Meditation: when less is more

October 19, 2015

Is meditation a question of quantity or quality? Is one long slow session – an hour perhaps, seated alone in a dedicated quiet space – preferable to short snatches of calm taken throughout the day like bites of neural nourishment?

Goldie Hawn, the famous American actor, is leaning towards meditation in non-traditional ways. A programme that she launched for children called MindUP is exploring how teaching mindfulness to youngsters in short “mind breaks” can improve their ability to learn.

Ms Hawn says: “Today like never before, our little ones are challenged with incredible amounts of stress and distractions, impeding learning and ultimately, impacting their ability to achieve success and happiness in life.”

The evidence-based course teaches how to quieten the mind at key moments throughout the school day, lowering stress levels and improving attention span. A study in 2010 from the University of British Columbia reported that in every case (100 per cent), teachers reported that the MindUP programme had positively influenced classroom culture and that students were significantly more attentive.

So if a system of “mind breaks” works so well for children, could it work for adults too? Would it be better than the more demanding practice of meditating for long sessions?

Think about how we are constantly needing to respond to events. We react to daily situations out of reflex and out of habit, our brains responding to programming established deep inside the limbic system in our amygdala. That is where emotional decisions are made, based on learned behaviour and memory.

Our responses – fear, flight, rage, joy – are conditioned by what we already know and have experienced, and are tuned towards what we believe will happen in the future. What we find most difficult is to respond to such stimuli from the present, the here-and-now.

This is where we need to take our “mind breaks”; just like children, I believe, we can use these small snatches of time and peace during the day. We can return to our centres, and still our bustling minds, calm ourselves from raking through the past. It will help us to make the best decisions.

This is not to say that one type of meditation is superior to another. We must all find our own path to reach that state of harmony, where one’s mind is in unity with the body. For me, the beauty of a deeper prolonged meditation is a chance to recognise the mental chattering, caused by my internal wrangling over unfinished business. It is when time changes form, and our senses are heightened.

But I can be refreshed by a small moment of meditation – whether that is on a plane or even in a movie theatre.  It seems to me that the addition of “mind breaks” into our day can help us to fight the impulsivity which may direct us towards the wrong course of action. They may act as a short pause, not a full stop, but be deeply refreshing and necessary nonetheless.

The English poet TS Eliot understood the value of timelessness – whether we maintain it for an hour or a moment. He wrote: “I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation