How useful is meditation
meditation - Scientifically speaking: "Many people meditate because they have problems"
LVZ: Professor Sedlmeier, I imagined your office to be somewhat different. More incense sticks ...
Peter Sedlmaier: (Laughs.)
Where did you learn to meditate?
I made my first attempts as a teenager - from books. But my first systematic introduction - many years later - was a one-week Zen course in a monastery in Bavaria. We started with six times 20 minutes a day. That was the most relaxing vacation I've ever had.
Why did you write the book?
It is my summary of what science currently knows about meditation. Because there is a lot of esoteric literature where everything is possible. Meditation is a collection of techniques that can be studied in the same way as other techniques.
So what is meditation anyway?
There is no easy answer. Because there is no such thing as meditation, there are many types. The inner emptiness is a goal in Zen meditation, for example. You concentrate on your breath and watch what is happening to you and around you. Even with the forms of meditation from Hinduism, it is a matter of stopping thought activity. Basically there are two types of goals. On the one hand there is enlightenment and liberation, i.e. what is traditionally associated with meditation. On the other hand, what currently plays a major role: the alleviation of suffering, the reduction of stress and the improvement of performance.
Is Meditation the New Yoga?
Meditation is definitely the most important part of traditional yoga. What we understand by yoga - body and breathing exercises with approaches from the sporting field - is only a preparation for meditation.
Is meditation also interesting for us because you can use it to increase your own performance?
This discussion is very vigorous, especially in Buddhism research. Buddhists believe that if meditation is detached from this context, if moral and ethical norms are neglected, meditation can lead to unfavorable results. But if you see it pragmatically and take into account that with meditation you are less afraid, can deal better with pain or are less depressed, then nothing speaks against using it in this way. It's just not the traditional way. Traditionalists point out that the potential of meditation is not fully used in this way.
So wasn't healing the central concern?
The gurus only took students who were less likely to have psychological problems. On the other hand, with us it is more likely that many people meditate because they have problems.
What does science say about it?
There are thousands of studies on the subject. We have put many together.
The effects for people who are not mentally impaired seem to be greater than those for sick patients. This is very plausible: if you are depressed or have fears, then it is also more difficult to learn these techniques. But that does not speak against its use in people who are sick.
When does meditation work?
It's not something that happens very quickly. Recent studies show that short periods of up to three weeks are of little use. We did register a larger effect at the beginning, but then it goes down and only increases again after four weeks. That rather points to placebo effects at the start. Automation of the techniques just takes a while.
Can you learn meditation alone or do you always need a coach?
In principle you can learn it on your own, but that's inconvenient, sometimes even dangerous.
There are many practices and some are very complex. When you study alone, you don't notice when something is not working or that you are doing something that can harm you.
Who is particularly at risk?
For example, people prone to schizophrenia or borderline syndrome.
Can you think of a case?
One of my colleagues saw something like this. A German teacher with burnout has retired to a monastery in Thailand for a break. But she noticed that it was getting worse and worse and in the end she could no longer think properly. In Germany she fell into a kind of paralysis, fell into silence and finally had to go to the hospital. My colleague knew a Canadian who had been a monk in Burma for 20 years. He then spoke to her for an hour because he knew the system of thought. After that it got better. She believed that the monk who was her teacher in Thailand was in telepathic contact with her and instructed her.
Does it make more sense to learn to meditate in Europe?
It's easier and safer. There are many monasteries in Germany that offer meditation courses. One problem for young people could be that these courses are not cheap. You don't have to pay in traditional Buddhist monasteries in Asia. A donation is enough. In the meantime, however, there are also meditation centers in almost every major German city.
What do you have to pay attention to when you want to attend such a course in Germany?
A measure is whether the meditation teacher is in a tradition. In traditional countries, the teaching permit is practically always passed on. Someone has to be a student for years before they can teach.
Mindfulness meditation is often offered in Germany to reduce stress.
Yes, it's mostly about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), stress reduction based on mindfulness that was developed by the American doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn, who himself was in Southeast Asia for many years. It's a mixture of different elements with no religious reference. That is what made it so attractive in the West. It is used in various clinics in the USA and also in Germany. It's not bad for getting started with meditation.
What do the health insurances say about it?
I do not know that. However, there is already a discussion in the United States as to whether meditation should be used as a substitute for psychotherapy. It is now at least clear that meditation can support psychotherapy. However, meditation cannot replace them. There are already aspects of meditation in the new forms of behavior therapy.
Are the transitions to prayer fluid?
If you like. Sentences are repeated when praying the rosary, just like in mantra meditation. And it can have the same effects as meditation techniques.
How does the TU Chemnitz deal with it?
We are mainly interested in how one can explain the effects of meditation. I don't use them to improve student performance. (Laughs)
How far are you with the explanation?
I started with ancient writings in India. I'll be going there again soon to continue working on it with colleagues. The theories are often over 2,000 years old when various things from psychology or neuroscience were not known. The eastern, but also the western explanatory approaches have at least one mechanism in common, which only has different names: de-automation, meta-consciousness.
What do you mean with that?
That we become aware of the associations that we are learning. When we argue, it means stress for us. When we bump into each other, pain. We learn a lot automatically. As a result, certain thoughts or perceptions automatically generate certain feelings. This type of learning takes up most of our learning. Meditation can lead to unlearning these associations again.
That sounds complicated.
Mindfulness training means becoming aware of your own emotional and cognitive processes. That you are more likely to notice what is happening to you. When a thought connects to an emotion, you can tell. Training can now lead to these automatic connections being forgotten again. Then you are less susceptible to strong emotions such as anger, anger or greed and can ultimately shape your life better yourself. The experts in India say: Free will is not always there to the same extent, but it can be strengthened through meditation.
What is your next research project?
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