03 December 2018

Why is it so hard to do what is good for us? And 3 top tips to change that…

These days, most of us know what is good for our health and our wellbeing.
Yet why does it often seem easier to do things that are bad for us compared to those that do us good?

This week a guest blog from Ruth with 3 ways to rectify all this, plus a dose of inspiration - all as we embark on leading another meditation retreat together in the Yarra Valley at the start of December, but first

              Thought for the day

         Hope is the thing with feathers
         That perches in the soul,
         And sings the tune without the words,
         And never stops at all.  
           
                          Emily Dickinson




We are the most highly-educated population that has ever walked the planet.
And courtesy of the net we can look up anything and everything in a few moments. Of course there are different opinions that have different levels of authority and conviction but we all know what we eat, how we exercise, and our state of mind all have a considerable impact on our health and wellbeing. Yet often enough we seem to have trouble sticking to doing it!

So what is missing? I believe that rather more than information, what we need is help with implementation. Doctors call it compliance. I call it “Making a Plan” and finding a way to get supported in that plan.

Ask yourself the following questions…

Do I lack clarity and uncertainty about what really works?
Am I unsure about who to trust?
Do I lack confidence?
Do I have a fear of failure?
Am I habitually destructive with my thinking?
Am I unable to let go of old habits or preferences?
Do I find it difficult to open my mind to embrace new ideas?
Am I lazy or forgetful?
Am I in denial? Do I know what being in denial is?
Do I lack willpower?
Do I feel under pressure to conform from family, friends
or professionals to maintain a status quo, to keep up an image?
Do I ever succumb to some deeper, darker self-sabotage?
Am I frightened about old age?                

Most of us will answer yes to several if not many of the above.

So what to do?
How to cut through all this? Why does it often seem so difficult to do what is in our own best health and wellbeing interests? Why is it so many of us get complacent and lazy and have habits we find difficult to change?

Maybe part of the problem is the modern version of laziness. This current Western Civilisation version of laziness is actually about being endlessly busy. Working, family, shopping, socializing, housekeeping… the days are one long run around! No time for attention to self. No time to attend to what is really good for us.

1. Fear
In my experience, what often breaks through all this first and foremost is a good dose of fear!
Maybe this is not the answer you had hoped to hear, but what I observe is the people who generally do “Make a Plan” for their health and carry it through are those who start when facing extreme difficulties and are afraid of dying or of becoming disabled - like many of those who come to our cancer programs and multiple sclerosis programs.

Fact is we can benefit from being afraid of not recovering, of being afraid of an unhealthy old age, of being a burden on our families or communities, of being in pain and of suffering physical disability. Fear can be a great initial motivator. It can be very helpful to observe what is happening to so many older people we know and to fear for our own future. Of course, overwhelming fear is stifling, even paralyzing; so that level of fear needs to be balanced with hope - the hope of being able to doing something about it.

2.Inspiration
And for hope we need to be inspired - by people, magazines, books, podcasts, programs and films. Our present culture is too tough to just expect we will automatically become inspired. We need to be prepared to be different and change the culture of our family.

3. Making a plan for our health 
This is the third essential. There are so many choices, so many options these days, we need to make time to consult, to read, to ask questions and contemplate. A good plan does not occur by accident; it can take time and focus, but then it establishes our direction. And then, informed by a good plan, we need to choose like-minded friends - people who also want to have a go at being healthy - to support us in our lifestyle.


And how is this for inspiration?


Some years back now, Ian and I attended the marriage of our dear friends and colleagues, George Jelinek and Sandy Neate, both Emergency Medicine Physicians.

George is well known now for his invaluable contribution to Multiple Sclerosis.

George, being a rigorous academic and Professor of Emergency Medicine, was diagnosed with MS in 1999.

This led him to undertake extensive research related to the illness and enabled him to arrive at his own conclusions.

He changed his diet, exercise routine, Vitamin D levels and way of life.

Overcoming MS is a great book.

As for George - many years on he remains diligent with his lifestyle and he remains very well!

But back in 1999, speaking at the reception, Sandy recollected first meeting George. Sandy become aware of what she thought in those days was his rather restrictive diet.

So, she asked “Do you ever cheat on the diet George?”

Sandy said he responded with a somewhat puzzled look, as if not to understand the question, so she repeated “Do you ever cheat?”

This time George did reply. “Why would I cheat on the diet when there is so much at stake?”

Simple really.

Men like George are an inspiration. His clarity made it easy. George is fully aware that when it comes to the chronic, degenerative, medical conditions - cancer, depression, anxiety, heart disease, autoimmune diseases (including MS), Alzheimer’s, arthritis - what you eat, how you exercise, what your state of mind is  - all have a major impact on the course of these illnesses. And if you have not got an illness, these factors play a major role in whether or not you develop them.


So why wait? 

Medical evidence is now very clear - an unhealthy lifestyle is linked to just about every health issue you would rather avoid.

Also, a healthy lifestyle is linked to more than "just" prevention, it is linked to recovery from just about every health issue you would rather not experience.

So why wait? 

Draw on any fear you can muster.

Draw on inspiration wherever you can.

Make a plan and expect to experience the side effects of a healthy lifestyle - chronic good health and an active, engaging old age.


RUTH'S NEXT MEDITATION RETREAT

RECLAIMING JOY - April 12 - 18 2019, Yarra Valley Living Centre.

Details - call the Foundation - 03 5967 1730 or www.gawler.org

The legend of Meditation in the Forest lives on!

This classic 7 day meditation retreat is on again for yet another pre-Easter.

In 2019 it will be lead by Ruth Gawler and Melissa Borich.

Some will have had the good fortune to have shared time with Melissa in some of our previous retreats. Melissa is a highly accomplished yoga teacher with a wonderful capacity to tailor yoga for beginners or the advanced. Melissa has also trained with me as a meditation teacher and is one of the people I highly value and recommend.


Together with Ruth, these two women will present a wonderful retreat
- lucky you if you get to be there :)



21 November 2018

How to grow avocados in cold weather

Since first moving to the Yarra Valley in 1980, avocados have been a feature of our gardens. People are often surprised. Can you really grow avocados in cold weather? Well yes you can and the fruit tastes terrific, however, there are a few tricks. So this week we go right Out on a Limb with tips and pictures that will help avocado growers anywhere - terrific backyard trees - but first




       Thought for the day

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, 
You must first invent the universe.

                 Carl Sagan





So starting an avocado from scratch…



Three tooth picks, one great avocado seed and a glass of water.

Arrange as shown, with the bottom of the seed kept in the water for the weeks, even months it may take to produce roots then a shoot.


Alternatively, buy a plant ready to go. 

Avocado trees come in different sizes and produce fruit at different times of the year. They also come in 2 main varieties - called Type A and B - and if you plant one of each type they cross pollinate and the fruit set is better, although in my experience one tree on its own still does OK. In suburban settings you may be lucky and have a neighbor with a cross pollinator; or if you can talk a neighbor into growing their own, choose wisely!

Hass and Fuerte are the 2 most common commercial varieties but both grow to become big trees - 8x10m approx. Bacon - Type B - is excellent in colder weather, the quickest to produce fruit from planting (our latest produced a few in 3 years, around 50 the fourth) - and is small - around 4m so is good for a back yard.

Three excellent small type As that would pair with a Bacon are Pinkerton, Reed and Rincon. These all produce fruit at different times of the year, although avocados have this wonderful property of lasting on the tree. We have picked fruit from our Bacon over at least 6 months - just finishing now, and if planting another would probably go with the Reed given it produces over summer from November to March - Christmas avocados off the tree!!!

More details on varieties? - excellent site : CLICK HERE

If you have started with a pip - and this is not so highly recommended as maturation reputedly takes longer (we are currently testing this theory with out latest planting) - next is to pot into a premium potting mix and keep warm while developing. We have a glasshouse, but indoors would be Ok in a sunny area. Keep moist but do not overwater and young plants do not like cold, especially frosts.

Once big enough, or if you buy a plant, wait until frosts have passed and plant mid/late spring.

But - you do need to think ahead. Avocados hate wet feet and they have real trouble with clay. In our Upper Yarra area, there is a thin layer of topsoil then really tough clay. In the eighties I actually attempted a commercial orchard by mounding up the topsoil with a big machine and planting into that. All went well for a few years, then all the trees died.

About 15 years ago I made mounds by hand and planted 5 varieties that gave year round fruit. For 2 seasons this was fantastic, then the trees progressively died. One still hangs on, but looks miserable. We keep it going to see what will happen.

A commercial grower told me recently the clay is the problem. In the experience of our conditions we get 2 -3 years of good fruiting, then 1 or 2 ordinary ones, then time to replant. So currently what we do is plant a new one every 2-3 years. We are fortunate to have the space to do this, and we build the dirt up, add sand and heaps of compost to improve drainage and we remain hopeful the new ones will live long, happy lives, yet it is the clay that may bring them all undone eventually. Many Melbourne backyards are on great sandy loam areas and will not have this problem.

However, soil preparation is still always important.
Add lots of compost, something like Dynamic Lifter
and maybe some dolomite
and do consider making a mound to plant into.

With the Bacon we planted 5 years ago we used around 2 metres of soil for the mound and this has worked really well - so far!

Once the time is right to plant, avocados like protection from wind, frost and even sun - they can suffer from sunburn! In a backyard this may all be OK, but in our large, open garden we need to provide protection. Tomato stakes, hessian and wire does the job. Here is how to do it...



Set out the frame for a "lid' that will be attached once the 4 stakes are in place.


These need to be aligned roughly North, South and in a manner that when the hessian is attached, it will protect from the prevailing winds.

In our area these come primarily from the North.





           
            Then hammer in the stakes.














        Use the wire to attach
        the wooden frame at the top.








Use more wire to attach the hessian,
leaving the face to the East open
so some sun does touch the plant directly.


When ready to plant, know avocados are touchy in the root department.

Be careful to avoid disturbing the roots as much as possible.

We cut the pots off - bottom first - and gently place the plant in the soil, fill in, add pea straw mulch and water gently.




We once had a rabbit eat the base of a young tree so now we add protective wire, and this does support the young one a little without tying it.

After this last one we planted - as shown - we had a day of huge winds.

Without the protection of the hessian the baby tree would have been shredded; as it was, it is completely unscathed and already growing happily.


Watering is tricky. Avocados seem to hate being over-watered, and under-watered. The best way we can do it is to watch the new growth. When happy, avocados grow rapidly and constantly. So we keep the water up while the growth is happening, and watch for the first signs of the growth tips flagging. We have found this to be the best sign for the next watering time as we need to be very careful to avoid over-watering. Maybe someone has a better trick, but this has been working well for us.

With any luck this is what you get... Well worth the effort...

This one is a Bacon and now into its 5th year.

Enjoy!


05 November 2018

Finding-meaning-and-purpose-in-life

Back at the end of 2009 I retired from my full time position at the Foundation I had built and created a big space in my life. It was clear the Foundation needed to move on from its founder and establish itself in its own right, and as for me, well I was open to whatever came next.

As it happened, I enjoyed some free time, then it became apparent I had what was virtually an aversion to computers. I retired from the Foundation without ever having a computer on my desk and before I left had asked my PA to help me send 3 emails so at least I could say I had actually managed to do that!

But then it occurred to me how useful computers can be and how maybe they could help address one of the big issues that troubled me at the time - How to help people establish and maintain a regular meditation practice?

So I began speaking with friends who were experts around computers - all of whom were rather bemused by my new interest (knowing as they did of my old aversion) - and they were very generous with their time and advice.

This line of enquiry led on to a pivotal meeting with Saurabh Mishra.


Saurabh is an entrepreneur based in Melbourne who has co-founded five e-health business ventures since 2000.

Three of these (eClinic, SamplesPlus and PalCare) were bought by some of the largest healthcare businesses in Australia between 2009-2010, and the fourth (Healthnotes) was bought in 2016 by MedAdvisor, a company listed on the Australian stock exchange.

But along with the world of IT, Saurabh’s real passion is meditation and helping others. His life has been one of seeking meaning and purpose.



So this week, an insight into the life and mind of a person intent on helping others through meditation and apps, along with news of me making a re-appearance at Ruth's next meditation retreat in December, but first




                         Thought for the day

  Integrity is the inner sense of wholeness and strength
  That arises out of our honesty with ourselves;
  It is the ability to make the connections
  And the proper sacrifices
  To find a life that is both moral and spontaneous.

                       John Tarrant - Zen teacher and writer






Saurabh and I have become great friends and it has been an ongoing delight working together.

We have great fun, work hard, engage with some amazing people, and I have learnt heaps about apps and all things IT.

We created a new business, Imageryworks with the intention to make the learning and practice of meditation easier, with a vision of helping bring about a world in which everyone meditates every day.

Our creations - the My Meditation and Meditation Gateway apps are unique teaching and interactive practice tools.


Saurabh was born in India and is a dedicated practitioner of Kriya yoga, an ancient meditation technique. He also volunteers a significant amount of time for a number of not-for-profit organisations including Eastern Palliative Care, TiE Melbourne, Melbourne Hindustani Classical Music Society (he is an accomplished classical singer), and Friends of the Children’s Hospital.
 

Earlier this year, Saurabh was interviewed by a tech magazine about the new My Meditation app.

1.    Did you have any prior development or coding experience?

I am not a programmer by training. However, having started up 5 software based businesses in the past 18 years, I am quite familiar with the development cycle and methodologies. We engaged a team of developers from Intellection Ltd. in Pune, India to develop the My Meditation app.



2.    What was the most challenging aspect of developing this meditation app?

The most challenging aspect was the app's unique virtual group meditation feature as there were complexities around using many native app features and coordinating across multiple handsets and platforms.


3.    Name a few of your favourite apps and reason you love them.

I frequently travel out of Melbourne, and so the Google Maps, Google Translate and Uber apps are handy indeed. I also find the Microsoft Teams app to be very useful to communicate with colleagues and keep up to date on collaborative projects. One other app I want to mention is a niche one called iTabla Pro for people who learn and perform Indian classical music. It has single-handedly replaced a number of background instruments, and made it possible for students like me to be able to practice anywhere, anytime.
 

4.    How long have you been working on this app?

Since 2015.


5.    What need of the user did you have in mind when developing this app?

Only a few of those who learn to meditate are able to establish a regular enough practice to truly benefit from it.


6.    In what way do you think your app is better than similar apps on the market? Please describe in detail what innovation you think you bring and what you are proud of in your app.

My Meditation is a comprehensive program for learning highly useful life-skills of relaxation, mindfulness, meditation, contemplation and imagery. It is based on authentic teachings transmitted over an unbroken lineage of thousands of years, and its founders have decades of experience of teaching and practicing these techniques.

Most importantly, it is unique in its emphasis on sustaining practice - with subscribers receiving daily messages of support, explanation and inspirations, able to join weekly virtual group practice sessions, and encouraged to keep track of their practice.

And what is more, it works. People who use this app do meditate much more frequently than before, and report significantly improved satisfaction with their practice.



7.    What are your future plans and expected features of the coming new versions of this app?

We hope to make the virtual group practice sessions more interactive, with participants able to interact with the teacher and with each other before or after the sessions via the app.

We would also like to build bio-feedback features for users to see for themselves, the psycho-physiological changes in their mind and body from their practice.


8.    Assuming new users of your app are reading this, what do you want to ask them to do?

Please sign up and make use of the 10-day free trial to sample the contents, features and benefits of this app. And if you like it, please subscribe!



Please do give us feedback
We are very happy with this new release and feedback from early users has been very positive, however, the app will continue to be upgraded based on feedback and new developments, so please do share with me any questions or feedback - via info@insighthealth.com.au.

Getting started

For iPhone/iPad users
1. If you are viewing this on your device. Tap here 

2. If you are viewing this on your computer, you will need to use your device - iPhone, iPad etc - and go to the App Store. Search for mymeditationapp (all as one word). (Note: Ours is a new app, and you may need to scroll down the list to find it. It is called My Meditation and the title features Imageryworks - our business name. Persevere and you will find it!) Download the app, sign up, and off you go.

For Android users
1. If you are viewing this on your deviceTap here 

2. If you are viewing this on your computer, you will need to use your phone etc and go into Playstore. Search for My Meditation app. Download it, sign up, and off you go.

To visit the related website, go to www.meditationapp.net

Some extra clarity
Some of you may have been using, or heard of the Meditation Gateway app, which is a precursor of the My Meditation app. With very similar features, we made Meditation Gateway app an open platform where any meditation teacher can upload their own material and offer their programs to their students. We are also looking to offer this platform to corporations like Health Insurance funds, who are happier to endorse a multi-teacher platform so their members can have a choice of programs that suit their particular requirements.

RELATED POST
Ian Gawler My Meditation App - with all the details of what the app offers


BIG NEWS

I AM TO JOIN RUTH FOR HER NEXT MEDITATION RETREAT

Ruth was expecting Kimberly Poppe to join her from Amsterdam for this retreat, however, Kimberly is unable to make the trip. So Ruth asked me to come out of retirement from leading retreats and fill the space. I have agreed and am really looking forward to this encore.

Definitely a one off, so maybe you would like to join us amidst whatever images of Johnny Farnham or Dame Nellie Melba you may wis this summon :)

RUTH'S NEXT MEDITATION RETREAT  

COMING SOON - with Ian Gawler

Reconnecting to Ourselves

3rd - 9th December 2018

Yarra Valley Living Centre, Victoria

This is an opportunity to take time out and deeply reconnect with your self through a nourishing and rejuvenating week of meditation and self compassion practices.

Enjoy gentle movement, delicious vegetarian meals made with love, and time and space to relax in a beautiful, natural environment.

Very highly recommended. This will be a wonderful, wonderful week...

Details - Click here

22 October 2018

Ian-Gawler-My-Meditation-app

Want to keep in touch, meditate with me, continue to learn and deepen your meditation, and use my guided exercises via a simple to use App?

All this is now possible with the My Meditation app. It provides both a complete meditation course as well as support for your practice. It has a new, updated version and is working reliably.

This week, a request for you to join me via the app (with details of how to access it further down this post), plus details of what the app offers and how to use it, but first



         Thought for the day

                If the doors of perception were cleansed

                Everything would appear
               As it is …
               Infinite.

                          William Blake








The My Meditation app has been named to make it easy. “What meditation app are you using to learn, deepen and support your meditation?” My Meditation App!

The app itself has grown out of several years developing a web based meditation program (Mindbody Mastery), and 3 years of app development with my partner in this venture, Saurabh Mishra.

Earlier research showed that within 3 months, people using this program actually tripled the amount of practice they did, and even more amazingly, they tripled their sense of satisfaction with their practice.

This latest release of the app is comprehensive in the features it offers, and it is working very reliably.

It provides a complete meditation course, as well as a support for your practice.

THE TEACHINGS
While you can download all the exercises from day one and simply use the practice functions of the app, there is a complete training offered through the app.

This will be excellent as a meditation review for many of you, but as the course unfolds, it does include a thorough training in contemplation and guided imagery - with the support of guided exercises for those practices as well.

How the teaching component works
The teaching program is structured over an initial period of 8 weeks. Each week you are provided with the appropriate guided exercise to practice for that week, along with a PDF delivered to your email explaining what to do. Also, daily emails are integrated into the program to add extra tips, insights and inspiration.

In the first 8 weeks we cover relaxation, concentration, mindfulness, stillness, contemplation on gratitude and guided imagery. Then the program moves on to consolidate meditation with additional exercises to download, all supported by the daily emails.

Meditate with me - virtually

A new feature we have finally been able to implement (this was the hardest thing for our talented developers to work out how to do) is that twice a week I have set up a group meditation that we can all link to.

I will be practicing with you at home or wherever I happen to be - the joys of an app - and you will receive an automatic reminder and can then join in with me and others wherever you happen to be around the world.

Personally, I find meditating together like this quite inspiring and very helpful for deepening practice, so look forward to continuing this.

Once you have signed up to the app, it is quite easy to opt in.

If you choose, you can also use the app to set up your own separate virtual meditation group with your friends.


Contemplation and Guided Imagery
To be frank, the real aim of the app has been to encourage and support people to develop a daily meditation practice and sustain it. We know from experience that this is not easy, so we have taken a long view to this.

The first year of the program is devoted primarily to all facets of Relaxation, Mindfulness and Meditation. Then, in the second year, we move on to focus for 6 months on Contemplation, followed by 6 months on Guided Imagery. The teachings are quite comprehensive and will hopefully help you expand your understanding and use all of these key practices.

What else can I do with My Meditation app ?

Access a range of useful guided exercises (same content as the earlier Mindbody Mastery program).

Customise your practice sessions - you can combine exercises, add bells to start and finish and include silent times as you choose - a very popular feature. Means you can personally adjust how much silence you want and set the content and length of what you listen to.

Join virtual meditation groups - I have setup virtual group meditation sessions at 8pm AEST for every Tuesday and 12 noon AEST on Wednesdays. If you are in USA or Europe, one of these times should still work well for you. Once you join a group, the app lets you know when the next session is about to start. Then at the allotted time, you just open the app and the tracks I have chosen are broadcast for all to hear, and we meditate together.

Be supported with daily emails that are fully integrated with the program.

There is a mindfulness reminder bell function that you can set for whenever you choose.

Many enjoy this function too - at the times you set the bell will sound on your phone reminding you to pause, check your mindfulness and your state of relaxation too if you choose, recalibrate if necessary, and then go on with your day more mindfully.




Please do give us feedback
We are very happy with this new release and feedback from early users has been very positive, however, the app will continue to be upgraded based on feedback and new developments, so please do share with me any questions or feedback - via info@insighthealth.com.au.

Getting started 

The Cost
Only US$5.99 per month, or alternately you can take 3-month (US$16.99), 12-month (US$43.99) or 36-month (US$109.99) subscriptions that come with substantial discounts. Of course there is a free trial option, but why not dive in???

For iPhone/iPad users 
1. If you are viewing this on your device -  Tap here

2. If you are viewing this on your computer, you will need to use your device - iPhone, iPad etc - and go to the App Store. Search for mymeditationapp (all as one word). (Note: Ours is a new app, and you may need to scroll down the list to find it. It is called My Meditation and the title features Imageryworks - our business name. Persevere and you will find it!) Download the app, sign up, and off you go.

For Android users 
1. if you are viewing this on your device – Tap here

2. If you are viewing this on your computer, you will need to use your phone etc and go into Playstore. Search for My Meditation app. Download it, sign up, and off you go.

To visit the related website, go to www.meditationapp.net

Some extra clarity
Some of you may have been using, or heard of the Meditation Gateway app, which is a precursor of the My Meditation app.

With very similar features, we made Meditation Gateway app an open platform where any meditation teacher can upload their own material and offer their programs to their students.

We are also looking to offer this platform to corporations like Health Insurance funds, who are happier to endorse a multi-teacher platform so their members can have a choice of programs that suit their particular requirements.


The Meditation Gateway app is currently being upgraded to the same new standards as My Meditation, however, it is still a work in progress and will be released in its new format in a few weeks.

My material is also available in the Meditation Gateway app and there it is called Mindbody Mastery. The content is very similar to that on the My Meditation app, so if you are using that already, no need to switch. There are virtual group meditation sessions in this program too.

Thanks to those of you already involved in this new network of app meditators; looking forward to linking with more of you...

Please do consider sharing these details with your friends
We are hoping this app will make it possible to help many people in a very direct way.  The more of us using it, the more momentum we will all gather… You can use this link

THE NEED - a quote…

Historically, the general public has not conceptualized meditation as a quick fix toward anything. It is a skill or state one learns and practices over time to increase one’s awareness, and through this awareness gain insight and understanding into the various subtleties of one’s existence. Training the mind in awareness, non-judgmentalness, and the ability to become completely free of thoughts or other activity are daunting accomplishments. 

While some meditators may feel these tasks are easy, they likely overestimate their own skills due to a lack of awareness of the different degrees to which these tasks can be done or the ability to objectively measure their own progress. Since becoming an expert at simple skills such as swimming, reading, or writing (which can be objectively measured by others) takes a considerable amount of time, it follows that meditation would also take a long period of time to master. 

FROM
Comparative Effectiveness Reviews  (No. 124 : Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being) prepared for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

RUTH'S NEXT MEDITATION RETREAT  

COMING SOON

Reconnecting to Ourselves

3rd - 9th December 2018

Yarra Valley Living Centre, Victoria

This is an opportunity to take time out and deeply reconnect with your self through a nourishing and rejuvenating week of meditation and self compassion practices.

Enjoy gentle movement, delicious vegetarian meals made with love, and time and space to relax in a beautiful, natural environment.

Very highly recommended. This will be a wonderful, wonderful week...

Details - Click here

15 October 2018

The-latest-meditation-research-Does-it-work?

Meditation is consistently identified by GPs as one of their most accepted “non-medical” interventions. Therapeutic meditation has widespread acceptance, largely due to what is perceived to be a large body of positive research. Of course, in clinical experience, many doctors have witnessed the wide range benefits flowing into meditator’s lives.

But what interesting new research is there? And what does closer scrutiny using meta-analysis techniques reveal? To counsel people appropriately, meditation teachers and clinicians alike need to know the answers, so this week we ask the hard question… Does meditation and mindfulness really work?

Also, good news with the widely updated and improved version of my meditation app ready for release in a week or two (details will follow on the next blog post), but first

Thought for the day

                  A Black Swan Event 

1. Is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.
2. It carries an extreme 'impact'. 
3. In spite of its outlier status, 
human nature makes us concoct explanations 
for its occurrence after the fact, 
making it explainable and predictable.

In summary, this is what characterises
a Black Swan Event  - rarity, extreme 'impact', 
and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. 

A small number of Black Swans explain 
almost everything in our world, 
from the success of ideas and religions, 
to the dynamics of historical events, 
to elements of our own personal lives.

                                               Nassim Taleb


PART 1 Some interesting recent research

1. Mindfulness changes brain structure and improves mental health
Building upon earlier research and following a brief 8 weeks Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training program, researchers identified significant brain changes - cortical thickness increase in the right insula and the somatosensory cortex - coupled with a significant reduction of several psychological markers related to worry, state anxiety, depression and alexithymia.

Taken together, these findings also provide new and plausible neurobiological evidence of a major role of the right insula in mediating the observed psychological changes.

Santarnecchi et al. Interaction between Neuroanatomical and Psychological Changes after Mindfulness-Based Training. PLoS ONE 9(10): e108359. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0108359


2. Meditation is anti-inflammatory
A new and rigorously designed mindfulness study, by the Georgetown University Medical centre, showed that hormonal, inflammatory reactions to stress were reduced after meditation training.

Hoge EA et al. 2018, The effect of mindfulness training on biological acute stress responses in generalised anxiety disorder. Psychiatry Res; 262, 328-332.


3. Meditation improves quality of life for breast cancer survivors

Women who had been treated for breast cancer and were cancer free were taught to meditate and the effects evaluated.

Over time, the group that meditated reported significant decreases in depression, anxiety, perceived stress, and an increase in quality of life, satisfaction with life, post-traumatic growth and quality of sleep.

Significantly, participants had a high attendance rate in the program, which speaks to the likelihood of the applicability of the meditation program on an outpatient basis.


Yun MR et al.  The Effects of Mind Subtraction Meditation on Breast Cancer Survivors' Psychological and Spiritual Well-being and Sleep Quality: A Randomized Controlled Trial in South Korea. Cancer Nurs. 2017 Sep/Oct 40(5); 377-385.


PART 2 The analysis
In scientific circles, one study is a bit like one swallow - it does not a summer make. To analyse a number of studies in the one field, complex, modern techniques use what is called meta-analysis to tease out wider and hopefully more accurate conclusions. While there is increasing criticism of the way in which meta-analyses are conducted, they do remain a “gold-standard” for current researchers.

Given the huge increase in the number of meditation and mindfulness studies, meta-analyses are becoming more possible. Here we reveal 2 specific reviews, and one wider one.

1. Does meditation improve cognitive function in the elderly?

Well this is good news - even if a little cautious!

With so many people worried about loss of mental capacity with aging, and so many actually developing dementia, researchers analysed the scientific literature on meditation and concluded : "There is preliminary evidence that meditation can improve cognitive function."

They then investigated the results of 6 Mindfulness Based Interventions in older people based upon MBSR and MBCT. They reported preliminary positive effects on memory, executive function and processing speed.

However, most reports had a high risk of bias and sample sizes were small. The only study with low risk of bias, large sample size and active control group reported no significant findings.

The conclusion? More research is needed, and while meditation and mindfulness may well be useful for the elderly, maybe it is wise to start meditation at an early age!

Berkl L et al.  Can mindfulness-based interventions influence cognitive functioning in older adults? A review and considerations for future research. Aging Mental Health 2017 Nov : 21 (11):1113-1120. 


2. Does meditation reduce stress and anxiety in college students?
We hear a good deal about meditation and mindfulness providing effective self-help solutions for stress and anxiety. Many studies have focused on the impacts upon students, so how do those studies stack up when researched objectively?

In this analysis of 57 studies, researchers examined anxiety in 40 studies, self-reported stress in 34, physiological stress in 11, and mindfulness in 24.

Thirty-three of 40 and 25 of 34 studies showed significant decreases in anxiety and stress respectively; 22 of 24 showed an increase in mindfulness.

Physiological stress had inconsistent results indicating a need for further research.



Overall, the researchers concluded that mindfulness meditation shows promise in reducing stress and anxiety in college students. Additionally, there are a number of differences in mindfulness interventions including frequency, duration, instructional method, and inclusion of yoga, that need quantitative examination (meta-analysis) to determine which is most effective.

Bamber MD, Kraenzle Scheider J, Mindfulness-based meditation to decrease stress and anxiety in college students: A narrative synthesis of the research. Education Research Review, May 2016; Vol 18, P1-32.  doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2015.12.004

3. Therapeutic meditation - is it effective?

This is the big one! A large group of investigators from Johns Hopkins University’s Evidence-based Practice Center in Baltimore, set out to determine the efficacy of meditation programs in improving stress-related outcomes in a wide range of adults. They used very stringent standards for their investigation.

Remarkably, they were able to examine 18,753 studies! But then they selected only randomized clinical trials with active controls for placebo effects. Next the strength of evidence was graded using risk of bias, precision, directness, and consistency, and then the group determined the magnitude and direction of effect by calculating the relative difference between groups in change from baseline. When possible, meta-analyses were conducted using standardized mean differences to obtain aggregate estimates of effect size with 95% confidence intervals.

Only 47 trials (with 3515 participants) met the criteria to be included in the final analysis. Perhaps saying “only” here is a bit unkind, given the stringent criteria set for this meta-analysis.

What does the meta-analysis show? 



Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety at 3-6 months,

depression at 8 weeks and at 3-6 months, and pain and low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life.

The analysis found low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight.


Significantly, no evidence was found to demonstrate that meditation programs were better than any active treatment (ie, drugs, exercise, and other behavioural therapies).

Conclusions and Relevance
The researchers suggested clinicians should be aware that meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress. Thus, clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program could have in addressing psychological stress. Stronger study designs are needed to determine the effects of meditation programs in improving the positive dimensions of mental health and stress-related behaviour.

It is worth noting most studies only evaluated short-term effects, and there may well be significant differences between different techniques and different times people spend practicing these techniques - see the next article…

Goyal, M et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Mar;174(3):357-68. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018.


FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR MEDITATION RESEARCH
The JAMA article that is cited above and forms the basis of this article was itself based on a more comprehensive report, one in a series of Comparative Effectiveness Reviews
(No. 124 : Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being) prepared for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/ehc/products/375/1830/Meditation-report-140106.pdf

That report makes good reading, part of the conclusion having great relevance to the therapeutic application of meditation and something we are bound to hear more of as meditation is used more widely for its healing potential. A quote from the report…

Historically, the general public has not conceptualized meditation as a quick fix toward anything. It is a skill or state one learns and practices over time to increase one’s awareness, and through this awareness gain insight and understanding into the various subtleties of one’s existence. 

Training the mind in awareness, non-judgmentalness, and the ability to become completely free of thoughts or other activity are daunting accomplishments. 

While some meditators may feel these tasks are easy, they likely overestimate their own skills due to a lack of awareness of the different degrees to which these tasks can be done or the ability to objectively measure their own progress. Since becoming an expert at simple skills such as swimming, reading, or writing (which can be objectively measured by others) takes a considerable amount of time, it follows that meditation would also take a long period of time to master. 

However many of the studies included in this review were short term (e.g., 2.5 hours a week for 8 weeks), and the participants likely did not achieve a level of expertise needed to improve outcomes that depend on a mastery of mental and emotional processes. The short-term nature of the studies, combined with the lack of an adequate way to measure meditation competency, could have significantly contributed to results.

Lots to contemplate in all of this ……