Meditation: why, what and how

Cards on the table

I'm a materialist. I don't believe in gods, demons, ghosts, or any of that dross. Most of my thinking surrounding religion involves how to set up the preconditions for getting rid of it. Buddhism, in particular, evokes in me a well justified political aversion, rather than the cuddly peaceful feelings many others get from it, thanks to what must be the best propaganda CIA money can buy.1 So on this basis, I'm perhaps not the most likely candidate to get interested in meditation, and I'm definitely not a typical member of the new age flakey Buddhist peace and love community.

If that's the sort of thing you're looking for, I'd advise you to look elsewhere. My views and approach may well not fit yours, and my writing on it may not do you much good at all.

I've been told about the purported benefits of meditation by many people. I'll admit for a very long time I took those claims with extreme scepticism, and often would refuse to even bothre reading the papers justifying them. This is a result of what one might consider too hasty heuristics: I deeply distrust the sort of person who gets into meditation in the West. You know what I mean: we're all writing our own story, you just need to desire something and the universe will conspire to make it happen sort of nonsense. For many years I simply discarded claims about meditation because they came from people I couldn't trust to add two plus two and get a natural number. "2+2=transcendent joy!"

That said, there were early signs. A good friend of mine who was just as materialist as me and had formal training in the sciences got interested in it, and claimed it was useful. However, he could never quite explain what the point was, and so the area remained unexplored by me. Different people, even Marxists, kept indicating there was something there, although they had problems explaining what that something was. That's why I'm writing this, though I may not be able to do any better a job than they did.

Eventually, evidence kept arising from sources I had trouble dismissing. What drove me to investigate the topic in a deeper way, was, surprisingly, an article which had to do very little with meditation as such. Ethics is advertising is an article which attempts to use the notion of signalling in order to analyse human behaviour and claims about ethics, especially in relation to Buddhism. What impressed me the most about it was the way it dealt straightforwardly with the fact that a lot of people who claim to be Buddhists--and for all I know they are, far be it from me to try to police the term--are not very effective people, to say the least. The author puts it more harshly: Buddhism is for losers.

It was the honest self-critical appraisal that led me to read more of David Chapman's blog. I learned a lot of things I didn't know about Buddhism's views and principles of operation which would be hard to find on the typical primers about the four noble truths and the eight-fold path. For the first time, it looked like there was some sort of coherent theory enmeshed in all the mystical nonsense.

That's when I decided to read more about Aro, which is the group Chapman belongs to, and I found out they offered an email meditation course. I had, nagged by a friend, read a book on mindful meditation2 before, and it hadn't been of any significant use. Of course, a method cannot work if one does not actually deploy it, but an email course seemed like a more promising approach to me. After reading a number of papers and assorted information about meditation and its benefits,3 I decided to go for it.

What it's like

There's a very large amount written about what meditation is like. Some of it is accurate, and some of it is complete nonsense. Because meditation is not one thing, some of it will be true for some techniques and not others, and because people start from different experiential bases results will vary from person to person as well.

I'm the least qualified person to write about this. I started practicing the 8th of October, so I've been doing this for about 3 months. People tend to clock their meditation hours as if they were flight time hours. On that basis, I don't have a lot that is useful to say, except that I still remember fairly clearly what starting was like.

It's boring. It's confusing. It's not doing very much. The first technique I was instructed in is remaining uninvolved.4 You sit there, for a set time, and let your thoughts come and go. The point is not to wilfully suppress thought (certainly not in this technique) but to not be driven by it. If thoughts come you let them come, you acknowledge them, and don't get involved with the story.

I'd say a lot of what one notices at the start is how much we are driven by our internal narratives. There's constant churn in the mind about things that happened, or plans we have for the future. A lot of it is bound to our perception of ourselves and the things we like or dislike. This is not exactly news to anyone, but the point isn't to acquire a view.

This stuff is about method, not truth. We all know we are discontinuous, impermanent meatbags which can only metaphorically be said to be individuals. That's still far from gaining a first-person, subjective view on how this illusion is created, and some of what underlies it.

What is it for?

I started practicing moved by a few considerations:

  • Curiosity. I wanted to know what this whole thing was about, and what my mind was like.
  • Novelty. I wanted to experience different states of mind, and I did.
  • Mood control.
  • Attention control.
  • Self-discipline.

So, does it work? My curiosity is still engaged with the practice. There are things I read which seem to make sense to me, and things I read which didn't. Over time, the things which made sense became experience, instead of view; and some of the things which didn't began to be understandable. I maintain a strong scepticism about the value of my own experience, but it is still useful as a subjective input. If you feel better or calmer, that's a real datum.

I experienced a few fairly unusual states of mind towards the end of November, if memory doesn't fail me. I have notes of it (a meditation journal is a pretty sensible thing to keep) but I don't take them all that seriously. It is kind of interesting to experience oneself as having a different life history or personality, but it is just a gimick of the mind. The content isn't as relevant as the flavour. Having those experiences tells me something about how contingent my baseline experience of being myself is.

Mood has improved significantly, and my focus may have (but I don't have good metrics for it). Self-discipline is the element where I feel a bit short-changed by meditation. It hasn't done much of use in this regard. I'll give it more time, but I may just have to admit that it's not going to help in that particular way.

So do you believe in demons now?

No. I maintain a materialist stance. My views about external reality have not significantly changed, and if anything may have been firmed up by the practice, in that it is increasingly difficult to kid oneself about having a permanent, fixed personality and existence. There are a few things which are believed by Aro that I don't take entirely seriously. I've never seen a convincing physical explanation of how rebirth works and how a mindstream can evade death, and whatever experiences I gain are unlikely to change my mind in this regard unless they come with the sort of detail which force me to as a simplest reading of the data. I don't expect this to happen. Other views regarding open relationships and the exhaustion of some pre-patterned energy seem also unlikely.

So How does one meditate?

I'm not qualified to teach anyone. If you are interested in meditation I advise you to do the Aro course linked above. You could also try a book and see if that works for you. However, if you want to get a basic flavour, you could try this:

  • Set a timer. 5 minutes is a good starting point. If you think you're unusually patient or focused you could try more. It's best if you can avoid looking at the timer. Choose a place that is quiet. Avoid especially music and human voices.

  • Sit comfortably. Don't worry too much about posture, other than choosing a sitting position that keeps you alert, and does not require you to constantly move around. If you can, try to keep your back upright.

  • Lower your head a little and keep your eyes in between open and closed.5

  • Pay attention to what's happening in your mind. Do you have thoughts going on? Stories? Gently disengage from them. If you get a thought, don't fight it, or suppress it, or tell yourself that you're wasting your time or incapable of practice. Just acknowledge the thought. Meditation is just letting you see what is there.

  • Try not to get involved with thought. If you become involved, notice that you have lost the thread of the practice, and gently return to it. Don't beat yourself about it.

That's it. This is the most basic technique and it's how one starts. There are other techniques to help. In a sense, this technique is so simple, that it is actually very difficult to perform, because there is not much to do at all. That, too, is part of the point.

After you have done it a few times, you may be wondering what it is about. I know I did. I'd advise you to write notes after each session to keep track of what things are like and what changes take place in your experience. Then you can increase the length of the sessions. But rather than doing that, you'd be best served to get a resource which can instruct you in other techniques.

Travelling is a broadening experience. You can read about other places and cultures, but there is so much implicit knowledge you must acquire from being there, that it can never be the same. Likewise you could read all about playing an instrument, but you won't get a feel for what it's like until you take it in hand and practice on it. For a long time, the results are likely to be quite disappointing. Eventually though, you gain familiarity with a different experience: another country, another instrument. Meditation is a departure from our ordinary experience, not because there's anything inherently wrong with it (there might or might not) but because you need a different angle of view to understand what it is like, just like learning a second language makes you more aware of the nature of language in general and how your first language operates. Meditation gives you a fulcrum to look at the way the mind operates by default, and I find it an interesting one. Let me know if you do, too.

  1. For a good overview on this, everyone should read Friendly Feudalism: the Tibet Myth, by Michael Parenti. If you think Tibet before the PRC was a monastic paradise, stop reading this now, head there, and learn otherwise. I cannot recommend this enough. 

  2. The book in question was Mindfulness in plain English. This may work for you. It is not a bad book, though it is more focused on motivation than technical instructions. It also belongs to a fairly different approach to meditation than what I'm involved with. However, you could try it if you think it would fit you better. 

  3. I think the most interesting aspect of my reading about it is that different meditation techniques have measureably different effects on the brain. Meditation is not one thing. There are a large number of different techniques which produce different results. 

  4. This stuff has Tibetan and Sanskrit names, but personally I'm not sure they do people a lot of good. However, for the curious, the technique goes by the name of shi-ne. 

  5. This is not absolutely essential. The idea is to avoid focusing your visual attention on objects, but also not to fall asleep.