Arts & Culture

It's not just anger management and lower cholesterol. A daily dose of meditation is a route to spiritual joy and mental health.

Dan Gould
  • 20 may 2011

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This article titled “Meditation: don’t leave home without it” was written by Shirley Lancaster, for on Wednesday 18th May 2011 12.59 UTC

Looking after our minds should be as natural as brushing our teeth. The recently launched Action for Happiness movement suggests daily habits – doing good to others, taking exercise and nurturing relationships – can improve our mental health, just as five-a-day fruit and veg portions improve our physical health.

The psychiatrist Dr Norman Rosenthal, best known for describing seasonal affective disorder, believes meditation is an essential daily habit. Addressing a seminar on Meditation and Mental Health in London this month – organised by Meditatio, the outreach programme of the World Community for Christian Meditation – Rosenthal said he wouldn’t leave the house without it.

Rosenthal recommends transcendental meditation (TM) to patients. Peer-reviewed research on the physical and psychological benefits of TM – from reduced anxiety to increased creativity is – impressive. Different forms of meditation and mindfulness will affect brain waves in different ways, said Rosenthal, but they all reap benefits. Our responses become less reactive. For prisoners and city school kids, “a couple more minutes to respond” can mean not hitting out.

But the benefits of meditation are not limited to anger management and lower cholesterol. At the seminar psychiatrists, therapists, mental health workers and spiritual teachers had come together to explore how the spiritual dimension of meditation contributes to wholeness and wellbeing. For Laurence Freeman OSB, the fourth-century desert monks were early psychologists of the soul. Impelled to control unruly thoughts and emotions they found that repeating a “word” anchors the mind. Confronting inner thoughts and compulsions leads to self-knowledge – a precondition for knowledge of God. In focusing the mind, and embracing inner conflict, modern meditation practice offers the deepest natural therapy for the soul.

But repetition can also be dysfunctional, said Freeman. Mentally going over the same ground, and addictive behaviour, shows where we get stuck. Freud revealed these unconscious processes. But in converting neurotic misery into “common unhappiness” he underestimated our capacity for wholeness and joy, suggested Freeman.

Treating the “whole” person is paramount, said Professor Peter Gilbert. Service users often wanted to talk about their spirituality but were not given the opportunity. When a bereaved man was asked what he found helpful to combat depression, he said attending his Catholic church was comforting. The professional reply was: “Yes, but putting that aside, where else do you find support?” Carers had ignored who he was, said Gilbert. We all have stories to tell, and we need space to hear them. Feeling a stranger in the world, which some feel, is a spiritual condition.

Christian, Buddhist and Muslim spiritual leaders made clear that we are “spiritual beings on a human journey rather than human beings on a spiritual journey”. So could our depression and stress-related illnesses be a “sane” reaction to the “madness” of modern living? If the pace of life is too fast, the pressure to compete and accumulate too dominant, and too much choice leads not to inner freedom but a consumer jadedness, is it surprising that we making ourselves ill? With an estimated £105bn mental health bill in England, can meditation and a spiritual perspective help?

Recent guidelines from the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence have brought mindfulness practice into the mainstream. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is recommended for depression because it helps. Paying attention with more focus, and being in the present moment in a non-judgmental way, has psychological benefits.

Chris MacKenna, a therapist and Anglican priest, said that “being with” ourselves is part of the therapeutic journey. This is not always pleasant. But by being with our anxiety or pain, we change our relationship to it. With greater self-knowledge we become agents of our own healing.

Meditation is also a way of “being with” ourselves at depth. It can be unsettling, as Ed Halliwell recently argued on Comment is free. But research shows meditation aids mental stability.

If practised regularly, the emotions that rise up become integrated. This “work” of meditation is emphasised by all spiritual traditions – and is not about looking beautiful sitting in the lotus position on a beach.

The reality is a busy teacher, office worker or mother grabbing 20 minutes to connect with a deeper centre from which to “be” before the “doing” takes over. Meditation prioritises our instinctive need for wholeness. It attends to the soul and spirit. For spiritual traditions it is a work of transformation that brings spiritual fruits: love, peace, compassion, joy. A daily habit shown to be good for mind and heart, as well as the body, could offer one important way to happiness and reducing our mental health bill – though smiling at the postman will probably help too.

• This article was amended on 19 May 2011. The original suggested that Action for Happiness was a government organisation. This has been corrected. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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