulness is to begin with low to moderate-intensity practices.” 
Oxford Mindfulness Centre (UK)

So I hope I have inspired you to give meditation a go. It’s easy to get started.

Try a one minute Mini Meditation here

Join our Breathe & Start Again Community on Facebook for starter free meditations and more information on meditation

If you are ready to get make a daily meditation practice you can join us in the Sunshine Brain

This is what some of our members are saying:

“This course doesn’t jest tell you to meditate and give you guided meditations and familiar mantras. It guides you towards creating a personalised programme and gives you a psychological framework for it”
Clare D, London

“This course approaches meditation in a slightly different way. It not only makes it easier to quickly master meditation techniques it also has tools videos and support to explain how to be happier and achieve the things in life you aspire to. My experience has been great. I have meditated everyday and it has been very enjoyable especially the 3 minute meditation which is the best thing since sliced bread”

Carol D, Nottingham

“I have been on meditation classes and course many times and I have always come away feeling great and full of good intention to meditate everyday. But I have not been able to fit it into my life. Sunshine Brain has shown me how to do that. Meditation is part of my everyday life. I feel absolutely amazing I am stronger, happier and loving my life. My kids are loving their happier chilled out mum”
Gina P, Glasgow

“Sunshine Brain helped me control my anger and fear this week. I can see the benefits of meditation and I’m motivated to keep going and explore more. I will recommend that people make an effort to introduce it to their lives.”
Ingrid B, London

Love and sunshine

Nia