Mindfulness meditation “short-circuits” Depression

Here’s an article by a UK newspaper on how Buddhist meditation is going mainstream among psychiatrists as a prescription against depression. But psychiatrists, both in the US and the UK, were very careful not to use “the ‘B’ word” when advocating it to their patients.

2010 could be the year that mindfulness meditation goes mainstream in the UK. It’s already endorsed as a treatment for depression by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, and today a major mental health charity is calling for meditation-based courses to be offered much more widely on the NHS.

But the oft-heard warning by those who are familiar with meditation and psychological illnesses: meditation is dangerous to try when in the depths of depression or suffering a bout of depression. It’s like exercising when you’re in the middle of an injury. But exercise is good for the sprained ankle after it has regained some of it’s stability. And so a depression patient should train in meditation and mindfulness during periods of relative mental stability, e.g. after the effects of regular medication have corrected some of the chemical imbalances in the mind. This article says that such therapy reduces relapse rates of depression by half.

Mindfulness is especially relevant to depression, in which sufferers tend to get caught up with cycles of ‘rumination’ – when people get depressed they churn negative thoughts over and over in their minds, a pattern which actually perpetuates their low mood. Mindfulness short-circuits rumination – by learning how to pay attention to our present moment experience, rather than getting tied up in negative thinking about the past or future, we create more space in our minds from which new, more effective decision-making can emerge. It isn’t a miracle cure – while simple, the techniques take time and effort to master, but mindfulness-based therapies are now supported by a substantial and rapidly-growing evidence base that suggest they can help people cope better not just with depression, but also with the stress of conditions ranging from chronic pain and anxiety to cancer and HIV.

Mindfulness-based therapies are fundamentally and unapologetically inspired by Buddhist principles and tools – the Buddha both noted that suffering (as opposed to pain) is created by struggling with experience and prescribed mindfulness meditation as a way of working with it skilfully. However, the B-word rarely, if ever, gets a mention on MBCT courses – their reputation in health services has been built on scientific evidence rather than spiritual conviction. This is the only way it could be – while some of us Buddhists might argue that practising mindfulness can open up insights about the nature of mind that go way beyond what can be measured in a randomised-controlled trial, the most important thing here is that techniques which reduce suffering are presented in whatever way will make them most accessible to the largest number of people.

By secularising mindfulness training, and packaging it in a form that makes it amenable to clinical testing, an approach that might otherwise have been seen in medical circles as new-age flim-flam is being taken very seriously. So seriously that according to an ICM survey of GPs conducted for the Mental Health Foundation report, 64% of doctors would like to receive training in mindfulness themselves.

For that we can partly thank Morinaga Soko-Roshi, a zen teacher of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the doctor who first brought mindfulness training into US healthcare services in the 1970s. Kabat-Zinn knew that it would be considered unacceptably ‘religious’ to offer Buddhist training to his patients – however, he also had a strong hunch that the meditation techniques said to lead to insight on the Buddhist path might also help people cope with chronic illness. Unsure of what to do, he went to see Soko-Roshi and asked his advice. “Throw out Buddha! Throw out Zen!” came the abrupt reply.

From that, Kabat-Zinn’s secular mindfulness-based stress-reduction course, a progenitor of MBCT, was born. MBSR is now taught in hundreds, perhaps thousands of institutions across the US – not just hospitals and medical settings, but schools, community centres, prisons and workplaces.

We are some way behind in the UK…

Talk about being some way behind. When I mentioned to my psychiatrist that Buddhist meditation was helping me, he dismissively cut me off before I could say anymore, “Whatever works for you lah, whatever it is.”

Even more interesting were the online comments at the end of the article. I think the British netizens carry out online discussions in a far more civilised manner than elsewhere haha.


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