Meditation and mental health

Our guest author is an 18-year-old student living in Leicester, UK.

5.5 mins read.

Last year I very nearly ditched school.

I was torn between two worlds: my father in Wales — an intelligent and charismatic individual characterised by his grand, magical thinking, and my mother in Leicester, who had always been kind and patient. After years of not understanding the conflict between the two, I had to find out more about my dad’s world. I left for Wales in January 2017 planning not to return.

However, I was back in Leicester the following week, having experienced my dad’s coercive tirades and destructive behaviour first hand. This was enough for me to realise what it is actually like to live with mental health problems, and that I needed a reliable method to be able to control my own mind.

high-school-dropoutLots of people my age have to deal with disturbing relationships, identity and gender issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and the struggles of long-term mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Some go for counselling to manage these problems, and others have turned to their medical doctors for help. Whilst these are valid avenues, for me the solution has been meditation.

How do I meditate?

When meditating, I sit cross-legged, shut out the outside world, and focus on developing specific positive feelings, such as love or compassion. Sometimes the only thing I can focus on is the pain in my knees, but when all my distractions cease I can feel a profound sense of calm and peace.

‘So what?’ you might say — ‘I feel pretty relaxed after a couple of pints. This sounds like airy-fairy nonsense to me.’

I would have probably agreed with that a year or two ago. In fact, it’s true that for the first sessions you may not experience instant results. Hence, there is a lot of confusion about meditation. Some people think it is about losing yourself, whilst others think it is about finding yourself; some think meditation is about being mindless like a stone, or even listening to whale noises. For me, after enduring so much pain and confusion during my childhood, I was determined to find a method that, based on logical reasoning, was bound to produce lasting positive results.

Meditating-1After researching various traditions and schools of meditation, I came across the clarity of the Kadampa teachings and discovered that a key part of the meditative process is being able to identify the states of mind that produce negative feelings and then working to reduce them, and identifying positive states of mind and working to increase them. Therefore, meditation is a methodology for familiarising the mind with positivity.

How does meditation improve our mental health?

The principal driving force of meditation is concentration and mindfulness. By learning to concentrate solely on positive states of mind without distractions, we train in developing positive thought patterns. This is akin to a musician practising scales and chords, or training our muscles in the gym through repeated exercises. Eventually through training in meditation, positive mental sequences become ingrained and it becomes possible to tap into them effortlessly. Since good mental health comes from positive states of mind, we can thus understand how meditation, when practised correctly, has great power to improve our mental health.

The evidence

To find out more about how meditation has helped others, I made a case study of five people who use meditation: a doctor, a Buddhist practitioner, a researcher, and two of my friends at college.

A doctor:

doctor

Doctor Judith Casson, a GP at Hinckley surgery, has been practising mindfulness meditation for fifteen years. She has found it to be an invaluable tool for her own mental health and has witnessed the positive implementation of mindfulness practices in junior doctors and her patients. She thinks of meditation as like “planting a seed from which grows long-term compassion and patience”.

A researcher:

There is abundant scientific evidence for meditation improving mental health. Neurobiologist Sara Lazar, PhD, states in an interview with the Washington Post that after conducting studies, meditation was found to increase grey matter in different parts of the brain, including the left hippocampus which is associated with regulating emotions. This could prove a direct neurobiological link between emotional stability and meditation.

A Buddhist practitioner:

Derek is a Buddhist practitioner who started meditating nearly fifty years ago. As a child, he struggled with serious health problems and nearly died. “I had to learn to deal with a wealth of suffering and mental torment, which acted as a big incentive to try to work with my mind.” 45 years later, he is now able to maintain mental stability despite ongoing health challenges.

Two of my friends at college:

After just one month of practising a basic breathing meditation, my friend Ellie, who suffers from PTSD and anxiety, says, “Meditation has allowed me to find peace in the most difficult times – it has been an absolute lifeline.” Similarly, my friend Alex who suffers from cerebral palsy and depression has also turned to meditation. In his words, “It’s given me clarity when rationality goes out the window.”

Me:

After a year and a half of practising meditation, I myself am much better able to deal with daily challenges, my stress has reduced, I don’t fall into frustration so easily, and I rarely get depressed. Most of the time I’m not fazed when things don’t go the way I expect. My empathy and compassion have dramatically increased and I’m also better able to think clearly and organise my time. I’m not perfect, but I can clearly see an upward trajectory of peace and mental stability.

Where am I now?

It has been a year and a half since I’ve had to cut ties with my dad, and although I am still dealing with grieving and loss, meditation has helped me to move on and I can face my adversities with a happy mind. Through meditating on compassion, I have also learned to see things from my dad’s perspective, which has been an eye-opener in understanding his suffering due to his mental health disorder.

Despite the rocky territory I have passed through in the last year and a half, I finished my A Levels in June 2018 with great results. I have just started an art course at De Montfort University in Leicester, and, let me tell you, I am loving life! Through the special qualities of modern Kadampa Buddhism, I can now take my peaceful mind wherever I go and do all the normal student things at the same time.airplane

Just like becoming a pilot takes many years of training and knowledge, from my own experience I believe that through consistent practice we can fly our mind to profoundly better mental health through meditation.

Ed: This week (Oct 7-13) is Mental Health Awareness Week …. Please share this guest article to raise awareness of the benefits of meditation in helping with mental health issues.

To find a meditation class near you, click here.

For articles on getting started with breathing meditation, click here.