Jump to content

Why I meditate (and why you should too)


Recommended Posts

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.

 

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

Bollocks!

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites
  • Replies 78
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

Top Posters In This Topic

Popular Posts

I don't do meditation, nor do I intend to. But I do enjoy the benefits of being away from it all, in 'oneness' (as you describe it) with my surroundings. And I do notice benefits, similar to those you

Tell us more of these profound insights that you are privy to. You have convinced me more that meditation is something for people to brag and preen about rather than something worthwhile. I have taken

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 wo

Bit harsh possibly?

 

Meditation is great, I just wish that I would persevere to do it more often/more consistently. I can't state what actual benefits it does/doesn't have (and assume this will vary from one person to the next that does it), but I'm convinced it's a beneficial activity to your wellbeing and to your outlook on stuff in general.

 

The mind can be a very noisy place at times, and it can feel great to hush it up from time to time.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Bit harsh possibly?

 

Meditation is great, I just wish that I would persevere to do it more often/more consistently. I can't state what actual benefits it does/doesn't have (and assume this will vary from one person to the next that does it), but I'm convinced it's a beneficial activity to your wellbeing and to your outlook on stuff in general.

 

The mind can be a very noisy place at times, and it can feel great to hush it up from time to time.

 

The more you do the more you get from it, just like anything. Buddhist monks are known for meditating for years and years, doing literally thousands and thousands of hours. They don't do that for fun, they do it because of the profound effects it has as they accumulate over time and the insights get deeper and deeper.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Yes indeed CC - I love the idea of buddhism and/or taoism. Not something I think I could get properly into from a practicality perspective but they make a lot of sense in many respects. That said, buddhism has the whole reincarnation thing going on, and I think in taoism they have several deities, and for me both those aspects ever so slightly spoil the otherwise sensible ideals they have.

Edited by Cret
  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

 

Bit harsh possibly?

 

Meditation is great, I just wish that I would persevere to do it more often/more consistently. I can't state what actual benefits it does/doesn't have (and assume this will vary from one person to the next that does it), but I'm convinced it's a beneficial activity to your wellbeing and to your outlook on stuff in general.

 

The mind can be a very noisy place at times, and it can feel great to hush it up from time to time.

 

The more you do the more you get from it, just like anything. Buddhist monks are known for meditating for years and years, doing literally thousands and thousands of hours. They don't do that for fun, they do it because of the profound effects it has as they accumulate over time and the insights get deeper and deeper.

 

 

 

Insights? Into what though? How deep can you go on this stuff?

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

 

 

The more you do the more you get from it, just like anything. Buddhist monks are known for meditating for years and years, doing literally thousands and thousands of hours. They don't do that for fun, they do it because of the profound effects it has as they accumulate over time and the insights get deeper and deeper.

 

 

 

Insights? Into what though? How deep can you go on this stuff?

 

 

If you're interested, I suggest you read Waking Up by Sam Harris. The bollocks/claptrap lot should probably think about why a guy like him takes this so seriously. But anyway, he goes in to quite a lot of detail about the sense of self, and how you can lose it, and the transformative effect that has.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Yes indeed CC - I love the idea of buddhism and/or taoism. Not something I think I could get properly into from a practicality perspective but they make a lot of sense in many respects. That said, buddhism has the whole reincarnation thing going on, and I think in taoism they have several deities, and for me both those aspects ever so slightly spoil the otherwise sensible ideals they have.

 

I agree on reincarnation and deities and all that - so I just ignore it.

 

The meditation though - that really works. And it works regardless of what you believe or don't believe about this or that - it's just a mental exercise.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

 

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.

 

 

I don't do meditation, nor do I intend to. But I do enjoy the benefits of being away from it all, in 'oneness' (as you describe it) with my surroundings. And I do notice benefits, similar to those you list, that carry over into normal life.

I think part of it, is just realising that everything you do everyday, is probably not that important in the greater scheme of things - the world still keeps turning, the tides still roll in, the mountains still erode etc. With this realisation, is the insight that life is not actually that long; that you should focus on the enjoyable, worry less about less enjoyable things etc. In terms of work, performance etc, then you effectively take the pressure and expectation off yourself, making things easier.

  • Like 3
Link to post
Share on other sites

 

 

 

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.

 

I don't do meditation, nor do I intend to. But I do enjoy the benefits of being away from it all, in 'oneness' (as you describe it) with my surroundings. And I do notice benefits, similar to those you list, that carry over into normal life.

I think part of it, is just realising that everything you do everyday, is probably not that important in the greater scheme of things - the world still keeps turning, the tides still roll in, the mountains still erode etc. With this realisation, is the insight that life is not actually that long; that you should focus on the enjoyable, worry less about less enjoyable things etc. In terms of work, performance etc, then you effectively take the pressure and expectation off yourself, making things easier.

Sounds good to me :)

 

All I'd say is that in the same way going for a walk in the countrywide gives you some gentle exercise, it also gives you some gentle space and insight.

 

If you want to go to any real level of physical fitness you need to work harder than that.

 

Same with meditation and the benefits it brings. The feelings and insights you are describing are not that profound at all in comparison to what is available if you give meditation an honest go.

 

After all, if being away from it all was all it took, why would a buddhist monk in the himalayas bother meditating? He's already in the himalayas!

 

Ditto for the US Marines.

 

Long story short: I think you're missing something important here :)

Edited by Ceaseless Change
Link to post
Share on other sites

I think it's pretty good.

 

I use one of the basic methods to get to sleep sometimes - concentrating on my breathing - which can stop the chattering mind and get me off to sleep. Oh, and trying not to let my feet touch each other.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.


×
×
  • Create New...