The ancient practice of meditation is making waves in modern China

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With increasing pressure and uncertainty about her future, Pan Huinie, a 26-year-old law student, sank into depression.

“When I woke up and saw my to-do list, I started to question my abilities,” Pan said. “There was so much waiting for me to accomplish and there were many times I wished things were over as soon as I opened my eyes.”

With this painful anxiety, she turned to meditation. She found a channel on Bilibili, a popular video-sharing platform in China, which regularly posts soundtracks featuring the host’s low voice and guides listeners into a meditative state.

After a 30-day program, she said her mental state had improved noticeably. Pan discovered the source of her depression and anxiety – what she called an inability to live in the present. She said that in most cases her anticipation of an event was much scarier than the reality.

“Through meditation, I learned that I don’t just read the book of life, I write it,” she said.

People meditate at the Copan building helipad to celebrate World Health Day, which was observed in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil on October 14, 2020. / Reuters

People meditate at the Copan building helipad to celebrate World Health Day, which was observed in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil on October 14, 2020. / Reuters

Meditation, an ancient practice of Buddhism and Hinduism, has attracted new demographics in recent years. Stripped of its religious nuances, mindfulness meditation began to gain traction in the 1980s in the West and amassed huge success in Silicon Valley. It advocates paying attention to the present moment, being aware of sensations, thoughts and emotions, and accepting them without being judgmental.

In recent years, it has found a growing resonance among young people in China, driven by the immediate availability of meditation apps and the boom in the wellness industry.

There is scientific evidence that shows that mindfulness, one of the leading schools of meditation that focuses on evidence-based practices, can help fight anxiety, depression and insomnia, Guo said. Tingting, founder of pauselab, a startup that manages digital mental health management. system for promoting psychological well-being, in which mindfulness is selected as one of the practices.

A psychologist by training, she designed the program as a systematic psychological intervention – people are required to practice mindfulness for 10 minutes a day, write a mood journal once a day and continue to do so for 21 days. The initial testing of the program found that 80 percent of people who completed the program reported reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and the effect is greatest in people with serious illnesses.

One company designed an egg-shaped meditation capsule to calm the mind. / VCG

One company designed an egg-shaped meditation capsule to calm the mind. / VCG

His findings are supported by a growing body of research showing that daily practice of mindfulness can alter brain structures and activities in regions associated with the regulation of attention and emotions. A study published in 2012 by a Harvard Medical School neuroscientist and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness meditation can alter the gray matter of the brain and brain regions related to memory, sense of self, and awareness. regulation of emotions.

Yet in China, reporting anxiety and stress was once frowned upon in a culture that idolizes tenacity and sacrifice. In 2019, the first-ever national study of mental health issues in China found that 16.6% of Chinese adults had suffered from mental illness at some point in their lives. Much of the infrastructure for mental health services is non-existent – there is an average of 1.7 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in China. Very few public hospitals have mental health services and psychological counseling is a luxury for a few.

Lack of access to mental health services and the higher penetration of smartphones have made mobile meditation more accessible and easily adopted by the Chinese. But maintaining the practice in the midst of busy schedules is a central challenge.

Sylvia Li, a vlogger creating content on personal development and emotional management, who recently joined the mindfulness program led by Guo, said she was determined to eliminate anxiety in her life. Yet, 14 days after starting the meditation program, she was unable to complete it because her busy work schedule prevented her from taking 10 minutes of her day for meditation.

After waking up to a work-related nightmare in the middle of the night, she was aware that she needed a break, but she couldn’t since she had to finish her daily job.

“Then I made the decision that the busier I am, the more important it is for me to take a break,” she said, looking back. She then meditated for 10 minutes, felt the anxiety gradually drop to a lower level, and she was able to breathe again.

People practice meditation at an event in Shenzhen, southern China’s Guangdong Province, September 21, 2018. / VCG

People practice meditation at an event in Shenzhen, southern China’s Guangdong Province, September 21, 2018. / VCG

The pandemic has given the meditation industry a boost as more people adapt by turning inward and meditating. Len Li, founder and CEO of Now Meditation, an app that offers a range of guided meditation sessions, said use of the app increased during the pandemic.

Anchored at home because of the lockdown, people have explored different ways to find solace, and many have found it through meditation, Li said. The number of app users quadrupled during the pandemic and now has around seven million downloads worldwide.

Arthur Kleinman, professor of psychiatric anthropology at Harvard, wrote in a 2010 article published by The Lancet that the growing awareness of psychotherapy in China “represents a set of quests for meaning in everyday life.”

Drastic changes that have taken place over a short period of decades are reshaping the moral lives of Chinese individuals, he wrote, and this has the potential to transform Chinese culture and society.

Although there is a growing awareness of the psychological care boosted by the pandemic, it has not yet resulted in tangible changes in people’s behavior, Guo said, as people still refrain from actively seeking out help when faced with psychological problems.

“In this way, we want to make mindfulness meditation easily accessible and affordable to more people, so that even for those who are not sure or who are not ready for psychotherapy, they can find comfort through the therapy. mindfulness, ”she said.


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