Why Meditation May Need a Health Warning

by Ali Emerson


By now, most of us have heard that mindfulness and meditation can be good for our mental health. But are we being told the whole story? With 8%, in other words, 18 million Americans trying or using meditation practices in 2012, there is no doubt that this is now big business. But are we ignoring the centuries of wisdom that go along with this ancient practice?


We’ve all heard the good stuff – that in as little as 20 minutes a day of just sitting and concentrating on our breathing, we can work wonders on our minds. We can de-stress, feel more gracious, lower our blood pressure and enjoy all the benefits that stem from these effects. We can increase our satisfaction with life, improve our happiness, our relationships, our sex lives and even be more successful. But can it really be that easy?



After all, if meditation is so easy, why is it called a ‘practice’? Zana Marovic, a meditation teacher with years of experience, explains the problems she has witnessed, perhaps why ‘sitting’ should come with a few more warnings. Meditation connects us to our inner minds, and some of the things we find there can be difficult to deal with – that’s why we locked them away to begin with.


In 1985 a study by Kutz et al. found that meditation was likely to bring up disturbing memories from the past, such as abuse and abandonment. Kutz reported that these memories caused sobbing and unpleasant emotions such as fear, despair, and apprehension.


In 1989, Craven listed destructive behaviour and suicidal feelings among the negative effects of meditation. However, Craven also commented that meditation may lead to psychotherapeutic change, and could be useful as a tool in modern therapy.



Perez-De-Albeniz and Holmes note that there are definite physiological changes for the meditator in the short term. These include decreased blood pressure and heart rate. Metabolic and hormonal changes appear to continue and even increase over a period of 12 – 18 months.


One of the main aims of meditation is to enable the practitioner to let go of ‘the self’. Western psychotherapy is based on the idea that we must find and know the self in order to be mentally healthy. This may be where the problem lies, and where many in the West are misunderstanding the practice of meditation.


When bad memories are unearthed during meditation, it is tempting to try to analyse them and understand how they contributed to making the ‘self’ that we identify with. But the idea of meditation is to realise that those events were just a moment in time and that they do not define the self at all. It is only when bad memories are allowed to take root inside us that they have the power to hurt. By seeing the memories and allowing them to pass without attachment we can free ourselves of them once and for all.


The practice of meditation is a long and sometimes intense journey. Despite what we are led to believe today the short term benefits are only the beginning of a process which requires commitment and effort. With an experienced teacher, or at the very least, a trusted friend to talk through the results with us, meditation can be as relaxing as the million-dollar industry makes it out to be, but we must remember that ultimately this is a tool for spiritual growth.





Postgrad Study in the USA: 5 Steps to Get You There

by Ali Emerson



Engage Your Sense of Adventure


Postgrad study in the USA can be an incredible, life-changing experience. Spanning six time zones the USA is huge – and you could be taking in an entirely new culture, as well as visiting some of the world’s most awe-inspiring destinations while getting a world-class education. And, with at least 15 US universities rating in the world’s top 20 every year, a respected degree from one these can give you the edge when it comes to finding your dream job. If you are wondering where to start your USA postgrad adventure then check out these inspiring study destinations



Choose Your University


So, how will you find the right university for you?  Start by finding institutions that are well known in your area of study, and then make sure it is Student Exchange and Visitor Program endorsed to avoid visa difficulties later on. Search faculty members for staff whose work you feel would complement your own. You can out how your chosen university compares in the rankings here . Finally, check out the accommodation and local area – after all, you want to have an excellent time off campus too.


Apply For Your Course


Applications for postgrad study should be made directly to the US university, usually via their website. If you are invited to interview, organisations such as the Fulbright Commission, can save you the price of a plane ticket by arranging a Skype or telephone interview.


Fund Your Study


The options for international students funding a US postgrad degree include savings, a loan from your home country, or a Fulbright Scholarship. If you have an F1 visa you will be able to work on campus for up to 20 hours, but permission to work off campus is very unlikely.


Get a Visa


As soon as your place is confirmed, you will need to apply for your F1 student visa. Your university should be able to help with this, and fees are around $200. An interview at the US embassy is required, and you will be expected to prove that you have the financial resources to support yourself, and are intending to return home after your course. Student visas allow you to remain in the US for up to 60 days after your course end date. For more information on visas, see here and here.




Live Your Dream

You made it through the paperwork, and now it’s time to live the dream. But what should you expect? Prepare for a bit of a culture shock, say previous international students. Professors in the US often expect more interaction than UK students are used to, and courses can be more in depth. You may find your new city very different, and don’t forget to prepare for a new climate – from the 1.5m of snowfall in Colorado to the 37-degree heat in Phoenix, the US weather has the power to surprise visitors. Most importantly, before your adventure begins, don’t forget to teach your parents how to Skype!



In Two Minds: Consciousness and Who You Are

by Ali Emerson

Have you ever used the phrase ‘I’m in two minds about it’? Well, as it turns out, that may be truer than you realise. But exactly who ‘you’ are is a very tricky question.

Your brain is divided into two parts or hemispheres. The left hemisphere controls the right side of your body and vice versa. These hemispheres communicate using a thick bundle of fibres, called the Corpus Callosum. Back in the 1940s, doctors began to cut the corpus callosum as a treatment for severe epilepsy; this procedure can be very effective and is still performed today. However, when the Corpus Callosum is severed, we observe some very strange effects.

Vicky had her brain split in order to prevent life-threatening seizures. She no longer has seizures, but she does have other problems. Often when she reaches her right hand to grab an item off the supermarket shelf, her left hand will fight to put it back. Similar challenges occur when she tries to get dressed. But what exactly is happening here? Who is fighting who?




Well, it turns out that experiments with ‘split-brain’ patients show that the left and right hemispheres can function independently. The part of the brain controlling language is in the left hemisphere. If we show a word to only the patient’s right hemisphere and ask the patient to say what he has seen, he can’t answer, as the right hemisphere has no language capability. The patient’s right hemisphere can control the left hand, however, and take the corresponding item out of a bag. If you then ask the patient why he is holding the object, you force the language centre in the left hemisphere to take over. Because the left hemisphere is unaware of what the right hemisphere saw, the patient will appear confused and will make up a plausible answer as to why he has the object.

So, it appears that the left side of your brain doesn’t know the right side is there and will try to explain away things that the right side does. And the right side can express its dislike of the cereal your left side chooses at the supermarket. Which implies that you have two separate ‘minds’ inside your head. So which ‘mind’ is you?