Notes on Meditation
I recently turned 28. Just before my birthday, I spent 2 weeks writing out my worldview on a number of philosophical and practical questions. I'm sharing the section on meditation today.
If you'd like the read the rest, you can read it here.
What is meditation? The world is used in many different ways. There's Descartes Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and then there's mindfulness meditation.
This piece is mostly on mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness has taken up a non-trivial portion of my time since high school. I've attended one silent retreat and had spurts of my life where I meditate from 5 to 60 minutes a day. Currently, I meditate for 10 minutes a day, 6 days a week.
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on sensations like the breath and doing this in a nonjudgemental way. Broadly, speaking its goals are to increase the stability of attention, one's mindfulness, and insight. Mindfulness here means active perception. When we're actively perceiving the world, we notice what's going on, in more detail. There are several proposed insights from meditation ranging from heuristics for improving one's mood to realizations into the nature of the universe. There's another kind of meditation that is insight-oriented and involves things like "looking for the self" or "realizing that one has no head."
What is mindfulness meditation good for?
There is some indication that mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy is at least as good as standard cognitive-behavioral therapy. This should be flagged by noting that the evidence base is not as strong and that this is only so for patients with depression.
Some simple insights can be had with mindfulness meditation and guidance:
- You are not your thoughts
- Judgements are separate from the things being judged
- The Judgements we make about sensations is relatively flexible
When paired with practices from CBT, ACT, or Stoicism, mindfulness meditation can be exceptionally useful. It provides a noncognitive or nonconceptual component to these practices. Practices from CBT and Stoicism (generally) are discursive, verbal, conceptual and cognitive. Being able to turn to nondiscursive exercises can be useful.
For individuals who don't struggle with depression, mindfulness meditation is in the bucket of 100 or so things one should consider trying to improve one's focus and tranquility. One probably wants to do this for a non-trivial time (10 minutes a day for 3 months). Some people will find it exceptionally useful. I expect that most people will not. There's some tendency to think that one "should" find it useful. This is misguided. Be an empiricist about this kind of thing.
Note that there's a nontrivial opportunity cost to meditation. One could be spending 10 minutes a day:
- doing high-intensity workouts
- doing cbt exercises
- messaging friends
- listening to a podcast
- watching TV
- Surfing the internet
And so on. For many people, their time would be better spent doing an activity from the above list than meditating.
Another reason meditation is good is related to self-signaling and discipline. Plausibly one way in which it is beneficial to many people is that it shows they have the self-control to sit and do nothing for 10 minutes.
In sum, mindfulness meditation can be a good way to internalize insight, relax, focus, and express self-discipline.
What is mindfulness meditation not good for?
Some claim that the largest benefits from meditation come from meditators who spend at least 45 minutes a day meditating and regularly go on week-long retreats. This can be worth doing if you enjoy meditation and benefit from a spiritual community surrounding the practice. I'm skeptical about the existence and value of the benefits.
Some claim exceptional spiritual, intellectual, and emotional benefits from meditation. I don't see it. Advanced and dedicated meditators are experts at meditating, but, from my limited interactions with such people and reading, are otherwise normal. They may be much more equanimous than others, but there's more to life than tranquility. Given the high opportunity cost, I'd counsel against it.
Some claim that one can come to much deeper insights about the nature of the world through meditation. Consider a handful: there is no self, everything is empty, everything is interconnected.
Let's consider the idea that there's no self. This could mean:
- One can experience the world in a centerless way - without the sense that there's an agent (you) at the center of everything
- The experience that you exist somewhere in your head is an illusion
- There is no self, there are just experiences
Can you learn these through meditation? One can experience the first. But one cannot learn the second or third from meditation alone. They require conceptual argument. If they were true, one could internalize them more from meditation.
One can no more learn these claims from meditation than one can learn:
- The experience that a chair exists in the corner of the room is an illusion
- There is no chair, there are only particles arranged chairwise.
Note that earlier I said that one can have insight from mindfulness meditation with guidance.
The guidance matters and provides a conceptual foundation for the practice. What one internalizes and experiences during meditation is heavily dependent on this guidance. It will be different if the guide is a Stoic, Christian, or Buddhist.
Two other points: it's difficult to get a sense of what the experiential claim means. The third is a paragon of a conceptual claim – and it’s false. This is an additional reason why one cannot learn it from meditation.
Similar considerations apply to other potential insights from meditation.
Other kinds of meditation
Loving-kindness meditations are overrated. Instead of spending 10 minutes cultivating feelings of compassion, spend the 10 minutes messaging your mother, talking to a stranger, or generally doing something nice.
There are two exceptions to this.
Loving-kindness meditations may be good for people with low levels of narcissism, psychopathy, or empathy. If you don't know what compassion feels like and think that's a blocker to one being compassionate, loving-kindness meditations may help. For most people, however, this is more likely to be rationalization than explanation.
The second exception is for people who have exceptionally low levels of self-esteem and are highly self-critical. I've heard numerous reports of people who fit this description finding loving-kindness meditations useful.
Visualization & Planning
Musicians and athletes obsessively practice in their mind. Typically through visualization and simulating the sensations of play. Practicing in this way can be very useful.
For example, think through one thing you'd like to do today in detail. Focus on what it would look like and feel like – that is do it in a nonconceptual way. When I typically do this kind of activity it's discursive. My sense is that it's much more useful to do in a nondiscursive way, focused on simulating the sensations and visual stimuli.
One can build a meditation practice around this.
The View From Above
The view from above is above expanding one's sense of perspective. It moves above by expanding: space, time, and people. Visualize yourself meditating in a room. Then expand it until you're visualizing the earth. Visualize the span of your life. Then expand the time under consideration: millions of years occurred before you. Millions more will occur after you. Finally, consider your life as an individual, then expand your picture to include hundreds, thousands, and millions of others.
This exercise, though difficult to do in a high-resolution way, is useful for changing one's sense of what is important and what is trivial.
Moreover, it can simulate stepping outside of yourself and getting a more objective sense of what is happening in one's life and who you are.