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S5E13 Meditation tips with Professor Craig Hassed

Listen to S5E13: Meditation tips with Professor Craig Hassed

Welcome to Season 5 of Living Well with MS, the Overcoming MS podcast where we explore all topics relating to living well with multiple sclerosis (MS). In this episode, we are pleased to welcome internationally renowned mindfulness expert, Professor Craig Hassed

Keep reading for the key episode takeaways and Craig’s bio. 

Make sure you sign up to our newsletter to hear our latest tips and news about living a full and happy life with MS. And if you’re new to Overcoming MS, visit our introductory page to find out more about how we support people with MS.

Key Takeaways

Improving mental health will have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body

2:40: “Improving our mental health and well-being and reducing our stress has an anti-inflammatory effect. High levels of stress, anger, hostility, and poor emotional health have a pro-inflammatory effect. This is very important for an inflammatory based condition, like MS. But also, if there are any symptoms that we’re dealing with, the “bothersomeness” of various symptoms seems to be improved through the practice of meditation.”

Recordings are very helpful, but the ultimate goal is to meditate unguided

22:13 “It’s very useful to get comfortable with knowing the practice, feeling like we’re understanding it [and] having guidance for a while. To wean ourselves off [guided meditation], maybe revisit the guided practice every so often, if you feel you need a top up or reminder. But ultimately, you want to be independent, so that you take it anywhere you go.”

Visualising our bodies doing specific actions can aid in rehabilitation

40:01 “What happens when we imagine that physical action is that it stimulates the circuits in the brain that are associated with doing that action. If there’s a blockage for getting the message through, it keeps knocking on the door, and stimulates either new growth to try and bridge that gap or to find another way of getting the message through. What they found in the research is that people rehabilitate faster, better and get more function back if they have the mental practice, as well as the physical physiotherapy rehabilitation.” 

Professor Criag Hassed leads a 5-minute meditation at 46:15

Transcript

Read the episode transcript here

Overcoming MS 

Welcome to Living Well with MS. This podcast comes to you from Overcoming MS, the world’s leading multiple sclerosis healthy lifestyle charity, which helps people live a full and healthy life through the Overcoming MS program. We interview a range of experts and people with multiple sclerosis. Please remember, all opinions expressed are their own. If you were able to, we would be grateful if you could donate to help support the podcast and other work of Overcoming MS to help give hope to those impacted by multiple sclerosis. And now here’s your host, Geoff Allix.

Geoff Allix 

Welcome to the latest edition of the living well with MS podcast. Joining me on this edition is Professor Craig Hassed. Craig is an internationally recognized mindfulness expert. He is co author of the two top ranked Online Mindfulness Massive Online Open Courses in the world was the founding president of Australian Teachers of Meditation Association, and has received a medal of the Order of Australia for services to medicine. He’s also an OMS medical adviser, and was actually there for the first person to person meeting I ever had with anyone with OMS or any sort of formal introduction with OMS, I met him on a one day seminar many years ago. So and he’s also been on previous podcast episodes. So welcome back, Craig.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Thank you, Geoff. It’s good to be with you.

Geoff Allix 

So to get into the questions we have today, so we’re going and I’d encourage people actually look at previous episodes or listen to previous episodes we’ve had. But to get us up to date, what does the latest research say on the benefits of meditation for people with chronic conditions such as MS?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Well, I think the the important areas really around the jury’s not out any longer. It can be tremendously helpful for mental health, particularly for preventing the relapse of depression, but also helpful for other things like anxiety, etc. So that’s one of the big areas, which is mental health. And because our mental health is so intimately related to our physical health, as well, it can help in a number of ways that it’s still, you’d have to say there’s more research to be done to look at the outcomes for MS, the long term outcomes in terms of disease progression, and so on. So there’s still more research to be done there. But what the research seems to show, looking at the broader research on chronic conditions and inflammatory conditions in particular, is that improving our mental health and well being reducing our stress has an anti-inflammatory effect. We’ll put it the other way, high levels of stress, anger, hostility, poor emotional health, has a pro-inflammatory effect. And this is very important for an inflammatory base condition, like MS. But also, if there are any symptoms that we’re dealing with, the term sometimes used for that as the “bothersomeness” of various symptoms seems to be improved through the practice of things like meditation. And so and helps with things like chronic pain and also with our level of energy and vitality. So here’s some of the main areas, although, with about 10 new studies being published in peer reviewed scientific journals every day on just mindfulness itself, we’re not even looking at all forms of meditation. There’s quite a lot out there to keep up with.

Geoff Allix 

Yeah, I mean, I personally, I think a lot of people MS find this, if I eat well, and exercise and do those things, well, it won’t have any effect in the next couple of days. But in the next couple of months, I start to feel healthier. But with stress, it’s almost instant. Certainly the next five minutes, I’m going to feel worsening of symptoms, I won’t be walking so well, if I’m if I’m calm and relaxed, my symptoms are less. It’s actually it’s it’s the one thing that is almost instantaneous effect, and calming myself and deliberately getting into a more mindful state actually reduces symptoms straightaway. So I mean, I think you’re talking more about the long term effect, but it’s the actual instant effects as well.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Well, yes, it certainly can do. And if we develop the self awareness associated with being more mindful and aware, then we can recognize more often when we really need it. It’s really probably good to look at it as practicing these skills every day, whether we feel like we need it or not. But if we practice it on a regular basis, then when those situations arise when we really do need it, it’s much more available for us. So we should see it as a part of our normal day. A some days are easier, some days are tougher, it doesn’t mean that those difficult days aren’t useful. It’s like if you wanted to learn to sail, some days, if you’re out on the water, sailings easy and comfortable and pleasant. Some days, it’s really quite challenging. But, you know, if you look at which day is really going to hone your skills in sailing, you’d say that the difficult day, until a little bit like that, with sailing the seas of our own mental emotional states, if we get the idea that if we practice even on the difficult days, even if it’s not apparent to us, that we settle as much. It actually prepares the ground day by day for us to to cope better with life’s ups and downs with adversity and so on. And it’s important to point out just because we practice a bit of meditation doesn’t mean that all of a sudden, everything’s going to go the way that we want. But it means that we can certainly cope much better with those challenges that life will inevitably throw at us at various times.

Geoff Allix 

So there’s obviously a huge history in meditation and mindfulness. So is there a lot of differences or, or commonality between meditation practices in, for example, different religions, like Buddhism, contemplative prayer, Christianity, Kabbalistic, in Judeaism? And so those religious practices who history history, do they have any common asset with a secular Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Yes, you’d have to say that there are a few basic principles that all meditative practices across various traditions, various cultures have in common. They all involve in one way or another, training, attention, different states of attention. And they all involve the mind. So learning to be less drawn into the thinking, the worrying the churning mind that reliving the past that’s worrying about the future, etc. The vehicle that they use for doing that can be quite different. So many mindfulness practices use sensations like the sense of touch, being in touch with the breath, bringing the attention back to that as a resting point, or there’s a mantra forms of meditation, or internal sort of prayers, if you like, or short phrases that are sounded internally, in many spiritual traditions, again, the attention wanders off, bringing the attention back to that. And then there are various forms of contemplative practice where a person reflects on on words, not just on a sound coming back, but you know, actually on the meaning of words and or affirmations, trying to sort of repeat and ingrain a particular attitude or idea or thought deeply into the psyche and reflect on that, that you’d probably say that the main meditative practices, whether it’s through mindfulness, stillness, meditation, mantra meditation, are really different ways of coming to a sort of a central point of, of being, or just pure awareness as sort of a deep state of inner stillness. You know, coming back to a state of pure awareness or consciousness that goes beyond the thinking mind, the worrying mind that, and that sort of sense of being more present, is forever present in the present moment. And so, so you’d say, you know, like scaling a mountain, you know, different meditative practices take different faces on the mountain, but they all wind up in the same place, ultimately, on the on the summit. And so I suppose people have different meditative traditions eventually get to the summit and shake hands and sit down, and then we can have a real rest.

Geoff Allix 

That’s an optimistic approach to religion. So if we wanted to practice a focus meditation, and we wanted to use something like a candle, mala beads, oh, the breath, you mentioned as an object of meditation, what are some tips for doing that?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Well, I think one of the things is that when we start to practice, especially in the early days, we will probably become more aware of how distracted the mind is. You know, it’s not until you sort of ask the mind to sit with the breath or sit with a mantra or sit, you know, in one way or another that we actually realize how much running off into its own little world, how much mental commentary is going on in the mind how much we’re living, worrying about a future that hasn’t happened, how much we spend our life living in a past that’s already come and gone. So, so the first tip really is that mind is distractible, and meditation practices will make that more obvious to us. A point of encouragement perhaps, if you become aware of how distractible your mind is, that’s not a sign, you’re getting it wrong. That’s a sign of progress, because mostly the mind’s distractible and we’re not even aware that it’s distracted. We’re often in what’s called “default mode,” your mind churning, marring, ruminating, catastrophizing, talking to itself, etc. They’re all examples of what’s called default mode. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is to really cultivate a change of attitude, with which we’re noticing these things, noticing the distracted mind noticing a wave of anxiety or fear or frustration and so on. So these experiences that we find uncomfortable or irritating, or likely to still arise. So we not just cultivating attention of coming back to the body, to the breath, to the mantra, whatever it might be. But we’re also practicing letting go of (not trying to get rid of but just letting go of) the attachment to these things in cultivating an attitude of gentleness, with which we notice those things. And the thing is that the the awareness tend to arise first. The change of attitude tends to lag behind. So people who, in the early days of their meditation journey, for example, are likely to notice more, but get irritated more. And there’s this sort of uncomfortable phase until a person learns to notice to notice without the criticizing.

Geoff Allix 

You feel like you’re doing it wrong. You just think, oh, never mind, you just get annoyed with yourself because you can’t stay focused.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

That’s right. So the mind wanders off. Or we get angry about something or whatever it might be, and then the minds that we notice it, and then the mind starts up with what’s wrong with me? Why can I stop doing this? Maybe some people aren’t cut out for meditation. Maybe that’s me, I wish I was because it sounds like a good thing to do. When the mind goes on with it as sort of the whole sort of diatribe, which is totally superfluous to requirements. So if we’ve noticed the mind wander off, or even if we notice an emotion, or a physical sensation, that we find uncomfortable, we practice noticing it with a kind of a gentle acceptance, sort of non-reactivity, or kind of a non-attachment and not being judgmental about it, a kind of a self compassion. We’re just observing these coming and going states, we’re cultivating that sort of gentler attitude, softening our attitude to those things. And if we can do that, then it starts to change the way that we experience the things we find uncomfortable. So it could be depressive thought comes in that maybe originally, that thought would have come in, and we would have gotten angry with ourselves or wished it wasn’t there. And then of course, when we get reactive to the things we don’t like we fixate our attention on the very thing we’re trying to get rid of, We actually become hyper vigilant for the very thing that we’re trying to criticize and get rid of. Whereas when we cultivate that gentler attitude, we notice those things, but they come and go more easily and create less and less and less and less disturbance on the way through. And it takes a little bit of time to cultivate that. Yeah, we’re all a work in progress as far as that’s concerned.

Geoff Allix 

So as well as actually having a mindfulness session, whether you’re listening to watching or listening to a mindfulness session, or sitting down on your own. A lot of people have mindful time when they’re actually doing activity. So it could be they’re going for a walk, it could be they’re actually doing something more structured like Tai Chi or yoga. If they’re if they’re doing those activities, what’s the best way to quiet the mind? Certainly, I think some of them I mean, I came to mindfulness probably through yoga, where they it’s quite formal in there. So you are guided by someone if you’re a yoga class, and therefore it’s quite straightforward. But equally if I’m going for a walk with the dog, it can go one of two ways. And you can actually spend that time worrying about something, thinking about something pondering about work, or you can actually have a lovely mindful, you know, you’re out in this sort of spring sunshine and you know, and actually, you’re not worrying about those things, and you’re just taking in nature and so, so is there any guidance about how you can make that a more mindful experience and how you can make it, you can quiet the mind during those activities.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Yes, from a mindfulness perspective, the senses are always what I would call a gateway back to the present moment. So walking down, you know, a path, and a thought comes into the mind, “I’ve got these deadlines at work.” And then the mind starts thinking about how many things I’ve still got to do. “And before the end of the year, I’ve got to do this.” And all of a sudden, the mind is flooding with thoughts about what if, and maybe in the future, etc. And so all of a sudden, we’re lost in our thinking, when in default mode. Away with the birds as it were. But meanwhile, if we’d bring our attention back to the present moment, we might notice there are actually birds singing, or there is dappled sunlight coming through the trees. Or we can just come back to the sensation, the physical sensation of the body walking the rhythm of the body walking. So the senses will, you know, hearing, seeing, smelling, you know, if it’s spring, there’ll be things in flower, you know, so if we’re sitting down at a meal table, tasting our food, you know, so any sense, we’ll bring our attention back to the here and the now because it connects us back to the body. And the good thing about the body is that as always in the here and the now, the body’s never in the future, it’s never in the past, you never get to work in the morning, or go somewhere and realize you don’t have your body with you, I mean, the body is always here and now, the mind is often not set up the mind to be here, now we give it the body to pay attention to in the body communicates with the world through the senses. So all of a sudden, you come back, and instead of listening to a whole stream of self criticism, or negative self talk, etc, all of a sudden, we realize, oh there are the birds, or whether it’s traffic sound, or just seeing the plants around us, etc. And this is what’s meant by the term coming to our senses, literally coming to our senses. Because when we’re lost in our own world, and thinking and worrying and ruminating, we’re missing the life that we’re living. And we’re often creating or amplifying problems, by the way that we’re thinking about them. So the body’s in the present moment, if we pay attention through the senses back to where we are, it helps to bring the mind into the present moment. But what we can do, of course because there’s no point in being mindful for 10 minutes, sitting in a chair, practicing mindfulness meditation, then being unmindful for 23 hours and 50 minutes and the rest of the day. So the aim is to live more mindfully in the meditation practice, the attention goes off, bring it back, attention goes off, bring it back, you know, get irritated practice, being gentle with ourselves, etc. So if we practice that regularly, then it starts to spill over into our day to day life. So we tend to live more time in the present moment. But that sort of ability to train our attention during the meditation practice, when the attention goes off, we notice, we just gently bring our attention back, that’s like one rep for the attention circuits in our brain. That’s their idea of exercise. And if we don’t exercise the attention circuits in our brain, like a muscle that’s not being used, it gets pretty weak. Next thing, the mind is running all over the place. And we’re giving our attention to any old thing, whether it’s useful to give our attention to that or not. So this sort of regular practice of the meditation, and being mindful in our day to day life, starts to open up an ability for us to choose what to give our attention to, and what not to give it to. We find that it’s more able, we’re more able to give our attention to the thoughts that need it. Like we’ve just remembered something that’s relevant or useful. We’ve just had a creative idea, just had a moment of insight. We’ll give our attention to that. But equally, you know, we may recognize the thoughts that are not worth giving the attention to or not helpful. And we can find it easy to just like a train of thought, let that train come and go without getting on the train. But if we’re not mindful, we get on any old train of thought that comes into our head. And that’s not necessarily going to serve us very well.

Geoff Allix 

We talked about having a regular regular mindfulness session. And I think most people would find listening to a guided meditation as the most common way of doing this and there’s so many online that and there’s courses that you’ve done the Future Learning courses and countless different apps on your phone. And there’s loads and loads of resources nowadays. So it’s very straightforward. But sometimes you do find yourself not with those resources, or you just want to do on your own. So practicing mindfulness without being guided. Are there any tips to doing that doing an unguided meditation?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

in some ways that the more useful practice, ultimately. You don’t necessarily look the guidance in like having a recording that’s guiding you, that’s reminding you to come back, that is helping you to cultivate a non judgmental attitude, so that the voice of the person guiding it as a kind of a gentle, non judgmental, nonreactive kind of attitude they’re conveying, that’s all very useful. And so when we’re practicing with a guidance, it will more often make it feel easier. And it’ll, we might feel more relaxed, it’ll be more pleasant, for example, and we can think of, that’s the “good practice.” Whereas when we practice by ourselves, for one reason or another, we decide not to use the guided practice, or we just don’t have it with us. And we practice, our minds probably going to wander more. And we’re probably most people will notice they get more irritated with themselves. And think, “well, that wasn’t as good of practice as the one that was guided.” But if you if you think of the guided practices is like putting training wheels on the on the back of the bike, you know, that you know, sort of learning to ride a bike and those little training wheels that stop stop us from falling off. Those training wheels make it easier, and probably more pleasant, than if you don’t have the training wheels on and you’re falling off the bike more often. And so you say which one’s better training wheels on or training wheels off? You say training wheels on? If I reframe the question and say which one is going to train your balance, better training wheels on or off ? You’d say oh, I suppose training wheels off. So from the perspective of cultivating internalizing our own internal resources, of training, attention, of cultivating attitude, it’s actually when we’re not having the guidance, that is ultimately the best. But it’s very useful to get comfortable with knowing the practice, feeling like we’re understanding it, having guidance for a while, but to sort of in a sense wean ourselves off, maybe revisit the guided practice every so often, if you feel you need to top up or reminder etc. But ultimately, you want to be independent, so that you take it anywhere you go. You can be mindful and cultivate that awareness. And that attitude, anywhere, anytime. It’s a little bit of a sort of a two edged sword in a way. You know, we don’t want to be dependent on the guided practice, ultimately.

Geoff Allix 

Yeah, it brings me back actually, to the first time I met you. Because the time I felt that I’d read really had an amazing mindfulness session was actually after the one day seminar that you were at in Surrey in UK. I was staying with friends, and they weren’t back from work then, and I got back before them. And I thought, well, I’m going to put into practice what Craig was talking about. And I basically just sat down in their hallway and did a mindfulness practice, just purely on my own. And, that, I think, because I’d had the guidance that you gave us, so I’d kind of, I’d got that sort of almost education of everything, and but then doing it completely on my own. I always sort of remember back to that and think, right, that’s, that’s sort of was the best session that I had. And I think you’re right, this is yeah, the, the guided stuff is good, because it gives us the foundations of everything, but then actually, if we could do it on their own, it can work very effectively. So you mentioned earlier about mantras. And this is something I’ve come across in a few guided meditations, a few different things, but one of the mantras or affirmations. So how can that be effective in meditation?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Well, again, firstly, the mantra can help to take us beyond the the busyness of the mind, you know, rather than chasing every thought, every worry down, down its rabbit hole and so on. Bringing the attention back to the mantra. And the mantra I suppose you could say it like a vehicle that takes a person from the busyness of the ordinary thinking mind to eventually even the stillness where the mind puts down the mantra as well, just that sort of simple state of being. Affirmations are slightly different, there’s an intentional sounding or repetition of a thought or a phrase, in in a way, this is like, maybe using a kind of ingraining a particular thought to remove another thought. So you might choose a particular affirmation to deal with a particular issue that the mind is dealing with, like, you know, some sort of self criticism or some kind of lack of confidence. So a person might choose a particular affirmation that that gives them hope, or will help to give them confidence. So a person sounding that, and it’s like with the attention given to that the person’s trying to ingrain that particular thought by removing another thought. Is like using perhaps a thorn, which is a, you know, sharp end, but using that thorn to remove another thorn, that’s stuck in the foot, as it were. So those affirmations can be very useful. It in a sense, doesn’t take us beyond the whole thinking mind, because ultimately, forms of meditation that take us kind of, to that deepest state of being, the thinking this, that or the other thing that kind of almost becomes irrelevant. I suppose you’d say affirmations are still working on the level of the mind that can be useful, but they won’t take us beyond the thinking mind, necessarily. That’s what that’s other meditation practices can do.

Geoff Allix 

A mantra would just be almost an Om or a sound or something that doesn’t actually have to be, doesn’t have to have meaning attached to it.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

No, not necessarily. But defamations, of course, they can be just purely kind of secular, you know, like, you know, whether it’s just a statement of having confidence in yourself or your own abilities, etc. But of course, I suppose in a kind of a manner of speaking various forms of prayer, were kinds of affirmation, to foster compassion, or to foster patience or, or to cultivate, you know, some particular quality. So, you know, they can certainly have a religious or spiritual kind of focus as well. So there’s a kind of a little bit of an overlap with some forms of affirmations. And of course, you know, prayer would be a kind of perhaps a, you know, a form of that as well, but within a particular religious or spiritual context. The mantra doesn’t necessarily have to have a particular meaning. It might be a word that has meaning, but it could be in a different language. So if you’re practicing, you know, the ancient Benedictine forms of mantra meditation, from the Thomas and Benedict are using Aramaic mantras. So if you use an Aramaic mantra, well, I suppose there’s a translation of that word, but you’re not necessarily trying to actively think about what this word means you’re just following the sound to stillness. If you’re using maybe Eastern forms, you know, for example, then you’d be using maybe a Sanskrit sound, etc. When Herbert Benson was doing his first research with mantra meditation back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, they were just using a simple word, you know, which could be “one” or “peace” or some other word and following that word, to stillness, but so there are a few varieties, if you’d like a few variations on the theme.

Geoff Allix 

But it’s the repetitiveness of the same phrase or sound that’s the, the key to that mantra part of it. Is that correct?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

That’s right, so that the quiet rhythmical repetition of that, and following that, the mind thinks of other things, just leaving those other things alone coming back to that sound. And that sound, the rhythm of the sound, may well change, May will deepen or lengthen over time, maybe get quieter and quieter, may become eventually, just a just like a, almost like a pulse of a sound, may eventually just come to a deep place of stillness. So it’s almost like it lets you out at the other end of the journey.

Geoff Allix 

We hear quite a lot recently about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT techniques, particularly with people with mental health conditions and stress, anxiety and so on. And that is with people with MS as well as affecting people without MS. So what are some of the CBT techniques that we could use on our own to change us out of unhealthy thoughts?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Yeah, CBT: Well, Cognitive focuses on how we think. And Behavioral can focus particular behaviors. So, from the thinking perspective, it’s really looking at the contents of thoughts. And quite often in a collaborative process with the psychologist, for example, looking at a particular kind of thought that might be causing his problems in one way or another: negative mood or anxiety about things, but looking at that thought, questioning that thought, looking at the evidence for that thought. So we might have a thought, like, “I’m terrible,” or “I’m always a failure,” or something else. That thought may have very little to do with reality. We might have not been successful at this and this in our lives. But that doesn’t mean “I am a failure,” this sort of all or nothing kind of thinking. And so the person who’s guiding a person through CBT, would help the person to question that thought, to look at the validity of it. In the process, there’s a kind of a standing back from the contents of the thought itself. And what we tend to find is that those kinds of thoughts don’t actually stand up to scrutiny. They’re distortion. They’re an exaggeration of the reality, and they don’t have any nuance to say, well, “yes, okay, well, I wasn’t successful at this and this, but of course, there was success at that and that and the other thing? And is this even failure anyway? Or is it just learning, I’m just learning from experience.” So there’s an ability to kind of reframe the thinking, if you like. So CBT sort of looks at the contents of the thoughts, and bit by bit as a person gets more objective and looks at them, may find that those thoughts have less and less effect on how the person thinks, the person gets less taken in by those thoughts, as it were. With the mindfulness forms, or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, it’s not so much looking at the contents of thoughts, but their relationship to the thinking process itself. So just sitting in stillness, just watching. And thoughts come and go, and another thought comes and goes, and it might be a thought, like, “I’m a failure,” or something else, that you’re actually realizing that that thought comes and goes, and you get a sense, “wait a sec, I’m sitting here watching this thought, come and go. And that thought, come and go, and the next thought, come and go, and then I thought about, I’ll have a cup of tea after I sit down and practice this, then a thought about, you know, when I go somewhere, you know, on Friday night,” you know, whatever it might be, all of a sudden, you realize these thoughts are coming and going, but you’re the watcher, you’re the observer of those thoughts. And those thoughts are not you. And it’s a bit of a penny drop moment, when we realized that that what is it, you kind of realize is standing back from the thoughts. And so all of a sudden, the contents of the thought become less relevant, you just realize that through non-attachment to the thoughts that you’re just the observer of them, and you can engage with or leave those thoughts alone as you choose. And that’s quite liberating kind of thing. But mindfulness takes a slightly different route to conventional CBT. It teaches us to have a different relationship to the whole thinking process itself.

Geoff Allix 

And another type of meditation that I think people will definitely come across, if they, if they listen to lots of guided meditations, is loving kindness meditation. So I mean, are quite a lot of these things are quite like them, just as meditation. But is there any evidence that practicing these sort of meditations has long term benefits for the practitioner?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Well, yes, that for the person practicing them, they can certainly have significant benefits, particularly in certain contexts. Anger, frustration, criticism, and so on, difficult relationships with others. So those kinds of practices can be particularly useful. They’re practices that help us to cultivate loving kindness or compassion. It’s interesting, cultivating compassion to oneself and compassion to others. It sounds like well, it should be easy, just practice a bit of compassion. But it’s actually really not that easy, because as soon as many people notice that they try to practice loving kindness or compassion practice, maybe to themselves, they’ll notice an intense resistance to doing that. Notice the kind of criticism, a kind of judge mentality that’s turned on ourselves. It really holds a mirror up to that. But if we’re just patient and work with that, we can cultivate compassion with ourselves, but then hopefully more compassion, you know, with the people that we live and, work with in our day to day life. And there might be maybe a few people in the world, whom we have some quite significant issues one way or another. And we don’t necessarily start with those most difficult relationships. But if we can cultivate loving kindness or compassion for those people in due course, you know, if we find, you know, start with what’s a bit easier first, but if we can cultivate compassion there we may find that has an enormously beneficial effect on reducing anger, resentments, tendency to live in the past. Sometimes people say that, you know, like, for those difficult relationships that we might have had in our lives, but do I have to forgive? We don’t have to forgive. But we can certainly bring awareness to the cost of resentment and hatred and anger and so on, the effect that it has on our cells. From a biological point of view, it’s like fuel on the inflammatory fire. And the thing is, that compassion is associated with activation of areas of the brain that are associated with very positive emotions, and it has an anti stress and anti inflammatory effect. Right, so, so cultivation of compassion, loving kindness it helps to dampen that fire, which is often in and you see that that inflammatory response is a big part of the stress response. And when we’re activating that day, after day, it’s, it’s not going to do ourselves any good, mentally, emotionally, physically. So there’s increasing evidence that cultivation of things like compassion and loving kindness are very good for us. But these are not the first practices to start with, necessarily, because it sounds like they should be easy nor lovely, and so on. But they’re often actually quite difficult. And we need it, it really helps us good guidance through through that.

Geoff Allix 

And to go a step further. There are meditation practices that actually talk about physical healing, so they’re actually visualizing healing yourself physically. And I’ve, again, I quite enjoy these and actually sort of think about my brain getting better in sort of like lesions, lessening and almost like my brain fixing it and, and that information passing smoothly down nerves, and that idea of thinking of your body fixing itself. But is that taking a step too far? Or is it actually is there any evidence that you could use the that sort of power of the mind to actually fix physical symptoms?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

It’s an interesting question, Geoff, there’s much less research to say that the visualizing you know, something happening in the brain will actually produce that effect. It might produce a kind of a sense of comfort or ease or confidence in some kind of way. There’s much less research to say, “well, what what effect does it have on the brain Other than that, does does it actually heal lesions, etc.” So, but I’ll nuance that an and say, well, what seems to happen, if I can put it this way, the anger, frustration, rumination, worry, etc, put a stress on the system, you know, we’re imagining wrestling a tiger as it were having an argument with the boss or whatever might be, and we’re creating stressors out of thin air, and we’re activating that fight or flight response. It’s accentuating inflammation that’s putting stress on the cardiovascular system, etc. Not good for the body, not good for the brain. And so what these meditative practices do, mindfulness does, is it kind of helps to reduce that. So when we reduce that unnecessary inflammation, it’s like taking the static and the distortion out of the system, then all of a sudden the harmony is in the background. It’s like and you’re listening to Mozart’s music, but there’s a lot of static and distortion over the top of it, you get some of the music, but you get a lot of other stuff as well. So if you remove the static and the distortion, distress, then you’ve just left with the harmony. And what that means is the body is always trying to re-heal, you know, balance itself, repair itself in and so that really allows the body to do what it’s trying to do already, but to do it better. Now, with in relation to things like visualization practices, so there’s that kind of visualizing the body healing something, well, I think that process will happen by itself, if we just reduce it. But there are other kinds of visualization practices where there’s a bit more research. Some of this is coming from things like stroke research, etc. But when we mentally visualize ourselves doing something, so say, in some of the research on stroke, a person may have lost the use of an arm or a leg, and they’re going through rehabilitation, but they’re doing mental practice. So in a guided way, they’re being taken through physical activities, where they’re lifting their arm, they’re imagining themselves lifting, they’re imagining themselves picking things up, etc. So they’re really in a very concentrated way, imagining the body doing that, then what happens when we imagine that physical action, it stimulates the circuits in the brain that are associated with doing that action. And when we stimulate the circuits in the brain in that way, and if there’s a blockage for getting the message through, it keeps kind of knocking on the door, and stimulates either new growth and to try and bridge that gap or to find another way of getting the message through. And what they found in that research is that people rehabilitate faster, and better, get more function back, if they have the mental practice, as well as the physical physiotherapy rehabilitation, for example. And other people use this as well, like athletes or, you know, a concert pianist, say, on a long haul flight, and they haven’t got a grand piano on the plane to practice on. But they mentally rehearse the piece. And when you’re mentally rehearsing, that, you’re activating all the areas of the brain associated with playing that piece, it’s nearly as good as actually doing the rehearsal. So that’s one way in which I’d say that that kind of mental visualization may have a clearer and more established place. But the jury’s a little bit out. What I would say is that the body’s ability to repair itself is facilitated when we just settle down that tendency to get drawn into all of this thinking and agitating and worrying and ruminating, etc, that the mind is so often doing on an unconscious level.

Geoff Allix 

There was one someone actually asked me to do a guided meditation. There was a technique where it was improving walking ability in people with MS. And so basically just talking through the process of walking, and exactly: your heel going down and transferring weight and just the whole process. And it’s actually I put it on Insight Timer, because and I might redo it at some point, it’s the only thing I’ve ever put in anything like that. I think I’ve got the tempo slightly wrong, actually, it’s sort of slightly too quick. But I might do it again, because I actually listened to it myself, even though it’s me talking. Bizarrely listening to my own guided meditation sometimes. I do you think it works? And like you’re saying that that sort of process. So you’re basically you’re working you’re you’re effectively exercising the mental part of the act of walking, which, when we’ve got a cognitive you know, it’s so people with MS have got a condition that’s a neurological condition that actually, it’s not so much our muscles that issue, it’s the mind and the, you’re controlling the muscles. So actually, if we can exercise that, then that probably is as beneficial as the exercising the physical bit

Dr. Craig Hassed 

yes, I was having a conversation recently with a well known Australian, former Olympic athlete. And she said, one of the things she trained herself in in the lead up to the Olympics was this sort of mental practice of mentally rehearsing the race, and but mentally imagining the body just running rhythmically, and without tension, and so on. So it’s just in that kind of mental rehearsal. Because you’re actually giving those circuits in the brain a wake up call. And it’ll help to sort of reestablish connections or find other ways to get those messages through. So there may be I think, there probably is some untapped potential. And from a meditative point of view, again, it’s the use of attention in a particular kind of way, in this case. You see attention is or consciousness, if you like, is like an energy source. It’ll power whatever it’s given to, for better or for worse. If we feed a lot of attention to a lot of angry thoughts or critical thoughts, we empower them, and they start to have an effect. But equally, we can start to use that attention in far more productive, far more conscious ways. And these are perhaps a few of them that we could use.

Geoff Allix 

Before we finish up, I’d like, I’d like to say I just encourage people to have a look at your courses on Future Learn, actually, because it’s it, I think it’s four weeks quite the first one. So it’s quite a long thing. But it’s been it actually goes through these different practices, and you do learn a lot about it. And you do all I mean, mindfully eating is in there, and all sorts of things. So it is covering a huge range of things. I just think having that grounding of an understanding is really, really beneficial. And I think, and it’s free. So we’re not selling something. It’s a free course. So you can sign up for them. And I found them really, really useful to go through. But to actually finish up, would it be possible that we could end with a guided meditation for us to follow?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

How long would you like to go for Geoff?

Geoff Allix 

Five minutes? Would that be okay?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Sure. Okay, well, let’s just have a sort of very simple practice. And especially if people are listening to this and are new to meditation, I would encourage them not to put any pressure on themselves to try and get it right or just to keep the process simple. So just finding a balanced position for the body if you’re sitting up or if you’re lying down just a symmetrical position for the body. And of course, lying down, we’re likely to go to sleep. So sometimes it’s actually more useful to sit up if we can. With the eyes gently closed, this is going to be not an exercise in tuning out or going up somewhere else, we’re actually going to practice tuning in and being here now. So the first thing is just to simply be aware of the body and its posture on the chair. So we’re using in a very broad sense, the sense of touch it might be an awareness of the points of contact between the body and the chair.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

We’re just noticing points of contact between the clothes and the skin.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Whatever the sensations might be just noticing them. There’s no particular sense that they should be one way or another. Just noticing the sensations without any particular attitude to them.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Just here, just now.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

In the process of paying attention to the body, we might also notice that thoughts come and go or the mind wanders off. The mind starts talking to itself about one thing or another and if that happens, just noticing, very gently, practicing letting those thoughts come and go without having to do anything about them. Not even thinking that they shouldn’t be there just practicing very gently leaving them alone. Just in touch with the body once again just sitting on the chair.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

There’s one particular sensation that’s always taking place and it just happens to be that of the breathing. And so if you’re happy to just drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly and gently.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

And another breath in and letting it out slowly and gently.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

From that point, just letting the body breathe as it wants to without any need to control the breathing or to interfere with it. Just simply feeling the sensation of the air as it enters and as it leaves, whether that’s through the nose or the mouth, just feeling the in breath feeling the outbreath.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Again, thoughts may come and go or the mind may wander and if that happens just noticing once again just cultivating a gentleness with which we let those thoughts come and go not having to do anything about them just very gently preferring the breath.

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Good, good. So now just simply being aware of the body and its posture once again.

Dr. Craig Hassed  

And allowing the eyes to gently open whenever you’re ready. Good. Good. Wasn’t timing up, but it’s probably about five minutes, I think.

Geoff Allix 

I think it was it always seems like time flies actually when you’re meditating. It seems like I was think, like, two minutes and anything actually. I think that’s probably a good thing. I think because you’ve probably if you’re concentrating and lots of things happening, maybe. Yeah, time time does travel at different speeds, doesn’t it?

Dr. Craig Hassed 

Yes, that’s right. I think that’s one of the things about why time seems to stretch out so much more for children. I think that young children are so much more in the present moment. That a day feels like a long time. A year feels like a lifetime. Sort of a way I think we should should be a little bit like children again, that simplicity of being in the moment.

Geoff Allix 

With that. Yeah, I’d like to thank you very much for joining us again Professor Craig Hassed.

Overcoming MS 

Thank you for listening to this episode of living well with MS. Please check out this episode’s show notes at overcomingms.org/podcast you’ll find useful links and bonus information there. Have questions or ideas to share. Email us at [email protected] or you can reach out to Geoff on Twitter @GeoffAllix. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks again for tuning in and see you next time for tips on living a full and happy life with MS.

Overcoming MS 

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Professor Craid Hassed’s Bio

Craig’s career

Professor Craig Hassed OAM has worked with the Faculty of Medicine at Monash University since 1989 but now teaches in many faculties as coordinator of mindfulness programs across Monash and the Director of Education at the Monash Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies (M3CS).  

His teaching, research and clinical interests include mindfulness, mind-body medicine and lifestyle medicine. Craig has authored 120 papers in peer-reviewed journals and published 14 books and 17 book chapters.  

He is regularly invited to speak and run courses in his native Australia and overseas in health, educational, government and corporate contexts. He is patron of Meditation Australia, a regular media commentator and co-authored the world’s two leading mindfulness massive open online courses in collaboration with Monash University and FutureLearn.  

In 2019 Craig was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to Medicine. 

Craig and Overcoming MS 

Craig has previously worked with Overcoming MS as a facilitator at Overcoming MS retreats. He also wrote a chapter in the Overcoming MS Handbook on ‘Meditation, mindfulness and the mind-body connection’.

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