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I write a lot about meditation. I don’t have a problem with doing that, but people have very different ideas about what the word “meditation” means.
For me, it’s of little interest to be seen as some kind of definitive authority on meditation — I’ve done a lot of it and I’m no slouch, but I don’t really care if you feel my opinions about the practice are valid or not. Place no head above your own, as the Buddha supposedly said.
However, I’d like people who read my writing (are there enough of you to use “people”, plural?) to know what I talk about when I talk about meditating. So here it is.
What it is and What it Isn’t
To start, meditation is no more a religious activity than song or dance are religious activities. You can certainly use it in a religious context, but it’s neither necessarily religious nor a necessary part of any religion. Meditation is an activity like any other — if you want an analogy, it’s like a mental workout.
Furthermore— and this is backed up by a lot of science, which you can easily find on Google — doing a lot of meditation fundamentally changes your brain function. This sounds outrageous to some, but the same things happen to your muscles and metabolism if you work out a lot. Change the way you use your body and it changes along with you.
This ain’t molecular biology, people… or maybe it is. Whatever.
There are many kinds of meditation. There is no definitive, one type — no one meditation to rule them all, whatever the Zen guys or your local crackpot guru might tell you. There are, however, two very common and dominant types of meditation.
One type is concentration, where you focus on a particular thing — a mantra, a thought, a feeling or an object. If you see someone fingering prayer beads or humming to themselves, or staring very intently at one particular thing, they’re probably doing this form of meditation. Either that or they’re having a psychotic break. Whichever.
The other common type is Vipassana, awareness or, more commonly, mindfulness. This type of meditation works by paying active, persistent attention to what is going on without prioritizing some things — for example, your thoughts — over others — for example, that annoying itch on your nose.
I practice both these types daily. There are certainly more esoteric kinds of meditation — many of which I’ve tried — but these are the most common, broad categories that almost any meditation fits into.
What It’s For
So this is where we get to the interesting bit. Why bother? What’s the point?
Well, in simple terms, meditation makes you better at paying attention. People who market mindfulness tend to tell you that it makes you happier, more fulfilled, more compassionate, less stressed and so on. This is certainly true, but it’s a correlation error. For 99% of people, paying better attention leads to all of those things, but this is a side-effect.
For example, I spent my teenage meditating sometimes as much as 4 hours a day. I was still neurotic as all hell, because I had a lot of unresolved issues that I didn’t learn to tackle through meditation — mostly because they were too big to tackle with meditation alone. In fact, my psychologist didn’t help much either — and he was good.
But I digress.
The point is, when you meditate, you’re doing it to pay better attention. You may have spiritual aspirations; you may do it to stress out less; you may think it will make you a better person (it might, it might not). But ultimately, you’re learning to pay better attention.
This is what meditation does, underneath all the fluff.
Modalities of Awareness
Sorry. I just like the word “modalities” a lot.
I said earlier that there are two broad types of meditation. That’s because, broadly speaking, there are two types of awareness you train with meditation. You can train your concentration or your general awareness.
My wife is a master of concentration. She is so good at concentrating, she sometimes doesn’t realize I’m talking to her even as I’m standing right next to her. Needless to say, I’m not always happy about her particular superpower — but if she gets it into her head that she’s going to do something, she never fails to carry through.
Learning to concentrate tends to make you more effective, proficient and (surprise!) focused. A lot of people get better at this without meditation, just from repeatedly practicing some kind of skill. This is where you get into things like flow states — if you get good enough at something, it profoundly changes your awareness when you’re engaged with that activity.
Meditating for concentration is applying this flow-type awareness to everything you do. It doesn’t necessarily boost your skills, but it does make it easier to acquire new ones. It’s a lot easier to learn something if you can dedicate as much of your awareness as possible to that one thing.
I generally don’t concentrate as well as my wife does, despite years of practice. On the other hand, it’s very rare that I miss something. I’ve trained my general awareness to the point where it takes a lot — and I do mean a lot — for me to lose track of what’s going on around me and inside me.
Learning to pay better attention tends to make you generally happier and more aware (both inwardly and outwardly). It also has appreciable benefits for your emotional self-control.
When our daughter was born, the nurses at the hospital spent the next few days asking my wife if I was on medication, a cyborg, or what the hell anyway, because I’d been perfectly calm while she was giving birth, even though I was with her in the room for most of it.
No, I wasn’t on drugs. I was just paying very careful attention to everything going on — every single sensory impression and every single thing my wife did or said. If I’d sat there dwelling on my own thoughts, I’d probably have gone insane from the pressure of unknowable possibilities and potential worst case scenarios. “What if this, what if that?”
Whatever, I say.
If I hadn’t meditated for years beforehand, I doubt I’d have handled that situation particularly well. I’d probably spend it curled up in a foster position, rambling about spontaneous abortions and other 0.01% possibilities. Instead, I managed to at least act as moral support.
The stuff I’ve listed above applies if you’re doing a bit of meditation. By “a bit”, I mean like an hour a day for 5 years or so, and on and off for 3 years besides that. If you meditate a really ridiculously long time, some other things may occur.
Meditation, much like psychoactive drugs, can induce all kinds of altered states. But just as with drugs, these states are mostly bullshit. They’re a figment of your neural activity. And like all things, they fade.
What you may experience, however, is the complete cessation of conscious thought. I’ve experienced this state for up to a few hours after meditation. Others claim to have it as an ongoing thing.
If it’s an ongoing thing, this is called enlightenment or awakening. You know, that thing the Buddhists keep rambling about? If you drop the fan fiction, religious dogma etc., enlightenment can be boiled down to not thinking or imagining things constantly.
Maybe that’s not your goal, but it’s there. Apart from that, there’s really nothing special to the whole meditation thing. It makes you better at paying attention, that’s all.
Heck, when you think about it, what’s so special about not thinking? Even a baby can do it…
There’s an app for that
And if you need a little help, try using this meditation app.