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Meditation as medication

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Focus on my breathing patterns— simple, right? Breathing is something I do unconsciously everyday, a key process to my very existence, so how difficult could this be? I’m sitting cross-legged, comfortably leaning my back against a sturdy wall. I place my timer in front of me. Today’s goal: one 10-minute session. I close my eyes and imagine each breath as I inhale, traveling through my nasal cavity, filling my lungs, feeling my chest expand and contract when I exhale. I’m surrounded by complete stillness, peace; this is nice—except for the deafening “tick-tock” of my clock breaking the silence only 45 seconds into my first meditation session (and yes, I peeked). Focus, I remind myself. Breathe. I let it pass, and attempt to concentrate. Two minutes later my thoughts have already travelled back into my past, glimpsed my future, and struggled against my present condition: the strong urge to nap. I didn’t know breathing could be so exhausting. Disappointed with my inability to concentrate, I re-evaluate my goal and adjust it accordingly: 5 minutes, max.

Frustrated with my own progress, and curious about meditation’s true benefits, I seek the expertise of Dr. Tony Toneatto, a senior scientist in the Clinical Research Department at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Dr. Toneatto suggests that “to feel the complete benefits of meditation you should practice 20- minute sessions daily.” He reveals that mindfulness of meditation is an issue close to his heart. As an associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and public health sciences at U of T, Toneatto is director of a new minor program: Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health.

“This program is an integrative approach to the psychology of Buddhism. Its focus is not the religious aspect of Buddhism, rather it explores the theories and applications of Buddhism to physical and mental health,” said Toneatto.

Defining the mindfulness of meditation can be elusive. “It is a state of mind that requires you to remain psychologically present. It is important to remain non-judgemental, accepting,” Toneatto said, “whatever happens in your mind, you’re not holding onto it, you’re not rejecting it, you let it come and go. There are many forms of meditation—eating, walking, yoga. When meditating, sit comfortably, concentrate on the rhythm of your breath, and permit mental events to naturally arise and subside without interference—do not avoid them, but do not hold onto them,” he instructed.

Dr. Toneatto distinguishes between mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. “Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, while mindfulness meditation includes direct, experiential insight into the nature of mental activity and events.” He explains that there are two main stages of meditation: tranquility and insight meditation. “Tranquility meditation involves calming the mind, usually by maintaining awareness of breathing and resisting the urge to focus on internal chatter, while insight meditation involves understanding the nature of our thoughts. Both are equally challenging to achieve, but if you can, you will not only develop peace of mind, but learn to understand it”.

It is evident that the current fascination with meditation is just as much scientific as it is religious. Toneatto, also a registered clinical psychologist in Ontario, said, “Meditation is comparable to medication. Research suggests that it has significantly benefited individuals who suffer from chronic pain, anxiety disorders, stress, addiction, and depression. It has both physiological and psychological benefits.”

An eight-week study led by Toneatto evaluated the effects of daily 20- minute sessions of mindfulness meditation among 17 undergraduates. After a pre- and post-assessment of depression, somatic stress, and anxiety, findings concluded that these participants reported lower rates of anxiety, depression, and somatic stress, especially among those with greater than 11 hours of meditation, over an eight-week experimental period. “Those that suffer from depression and anxiety are convinced that their negative beliefs about themselves are self-fulfilling prophecies. With meditation as a form of cognitive- behavioural treatment the goal is to realize that just because you have these beliefs doesn’t mean they are true—the same can be applied to problem gamblers,” Toneatto explained.

Interested in the role of meditation as a part of a cognitive behavioural treatment for problem gamblers, Toneatto will evaluate how effective such practice is at controlling distorted thinking patterns. “Problem gamblers have illusions of control and irrational superstitious beliefs— like talismanic superstitions where they think an object will increase the probability that they will win,” said Toneatto. “We will research whether mindfulness meditation, if practiced by problem gamblers, will reduce their rate of relapse by teaching them to have more control over their thoughts, like how to proactively respond to gambling-related urges rather than satisfy them,” he added.

Buddhism is the fourth-largest religious tradition in the world with approximately 365 million followers (about 6 per cent of the world’s population). Historically stemming from India, Buddhism spread throughout Asia—Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Korea, to name a few— and quickly emerged as a popular and promising religion in the West. In a nutshell, Buddhism possesses the solution to eliminate suffering and discover true happiness in the form of enlightenment.

The many forms of Buddhism include Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Tibetan, and Zen. However, they all share the same core principles of the “Four Noble Truths:” (1) suffering exists, (2) suffering exists because of our attachment to our desires, (3) suffering will cease to exist when we detach ourselves from our desires, and (4) freedom from suffering is possible if we practice the “Eightfold Path.“ So, what is the Eightfold Path? It is composed of eight behaviours (right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation) that are characteristic of three qualities (wisdom, morality, and meditation). Meditation allows you to improve the behaviours of the Eightfold Path, thus bringing you closer to enlightenment. Toneatto emphasizes the view that “meditation allows you to reach your highest human potential. It teaches you about your own thoughts and develops your best human qualities whether you meditate for religious or therapeutic purposes.”

Meditation also enhances awareness. “In today’s society, we are constantly bombarded with opportunities for pleasure that we mistake for true happiness. Pleasure is a form of misdirected attempts at quests for enlightenment. Through meditation we awaken from the illusions of conditioning and see our essential self, not our conditioned self,” Toneatto said.

Is it true that meditation can be the next antidote to stress, and other psychological and physiological illnesses? It definitely sounds like it. Going forward, I’ve fine-tuned my tactics and thrown away the timer—today’s goal: no limits, no restrictions, no boundaries— to transcend reality by accepting it (easier said than done).