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Aug 15 2013

Secular Meditation: What’s the Point?

As I’ve been pursuing this new meditation practice that I’ve been yammering on about, there’s a question that keeps coming up: Why, exactly, am I doing this? What’s the point?

I don’t mean “What’s the point?” as in “Why am I bothering with this?” I know why I’m bothering with this. I’m getting a whole lot out of this practice: it’s affecting my life in heaps of ways, most of them overwhelmingly positive.* But… well, that’s actually the question on my mind. I’m getting lots of different things out of this practice. Which of these are side benefits — and which of them are actually the central point?

This isn’t an academic question. The specific goals I’m trying to achieve with meditation are, to some extent, going to affect how exactly I pursue it. I’m already noticing subtle but non-trivial differences in different forms of meditation and how they affect me… and it’s occurring to me, as I work on creating a meditation routine that fits into my life, that what I want to get from meditation is going to affect how exactly I go about it.

So what are the reasons that I’m doing this practice… and which of these, if any, are the central reasons? (For me, of course. Your mileage will almost certainly vary; your motivations and priorities for doing this, if you are doing this or are considering it, will almost certainly be different from mine. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of being goal-oriented about a practice that’s fundamentally about acceptance and being in the moment. I’m looking at that… but I’m basically okay with it.)

sad_silhouetteAlleviation of depression, stress, and anxiety. This is the primary reason I started this practice in the first place. I was experiencing a serious depressive episode, triggered by seriously bad shit happening in my life, and I was looking for pretty much anything I could add to my mental health care repertoire. (Anything with some decent evidence showing that it’s effective, that is.)

And this is still a huge part of what I’m getting out of this practice. Both in the immediate sense, and in the longer term. If I’m having a depressive episode, meditation is one of the things — like exercise, or spending time outdoors — that reliably makes me feel at least somewhat better pretty much right away. And in the longer term, the practice does seem to be helping lift the depression: my episodes are coming less frequently, and are less severe, and are easier to pull out of, since I started the practice. (And yes, I realize that many other factors are contributing to this improvement, and I realize that I am a data point of one, subject to confirmation bias and the placebo effect. I wouldn’t be crediting this practice with these effects if there weren’t medical research backing it up.)

But I don’t think this is the central reason I’m doing this. I can see how it would be for a lot of people, that would be entirely reasonable — but I don’t think it is for me. I think that once this episode of depression is managed and is well behind me, I’m still going to want to meditate, and am still going to find value in it.

still waterThe ability to be still. This is a good one. Before I started mindfulness and meditation, I was totally one of those people who couldn’t be still for a minute, who wanted to constantly be doing some activity or having some sort of stimulation going into her brain, who surfed the phone and checked her email while waiting five minutes for her coffee at the cafe, who drummed her fingers and looked at Twitter and Facebook while her email was taking thirty seconds to load. Now… well, okay, I’m still one of those people, but I’m a whole lot less like that. And I’m getting less like that every week. I’m becoming much better able to just be still, to take those five minutes waiting for my coffee and spend them focusing on my breathing, or observing how my body feels and experiencing it, or even just looking around and noticing, really noticing, the people around me and the place I’m in. (It’s a bit paradoxical, I suppose, since “practicing mindfulness” is still, in some sense, an activity… but it’s a paradox I’m okay with.)

This is a big one. And it’s one of the ones that really feeds the others. Being able to be still makes it easier — heck, makes it possible — to connect with my body, to respond rather than react, to turn my focus where I want to. Actually, it makes it easier — heck, makes it possible — to meditate in the first place.

But I still think it’s a side effect. I don’t think this is the central reason I’m doing this.

hammockRelaxation. Yeah… not so much.

It’s interesting how many people assume that the point of meditation is to relax. Not so much. Sometimes meditation is relaxing… but sometimes, it’s really not. I’ve had meditation sessions that made me want to climb out of my skin. Not as often now that I’m more experienced with the practice, and am better able to sit with uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions and let them happen instead of twitching out of my skin to evade them. But still. Meditation is often relaxing for me… but sometimes it’s aggravating, or uncomfortable, or frustrating, or occasionally even upsetting.

The point of meditation and mindfulness isn’t to relax. The point is to be present with my thoughts and emotions and sensations… even if they’re uncomfortable, or anxious, or freaky, or frightening, or sad. In the long term, in my day-to-day life, this practice does seem to be making me more calm and peaceful. But if I want to do something that will reliably relax me, I’m much more likely to get a massage, or masturbate, or sit quietly and read a book.

So yeah. This definitely isn’t the central reason I’m doing this. It’s not even a peripheral reason. It’s a nice thing that happens sometimes.

peace-signPeace. Since starting this practice, I’ve become much more accepting of annoying things in my life that I can’t change. Small things, mostly — things like the bus being stuck in traffic, or the restaurant being out of the dessert I wanted — but I’m becoming better able to apply this to some bigger things as well. And frankly, the “little things” thing is not so little. The ability to get through the day without falling into a series of irritations and frustrations and mini-rages over small things that I can’t do anything about — the ability to go, “Yes, this is irritating and frustrating, but it’s out of my hands, so I’m just going to let it go,” and the ability to then actually let it go — that’s pretty awesome. (I’m working on a whole separate post about this, in fact: the whole “serenity to accept what I can’t change, courage to change what I can, wisdom to know the difference” aspect of this practice. It’s the “wisdom to know the difference” that tends to be the sticking point, of course. But I digress.)

So, yeah. Inner peace. Pretty cool. But still not the central reason for doing this.

Nervous_system_diagramConnection with my body, and improved body awareness. Many of the practices I’m doing are very body-focused. There’s the body scan (the practice I try to do every day if I can), in which I focus my attention and awareness on each part of my body in turn, fully experiencing the sensations in each part before moving on to the next. There’s the walking meditation, in which I walk slowly and deliberately, focusing my attention and awareness on each step I take, and how it feels in my feet and legs and the rest of my body. There’s the breath meditation, in which I focus my attention and awareness on my breath, as I breathe in and out. All of these have the effect of making me more intensely and intimately connected with my body: not living in my head quite so much, not feeling quite so much like data stored in a cloud system, off in the ether, accessible by my hardware but separate from it. And this has loads of benefits: from making it easier to take care of my health, to just feeling good in and of itself.

But no. Still a side effect. Still not the central reason for of all this.

wait-signResponding rather than reacting; having my experiences rather than them having me. This is a big one. This is a huge one. This is pretty darned close to the central reason I do this.

It’s also a little hard to describe. But I’ll take a crack at it.

There is a difference between consciously responding to things, and reflexively reacting to them. There is a difference between, on the one hand, having a thought or sensation or emotion, and noticing it, and making a conscious choice about what, if anything to do about it… and on the other hand, having a thought or sensation or emotion, and reacting to it impulsively, without thinking. There is a difference between being influenced by my thoughts and emotions and sensations… and being driven by them. I sometimes think of it as the difference between riding a rollercoaster, and being chained to it. The way I usually frame it is that I want to have my experiences, my thoughts and feelings and sensations… rather than being them, rather than them having me.

This isn’t an either/or thing. I do both of these, I always have, I probably always will. But since I’ve started meditating, the balance is sliding away from the latter, and towards the former. I won’t pretend that I’m anywhere with this other than tiny baby steps — but I can already see a difference.

And this is huge. This has enormous potential to change my life for the better. This is already changing my life for the better. This is making me better able to make good decisions; to take my time about making decisions; to patiently wait for information to come in before making decisions; to make decisions thoughtfully based on my actual values rather than making them reflexively based on my lizard-hindbrain fight-or-flight instincts. And it’s also just enabling me to feel a little more centered, to not feel like I’m constantly being whipped around, to feel like my life is mine and that it doesn’t belong to whatever circumstances happen to be popping up at the moment.

This is a big fucking deal.

But I still think this is a side effect. A big one, and one that’s very close indeed to what I’m seeing as the central point of meditation and mindfulness… but still a side effect.

camera lensSharpened focus. This is even closer to the central point. When I meditate, I often feel like I’m practicing a very specific mental skill: the skill of turning my attention and awareness away from the distracting chatter that my brain constantly churns out, and returning my focus to whatever I’m choosing to focus on. And when I say I’m “practicing” this skill, I mean it literally, in the sense that a musician or an athlete practices — doing it over and over and over and over and over again, and over, and over, and over and over and over… until I get better at it, until it becomes easier and more second nature. It feels almost like physical exercise: like I’m exercising the muscle in my brain that recognizes when I’ve gotten sucked into some memory or worry or plan or fantasy or perseveration, and notices it, and accepts it, and gently turns away from it to focus on something else. (And yes, I know I don’t have muscles in my brain. A more accurate description would probably be that I’m strengthening and reinforcing certain neural pathways.)

And this is huge. This ability to consciously decide what I’m going to pay attention to, the ability to let go of multi-tasking and just focus on doing one thing at a time… it’s huge. It has already improved my work productivity tremendously, my ability to focus on whatever piece I’m actually working on, and not get constantly distracted by shiny beads on the Internet. (Hey, I said “improved.” I didn’t say “perfected.”) And this increased ability to focus my attention and awareness where I choose to focus it… it’s absolutely essential to realizing the central thing that I’m getting out of this practice.

But it’s not the central thing.

I think the central thing that I’m ultimately getting from this mindfulness practice is this:

Mindfulness itself.

Mindfulness isn’t just a means to an end. Mindfulness is an end. Mindfulness, itself, is the point.

This is the only life I have. I want to be present in it. I want to experience it. I don’t want to be barely conscious through most of it. I don’t want to be sleepwalking through it like a zombie. And I don’t want to constantly be racing through it to the next bit. I don’t want to spend my entire life focused on my future, until I’m on my deathbed and look back and realize that I didn’t let myself have a present. I want to savor the experiences of my life, and really take them in. I want to taste the food I’m eating. I want to absorb the book I’m reading. I want to feel the sex I’m having. I want to stay present with people when I’m with them, and to really listen to them, without tuning out or rehearsing what I’m going to say next.

I want to be present in my life. That’s what mindfulness means. The reason for practicing mindfulness is so I can get better at being mindful. Mindfulness, itself, is the point.

And all these other effects of this practice are, for me, ultimately subsets of this one, or are in service of it. The ability to focus is a form of being mindful. The ability to respond rather than react, and to experience my thoughts and emotions rather than have them toss me around, is a form of being mindful. Being present with my body is a form of being mindful — and it makes it easier to be mindful in other ways. Being at peace makes it easier to be mindful. Being relaxed (when that happens) makes it easier to be mindful. Being still makes it easier to be mindful. Not being depressed sure as hell makes it easier to be mindful. In fact, in some ways, that “buried in a vat of cotton” feeling of depression, the feeling of being disconnected from my life and my feelings, the inability to experience pleasure, the inability to make the connection between seeing something that I want or need to do and finding the will to do it… all of this is, almost by definition, an inability to be mindful, an inability to be present in my life and to experience it. These side effects aren’t trivial, far from it. But they’re side effects.

Now, on a day-to-day basis, I am going to tailor my practice, at least to some extent, to which side benefit I feel most in need of. If I’m feeling anhedonic and disconnected from my body, I’m going to do a body scan, or maybe a walking meditation. If I’m feeling jittery and jumpy and in need of calm, I’m going to do one of the “sitting still or lying down” practices: a body scan or a sitting meditation, as opposed to a walking meditation. If I’m feeling reactive, overwhelmed by my emotions and worries, I’m going to do the “focus on your thoughts” or “focus on your feelings” meditation, where I let myself have my thoughts or feelings, and notice them, and experience them, and let them pass. Again, these effects aren’t trivial: they have a great positive impact on my life, both in the larger scheme and in my day-to-day, minute-to-minute experience of it. And of course, many of these practices and effects feed into each other, and make each other easier and more effective.

But ultimately, for me, the point of practicing mindfulness isn’t to be less reactive, or to have more stillness and peace, or to be more connected with my body, or to bring a more laser-like focus to my writing, or even to be less depressed and anxious and stressed. The point of practicing mindfulness is so I can get better at being mindful. Mindfulness, itself, is the point.

*There have, in fact, been a few interesting and unexpected downsides to this practice… which I may write about at some point.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin

    Me, whenever I try the “body scan”, I get about halfway down and fall asleep. Though it’s always surprising to me at how much tension I carry. Just that practice — being consciously aware of each part of your body and deliberately releasing tension — is a great habit to be in if for no other reason.

  2. 2
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    On a slightly related note, you or your readers wouldn’t happen to have any suggestions for finding secular yoga instruction, would you?

  3. 3
    kevinalexander

    You must have had the experience of trying to make a long, complex and subtle argument in a group that falls apart because someone keeps interrupting.
    The little exigencies from moment to moment that distract us from completing our minds at this moment do something like this. That’s what meditation is for.
    Separate yourself from distractions, let the loops of thought come to rest.
    If you’re religious, you can call it praying.

  4. 4
    Greta Christina

    Me, whenever I try the “body scan”, I get about halfway down and fall asleep.

    Kevin @ #1: :-) I know what you mean. That’s exactly why I started doing body scans in the morning when I first get up, instead of at night before I go to sleep. And I have to actually get out of bed and fully wake up for a few minutes first. If my day is structures such that this isn’t possible, I do some other kind of meditation instead. Definitely a big reason why it’s so important to find a method that works for you and fits into your life. (It is nice to have a somewhat reliable way to get to sleep, though, isn’t it?)

    On a slightly related note, you or your readers wouldn’t happen to have any suggestions for finding secular yoga instruction, would you?

    Azkyroth @ #2: I wish I did. I’m currently looking for a secular meditation group here in the Bay Area myself. You might keep an eye on the Present Moment website: it’s a website/ podcast about secular mindfulness and meditation, and it’s eventually going to have a resource guide.

  5. 5
    grumpyoldfart

    I’m one of those people who just plods along doing what comes naturally.

    My only ‘meditation’ is that few minutes of thinking just before I go to sleep.

    Confront me with a new situation and I weigh up the options, make a decision, and hope for the best.

    So far it’s all gone pretty well.

  6. 6
    Suido

    I spent two years working at an unconventional school in Thailand, it was bilingual, project based learning and had a strong focus on therevada buddhism. Meditation and mindfulness were practiced daily at the school, and meditation retreats were held annually, and I took the opportunity to give it a real go. Stripping away the woo (they practice mindfulness in order to be in control of their thoughts at the moment of death, as this has a large influence on their reincarnation cycles), the practice of mindfulness and concentration was very interesting.

    On the retreat, we would practice both active and passive meditation – passive being the typical meditation known in the west. Active meditation is concentrating fully on the present while undertaking some task, and trying to not multi-task at all. For example, at meal times you would concentrate on your arm raising food to your mouth, then on your arm lowering, then on chewing your food and swallowing. Only after finishing a mouthful of food would you then return your attention to the table and your hand in order to get the next mouthful. The whole process was done slowly. This is exactly the kind of focus discussed by Greta in the second half of the post, and it takes practice to be able to do, especially in today’s age of soundbites and multimedia consumption.

    Every now and again I think about using mindfulness to help me practice focussing. I think concentrating purely on one thing is a dying art, and I see meditation, both passive and active, as a potential method for combating the reduction in attention spans. But then I get distracted.

  7. 7
    keelychaisson

    @Askyroth

    I feel you on wanting yoga that is free of new agey bullshit. As for finding it… depends where you’re looking. If you’re in a smaller town/city, your in-person options are limited and all you can do is check out the local studios and see if any are to your liking. In a bigger area, some big studios will have a variety of teachers with a variety of styles, and you can read teacher bios to get a sense of how much bullshit you’re going to get from any given teacher. I’m in LA, and we have YogaWorks, which is a franchise that also has locations in SF and NY. They aim to be sort of the McDonalds of yoga (though much more expensive), it seems, which means they try to cater to everyone. This means you can usually find several teachers that are fairly reasonable.

    If you aren’t just looking at in-person classes, and are willing to go online, you have more options. There are several reasonably-priced subscription-based services for online yoga classes… I use yogaglo right now. They all have some sort of free trial, so you can sample teachers and see if you like any. At Yogaglo, my favorite teacher at the moment is Jason Crandell (his personal page), but the site has several instructors that are pretty low on anti-science nonsense and mostly focus on the poses and mindfulness practices.

    I’ve only been getting serious about yoga in the last few months, so my knowledge is far from exhaustive, but there’s my two-cents.

  8. 8
    keelychaisson

    Also, FTB and my wordpress account don’t seem to get along, but I blog here. I mention it only because I have written a bit about my experiences with yoga, and I’m planning on a “yoga for skeptics: a guide to translating hippy bullshit” post in the near future.

  9. 9
    sciamannata

    Kevin @ #1: Many people I know use the bodyscan precisely to fall asleep. It is also recommended for panic attacks — and again, if you fall asleep, your panic attack is over :)

  10. 10
    Vijen

    It’s great that you’ve established a meditation practice. Your remarks about mindfulness have a more authentic ring than the other stuff. You’ll find that the context of your practice will shift gradually, over the months and years. You’ll drop it, and come back to it. Sometimes it will be a lifesaver, and sometimes a burden.

    At length, you’ll become less definitely invested in your separate identity, more transparently available to whatever is. But not through seeking any utilitarian purpose, and not through any choice on your part.

    Namaste.

  11. 11
    Polistes, gold standard

    Hi. First-time commenting. I finished an MBSR course a few weeks ago. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on how you’ve journeyed through the process. I haven’t been keeping up with the meditation. As a result, my irritation levels have gone back up. Both I and my wife noticed a changed just during the course of the program.

    I didn’t notice from your posts – have you done any Vipassana meditation? I did one guided session in Bethesda, and I’ve sat for a few online. I enjoy that style a lot, and generally (at least, thus far for my experience) no woo.

    I hope the practice (it’s a practice not a perfect, right?) continues to help you. I hope it helps me.

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