Saturday, May 16, 2015


Funny how some topics seem to follow you around.  The past couple of weeks I keep hearing about meditation -- specifically, a sort of secular/Buddhist variety.

My first exposure to meditation was when I was maybe six years old on a long car trip with my family.  My brother told me that when he got bored on car trips, he would meditate.  I asked what that was, and he said, "Well, you just think of nothing."

"You can't ever think of nothing," I said.

"I guess I just imagine blackness," he said.

Because the driving force of my life at the time was to be the yin to my brother's yang, I tried imagining whiteness.  That turned into puffy clouds, which brought to mind birds, planes, angels, Care Bears, and so forth.  It was a fun way to kill time on a long car ride, but I guess it was probably not meditating.

Of course in boarding school I meditated lots, though Catholic meditation is something different.  You're trying to reflect on a specific topic.  But it does have this in common with all forms of meditation -- it requires mental discipline, where you consciously try to control your train of thought and pull it back from all the places it wants to wander to.  That is apparently the point of meditation -- it builds your brain power and focus.

The past few weeks, I've read two books about meditation, just out of curiosity: the first one Waking Up, by Sam Harris, and the other 10% Happier, by Dan Harris (no relation).

Waking Up was a book I was prepared to hate, and sure enough I did.  I had read the first chapter online and found no answer to the question, "But why would I want to do that?"  Checked out the book from the library, and the answer is in fact not in the book anywhere.

The point of the book is that the self is an illusion and therefore through meditation, enlightenment, and perhaps mind-altering drugs, you can become aware of this.  There was quite a bit of fascinating stuff about the structure of the brain in there, which I think is extremely cool, but it didn't convince me that the self is an illusion.  And even if it were one, I don't see why I would want to be conscious of that.  I like being myself.  Why would it make me happier to experience some other variety of consciousness that doesn't include a notion of myself?  Heck, I already feel I'm losing myself sometimes, and it's not a good feeling, it's a bad feeling.  So I don't get it.

I also think that Buddhism can oversell itself in a culty way just as badly as any other religion, and even when it's secularized like Harris is trying to do.  It lures you in with a bit of harmless meditation, but to attain real enlightenment you're going to have to find a teacher.  The teacher has absolutely no way to prove to you he knows what he's doing, so you just have to guess.  (In fairness, this problem is addressed in the book.)  Sam Harris is not "enlightened," himself, though he claims to have experienced moments of enlightenment.  But it just makes me wonder, is anyone actually enlightened?  Or do they just pretend to be because it gets them legions of adoring fans?  And if true enlightenment makes you content to live in squalor the rest of your days, is that really something we should be seeking after?  I'd like a form of enlightenment that would cause me to love my neighbor so much that any sacrifice for others would be easy.  I could be the next Mother Teresa and enjoy it too.  And can I get that to-go, please?

The other problem is that no mention at all is made of the dark sides of this process.  I would love to see scientists explore these.  (I guess they are starting to?) In Catholic thought, we talk about the dark night of the soul, and Buddhist thought has similar dark stages.  Certainly in boarding school, I found that when we went on our first silent retreat, everyone was raving about it.  It had been blissful, wonderful, they felt so close to God.  And after the second one, everyone shared that they had felt empty, lonely, dark.  That this was the time when God was showing them that you don't need big sparkly feelings with him all the time.  And the more I read about the spiritual life, the more I find that this is universal -- new converts have lots of bliss, while old practitioners find that consoling experiences happen less and less often.

Both in Buddhism and in Catholicism, we are reassured that this dark stage will pass and we will experience further bliss.  But how are we to know this is true?  You can't find out if it's true without passing through the dark stages, and furthermore you need a guide to help you through those.  It sounds to me almost as though neophytes are hooked with early blissful experiences, those fade, and they keep on trying and trying to get them back.  Soon they are worse off than when they started, but their teachers promise them it will get better, IF they stick around and follow the teacher.  And there is no way to tell if your teacher knows what they're doing.

Yep.  Recipe for a cult, and perhaps a psychological illness over the top of that.  It reminds me of health gurus who give you a tonic which is supposed to make you feel better, but it makes you feel worse.  Then they tell you, "Oh, that's just detoxing, keep taking it and you'll feel better eventually."  How long are you supposed to wait?  And how much do you trust the guru?

So, that's why I'm scared of meditation and not at all interested in "enlightenment," whether a Buddhist understanding of it or some secularized version.  I'd rather just be good old unenlightened me.

Which is why 10% Happier was a very good choice for my next read.  Dan Harris tells his life story, all about how stressed and anxious he was, how he went through depression and PTSD, but lacked self-awareness to the point that he was unaware of even being ill.  Meditation definitely helped him, not to experience nirvana, but to become in his words just ten percent happier.  He learned to detach himself a bit from the emotions he was feeling by learning to observe them instead of just experiencing them and trying to smother them.  He learned to listen to his inner monologue and eventually shut it up a little bit.  From his perspective, meditation was just great.  It's just a way to teach himself to be more mindful and slow down.

He spends a lot of time addressing his initial fears of meditation -- that it would make him lose his edge, that he would stop caring about the things that were important to him, that he would be so "zen" he wouldn't succeed anymore at his competitive job (he is a television anchor).  And he found that for the most part it actually made him more successful, because he stopped reacting without thinking and started to reflect more.  What pitfalls there were, he managed to fix by striving for balance.

His book made me actually think of trying it.  A little.  I mean, science has found it builds gray matter in the brain, lightens depression, decreases impulsivity, all sorts of great things! 

On the other hand, Harris's description of himself post-meditation is roughly how I am now.  I am very mindful, in general, of my environment, my emotions, and my inner voice.  When something bad happens to me, I already remind myself that I will eventually feel better, that I shouldn't make it worse by worrying about the future, that I can make it better or worse by the way I describe the situation to myself.  I thought that was basic.  Are there many people walking around these days as completely oblivious to their inner life as the pre-meditation Dan Harris?

So I'm not really sure what meditation would do for me anyway.  I guess what appeals to me is the thought of having some time in my life that was extra peaceful and quiet.  And heck, wouldn't it be nice if I too could be ten percent happier?  Life's pretty good, but I think we'd all like to be slightly happier.

Both authors give the same description of how to meditate.  You sit someplace, close your eyes, and pay attention to your breathing.  Thoughts pop into your head, like they always do, and you notice them but bring your attention back to your breathing.  The same goes for sensory stimuli, sounds or whatever.  You just notice them but put your attention back on your breathing.

That's all.  Pretty simple.  None of the stuff I have heard of as being "bad" -- trying to empty your mind entirely, or saying mantras over and over.  You can do five minutes a day and it's supposed to be a really healthy thing for your brain.  They're getting military recruits to do it now, to help them be less impulsive, teaching it to businesspeople to improve their focus, even training kids to meditate.

I'm not entirely sold.  I mean, what if it really is just the first hit of a drug that turns out to be really dangerous?  Most people don't have the discipline to do it a lot, so they'll be fine, but what if once in awhile someone tries to go hardcore and damages their brain?  Can that happen?  How can we be sure it won't?

If this sounds like paranoia, yes it is.  I am conscious of my mental state right now and labeling it "paranoia."  I am paranoid of religion, clubs, therapy, and meditation, so sue me.

But I have started doing one simple thing that I think is helpful and hopefully is harmless.  When I am stressed and anxious, I try to spend maybe thirty seconds or a minute being mindful.  Not meditating, exactly, because I keep my eyes open and I don't try all that hard to focus.  I just try to stop thinking about the past or future and just enjoy the moment I'm in.  I realized some time ago, when I was in the middle of some crisis, that all of my sadness was coming from either things that had happened before, or that I was afraid of happening in the future.  Right now, I realized, nothing bad was actually happening.  I could take a break from being unhappy and just enjoy the beautiful day that was going on.  It wasn't hiding my head in the sand, because I knew I'd be taking my troubles back up in a minute, but just taking a moment to be happy (at least a little bit happy) because the present itself did not actually stink.

And when I think of my life now, how much of my time I spend worrying about what I need to get done, whether I'm ruining my kids, how much I'd love an hour for something I plan to accomplish, complaining about things I can't change .... it's a perfect scenario for trying to turn down the volume of that mental chatter and be more present in the present.  Right now, the kids are playing nicely; right now, I am sitting comfortably; right now, it's a beautiful day in the spring.  I would hate to let this go by, not noticing it because I am waiting for summer or wishing for the weekend or wondering what I can serve for dinner, and then tomorrow think, "Today is terrible, I wish it were yesterday again!"

So, mindfulness, YES.  Meditation .... still no.

Do you meditate?


Heather said...

Yes, I meditate, but not religiously or obsessively. It's a mindfulness technique, not tied to religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any religion, really. Like you said, sometimes you just need quite space and to pause and reflect or pause and focus on the present. There's nothing religious to it, just as there's nothing particularly religious about secular yoga-as-fitness. Sure, it originated as a practice within a religious practice, but it can and does indeed exist separate from religion and seeking of enlightenment. And yes, I do believe that there are loads of people out there for whom basic mindfulness and self-awareness are not a basic norm. Minds are cluttered with societal and earthly crap and people don't take care of themselves, whether out of obliviousness or an aversion to anything holistic/Eastern/yuppie/what-have-you.

I first began meditation as part of my yoga practice in yoga club in college. It helped me feel calmer and was a way to step out of the excessive stimuli and focus on my own body, hear my own heartbeat, and center myself in relation to the world around me. It still is today, although I don't feel a need to use it as regularly as I did then. But more meditation -- that is, more effort to take a deep breath and stop and take a step back from the everyday -- is not going to kill us, imour and scientifically speaking.

Enlightenment is not an ideal for most people who meditate, from my observation, in the u.s., anyway. Mindfulness and self-awareness is... kind of like how transcendentalism was for Emerson and Thoreau.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm not big on meditation myself, though I would like to practice mental prayer more. I wouldn't have commented on this if I hadn't reread some of the chapters on mental prayer in St. Francis de Sales's Introduction to the Devout Life. This time around, I was really struck by his point that Christian meditation has two ends: a) greater affection for God, and b) an increase in the practice of virtue. If you meditate but aren't getting those two results, then something is off.

Compared to that, meditation to be more mindful strikes me as the equivalent of working out to be fit and healthy. Both are good ends, of course, and I would do well to work toward both myself . . . but mental prayer is more like working out so that you are in top form for the zombie apocalypse. Or for the Olympics. Or for whatever higher purpose you'd like to insert here.

Unknown said...

Great article. I tried meditating on the mysteries and found that the more I did it the more skeptical I became. It actually set me on a path to my atheism. Try to meditate on the Assumption without thinking it is a made up story.

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