On Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate

Interesting thoughts about meditation here:

Meditation, by contrast, is more palliative than instrumental, especially in its modern secular applications. It’s meant to soothe mental dis-ease, not to unlock accomplishment previously unobtainable to our species.

Source: On Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

It clearly bears more thinking about, but my almost automatic response is to point out that the earliest traditions of meditation that we know about were not the “palliative” mindfulness meditation currently being taught to a mass audience, but the meditative practices of shamans and such, whose purpose was to induce altered states of consciousness along the lines of those produced by psychedelic chemicals.

Those practices were precisely to unlock capabilities otherwise unavailable.

How meditation is like weight lifting

On a recent podcast, Tim Ferriss and Peter Attia drew a parallel between weight lifting and meditation that really resonated for me.

Some people really like weight lifting. They enjoy the ambiance of the gym. They like doing the reps. They like “feeling the burn” as they finish a good set. They like the way their muscles feel trashed at the end.

Other people hate all those things, and loath every minute that they spend in the gym—but they lift weights anyway for the benefits that result: stronger muscles, stronger tendons, stronger bones, healthier joints, improved insulin sensitivity, increased neurogenesis and brain plasticity.

In much the same way, some people really like meditation. They enjoy the sitting (or standing, or moving). They enjoy the centeredness. They like bringing their attention to their breath (or their mantra or their mandala). They like the focus. They like the stillness. They like the peace.

Other people hate meditation. They find it boring. They find it uncomfortable. They find no stillness or peace. Their attention constantly wanders. Their efforts feel like repeated failure.

While everybody knows that you go to the gym and lift weights to get stronger—not to prove that you’re already strong—many people fail to understand that the same is true of meditation. You don’t meditate to prove that you have great focus. You meditate to get better at noticing when you’re thinking and better at letting your thoughts go.

The point of a meditative practice is not to have a 20-minute session that feels like a success. When you are sitting and you notice that you are thinking, and you let that thought go, and return your attention to your breath—that’s a rep. That’s what you’re practicing. If you do it twenty times in a five-minute meditation session. . . . Well, that’s twenty reps. That’s an extremely successful session of meditative practice.

My point here is that doing the work of practicing meditating is worth doing, even if the meditation sessions themselves feel like one failure after another. Just like the point of lifting weights is to be stronger in the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not lifting, the point of a meditation practice is to be better at paying attention the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not meditating.

Teaching meditation as a bad meditator

Because it’s part of the taiji practice that I learned from my taiji instructor, I teach meditation as one aspect of my beginner taiji class. (I also include meditation as one aspect of the class for continuing students as well, but they know how to meditate so I don’t need to try to teach it.)

I worry that I don’t do it well, because I think of myself as a bad meditator. I’m easily distracted. Too often I spend half my time thinking about what I’ll do after I’m done meditating, and half my time thinking about stuff that happened in the past and how it went well or poorly.

But I do, now, actually meditate, however badly. That wasn’t always true. I came to meditation slowly. For a long time after starting to practice taiji I just went through the motions. I would sit while we were sitting and stand while we were standing, but not really even try to meditate. And, quite predictably, I saw few of the mental and emotional benefits of meditating.

I did, though, see some of the physical benefits—also predictably, because the physical part of sitting or standing was the part I was actually doing. I wrote about this a few years ago in a post called Physical benefits of standing meditation.

And it was then—when I saw the physical benefits of meditation—that it occurred to me that it might be useful to actually try to meditate and see if maybe the other benefits might accrue to such a practice. And they have, if only perhaps in a small way, because I’m a bad meditator.

In any case, I thought I’d go ahead and write down what I say to my meditation students, in the hope that it might be useful to others. It’s usually something like this:

To my mind, meditation is about paying attention. There are many meditation traditions which suggest different things that you might pay attention to: a repeated word or phrase such as a mantra or a prayer, or an object such as a crystal, or an image such as mandala, or your posture, or your breath.

What you choose to pay attention to is not important. What is important is simply that you’re paying attention.

In this room where we practice there are things that may distract you. The refrigerator or freezer may turn on and make noise. The people who work out front may come into the room to get their lunch. The lawnmower may go past outside the window. These things are not distractions from your meditation. Rather, they are things that are actually happening at that moment. If they capture your attention, that’s just fine. That’s what meditation is: Paying attention to what is actually happening in that moment.

What would not be fine would be to become attached to those things beyond the moment.

It would not be meditating to worry that the fridge might turn on. It would not be meditating to become annoyed at someone coming into the room to get their lunch. It would not be meditating to think that the lawn mower is going by because today is Wednesday and Wednesday is the day they mow the lawn.

Still, these things will happen. Things that capture your attention will continue to hold it beyond the moment when they are actually happening. Other thoughts will inevitably intrude. These things happen to everybody, even people who are very good at meditating.

What makes someone good at meditating is not that these things don’t happen—although they may happen less as you get better at it. What makes someone good at meditating is getting better at noticing when it has happened, and better at letting go of those thoughts and returning your attention to what is actually happening right now, right where you are.

I like this way of teaching meditation. I think it is authentic—I claim no expertise whatsoever, which is good because I’m not very good at meditation. But I think what I say is true. I think it’s what meditation is about at its deepest level.

Who has time for all that?

I gave up multitasking a long time ago. I realized that I’m not good at it, and started paying attention so that I could notice when I was doing it and stop.

As an aside, I should mention that there’s now quite a bit of research to show that nobody is good at multitasking, and that the people who think they’re good at it are even worse than the people who know they’re not.

Even though I’m more efficient doing one thing with complete focus and then going on to the next thing, that practice alone doesn’t solve the underlying problem that tempts people into multitasking: How else can I get everything done?

Half of the answer to that is the drearily obvious, “You can’t. What you can do is get a whole lot done, if you quit frittering away your time on trivial, pointless stuff, and apply your time doing the most important stuff.”

I know some people who are pretty good at that, and they are routinely way more productive than me or most other people.

But there’s more to it than that. Katy Bowman has been talking about one useful practice, suggesting that you “stack your life” by accomplishing multiple goals at once—something that sounds suspiciously like multitasking, but really isn’t.

I’ve actually been thinking about this quite a bit, wanting to articulate the difference for my own sake if no one else’s. My take on it, is that it has to do with what the limiting resource is for each activity.

There are a lot of limiting resources. Your hands are one—they can really only do one thing at a time (although my mom used to read, fan herself, and drink lemonade all at the same time, and felt like she was being very efficient). Location is another—something that can only be done in the kitchen can’t be stacked with an activity that can only be done in the garage or the gym or the grocery store. Other people are another—something that requires the presence of another person can’t be done without him or her. (Though it’s not that simple, as sometimes you can stack up the other people and get multiple things done with multiple people.)

In multitasking, the limiting resource is your attention, and what’s unique about attention is that many activities can be done with partial attention. That experience tempts us into thinking that attention is more divisible than it really is.

Washing dishes only takes partial attention, meaning that you can listen to the radio or a podcast and get full benefit out of both activities.

Driving is a more complex example. We know that driving sometimes requires your full attention. This is why talking on the phone is unsafe to do while driving—talking on the phone requires enough of your attention that doing so reduces your competence at driving as much as getting drunk does. (Talking to someone in the car with you is much less unsafe, because that person can see when the road conditions are such that you need your full attention and shut up. Just listening to something—the radio or a podcast—does not seem to cause the same problem, probably for reasons having to do with deep structures in the brain that prioritize social interactions.)

Even though there are plenty of activities that can be done with partial attention, most important activities require full attention to be done well.

Writing a blog post can be done with partial attention, but when I try to do it while simultaneously listening to a podcast, checking my twitter and facebook feeds, chatting with a friend on-line and another in-person, and answering the occasional email message, I don’t do it as well.

As I’ve worked to apply this lesson—noticing when I’m multitasking and then refocusing on the main thing I’m doing—I’ve learned something else: Many activities that don’t require full attention turn out better when I give it to them anyway.

Beyond that, I feel better when I give my full attention to whatever I’m doing.

It was the meditation practice that I adopted as part of my taiji practice that taught me this. First, it taught me the skill of paying attention, then it taught me that paying attention to what I was doing right now paid dividends, even when all I was doing was sitting or standing.

I’ve noticed it particularly with exercise. I used to distract myself from exercise with music or podcasts or games like Zombies, Run!, because I found exercise to be unpleasant drudgery that I only engaged in to the extent necessary to build and maintain a basic level of fitness. I don’t do that any more. It’s much better when I fully embody my exercise: I enjoy it more, I’m less prone to injury, and the exercise is more effective.

The more I do this—give my full attention to whatever it is I’m doing, whether it seems worthy of full attention or not—the more I find it worthwhile.

Downside: I’m falling behind on my podcast listening, because there are so few things were I feel like partial attention is all they deserve. Maybe I’ll find more, but at the moment I’m just about down to riding on the bus.

So, yes: Stack your life. If you can do one thing with your brain, one thing with your hands, and one thing with your feet all at the same time, go for it. But think twice before dividing your attention. If something is worth doing, it may well be worth your full attention, no matter how hard that makes it to get everything done.

Prairie Spiderweb

Bad meditator

I’m a bad meditator. While writing this piece, I was briefly tempted to claim to be the world’s worst meditator, but I’m sure that’s not actually true. At least, it’s not true if you include the people who don’t meditate at all—they’re worse than me. Even among the people who have a regular meditation practice there are certainly people who are worse at it than I am. Well, almost certainly. But probably not very many. I’m really a very bad meditator.

For one thing, I haven’t taken my meditation practice seriously. For a long time, I just went through the motions, not even really trying to meditate. In my taiji class, the teacher included a period for meditation, so I “meditated.”

Even just going through the motions of meditating, I quickly found some physical benefits to standing meditation, but the more subtle benefits—the insights into my mind that meditation is supposed to provide—eluded me. This was not a surprise; I did not expect much benefit from a practice that was as slipshod as my own.

(As an aside, I should mention that there are also physical benefits to sitting meditation. They were not as obvious to me, mostly because of my own foolishness in viewing standing meditation as a successor to sitting meditation, rather than a complementary practice. This kept me from giving my sitting even the rather feeble effort I gave my standing. Even so, I eventually perceived the physical benefits of sitting meditation as well.)

Only after three or four years did I begin to find the other benefits of a meditation practice. In particular, I felt like I began to acquire insights into the mechanisms of attention. (At around that same time, I read an article about Steve Jobs that talked about his meditation practice, saying that, “Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.”)

One thing that made a difference for me was attending a free meditation workshop by Mary Wolters, a local yoga instructor. Her guided meditation sessions were excellent—sitting rather than standing, 30 minutes rather than the usually 10 minutes or less that we did in taiji class, and (probably most important) separated from the effort of (both learning and doing) taiji—I found that I actually was meditating.

Having begun to perceive the benefits of meditation, I find myself wanting to do it more, but have not yet found a way to add it to my daily routine, except as part of my taiji practice, which is good, but not enough. (And I hesitate to spend more class time on meditation, on the theory that the class should take advantage of there being a taiji instructor present to focus on the movements, whereas we could all meditate successfully on our own.)

Still, even if I haven’t added time to my meditation practice beyond what I do in taiji, I have at least added meditation to my meditation practice. It’s a start.

Running meditation

I have a pair of problems, that I’m hoping to turn into solutions for one another.

The first is that I hate running on treadmills. I’ve tried all manner of things to distract myself from the fact that I’m running on a treadmill—music, audiobooks, podcasts, TV. Any of these can work, but none of them has worked reliably.

The other is that I’ve found it hard to expand my meditation practice from the modest group practice that happens in tai chi.

A while ago, it occurred to me that these might be solutions for one another: Perhaps, instead of trying to distract myself from my treadmill running, I could pay attention to my treadmill running.

There are a lot of different ideas about what meditation actually is, but my current take on it is that meditation is paying attention to what’s actually happening. Many forms of meditation suggest a finer focus—paying attention to your breathing or to a repeated mantra or to an ordered relaxation of body parts—but I view all these as tools for helping you pay attention to what’s actually happening (rather than thinking or planning or worrying or all the other things that are not meditation).

Today was my first attempt at this, and it went okay. I just ran for 10 minutes, which is not much of a test—I’ve always been able to tolerate 10 minutes on the treadmill; it was just when I tried to push beyond 20 or so that I found it intolerable. But 10 minutes is about as long as I ever meditate, so I thought I’d start there and expand gradually. Also, this was my first run since I hurt my ankle back in late September, so I didn’t want to run further until I verified that my ankle could handle a short run without hurting the next day.

If I can work up to 20 minutes or so, and feel like the time counts as both running and meditation, I’ll be very pleased. If I can do it three times a week (or nearly), I’ll both maintain an adequate fitness base to get back to running quickly in the spring and substantially expand my meditation practice.

Oh, and a side benefit: my attempts to run on the treadmill without paying attention have always seemed a little dangerous. I’ve known several people who’ve had treadmill accidents resulting in broken collarbones and broken teeth. Paying attention felt a lot safer.

Physical benefits of standing meditation

Standing meditation is just like sitting meditation, except you do it standing up. (It almost seems topical right now, when so many people are talking about working at standing desks, which is similarly just like working at a regular desk, except standing up.)

I’ve been doing at least a little meditation pretty regularly for three years now, as my taiji instructor spends some time in each class meditating. I have yet to perceive any of the mental benefits that are supposed to flow from meditating. Perhaps I’m just doing it wrong.

The physical benefits, on the other hand, have been remarkable.

Before I started doing standing meditation, I’d gotten a little wary of excessive standing. I’d struggled a bit with plantar fasciitis, and had eventually come up with a multi-pronged approach that included a pair of slip-on birkenstocks that I used as slippers, supportive shoes in general, and limiting the amount of time I spent standing. Together, those tactics had served to keep the plantar fasciitis at bay, without quite curing it.

In the past three years, since I started doing taiji, something has completely cured the plantar fasciitis. Maybe it was the taiji, rather than the standing. Maybe it was the running, walking, and other exercise I’ve gotten. I’ve lost some weight, and that’s bound to have helped. But I’m inclined to credit the standing with a good bit of it.

I think this is true, even though I think I was also right to be careful about excessive standing, because standing meditation is not just standing. Standing meditation is standing with focus. Our instructor emphasizes that we’re not thinking about anything in particular, nor are we doing anything in particular (except standing), but we’re ready. We’re actively ready for whatever happens.

Standing with this sort of intention is very different from standing while doing something else. While we’re standing, we making an explicit effort to identify and relax any muscles that we’re using beyond the minimum set needed to keep us upright. I doubt if a cashier who has to stand for an eight-hour shift would get similar benefits.

Maybe I’ll eventually get some of the other supposed benefits of meditation. In the meantime, I’m happy to settle for just this one.