Tim Lomas, UoA 3, LS

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In undertaking this PhD, I have had the great fortune to combine two interests which are close to my heart, meditation and mental health.

I have been interested in meditation since I taught English in China aged 19, and spent time at some monasteries in Tibet. Since completing a psychology degree at Edinburgh University, I have been drawn towards engagement with mental health, working extensively in a psychiatric hospital and for the Samaritans. The University of Westminster then offered me the opportunity to bring these interests together, and it has been wonderful. With a hugely supportive multidisciplinary supervisory team, I have been encouraged to pursue an innovative methodology, delving into the intricacies of the brain through neuroscience, while exploring sociological and philosophical issues through in-depth interviews. In future, I hope to be able to incorporate my findings into a psychotherapeutic practice, putting them to use in a clinical setting working directly with people.

I would like to give thanks and recognition to my supervisors Professor Damien Ridge, Dr Tina Cartwright, Dr Trudi Edginton.

There is talk of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ in the literature, with men viewed as ‘damaged and damage doing’ (Mac an Ghaill and Haywood, 2012). For example, pressure to be emotionally tough is thought to limit the abilities of men to deal constructively with distress. However, men are diverse and effectively manage their wellbeing, although little research exists examining how they do so. Our study recruited 30 men who apparently managed their wellbeing positively (through meditation) to explore biopsychosocial factors relating to this engagement. The study employed a longitudinal mixed methods design. Qualitative interviews elicited men’s narratives regarding their involvement with meditation. A cognitive neuroscience session recorded EEG brainwaves as participants completed various cognitive tasks and during a meditation. The interviews/sessions were conducted twice, one year apart, for comparison.

Men had difficult journeys towards meditation. Early gendered pressures encouraged men to disconnect from emotions, with subsequent difficulties managing distress. However, through meditation, men described better emotional management. The cognitive neuroscience analysis suggested that meditation improved participants’ attention skills, including attentiveness to emotions. The narrative analysis indicated that such skills facilitated better emotional management and improved wellbeing. However, meditation also had risks: men frequently encountered negative thoughts and feelings, which some linked to subsequent experiences of depression, anxiety and psychosis. The analysis was also unusual in exploring the social context of meditation. This context encouraged men to take on behaviours conducive to wellbeing, including reduced substance use, and greater emotional intimacy with others. However, involvement with meditation could also be problematic: within meditation settings, there could be conflict, while outside these, some men felt stigmatised for their interest in meditation. In summary, despite potential hazards, meditation is a psychosocial practice with potential to facilitate wellbeing, even among groups (like men) who are thought to be resistant to healthy practices.

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