Join 3,501 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Meditators have bigger brains
February 22, 2006 1:24 PM   Subscribe

Meditation found to increase brain size (maybe) according to research led by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar. Meanwhile, Atheist Manifesto author Sam Harris recently went on a meditation retreat and seemed to find it pleasant enough.
posted by homunculus (79 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
But no word yet on whether men who meditate have smaller testicles.
posted by homunculus at 1:25 PM on February 22, 2006


Well, at least that's what our brain wants us to believe.
posted by NationalKato at 1:28 PM on February 22, 2006


I would love to learn to meditate, but as an non-spiritual, atheist, skeptic, I'm put off by most meditation classes/texts I've found. Is there anywhere I can learn to meditate where they won't talk about "energy" or "getting in touch with my spiritual nature"? I know I can just ignore that stuff and follow the directions, but the spiritual stuff makes me distrust the directions.

(I don't mean to offend the "spiritual" here. It's just not my thing.)
posted by grumblebee at 1:33 PM on February 22, 2006


Is there anywhere I can learn to meditate where they won't talk about "energy" or "getting in touch with my spiritual nature"?

You might want to google "benson meditation" for starters.
posted by 327.ca at 1:35 PM on February 22, 2006


Mindulness in Plain English mostly avoids mystical language.
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:35 PM on February 22, 2006


grumblebee, you might try reading some Zen Buddhist Meditation texts and just filtering out the religious stuff you don't like. I did that and had no problems, and I'm not a Buddhist. (Although I am religious)
posted by unreason at 1:37 PM on February 22, 2006


I second Mindfulness in Plain English. Excellent text.
posted by trey at 1:38 PM on February 22, 2006


grumblebee: I like this book.
posted by billysumday at 1:38 PM on February 22, 2006


mediation always struck me as rather stressful, really
posted by wakko at 1:39 PM on February 22, 2006


Thanks, sonofsamiam! (and grumblebee, I totally understand where you are coming from. I've had the same problem)
posted by shoepal at 1:40 PM on February 22, 2006


I second Mindfulness in plain english, it's what was recommended to me for as non mystical approach as you can hope for.

As for the post, what I find pretty amusing is they had the meditators meditate during the anatomical MRI. I suppose it passes the time easier but would have no influence on the scan.
posted by Smegoid at 1:45 PM on February 22, 2006


grumblebee, you might try reading some Zen Buddhist Meditation texts and just filtering out the religious stuff you don't like.

This reminds me of something that happened years ago, while I was in therapy. I said I was having trouble sleeping. My therapist asked me, when I did sleep, what I dreamed. I asked her how this was relevant. She said, "Every dream contains a wish." Having done a ton of reading on (scientific) dream research, I know there's not a shred of evidence for this.

From then on, I had a hard time in therapy. My therapist said some really good, useful things, but I was always aware that she was a believer in (at least some) pseudo-science. And it made me feel like I had to research every thing she said to make sure it wasn't bullshit.
posted by grumblebee at 1:48 PM on February 22, 2006


grumblebee: That's why I think you'd like the Buddhism without Beliefs book. It comes from an agnostic/scientific point of view, and talks about how the physical act of meditating helps the body and the mind. The author doesn't care much for discussions of the "soul" or "spirit" except in really abstract terms, and it's certainly not the point of the book.
posted by billysumday at 1:56 PM on February 22, 2006


I believe the trick to spirituality is to learn it as fiction. Just as you can gain an experience of emotion from a good fiction novel, you can gain the experience of spiritual texts in the same way. Don't take the spiritual perspective as literal truth, it is just there to create an experience.

This is the problem I have with how people use religion. The literal translation of the bible is not reality. It is the experience created from the understanding of the meaning of what is being said.

Once you have the experience of spirituality, you can then come to a better conclusion of what it might actually be.
posted by Trakker at 2:03 PM on February 22, 2006


She said, "Every dream contains a wish." Having done a ton of reading on (scientific) dream research, I know there's not a shred of evidence for this.

This is a false logic chain. What your therapist told you was certainly vague and over-snappy, but you could certainly find a foundation for it in the writings of Freud and Jung, not that you'd have much patience for them either.

But frankly grumblebee, it sounds like you could use some meditation [grin].
posted by digaman at 2:06 PM on February 22, 2006


I would love to learn to meditate, but as an non-spiritual, atheist, skeptic, I'm put off by most meditation classes/texts I've found. Is there anywhere I can learn to meditate where they won't talk about "energy" or "getting in touch with my spiritual nature"?

I know what you mean. I get frustrated with a lot of Western Buddhists when they invoke this vague New-Age notion of "energy", which is not only tenuous from the skeptic's position, but has very little to do with Buddhism. Even the notion of "chi" is a carryover from Taoist thought; it appears nowhere in the early Buddhist discourses.

Meditation in the Theravada tradition, the one represented by Mindfulness in Plain English, is more about a disimpassioned exploration of cause-and-effect as it relates to the working of the mind, so one can avoid those habits of thought and action that lead to frustration and suffering.

Nyanaponika Thera's The Heart of Buddhist Meditation is a good book on the subject. He can be dry, and sometimes a little hyperbolic, but it's a useful text.
posted by bcveen at 2:07 PM on February 22, 2006


Meditation, while I think the benefits are undeniable, is hard. Way harder than it looks.

And contrary to what you might think it won't help you lift your X-wing out of the swamp. I tried.

I prefer naps.

Kidding aside every physical endeavor/activity I have ever included "mindful" repetition and serious disciplined visualization in have really paid off. And I am a skeptic, believe me.

So I have no problem believing that the deeper end of that pool - serious meditation - could have real measurable benefits.
posted by tkchrist at 2:08 PM on February 22, 2006


Finding a "foundation" for dream interpretation in Freud/Jung is like finding "evidence" for intelligent design in the bible.
posted by trey at 2:09 PM on February 22, 2006


Is there anywhere I can learn to meditate where they won't talk about "energy" or "getting in touch with my spiritual nature"?

Try yoga. The deep breathing necessary for most poses really gets you accustomed to meditation. I can relate - I generally giggle (well, inwardly, anyway) when people start talking about the inner spirit stuff. I've always chalked it up to my mind ping-ponging around from one thing to another way too much. It wasn't until I started yoga that I taught my mind to go quiet.
posted by Flakypastry at 2:10 PM on February 22, 2006


Meditation, for beginners, essentially means focusing on something; be it your breathing, walking, eating, favourite sport or whatever. That's really all there is to it.

If you want to learn to meditate without reading a book or learning about buddhism, just practise observing your breathing when otherwise unoccupied, or observe your footsteps when out walking.

Forget the spiritual stuff (if you like) and the notion of difficulty, meditation is a simply an exercise for the mind, like doing math or reading a complex story. If you practise you will find improvement, like pretty much anything else.
posted by MetaMonkey at 2:13 PM on February 22, 2006



This is a false logic chain. What your therapist told you was certainly vague and over-snappy, but you could certainly find a foundation for it in the writings of Freud and Jung.


No false logic chain. I just don't count "Freud and Jung" as scientists. And I don't count their data as "science" or "evidence." Nor do I know any scientists who do. So my thinking is pretty much the norm.

"Because Freud says so" is not reasonable evidence. There is no EXPERIMENTAL data to support the claim that every dream (or ANY dream) has a wish in it.
posted by grumblebee at 2:16 PM on February 22, 2006



I believe the trick to spirituality is to learn it as fiction.


I agree with this. And since I CAN be affected by fiction, I can be affected by GOOD spiritual writing. I rarely find any this is good (i.e. not rife with cliches about "energy"), but when I find it, I like it.

However, it's only useful in an emotive sense (which IS useful). It's not useful as a prescription.
posted by grumblebee at 2:20 PM on February 22, 2006


There is no EXPERIMENTAL data to support the claim that every dream (or ANY dream) has a wish in it.

Ahem. Somebody never saw Snowwhite, did they.

A dream is a wish your heat makes, silly.

And don't tell me one chick living with seven male dwarves is NOT experimental.
posted by tkchrist at 2:22 PM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


Trakker : "I believe the trick to spirituality is to learn it as fiction."

My parents tried that with me. If I remember well, the book they used was called Bible. It didn't work very well from their point of view.

grumblebee : "'Because Freud says so' is not reasonable evidence. There is no EXPERIMENTAL data to support the claim that every dream (or ANY dream) has a wish in it."

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that dreams can and do express some of the dreamer's wishes, and most scientists (as in psychiatrists and neurologists) refrain from discarding Freud's theories as a whole. Granted, psychoanalyses diverged greatly from the accepted scientific methodology after Freud's death, but saying Freud himself wasn't a scientist is a bit ignorant.
posted by nkyad at 2:23 PM on February 22, 2006


too much meditation makes your head asplode
posted by qvantamon at 2:35 PM on February 22, 2006


What Flakypastry and Metamonkey said..

I've been sitting for many years now, not as much as I would like to, but whenever I can. The key is really to clear your mind, whether you concentrate on breathing (an excellent beginner excercise) or a mantra, or whatever. It's not at all easy in the beginning, but once you get used to it, its quite refreshing.

I have no comment about bigger brains, intelligence or whatever. I dont seem all that much different to me.
posted by elendil71 at 2:36 PM on February 22, 2006


I always like pimping Zen and the Brain for discussions like this. Relatively recent take on both cognitive neuroscience and the possible impact of practice on the brain. A good read, if hefty.

I'm glad to keep hearing about further research into the area. It'll never stop the nonsense about energy or chi or the hosts of little invisible elves who like to waltz with your skin mites or whathaveyou, of course, but anecdotally, something's going on with mindfulness practice and it's good that people are trying to figure out what.
posted by Drastic at 2:36 PM on February 22, 2006


Sorry to be a hardass, but I'm really just saying what most experimental psychologists, cognitive scientists and psychologists would say.

1. "anecdotal evidence" does not cut it.

2. The fact that scientists do not "discard" all of Freud's theory has nothing to do with whether or not Freud was right about dreams.

I discard very few of Freud's theories. That doesn't mean I believe in them. It means I'm open to the possibility that they MIGHT be true, and I'll withhold judgement until NON anecdotal evidence arrives. So dreams MIGHT express wishes. They might not. We don't know. Unless you're my ex-therapist. Then you DO know.

By the way, I'm not ignorant of the fact that Freud was a "scientist" when he started his career. But his theories re: dreams weren't developed using scientific methodology. If you're not using tools/techniques of science, you're not doing science. If you're not doing science, you're not a scientist.
posted by grumblebee at 2:38 PM on February 22, 2006


"I believe the trick to spirituality is to learn it as fiction."

I think it's more akin to going to the theater; you make an agreement with yourself to suspend your disbelief in order to appreciate the play, and save your criticism for afterwards, unless it's really stupid. Then, you may give yourself permission to be bored.
posted by cookie-k at 2:56 PM on February 22, 2006


grumblebee: However, it's only useful in an emotive sense (which IS useful). It's not useful as a prescription.

Perscription for what? An interesting perspective of mind and body is that they are opposing forces. The brain with its chemical reactions is a large part of the minds function, yet it seems that we have the ability to consciously think in specific ways which can physically influence the brain.

You can take drugs to control the physical to create a desired feeling and mood, but it is also possible to influence your feelings and mood in the same way by consciosly changing the way you think via meditation. But as mentioned above, it is very difficult todo.

Spirituality, in my experience, is just one way of gaining more control over the physical brain. The idea of energies, and the wording which makes it sound hocus pocus, is just a way of describing the experience. Some actually believe in the physical representation, but for me its just a metaphor for the experience itself. What is actually happening is unknown, but whatever it is that is happening, it is allowing me to gain much more control over how I feel and how I react to the world. This is what I think is important. At this point, it is irrelevant which story, bible or other scripture you read.
posted by Trakker at 2:58 PM on February 22, 2006


But his theories re: dreams weren't developed using scientific methodology. If you're not using tools/techniques of science, you're not doing science. If you're not doing science, you're not a scientist.

Theories can developed however you like. Extrapolation from other research or Peyote induced hallucinations - it doesn't matter how you come up with the idea (thought the former may be more efficient than the latter). Scientific method is how you test them.

But I am with you grumblebee...There are pretty much zero credible research psychologists who give much stock to freudian ideas other than in the most trivially basic sense like the notion of unconscious.

I am not sure where nykad is getting his scientists sample from but I am married to a experimental psychologist and my social circle is almost exclusively psych. researchers and Freud simple isn't in the picture at all. Once you finish intro psych you never hear about him again. At least on the experimental side of things. Now if you take english lit ....
posted by srboisvert at 2:59 PM on February 22, 2006


srboisvert

Way to deliberately misinterpret grumblebee. "develop" here obviously meant the process of formulating, testing, and revising the theory, not merely articulating it.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:21 PM on February 22, 2006


Also, from a somewhat intellectual exercise in meditation (and Zen in particular) I recommend anything from Alan Watts. Be aware, however, that Watts was practically schitzophrenic in his pursuit of spiritual experience. His works almost have to be taken under the context of his very colorful life. There are numerous bios of him.
posted by elendil71 at 3:59 PM on February 22, 2006


I think it's more akin to going to the theater; you make an agreement with yourself to suspend your disbelief in order to appreciate the play...

As a theatre director, I'm ashamed to say this, but I've never understood this or experienced it. I don't "make an agreement with myself" when I go to see plays. I just go see them and whatever happens, happens. Generally, if the play is well acted, I just FALL INTO believing in the fiction. It's not something I consciously try to do. And if I wanted to do so, I'm not sure how I would. I could say to myself, "I'm going to try to ignore the fact that I can see lighting instruments," but saying that wouldn't allow me to do it. I ignore the lighting instruments because a compelling story makes me forget them.

For spiritual "fiction" to work this way on me, it would also have to be compelling. Just as hack phrase in a play can burst my bubble, a cliche about "energy" can do the same in a spiritual text. I rarely come across any -- except for the Bible -- that are well written.

Trakker, I agree that the mind is just part of the body. For whatever reason, it seems -- for me, anyway -- there is a limit to the effects of emotion. They are profound, but they are not everything. "King Lear" can make me cry -- which is wonderful -- but it can't cure my cancer. I don't need spiritual writing to make me cry, laugh, etc. I get that from normal fiction, music, etc. I expect something ELSE from it. Or how is it useful to me. I love the Bible, but I really love it EXACTLY the same way I love "Hamlet."
posted by grumblebee at 4:02 PM on February 22, 2006


grumblebee: ...but it can't cure my cancer. I don't need spiritual writing to make me cry, laugh, etc. I get that from normal fiction, music, etc. I expect something ELSE from it. Or how is it useful to me. I love the Bible, but I really love it EXACTLY the same way I love "Hamlet."

Yes, I understand your perspective. Spirituality is definetly an emotion, but it was an emotion which I had never experienced before. It had new properties which really changed the way I saw the world. This is the only way I can describe how you might identify such an experience. This is the something "ELSE" that you should expect from it. How you use it, and how you develop it is up to you.

The other thing is that you kinda need to search it out to find it. You can't just let the words you read create automatic reactions of emotion. You really have to look deeply into the meaning and meditate on what possible understandings are sitting there. Spirituality is more of a discovery feeling than a plain experience of emotion. For me, the discovery has been mostly about self awareness, which has lead to the increase in control of my feelings and moods. Interestingly, it has been a perspective of a completely open mind and the refusal to commit to any specific belief or faith which has made it easier to find. Its like magic. ;)
posted by Trakker at 4:17 PM on February 22, 2006


Thanks for the explanation, Trakker. My problem -- and I really do mean MY problem -- is that I have no framework for understanding it. (I once posted a question on AskMe, asking people to describe their spiritual experiences, so that I might get an idea of what one felt like. Matt deleted it.)

You say that Spirituality is an emotion -- but that it's different from other emotions. I can't imagine that. I'm not saying it doesn't exist. I'm just saying that my mind can't encompass it. Try imagining what an unknown color looks like, and you'll see my problem. Spirituality isn't happiness, sadness, calmness, fear, anger... it's something else. WHAT?

Some people liken it to that picture of the universe with a you-are-hear sign pointing to a little dot. I know what THAT feels like. That sense of the Cceanic. I can get it ... well ... looking at the ocean. But that's not spirituality, is it?

Some people liken it to a feeling that everything is connected. I've felt that, too We don't need the word "spirituality" to describe connectedness. So spirituality must be something else.

Some people liken it to "peace of mind." I've felt that, too. It's great, but it's not terribly profound.

You say, "the other thing is that you kinda need to search it out to find it." I imagine that's true, but you can't search for something if you have no idea what it is. If I tell you to go find a GLUBB, how will you even start?
posted by grumblebee at 4:31 PM on February 22, 2006


grumblebee,

I would definetly call the feeling of connectedness a feeling of spirituality. Maybe you are expecting something too complicated. I actually found spirituality to be a very simple concept once I understood it. The initial experience comes and goes. The hard part is in trying to integrate that feeling into everyday thinking... if this is what you choose to do. The real benefits have come when I began to acheive this. I think the idea of spirituality has been mystified and over complicated with religion and other spiritual texts. With an open mind, I suggest exploring the connected feeling you had.

If you keep thinking about it, you will eventually find what you are looking for.
posted by Trakker at 4:51 PM on February 22, 2006


Grumblebee: You might like Wake Up To Your Life. It's the meditation book I've mostly been working from for the last four years, and it's great. It gives detailed, clear, (to me) rational explanations of the goals and effects of a wide swath of meditation techniques.

Since I started meditating, I have grown more relaxed about picking out the useful bits in the nonrational beliefs of others, but when I first picked up the book I had roughly the same attitude as you, and I found little in there to offend me. (There were one or two very small things, but I can't remember what they were, now.) He even states that the notion of reincarnation as it is widely understood in Buddhism is an unfortunate myth.
posted by Coventry at 5:06 PM on February 22, 2006


Ahem. Somebody never saw Snowwhite, did they.
A dream is a wish your heat makes, silly.


That was Cinderella.
posted by martinrebas at 6:39 PM on February 22, 2006


I wish it were Snow White.
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:00 PM on February 22, 2006


Wait, maybe he dreamt it?
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:00 PM on February 22, 2006


Where is there any heat in Cinderella to even make the wish?
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:01 PM on February 22, 2006


Maybe he never saw Snow White, martinrebas?
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:02 PM on February 22, 2006


Wait, do you mean Cinderella never saw it?
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:02 PM on February 22, 2006


I think in the end, your comment raises many questions.
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:03 PM on February 22, 2006


Somebody's stoned.
posted by billysumday at 7:34 PM on February 22, 2006


srboisvert : "I am not sure where nykad is getting his scientists sample from"

Mostly Europe, but there is something or other in English. I understand perfectly well that psychoanalysis is not currently favored in the US, being perceived at most as a footnote to the origins of neurology. Nevertheless, there are lots of respectable people who beg to differ. Anyway, I don't want to get too far in what is just a parallel conversation in this thread - but here is a good link to start the discussion some other day. Or we can skip that and just read a whole informed and interesting discussion gearing around the validity of the psychoanalytical theory from the American (or Anglo-Saxon) point of view.
posted by nkyad at 7:34 PM on February 22, 2006


nkyad, maybe I'm misunderstanding you. You say "lots of respectable people" take Freud seriously. No one disagrees with that. We're not talking about "respectable people." (What does that mean?) We're talking about specific people (respectable or not) who use the Scientific Method.

This method involves (a) making predictions, (b) testing them to see if they are true or false, and (c) allowing many other people to repeat the tests to see if they get the same results. This isn't what Freud did, which means -- by this COMMON definition -- he wasn't doing science.

You can say that doesn't matter or that there are other paths to truth or whatever, but that's not my point. My point was simply that Freud wasn't doing what is commonly called science. It doesn't matter -- to that point -- whether or not he is taken seriously (or is considered a joke) in America or Europe or anywhere else. It doesn't matter if respectable (or non-respectable) people take him seriously. It doesn't even matter if scientists take him seriously (many scientists believe unscientific things). None of that impacts whether or not he was doing science.

He was doing science he carried followed theorizing with rigorous, repeatable experiments. (There's more to the Scientific Method than this, but hopefully you get my point.)

I happen to trust the Scientific Method. Maybe you don't (or don't trust it exclusively). But that's a different matter entirely.

By the way, I think Freud was VERY important in the history of neurology. He was a genius and a fascinating thinker. That STILL doesn't mean he did science. Nor does it make his theories correct.
posted by grumblebee at 8:00 PM on February 22, 2006


And it made me feel like I had to research every thing she said to make sure it wasn't bullshit.

this is good advice for all people, not just therapists...
posted by any major dude at 8:07 PM on February 22, 2006


It's not the size of the brain, it's the number of neurons. That is like first year neurobiology shit.
posted by Eideteker at 9:12 PM on February 22, 2006


The other thing to remember about the Buddhist traditions (and any other sufficiently ancient belief) is that, through the metaphysical language, they were attempting to describe what was virtually incomprehensible at the time. It's not like Siddharta could have been talking about alpha wave states back in the day.

Some people realize all the flowery language is metaphorical, and they do well. Others get hung up on it, and get derailed.
posted by InnocentBystander at 9:47 PM on February 22, 2006


Meditation found to increase brain size

Naaa! That's their homunculus growing.
posted by nofundy at 5:43 AM on February 23, 2006


As someone who practices meditation, I can confirm that my brain is bigger and more powerful than anyone else's.

Finding a hat that fits has become a terrific struggle.
posted by r3tr0 at 5:57 AM on February 23, 2006


What kind of scientific body of work do you expect to find to validate the religious/spiritual life?

Science is reliant upon empirical data. Religion and Spiritual..(ism?) is reliant upon subjective experience.

It sounds like you are looking for an excuse to avoid trying out meditation. Take a look at Mindfulness in Plain English. It clearly delineates the benefits in everyday language. No mumbo-jumbo.
posted by lyam at 6:01 AM on February 23, 2006


Hmmm, it's a shame no one has recommended "Mindfulness in Plain English" yet.
posted by trey at 6:30 AM on February 23, 2006


But seriously now, MRIs have validated that neuron remapping does occur with long time practitioners of meditation. Seems the gift of empathy grows.
posted by nofundy at 6:40 AM on February 23, 2006


OK, I have to point out one thing here. I am a proponent of meditation, but as a psychology graduate student, I have to take issue with the MRI argument. Doing ANY activity over a long period of time will produce brain-level changes that would appear on an MRI. What these changes translate to is still a mystery to neuroscientists. The MRI/fMRI argument is tossed around a lot, but in actuality it's a matter of description rather than explanation.
posted by trey at 6:52 AM on February 23, 2006


Hm, it accepted my comment. I didn't think it would. Anyway, it's apparent that Mindfulness in Plain English has been suggested, but it's not apparent that the suggestion had been taken up. Anyway, here's an interesting quote from the 'book' that may provide the impetus to check it out:
Buddhism is 2500 years old, and any thought system of that vintage has time to develop layers and layers of doctrine and ritual. Nevertheless, the fundamental attitude of Buddhism is intensely empirical and anti-authoritarian. Gotama the Buddha was a highly unorthodox individual and real anti-traditionalist. He did not offer his teaching as a set of dogmas, but rather as a set of propositions for each individual to investigate for himself. His invitation to one and all was 'Come and See'. One of the things he said to his followers was "Place no head above your own". By this he meant, don't accept somebody else's word. See for yourself.
posted by lyam at 7:08 AM on February 23, 2006


It's not like Siddharta could have been talking about alpha wave states back in the day.

Uhh, no offense, but "alpha wave states" are far less parsimonious concepts for meditation than the Buddha's clear allegory, IMO. Mystic language intentionally evades logical analysis; there may be something in the mind that is not amenable to positive analysis, but only negative or apophatic analysis. I only find mystical language troublesome when there is no clear interpretation other than the obviously incorrect literal one.

"Alpha wave states" seems to refer more directly to the state of the measuring apparatus than the internal experience of the meditator.

If I tell you to go find a GLUBB, how will you even start?

I know what you mean, but the situation is not as bad as all that. There are lots of ways to look at things, and we have no obligation to treat any of those ways as the truth.

I would start by closely observing the formation of thoughts. The subject and object here are both pre-verbal.

If you cannot observe the formation of thoughts, attempt to observe the silent space between them. Attention gets sharper with practice.
posted by sonofsamiam at 7:13 AM on February 23, 2006


grumblebee: You might feel more comfortable working with a cognitive-behavioral therapist. They tend to indulge in about the same quantity of navel gazing, but focus primarily on prior memory and experience.

On "spirituality": Personally, I find words like "spirituality" to be meaningless because they can mean practically anything depending on the individual view of the person involved, which translates to practically nothing when you engage in a conversation with other people. In addition, part of my negative reaction to the "spiritual" word is that it's served as a nice way through which religions have managed to claim a monopoly on things like love, awe, and wonder that certainly many atheists share without seeing them as the expression of some transcendental spirit or soul.

sonofsamiam: "Alpha wave states" seems to refer more directly to the state of the measuring apparatus than the internal experience of the meditator.

Well, there is a reason for that at least in Western neurology and psychology. Part of the response to psychoanalysis was radical behaviorism, the methodological claims that we should examine how the brain works through external measurements of it's behavior. Later on, cognitive scientists started arguing that we can reasonably use external measurements to infer properties of how the brain works.

The problem with "internal experience of the meditator" is that in trying to describe that experience, you will end up with a lot of added noise due to individual and cultural differences. As a result, most people influenced by behaviorism are highly critical of introspection as a way to understand how the brain works.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:22 AM on February 23, 2006


Thanks to all those people who have recommended various books and sources for skeptics who want to try out meditation. I will be checking out ALL them!

What kind of scientific body of work do you expect to find to validate the religious/spiritual life?

I don't expect a scientific work. Here's what I'd love (and maybe one of the sources suggested here will fit the bill): a book that says, "Meditation seems to work. We don't know why. But here's the effect that it has -- or appears to have -- on people who practice it: blah blah blah. We've studied the many techniques these people use and looked for commonalities, and we've come up with the following. If you'd like to experience what these people experienced, here's what you should do: (1) wear lose clothes; (2) sit in a dark room..."

Nothing scientific about that.

That's what I want. With no talk about "energy" or "spirit" or "aura."

It sounds like you are looking for an excuse to avoid trying out meditation.

That would be a huge waste of my time. No one is telling me to meditate, so I don't need an excuse to avoid it.

Based partly ON science, I am 90% sure meditation exists and that we don't know exactly what it is. And I would very much like to experience it. I'm simply put off by "spiritual" texts. That shouldn't be hard to understand. Imagine you'd never tasted pizza and always wanted to, but all the pizza joints near you were horrible, disgusting dives. (I'm not saying spirituality is horrible and disgusting; I'm just trying to point out that it's possible to want to experience itself without wanting to experience the environment within which it generally lives.)
posted by grumblebee at 9:46 AM on February 23, 2006


...religions have managed to claim a monopoly on things like love, awe, and wonder that certainly many atheists share without seeing them as the expression of some transcendental spirit or soul.

I agree with the meat of this, though not the sentiment. I don't think it's a religious plot. Rather, I think people tend to romanticize. There are romantics and non-romantics (I'm not talking about the romance between two people here. I'm VERY romantic with my wife, but I would describe myself, in general, as a non-romantic).

Romantics want to take powerful feelings like love, awe, empathy and wonder and elevate them to some sort of divine sphere. Perhaps "want to" is too strong. They just naturally do it. Even though I don't do this, I understand the urge. Love, wonder, etc. FEEL so powerful and mysterious!

Some of us (non-romantics) accept that normal bodily functions can give rise to complexity. We feel the same awe, love, etc. that the romantics feel, but we don't feel the need project God into them.

Two people look stare at a perfect candlestick. Person A needs to believe that the stick was hand-carved by an artist, sitting on a hilltop, watching the sunset. Person B is fine with knowing that the stick was spewed out by a machine. Knowing that makes it no less perfect for him. But for Person A, if something is perfect it must have arisen from Perfection.

There's a meta-level of romanticism here: Person A romanticizes artists and hilltops but not machines. Person B either doesn't need romanticism on all levels, or he finds machines just as romantic as Person A finds sunsets.

Some people are able to romanticize bodily functions -- or they don't need to do so (they can feel awe even if they know that awe arose from something ordinary and mechanical). Other people need more traditional romantic figures.
posted by grumblebee at 9:59 AM on February 23, 2006


The problem with "internal experience of the meditator" is that in trying to describe that experience, you will end up with a lot of added noise due to individual and cultural differences. As a result, most people influenced by behaviorism are highly critical of introspection as a way to understand how the brain works.

The goal of meditative practice is not to describe cognitive states to other humans. It is to understand them for one's self.

That is to say, while there is some common terminology that is used, the terminology is strictly metaphorical, since what meditators are interested in is purely internal.

As a result, most people influenced by behaviorism are highly critical of introspection as a way to understand how the brain works.

Since their goal is to produce concrete forms which can communicate their research, that is not a bad thing at all. It helps ensure that we stay rigorous in scientific inquiry.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that this is the only domain of inquiry available to a human. Introspection is very helpful in being comfortable with one's self, dealing with emotions, ensuring that we are indeed thinking logically, etc. but none of those useful activities can necessarily be translated into exterior forms in any universal or empirical way.

I'm simply put off by "spiritual" texts.

The way I think of it is that "spirit", "mind", "consciousness", are for these purposes simply the "irreducible posits" (to use Quine's phrase) we must assume for the sake of discourse. This is similar to how "mass", "energy", etc. are colloquially used by physicists: we may have theories of how these things work or what they are "made of," but we must introduce other irreducible posits to take the place of the ones we explain in other terms.

Whether one finally philosophically agrees with Quine on this, the argument is easily understood. We need not concern ourselves as to what "spirit really is." If we want to read mystical literature, it is only necessary to honestly imagine ourselves in the time and cosmography of the author and attempt to understand the words in the sense in which they were intended at the time.

All that said, no mystical language is really neccessary. Many people simply find it helpful, while others will not.
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:02 AM on February 23, 2006


Oh, I agree that it's not a "religious plot." What I've found is that many religious people just can't understand how one can experience awe at a beautiful aspect of the universe without investing it with some "spiritual meaning."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:04 AM on February 23, 2006


..."spirit", "mind", "consciousness" are ... simply the "irreducible posits" ... we must assume for the sake of discourse. This is similar to how "mass", "energy", etc. are colloquially used by physicists...

This makes sense. It's fine to make assumptions (as-long-as you keep them to a necessary minimum). Science works because we can say, "Look, we don't know what A and B are -- or even if they really exist -- but if we assume they exist and mix them together, we get C. C is something that we can actually predict and measure!"

This is pretty much what I asked for in a meditation book: "We don't know why, but if you try A and B, you WILL get C!"

Far too many texts say, "Try A and B -- which may not exist -- and you'll get C, which may or may not exist." There's nothing to grasp here. Those who "get it" surely do so because they are reading their own meanings into A, B and C. This is fine, but it makes the entire text into a inkblot test. The words in the text might as well be random emotive words.
posted by grumblebee at 10:24 AM on February 23, 2006


grumblebee: Have you considered just, well, google scholar? There certainly is quite a bit of stuff out there on meditation in terms of neuroscience and physiology.

The problem is that describing how to do meditation is only two statements.

1: Focus on some object or sensation.
2: When your mind drifts, gently return to focus on that object or sensation.

Most of the rest of Buddhism just elaborates on an interpretation of what you might discover while meditating, but the basic method is really simple.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:40 AM on February 23, 2006


Oh, and I should add that Buddhism isn't the only system of thought that attempts to explain meditation. Many other cultures have noticed altered states of consciousness from controlled breathing and a single focus of attention.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:57 AM on February 23, 2006


1: Focus on some object or sensation.
2: When your mind drifts, gently return to focus on that object or sensation.


I've tried this before, gotten frustrated when I couldn't do it, and then given up. I'm going to give it another go. I'm SURE I didn't stick with it long enough.

I'd love some data from others about how long it took them to achieve a meditative state, though I'm sure it differs widely from person to person.

I have a hard time because I'm a very fidgety person; if I try to stay still for too long, I start getting itches. (Or a hair in my face bothers me, or I feel too hot or too cold.) If I ignore them, they just get worse and worse. If I scratch an itch, it won't be long before I get another one. I KNOW this is psycho-somatic. I only get these itches when I'm purposefully trying to be still.

Worse, I think REALLY fast. When I try to focus on, say, my breathing or the number six, I zone out after about ten seconds and start thinking about a book I'm reading, what I have to do tomorrow, where I'm going for vacation this year, etc.

I bring my attention back, but in ten seconds it's gone again.

Has anyone similar to me been able to meditate? How long did it take you? I really want to do this. I'm willing to stick with it for months if necessary. But I would like some hope that -- even if it takes months -- I'll be able to do it in the end.
posted by grumblebee at 11:07 AM on February 23, 2006


grumblebee, that is all completely normal. In fact, it goes on all day long, but you aren't generally paying any attention. The whole point of meditation is to gain control over your attention, and all it takes is practice.

If I get an itch or something, I switch my focus to the sensation, without moving my body, and when it subsides, I return to my point of focus. If your mind slips off into reverie, just note it and wordlessly return your attention to your point of focus.

I can't say how long it took, because I've made several abortive runs at consistently meditating. I can still not consistently maintain my meditation for more than a short while (not regular enough practice, of course) but there is a definite improvement in my ability to concentrate and maintain focus, and the "non thinking" states last longer and come more frequently.

If you can maintain your attention for 10 seconds, you will soon be able to hold it for 20, and so on.
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:17 AM on February 23, 2006


If I get an itch or something, I switch my focus to the sensation, without moving my body, and when it subsides...

WHOA! "When it subsides?!?" How do you make it subside? If I notice an itch and don't scratch it, it doesn't just go away. I once tried this for an agonizing hour. I remember the nightmare of being in a cast. Itches that would NEVER go away!
posted by grumblebee at 11:58 AM on February 23, 2006


Sorry, I don't know what else to tell you! I find focusing my attention on the physical sensation without thinking about it takes care of things. It is important not to form thoughts like "Boy, this itches," but to simply focus attention on the pure sensation as best as you can.

If you still can't concentrate, someone else will have to tell you what to try next.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:03 PM on February 23, 2006


sonofsam/KirkJobSluder lay it out plain and simple. Meditation is an experience internal to the practitioner and anything else that gets said about it is simply window dressing.

Follow your breath with your attention, keep coming back to it.

It has seemed to me that eventually I experienced a wordless, conceptless something that was very moving. I liked it. It vanished, I started over.

I know this sounds like bs but really- "there isn't anything to grasp here" is exactly right.
posted by pointilist at 12:07 PM on February 23, 2006


...focusing my attention on the physical sensation without thinking about it takes care of things.

Okay, I think I get it. I can sometimes do something similar to this with mild pain (can't do it with extreme pain, alas). I think about the feeling instead of my reaction to it. I'm still definitely THINKING about it, though. I'll go from "That HURTS" to "Well, what do I mean by 'That HURTS'? What's the actual sensation and where exactly is it located? Let's see ... It seems to be on my knee, and it feels like a sort of pulsation..."

Sometimes doing this makes it stop hurting.

I guess I don't know how to focus without thinking. Heck, I don't know how it would feel to not think. I'm continually asking questions and wondering and planning and reading and drawing ... My wife says I don't know how to "Just Be." Maybe I'll find out via meditation.
posted by grumblebee at 12:29 PM on February 23, 2006


Sorry to get really nitty-gritty, but when you "focus on your breathing," do you feel like you're watching or doing? If I think about my breathing, then breathing stops being automatic. I have to choose to take each breath, and that seems too active for a meditative state.
posted by grumblebee at 12:30 PM on February 23, 2006


If I think about my breathing, then breathing stops being automatic

I know what you mean. Don't worry if you feel like each breath is intentional instead of automatic. Don't focus on the apparent intent, just the tactile sensation of the air passing into and out of your nostrils.

Eventually, you may feel you have ceased breathing altogether. This is very startling, and it will take a while to get acclimated to it, but it is a sign of progress.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:41 PM on February 23, 2006


1: Focus on some object or sensation.
2: When your mind drifts, gently return to focus on that object or sensation.


Pornzilla has some tips on how to optimize those steps using firefox.
posted by srboisvert at 2:16 PM on February 23, 2006


My favorite mental mindfulness exercise is to picture that you're standing on a road in the country at a train crossing, the gates are down, the lights are flashing, and a freight train is clacking by. Watch the train cars, keeping your focus on one point. When you find yourself getting picked up by your train of thought and carried down the track elsewhere, gently fly yourself back to the train crossing and keep on where you left off...

Sounds cheesy, but I find it very relaxing. It could help that I like trains.
posted by anthill at 4:57 PM on February 23, 2006


The author of Mindfulness in Plain English (you may have heard of it) also wrote a book on the Jhanas.
posted by homunculus at 11:40 PM on February 23, 2006


homunculus, wonderful FPP, just my cup of tea: Buddhism, neuroscience, flexible skepticism and practical info. Loved the link about the Jhanas too.There is an excellent free 10 day Vipassana Meditation Center meditation retreat course. It's hard work, disciplined, up at 4am, highly structured, 10 days of silence, no food after noon etc.

Meditation is an umbrella term used in many ways by many people. It can be used to mean contemplate on a text, on a visualisation, to hone focus etc.

As a Buddhist since 1975 who dislikes any kind of religiosity or 'spiritual' malarcky, much less any new age crystal schmystal crap I'd like to say that in my own experience what worked for me in learning meditation is the concept that it's a tool to become profoundly familiar with one's mind. There are a number of stages and types of meditation that help in this process of becoming familiar with one's mind with a variety of benefits.

The first meditation technique I would start with is Shamatha, which is a process of becoming familiar with the arising and disappearing of one's thoughts. A metaphor for this is to observe one's thoughts like fish jumping out of and back into the sea, thoughts appear out of the ocean-like consciousness and disappear. Another metaphor is experiencing thoughts like transient clouds in the sky of one's awareness.

In Shamatha meditation, one sits in a position so as not to fiddle, it's usually sitting in the classic 'lotus position', cross legged with hands folded in lap, eyes partly open, focused lightly about 5 feet away, angled downwards at about 45 degrees, lips relaxed and tip of one's tongue touching the roof of one's mouth so one doesn't drool, breathing through one's nose.

There are numerous meditation sitting positions, nothing fixed, up to the person.

Initially one should try Shamatha for about 10 minutes and build up one's time in comfortable increments.

Once seated, one picks something to be an anchor for one's focus, such as the out breath. Or one can put a pea on a can and look at the pea. The point is not to stop thinking but 25% of the time to keep one's focus and 75% of the time one's mind will wander. In the 25% coming back from wandering to lightly focus on the anchor, one becomes familiar with the impermanent nature of thoughts.

The result is that when thoughts come up after meditation one is not in their thrall, thought are gradually, over time experienced more transparently. Thus, over time when one feels any of the emotions arise, such as intense impulses to anger, craving, attraction or revulsion, one isn't carried away, there is a mental breathing space. The benefits are less anxiety, less distress, less suffering.

During Shamatha meditation one cycles through typical stages, gross boredom, sleepiness, gross mental agitation, anxiety, increasingly subtle boredom, sleepiness, increasingly subtle mental agitation and gradually one becomes more focused, more mindfully alert without sleepiness or agitation. In effect with about 20 hours of meditation one becomes more tranquil yet focused and alert. The emotional impactover time is usually an increased sense of enjoyment of life in the moment, not puppeted by thoughts of the past or future.

So Shamatha is a foundation for the next meditation, Vipassana, insight into the nature of one's thoughts, tendencies and perceptions. Anyway, hope I haven't bored the socks off anyone reading, LOL!

I recommend Stephen Batchelor's writing. I've always like Surendranath DasGupta's History of Indian Philosophy, which is readable online, beautifully for free at the wonderful Project Gutenberg.
posted by nickyskye at 9:04 PM on February 24, 2006


« Older Make Kevin...  |  The Mystery of Henry James's T... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments