Demystifying Meditation

Written on October 13, 2008. Written by .

Meditation
A rational approach to meditation.
Photo courtesy of Gurumustuk Singh

I have heard a lot of good things about meditation, but the information always seems muddled. I once scoured the bookstore looking for the most scientific book on meditation I could find and I ended up with one called “How to Meditate” by Lawrence LeShan. It seemed promising, but after a while it started talking about God and telekinesis, so it lost a lot of credibility in my eyes. But the book did help me learn a lot about what meditation is and I am convinced that there is something real behind the practice.

The first problem that I ran into with meditation was that every source had a different definition of what meditation was supposed to be. There are many different schools of meditation and each has its own opinion on what the proper method is. Most of them seem to involve sitting quietly and focusing the mind in some way. Your focus may be on counting your breaths, some object before you, a particular topic that you want to ponder, or many other things. In “The Happiness Hypothesis”, Haidt sums up the situation very well on page 35, “There are many kinds of meditation, but they all have in common a conscious attempt to focus attention in a non-analytical way.” But what kind of meditation should we do? To answer that question, we need to understand the benefits of meditation and the mechanism behind it.

Meditation seems to have many benefits. It reduces stress levels, promotes mindfulness, stabilizes your mind against the ups and downs of life, and helps quiet mental chatter which can increase concentration and reduce insomnia. On top of all this there are numerous other health benefits that have been found in studies, making meditation seem like some kind of wonder drug.

So what is the mechanism that provides these benefits? As far as I can tell, the benefit comes from the efforts you make to suppress thoughts coming from your analytical mind. You just let distracting thoughts float away while you maintain focus on your breathing, an object, or some direct sensory experience. The important part is to not let yourself continue to think once you have realized that you are thinking.

By quieting your analytical mind, you encourage yourself to spend more time in the moment. Analytical thoughts are about planning and scheming, which inevitably detach you from your immediate experiences. I believe this is the core benefit of meditation, which can be summarized as increased mindfulness. This increase in mindfulness is likely the cause of the other benefits because it has a peaceful calming effect.

I have tried meditation a few times, but I haven’t been able to commit to it long enough to see any noticeable effects. My method has been to count my breaths modulo four and whenever I realize that my attention has strayed, I gently let that thought float upward like a bubble underwater. And I don’t worry about all the special postures, I just sit in a comfortable position. I found that it is important to not worry about being unsuccessful in keeping your focus. At first I felt stressed out by the fact that my attention kept wandering, which was ruining the experience. It felt much better after I accepted that I don’t have control and it is the effort that is all I can expect. Also, I do not worry if my attention focuses in on a sensation such as a sound or a scent since those are not abstract thoughts. After a session, I usually do notice that I feel different. The temporary mind-deprivation makes any perception seem much more fascinating. Sometimes after I open my eyes I just sit for several minutes with no desire to move because just observing my surroundings is interesting enough to keep me entertained. So far the main issue seems to be finding ten minutes a day where I can convince myself to settle down to meditate. Often I enjoy thinking and I don’t really want to give up my interesting thoughts. My plan is to try meditating after lunch every day. I’ll report back if I make any progress.

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