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Why I meditate (and why you should too)


Ceaseless Change
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There aren't many topics dear to my heart, but this is one of them. Meditation.

It's in the press a lot these days, primarily mindfulness meditation, and that is for a few reasons:

1) Some of the worlds biggest companies are putting huge amounts of money in to providing meditation classes to their employees, especially Google. They aren't doing this because it doesn't work.....
2) There is a huge amount of research going on in to it, which has exploded in the last 10 years, and especially at the worlds biggest universities, including Oxford which is spending serious money on it, http://oxfordmindfulness.org/
3) It is being taken VERY seriously by health professionals. Currently meditation combined with cognitive behavioural therapy is the most effective intervention for depression in terms of reducing future episodes. It has also been proven to have benefits for anxiety disorders, and also chronic pain conditions, e.g. those coping with cancer, or arthritis. It also boosts the immune system (as in, research proves this), and reduces stress and cortisol levels, improves sleep, etc etc. It is prescribed for depression and chronic pain on the NHS.
4) More and more politicians are starting to realise the potential and are starting to form policy around it, both in the UK and the USA

5) It is being increasingly used in the prison system to improve inmate behaviour and reduce recidivism
6) Least importantly (but relevant to media coverage) more and more famous people are espousing it and doing it louder and louder (e.g. Meg Ryan, Ruby Wax, Oprah, Anderson Cooper of CNN)

This is all because, fundamentally, it works. Science is now proving that in myriad ways, but in a way modern science is a few thousand years behind the curve. Proper research only started in the mid '90s. The West didn't know about it at all, arguably, until the '60s. But the time of the historical Buddha was 400 BC (ish), and serious meditation definitely pre-dates that time. So whilst scientists are now objectively proving that it works in various ways, the subjective proof has always been there for anyone prepared to put the effort in. There are no serious meditators at all, as far as I'm aware, who do it despite having a subjective experience of it having no effect. It works.

I want to cover a few topics in brief, and happy to explore more in detail if anyone cares enough to ask.

But first: Common objections.

 

The two most common are:

1) It's against my religion, or it's spiritually dangerous or suspect, etc

If that is you, and you are Christian, check out the Worldwide Community for Christian Meditation, http://www.wccm.org/ , or get a copy of the book by Catholic US Congressman Tim Ryan, referenced here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/16/tim-ryan-meditation_n_1429854.html

If you are Muslim, check out the book or the film Dhamma Brothers. (Check it out if you are Christian too). Also, what do Sufis do? They meditate, that's what.

If you are Buddhist or Hindu or Sikh or Jewish, you really shouldn't need convincing! These religions have always had very prominent contemplative/meditative traditions.

And if you are atheist, which I am, even a highly skeptical, get-away-from-me-with-your-woo-woo-bullshit atheist (like me), check out Sam Harris' latest book, Waking Up. Yes, Sam Harris, Horseman of the Atheist Apocalypse. Sam Harris is a long time, very very serious meditator. Who knew!

The overall point here though is that meditation is not a religious activity, necessarily. You can make it that if you want, but the main meditation techniques like mindfulness can be used by anyone - they dont require mantras or religious texts or visualising deities, or saying prayers - anyone can do them, of all religions and none.

2) It's hippy woo woo nonsense

Well, some types of meditation are a bit like that. And a LOT of meditation, even today, comes with very woo-woo trappings. There are people who massively exaggerate the impact of meditation, even going as far as claiming magic powers and the usual crap. There is also a lot of "be one with the universe, man" type stuff. Personally it gives me the heebie jeebies. And also a lot of meditation advocates are also advocates of stuff that really DOESN'T work, like homeopathy - which undermines their credibility rather a lot, sadly. There are charlatans like Deepak Chopra who have made fortunes from peddling this kind of nonsense mess. And there are also legitimate meditation teachers, like the Transcendental Meditation movement, who whilst having something of value to offer, have used it to make huge amounts of money yet again. I have a big ethical problem with that personally. Also, the western history of meditation is that we associate it with the hippy era, and with drugs (LSD etc) - so it is carrying a lot of cultural baggage!

BUT. Despite all that, there really IS a core of meditative techniques that really do work, and are being objectively proven to have the claimed effects by research. So don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. If arch-atheist Sam Harris does it, then I think you should rest assured that it has passed a very very high bullshit test right there. But better still - it is testable. It makes claims that you can test for yourself - so give it a try.

 

 

So, meditation in brief:

1) What is it

The modern way of looking at it is basically this - there are three broad types of meditation, and three broad meditation objects. Within that there is a lot of variation but this is the big picture:

Types: Concentration vs Mindfulness vs Cultivating Positive Emotions

1) Concentration meditation is where you focus on something to the exclusion of EVERYTHING else. Gradually getting narrower and narrower in your focus until literally nothing else (subjectively) exists for you but that thing (e.g. your breathing, or a mantra, or a candle flame.)

2) Mindfulness meditation is where you being aware of what is naturally occurring, rather than in some sense "forcing" your mind to shut things out. If something gets in the way of your (e.g.) breathing, you don't shut it out you accept it and are aware of it, and then carry on as before once it passes. This can involve the use of a meditation object as an anchor to keep returning to, or of no object at all where you do not concentrate on anything in particular, you just remain open and accepting of everything and anything your mind experiences from moment to moment (the classic Zen method).

A good definition of mindfulness, which is the hardest to understand I think (until you've properly got the hang of it), is: "mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally."

 

A key factor in mindfulness is whether you are being mindful of what is naturally happening without any intervention by you, or mindful of something that you are creating in some sense, such as a mantra that you are repeating or an emotion you are deliberately trying to experience. They are very very different things. The former is "true" mindfulness, in my opinion.

3) Cultivating positive emotions is where instead of concentrating on something, or accepting things as they are, you deliberately train yourself to get better at experiencing positive emotions such as compassion, empathy, kindness, joy.

Meditation objects:
1) Physical sensations - the most common is the breath, the physical feelings of breathing - but this could be the body in general, or a part of the body, or other "felt" sensations such as balance. This also includes the entire realm of emotion, as emotions are physically felt. - this is most common with concentration and mindfulness.

2) Mental sounds - i.e. internally "spoken" prayer or mantras or repetitive phrases etc - this is most common with cultivating positive emotions which most often use a phrase designed to help you experience the emotion you are trying to get "better" at. It is also a common concentration technique.

3) Mental visuals - i.e. internally visualising a colour, or a deity, or an image of some kind. Most commonly used by concentration techniques, and the least popular of the three object categories (unless you are a Tibetan Buddhist.....!)

(and as a subset of the above - external sounds or external visuals - literally listening to something in a meditative way, or staring at something as an object (a colour, or a candle flame etc))

2) What do you mean "it works"

Here are some of the things that concentration meditation does:
Greater concentration (obviously) - but dramatically so, in a way that is impossible to explain unless you've experienced it.
An increasing ability to be truly present with what you are doing, whether working or talking or listening to someone - and an equivalent reduction in your tendency to get distracted
Better control over unpleasant mental habits and trains of thought (better at breaking them) which benefits mental health issues tremendously
Improved memory
Improved creativity
Improved mental energy levels
Improved sleep


Here are some of the things that mindfulness meditation does:
All the above, plus
An increasing ability to accept yourself, your experience, your emotions - a continual improvement in your ability to calmly tolerate unpleasant situations and feelings (hence the use in chronic pain management and mental health treatment). Note: This does NOT come at the cost of developing a "I'm OK so I won't bother to sort this bad situation out" attitude. Quite the opposite - being able to really handle the pain of a bad situation makes you more effective at then taking action to deal with it.
An undermining of the ego, and selfishness
An increasing capacity to be selfless, compassionate
An increasing capacity to be creative and flexible and spontaneous, to spot opportunities and go with life as it comes at you rather than being rigid (and brittle)

A greater appreciation of the reality of some of the fundamental aspects of your own psyche, including the self and what it actually is, and basic errors of perception and cognition we make that cause so much of our own pain - some people call this "spirituality".

 

 

Cultivation of positive emotions is hopefully self explanatory. If you practice compassion meditation, you become more compassionate, to yourself and others. etc.

(Ultimately however these all overlap almost totally I think).

 

A final point - just like going to the gym, by "work" i don't mean in a temporary "it works whilst you are meditating and then its over" way. The effects linger, i.e. you see them after you have stopped meditating too. That is the whole point! You wouldn't go to the gym if you only got fitter and stronger whilst you were working out and then lost it the minute you walked out. Same with meditation.

3) How does it work

Objectively, brain plasticity, basically. As in, the brain literally changes its neuronal connections in response to how you use your brain. If you are a piano player, the bit of the brain that controls your fingers is literally physically bigger than other peoples. London Cabbies have literally physically bigger areas associated with spatial memory. In a similar way, you can train the mental capacity to concentrate, to be aware of your moment to moment experience, and to accept it rather than fighting it. Research has shown associated increases in various related brain regions, including sheer volume of the grey matter.

Subjectively, you are learning to be aware of your internal life in a way you never were before - and just by being aware of it, you start to automatically seek to improve it. Soon you start to realise that fighting your internal experience makes it worse - and accepting it makes it easier. So you build that as a skill too. This is NOT the same thing as giving up on external factors - you don't become a nihilist who stops trying to make the world a better place. This is about internal experience. Let's say someone insults you - you learn to simultaneously deal with the situation externally (e.g. walking away, or correcting them without making it worse), but simultaneously minimising the negative internal impact (you learn to let it go, water off a duck's back).

In this way bit by bit your life improves - more and more. To quite astonishing degrees if you keep it up.

 

It is in a fairly literal way the mental equivalent of going to the gym. You are training certain mental capacities and skills.

 

http://www.esquire.co.uk/culture/article/4915/matthieu-ricard-what-ive-learned/

4) Scientific evidence

A huge and ever increasing topic, so some links instead:

http://oxfordmindfulness.org/science/
http://evp.harvard.edu/book/where-can-i-find-evidence-based-research-mindfulness
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_on_meditation
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-meditation-overrated/

http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/pdfs/MARC-mindfulness-research-summary.pdf

Edited by Ceaseless Change
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Nice post.

 

Meditation is rather faddish at the moment. You get these people who mention that they do it, as though it somehow makes them a better or more 'enlightened' person while the rest of us are toiling away with our unenlightened primitive brains.

 

In spite of this, mindful of becoming one of these people myself, I did have a go. I didn't get much out of it. It is relaxing, yes. For people who are chronically stressed, which seems to be just about everybody these days, the benefits of learning to shut up and not worry are bound to be beneficial to health and wellbeing.

 

Meditation is notoriously difficult to study. Physical effects in the brain can be measured but it is difficult to link these to behavioural or cognitive effects. It is difficult to find anyone who hasn't already heard of meditation or mindfulness to be part of a study where they will not spoil the tests. It often comes down to self-assessment of subjective phenomenon.

 

I think many people would benefit from meditation, especially the perpetually worried and stressed, but its benefits should not be overstated without better evidence.

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In spite of this, mindful of becoming one of these people myself, I did have a go. I didn't get much out of it. It is relaxing, yes. For people who are chronically stressed, which seems to be just about everybody these days, the benefits of learning to shut up and not worry are bound to be beneficial to health and wellbeing.

How often were you doing it? I only noticed benefits from doing it for about a least a week and doing it twice a day.

 

I've never found the meditation itself to be particularly relaxing. It is more the way of thinking that comes from it afterwards that makes me more relaxed.

Though that is just a secondary benefit. It's being able to be in the moment more that is the main benefit (for me), i.e. not having my mind wander off quickly.

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I did it for about two weeks once a day, this was last year. I'm not sure if I'm the type of person that meditation is meant to benefit.

 

Not nearly long enough i'm afraid - research evidence shows a demonstrable impact after 8 weeks. I'm not aware of any theoretical or evidential reason why there would be any "type" of person that is unsuited to meditation, apart from people with very severe psychiatric conditions - there is evidence that introspective work of any kind can be very unbalancing for e.g. schizophrenia or psychosis sufferers.

 

Overall I'd say that limiting meditation to only being "good" for people who are stressed or otherwise "ill" in some sense is a mistake - better physical fitness is good for you no matter how healthy you are in general, and the same is true for the mental/emotional fitness that meditation helps with.

 

I hate people telling me what I should do, had you said "And why you may like to give it a try" I may have read your post , sorry but you blew it.

 

You may meditate on that , but I don't care if you don't

 

Well I'm sorry you have reacted that way. I tried to change the topic title but it's too late now, I can't find a way. But I did try. I thought about writing it your way originally, but went with this way - it's a pretty standard stylistic choice. Can't please all the people all of the time, I guess.

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2) It's hippy woo woo nonsense

 

There is also a lot of "be one with the universe, man" type stuff. Personally it gives me the heebie jeebies.

If you are so pro meditation, I would have thought you would have been quite happy with getting into synch with your surroundings?

 

 

I don't know what "getting in synch with your surroundings" means to be honest. What I don't like about all the "oneness, man" talk is just it's usually a gateway to total nonsense.

 

That said, subjective experiences of "oneness" are in fact quite common during meditation. They aren't the point of it, but they do happen. There is quite a lot of articles out there about the concept of "flow", i.e. losing yourself utterly in what you are doing, which is related to this. Sports psychologists are very interested in meditation for this reason, because the "flow" state is generally associated with executing your skills with minimal conscious interference, and so maximum performance.

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Overall I'd say that limiting meditation to being "good" for people who are stressed or otherwise "ill" in some sense is a mistake - better physical fitness is good for you no matter how healthy you are in general, and the same is true for the mental/emotional fitness that meditation helps with.

 

Where is the evidence that meditation improves mental/emotional "fitness"?

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Overall I'd say that limiting meditation to being "good" for people who are stressed or otherwise "ill" in some sense is a mistake - better physical fitness is good for you no matter how healthy you are in general, and the same is true for the mental/emotional fitness that meditation helps with.

 

Where is the evidence that meditation improves mental/emotional "fitness"?

 

 

Well it depends what you mean by mental/emotional fitness.

 

If you mean the psychological trait of "resilience", for instance, then the links above will take you to research supporting that. Improving resilience is a part of why it is effective as a treatment for depression. It is also used by the US military (the Marines I think) for similar reasons - building resilience. People might be skeptical about corporates throwing money at stuff like this, but the US Military?!

 

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/dec/5/marines-expanding-use-of-meditation-training/?page=all

 

I don't have a library/index of every research article i'm afraid - there is just so much of it. But those links I thought were a good starting point for those interested in finding out more. Equally, Sam Harris' book Waking Up has a very extensive bibliography, and he is after all a neuroscientist, so far more qualified than me. I'm not a scientist, i'm a meditator.

 

You might also find this interesting:

 

http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/cihmDrDavidson.html

http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/cihmWebLinks.html

 

Finally the book "The Emotional Life of your Brain" is scientifically superb. It is by Dr Richard Davidson, who is pretty much the worlds leading (pioneering in fact) researcher in to meditation and the scientifically verifiable benefits of it.

 

Also by evidence I assume you mean specifically objective/external evidence from research trials.

 

But as I think you said yourself, verifying internal experience externally is very difficult. So yes research is hard in this area, as it is in almost every area concerning human psychology.

 

But that does NOT mean that these things don't work. It simply means that the best way there is for verifying it for yourself is still to do it yourself, instead of reading research papers.

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