TLDR : Meditation is a tool to observe the mind
“If you wish to understand your mind, sit down and observe it” - Joseph Goldstein
I consider learning the skill of meditation to be the most important thing I’ve ever learnt in my life. By far.
It is hard to discuss, because it is experiential. Not a belief system, but a methodology for exploring your internal state.
When people ask me about meditation, they tend to have a preconcieved notion of what it is. That it involves some supernatural or irrational belief structure. That is involves growing out your hair, crossing your legs and ‘accessing your 9th Chakra’. “What do you even do. Are you sitting there just not thinking? “. Are you chanting Om in an attempt to gain some sort of ‘enlightenment’. Worst one was a Christian girl who said, ‘Uh, I don’t want to join a cult”.
This isn’t helped by the new surge in the ‘self help meditation’ movement. The word has lost its meaning. Being used by the next guru to influence others, or sell copies of their book. ’To think positive thoughts’.
It is a 1st person science
First of all. I just want to say, I am through and through, a scientist. I am one of the biggest skeptics of dogma and any claims that are unsupported. I caused a lot of trouble in my philosophy and ethics class, questioning from first principles. You can dismantle most dogma by asking ‘why’. My inherent disposition is one of doubt
And in my initial dive into Buddhist/Eastern philosophy, the first sentence I read was :
“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation.” - Buddha
That piqued my interest. And down the rabbit hole I went.
Meditation is a practice
The first thing is : meditation is a practice. It is like lifting weights or exercising in the gym. There is no authority. It is a simple set of exercises you do with your mind. It is radically scientific. Based on an epistemological stance of questioning entirely from first principles. Obviously there is religious muddying, where a lot of Eastern ‘Buddhists’ don’t even meditate. There are always attempts to institutionalise and solidify power.
But the practice itself is independent of any dogma. You don’t need to be a Buddhist or a Christian or a Hindu. Meditation is not ‘Buddhist’ insofar as the Laws of physics are not ‘Christian’ (even though discovered by Christians) or Algebra is not Islamic (even thought discovered by Muslims).
It is a set of mental exercises that produce lasting changes in the brain.
One of the initial instructions is so basic, that is is laughable. “ Just sit and pay attention to your own breath”
So you sit down and you try to pay attention. Ok. Its going well. 5 seconds in. Wow, I am really doing it. This is great, I wonder what Jess would think of this, I think she would flip out. I don’t really like her to be honest, I wonder if she likes me. What did I have for lunch today. Salmon. Salman Rushdie is such a great author…
And you are lost. Without training, this is how one spends their entire life. Without even realising it.
I remember I couldn’t even focus on the breath for 2 seconds. The worst part was realising that I had thought I was paying attention to my thoughts, that I ‘understood’ myself, and absolutely destroying that belief. I really did not understand my mind in the slightest.
You are trapped in a spell. This is the normal mind before any training in meditation. You don’t realise it, but for your whole life you have been lost in thought, without knowing necessarily that you are thinking.
The problem is most of our ‘default patterns of thought’ skew in a negative light. Wandering minds are unhappy minds- as a famous Neuroscience paper put it. Being scattered is not a pleasant feeling. Being focused is pleasant.
There are states of conscious experience that are available that are radically free of suffering. Full of intense joy, equanimity and free of aversion.
If you can’t focus on your breath for 5 seconds, how can you focus on something infinitely more complex, such as grief or sadness or boredom? There is something to discover here.
There are states you can get into that are radically different from normal perception.
Types of Meditation
Meditation is an incredibly broad term. It is like saying ‘Exercise’. It can encompass Gymnastics training to Olympic weightlifting to simply walking in the park.
There are many different techniques. However one that has gained some degree of popularity is the 2500 year old ‘Mindfulness’ meditation in the Buddhist Theravadan tradition. : Vipassana-Samatha meditation. But there are many more : in the Zen (soto) tradition. Tibetan Dgzochen practice. They all ultimately target the same root.
Mindfulness is a quality of mind that allows you to pay attention to whatever arises without being lost in the thought. It is a radically different way of relating to experience.
Instead of being lost in thought about an event, you can relate to it differently. Suppose you replay an embarrassing moment. That triggers feelings of guilt/sadness or the whole panoply of emotions available. That story then leads to another story ‘I am boring, or I am stupid’. Any sort of belief structure. That habit or pattern of thought repeated, cements itself. People can literally be angry for hours or days. People can stay angry and resentful for years against someone who has wronged them, even when it is not useful.
You are lost in a story that you are overlaying onto sensation.
What this training does, at a basic level, is it grants mental autonomy to ‘drop’ the pattern immediately. To see the thought, to observe the mind, without being lost in the stories. To see sadness or grief or joy for what it is. As sensations in the body. Or internal dialogue or imagery.
“You can drop whatever pattern you are lost in”. Instantly.
An analogy I like is this. Suppose you are waiting at the train station. A thought arises. This is like the train pulling up at the station. The default response that 99.9% of humanity experiences is that they get on the train, and are whisked away by the thought. Taken in all sorts of directions, onto new trains”. All at the mercy of the next arising thought in consciousness.
There is another option.
What this training does is. : allows you to see the train coming. And then choose not to get on.
Not always. It is difficult. But suddenly having that mental autonomy, you have a radically different way of relating to experience. One with much less misery and suffering. And much more peace and contentment.
The brains of meditators are objectively different
There is objective scientific evidence that there are structural changes in the brain of long term meditators. For example : Studies looking at monks with lifetime hours of 40,000+ show that there are changes in the pattern of brain waves with more alpha waves present.
The activity in a set of structures called the ‘Default mode network’ is different. The DFMN is responsible for discursive thought that arises when you are ‘doing nothing’. It is the backdrop of your conscious experience. The DFMN is quieter in long term meditators. It doesn’t light up as much as in non-meditators
I don’t intend to make this blog post a deep dive into the literature. But there is an excellent book called ‘The Science of Meditation’ that explores some of the studies done.
Internally direct attention
Basic training involves the ability to direct attention to some level. It gives you the tool to explore your internal world. How do thoughts arise? What is a thought? Where is it?
Through this exploration, you can come to realise the causes of ‘misery, unsatisfactoriness, discontent’. Whatever you want to call it.
At the root level, what this training allows one to do, is to experience real contentment. Not waiting for any external factor to change. But to experience contentment independent of any conditions.
As a default state, humans have evolved to be ‘discontented’. We want better things. We want to push away negative experience. We want to cling to positive experience. Evolutionarily this makes sense.
But both negative and positive experience are fleeting. Any negative experience will fade. Any positive experience will fade. Experience is ephemeral. Here one moment and gone the next. Any attempt to cling or hold on, is painful.
We go through life constantly chasing desires and pushing away negative experiences. This creates a level of ‘misery’, unsatisfactoriness, suffering. Use whatever terminology. But there is an angst. You can experience this by going on a retreat paradoxically. Just try and sit with your untrained mind for 30 minutes. Literally doing nothing. It won’t be pleasant I can promise.
Part of what this training does, is to allow you to understand desire and aversion. And then choose a middle way.
It’s like everyone is on a beach. When the tide comes in, they are running away. When the tide subsides, they are running towards it. Perpetually lost in a cycle of pushing, and pulling at experience. Wanting and not wanting.
But there is a middle way. To simply lie down on the sand and let the tide wash over you, finding joy in the experience.
Deeper Realisations : Illusory nature of the self, Impermanence, Suffering
I think the core of what these traditions point towards is the selfless nature of experience. More accurately, the self as we think of it, is not what it seems.
If you’ve had any training in neuroscience. This is obvious to you, at least from an intellectual standpoint. We are hallucinating our reality. The brain is a virtual reality headset constructing reality using data from our sense organs. And with that, there really no ‘unchanging self’.
There is no soul. No unchanging self. No constant unchanging entity you call ‘You’. There is a constant flux of change. Your cells are constantly dividing. There is no ‘place in the brain’ that houses the self. The brain can instead be seen as a boardroom with various subminds vying for conscious experience. You are literally not the same person as you were once you finish reading this sentence.
Furthermore from physics, we know that we are not ‘independent’. We are deeply interconnected. Where is the ‘self’ in the collection of atoms that compose you. Are you your body? Are you the brain? ‘You’ really are nowhere to be found.
But of course, you feel like a self at the moment. There is a narrative structure to your experience. You went to school in Bedford. You like Greek style yogurt. You look like ‘this’. But if you look closely, can see a narrative arising and passing away. You can dissolve the feeling that ‘you are behind your head’.
We actually lose our sense of self a lot I think. Imagine those moments in life, where you were truly immersed in the experience. Probably some of the most joyous experiences in your life. There was no projection of self referential thought. ‘You’ forgot you existed. There was just total immersion.
The fact is, you can see this inherent lack of self, lack of centre, as easily as you can see your blindspot. It’s not a matter of ‘progressing’ or ‘becoming a better meditator’. There is no ‘enlightenment’ where all your psychological problems dissolve and you permanently become a superior being. That is nonsense.
But you can see the inherent lack of self. And in that, there is a tremendous unity. It’s hard to describe. People can experience this when they take psychedelics. It’s like, there is really no centre to experience. There is just the arising and passing away of phenomena. And where you are, there is just the universe. An intense feeling of interconnectedness.
Please don’t take this as the truth. But as an avenue to explore yourself. Some Zen teachers famously were quite ‘violent’ in their objection to theorising, encouraging instead to simply sit and explore.
It is a hypothesis you can test. There are a set of techniques that allow you to explore your internal experience, and see this for yourself. It is not mystical, it is not magical. But it is strange and profound.
Ultimately, it is about understanding your mind.
This is what I think ‘Spirituality’ is. Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher - articulates this well in his essay : ‘Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty’.
Science is an exploration of the external world coming coming from a place of questioning. The telescope is an instrument we can use to discern this external reality.
Spirituality is an exploration of the internal subjective world coming from a place of questioning. Meditation is a tool we can use to greater discern this internal reality. It sharpens the faculty of attention.
There is much more to be said on this topic.