Previous blog postings on mindful meditation had focused on the science, but the complexities of innate immunity and autonomic response may be so overwhelming that the wise approach would be to simply try for yourself. On the other hand, eastern spirituality provides explanations of health benefits which are heavily laden with Sanskrit language – probably equally offputting. A key learning is the concept of impermanence, the notion that All Things Must Pass (borrowing from Timothy Leary’s LSD inspired interpretation of Tao philosophy). Change, as an all-encompassing and irresistible force, and often unwelcome predicament creates a sense of loss if it won’t pass. The difficulty is managing the change, in order to avoid a worsening due to remorse or seeking of retribution. The Buddha wrote of the second arrow of anguish compounding the suffering of pain. The business world relies upon change as a path to growth, so has embraced mindfulness as a management of the inevitable. Individuals however, too often associate Buddhist notions such as impermanence with religious dogma rather than a philosophic understanding.
A middle way, between medical science and faithful belief is to be desired. At an International Yoga Day gathering, surgeon Ranjit Rao promoted “the higher echelons of Yoga, culminating into meditation. The ability to bring the sympathetic nervous system under control by reducing adrenal hormones is a great boon…”, and anyone who practices sufficient self-control to write a blog every single day on holistic approaches has my respect immediately*. Professor Jayashri Kulkarni, President-elect of the International Association of Women’s Mental Health said that “Finding individual mental peace through the practices of yoga and mindfulness can restore balance in physical and mental health“. Many other bridges can be found, and I found works from Arogyadhama to be eye-opening. But there’s one language which crosses all cultures.
Money speaks most persuasively throughout history, dwarfing the thousands of years that Ayurvedic therapies have been evolving. Researchers from the UK’s Bangor University reviewed the health economic justifications and issues in the medical journal of Mindfulness this year. The obvious bonus arising from a group session as compared with personal psychotherapy is a monetary one, due to economies of scale. The quandary arises in testing the benefit of a public health initiative delivered to groups of participants, whereas testing the efficacy of an intervention has always focused on an individual’s complaint. Cost-effectiveness reports for health funding are typically consequent to successful trials of a therapy conducted under rigorous research protocols such as blinding of assessors. For a medication, this is easy – commitment to take a pill bears no burden. But to undertake 8 weeks of intense focus requires a degree of commitment from a patient who’d presume the therapy to have merit, and thus reported outcomes may be biased.
Even more complex is compliance with medicine’s gold standard test – the Randomised Control Trial (RCT). The control or comparator group is either standard care or a placebo/sham treatment, but neither conform to our requirements. There is unfortunately no standard in care for fibromites (just as well for courts workload, else judging from social media narratives then 100% of their time would be booked by medical malpractice litigants for whom nothing is being done!), although consensus opinion endorses a multi-disciplinary approach. And duping the controls with a fake course of unhelpful training is a nonsense too. A Cochrane review in April evaluating RCT attempts for mind and body therapies reports a standardised mean difference in Quality of Life score of 0.43 for psychotherapy, and a corrected figure for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) of 0.39 (corresponding to an improvement of 9.5 points on a scale of 100). Another previous meta-analysis on MBSR for fibromyalgia by Lauche & Schmidt et al calculated score of 0.35 for QoL is very much in accord. These results are significant, but insufficient.
One avenue for better results is the means of delivery – an individual therapy session vs group. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR launch a quarter of a century ago with publication of ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ has been adapted in this manner as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. Doctors reporting good results such as Craig Hassed, or Unlearn Your Pain’s Howard Schubiner may have benefitted from their clinical credibility when transforming client thinking. The timescale for achieving results also deserves further study – yogis put in years to attain insight, whereas a pharmacy can plaster over problems in a quick transaction. Understanding progress through diaries is to be encouraged, and biofeedback also holds promise. This could be respiratory testing (breathing.com offers some simple tools) or heartrate monitoring in order to understand autonomic nervous system balance between fight&flight and rest&digest. Your opinions and experiences are sought, as this solution continues to evolve.
* Admirable achievement even before considering he also authored ‘Meditation and Martini: the subtle cocktail of balance’