Have you been meaning to learn more about a topic but never got around to it as it never felt urgent. Meditation is a topic that falls into this category for me. I'm starting a recurring segment for The Leaf Node called how stuff works. I'll do research and create a concise report on topics of interest to creators, makers, and entrepreneurs. Below is a report on how meditation works.
How Stuff Works: Meditation
When it comes to the mental exercise labeled meditation, you're either someone who thinks "I keep hearing about it, I should probably try it but it sounds too woowoo and I feel skeptical" or you're someone who thinks "I'm convinced it'll be beneficial for me and I want to do it, but haven't yet figured out how to start / make it stick". (Or you're a long-term practitioner of this mental exercise, in which case you likely already know what I share here).
I'm closer to the first one. I certainly feel skeptical but my gut feeling is that it can be beneficial so I'm also curious. We approach this learning with a beginner's mind, leaving aside existing bias.
If you've been wanting to experiment with this mental exercise we call "meditation", this report will answer common questions and help you identify a concrete first step. Questions are the first step in learning about anything. Here are the questions I started with:
- What are the different types of meditation? Which one would I start with?
- Once I start, how will I know if I'm doing it right and if it's "working"?
- What exactly is happening with our minds during meditation? Some intuitive explanation for why it works.
- Is it going to make me more focused, more productive? Is it going to allow me to access clarify more frequently? What is the promise?
An analogy - this is a helpful analogy I came across during research. Imagine your mind is like the ocean. Your thoughts/feelings/emotions are like waves at the surface of the ocean. The waves can be different heights and shapes. At the bottom of the ocean though, deep down below the surface, there is nothing but stillness and complete calm. The goal of various types of meditations is to access the inner calm.
How does it work - During meditation the brain produces a "state of restful alertness". This is achieved by drawing attention away from your thoughts and feelings. And towards your body and breath.
The claim of meditators is that this mental practice helps you access a state of calm, not only during the session but also during the rest of your day. Which can help you be less reactive. Less tied to the temporary disturbances caused by the waves that are your thoughts and emotions. Being detached from momentary thoughts and feelings can help you make better decisions, solve problems, think creatively, and have better judgement. That is the promise.
Types of Meditation
Different type of meditations achieve this calm, restful alertness in different ways. I identified four distinct mechanisms for how you go about the practice.
- Focused attention or vipasana or zazen meditation - involves control of the mind, trying to clear the mind of thought. In the analogy of waves on the surface of the ocean, it's like trying to stop the waves or control their shape or height.
- Mindfulness meditation - is about observing the waves on the surface. Without judgement, in a detached way, without trying to stop them but also without focusing on them. Continuing the analogy of waves and ocean...
"Mindfulness meditation is like having a surfboard that allows you to ride those waves effortlessly. The more you practice, the better you get at surfing, and the easier it becomes to manage your thoughts." – T.M. website
- Transcendental Meditation (T.M.) - involves accessing the deeper inner calm state that's always there by repeating something called a mantra (which is a meaningless positive sound). Yes this is the one that sounds most woowoo. It would be reasonable to be skeptical given there are many celebrities and other rich people endorsing it. But let's say you wanted to see for yourself anyway, how do you start? how do you go straight to that inner deeper calm state? The official recommendation is that you get a certified T.M. teacher (costs $200 to $1000). They work with you for 4 days, they select a mantra and show you have to use it. But unofficially you can also make up your own mantra and start unguided private practice. And there are youtube videos of course. Thee main thing provided by the teacher is accountability it seems. Continuing the analogy of waves and ocean..
"Imagine having a submarine instead of a surfboard. T.M., just like a submarine, can safely take you to the deepest depths of your mind, where it’s calm and peaceful" – T.M. website
- Loving kindness meditation - the name of this one sounds funny but the basic idea is simple. You think of someone you know and wish them well. It can be a friend or an acquaintance. You send them positive thoughts, and wish them well. Hold that in your mind for 5 to 10 minutes. That's it. This is a good option if you don't want to focus on 'me' and if you don't like the idea of 'my thoughts', 'my feelings', me, me, me. (I like this concept. I've never tried though, I suspect it might be harder than it sounds.)
Guided or Unguided? This is another decision to make when starting meditation. Guided meditation is when someone talks you through the session with some instructions and suggestions. Unguided or private meditation is something you do on your own, it can be in silence or with music. Both types involve sitting and breathing. (There are things like walking meditation, that I'm excluding for this report.) One appeal of unguided practice could be that it can easily be done offline, without screens. But I've also used an app called Meditation Timer and Log, which simply keeps a timer and optionally plays background music for unguided meditation.
Many would choose the guided path especially when first starting. Guided meditation can be done live or using prerecorded audio. Meditation apps (headspace, etc.) give you access to prerecorded audio as well as courses that have some progression built-in. The duration of each session can vary in length, starting from as low as 5 minutes. There are also youtube recordings with guided meditation. Tara Brach is a name that came up multiple times in my research. Here is an example of a guided 12 minute session. I also found online courses, like this 40 day mindfulness, which is free.
How do I know if it's working?
From my previous experience with a 30 day meditation experiment, I recall the part about sitting down and breathing for 5 minutes did not feel distinct or meaningful. The more concrete change is experienced off-the-mat, throughout the day. It has to do with how we experience negative emotions, such as irritation, annoyance, frustration, anger, etc. We can identify the emotion from a distance, without becoming it. We may think something like "oh interesting, I'm experiencing this thing that can be labeled 'irritation'. I wonder what is the cause of that. Let me explore and find out". Instead of reacting to whatever made us feel that way and immediately acting annoyed.
This distance from our thoughts and feelings is desirable because when we become these negative emotions we loose access to our judgement, problem-solving, creative thinking ability. So I know it's working if I'm able to catch myself sensing these negative thoughts and emotions before becoming them. And I'm able to come up with a creative solution to whatever problem is irritating me at the time. This all requires practice and building that mental muscle just like physical exercise. So I imagine that with more practice we can become less reactive and catch ourselves more often than not.
In addition to answering basic questions I hope the above report gives you an intuitive sense of how meditation could work.
My entire experience with this mental exercise is a 30 day challenge I did in 2020 — daily for at least 5 minutes, guided with an app. I'm currently in the middle of my second 30 day challenge, as one of my February habits. I was having a hard time sticking to this habit hence the motivation for diving deeper.
I do think "meditation" has a branding problem. If it's something basic that can be beneficial to our overall health, it should be more widely understood and accessed. Most people will dismiss it as woowoo and never try it, or may try it and wonder why they didn't try it sooner. I'm not sure where I'll land or if I'll be able to make this habit stick. But after learning more this week, I'm excited to give it a go! If you too are inspired to try it, I recommend starting with one of these three options:
- (Unguided) Start simple - Sit down and listen to one song or any music that is positive for 5 minutes.
- (Guided) Do the free trial of one of the apps.
- (Guided) Do some online course such as the 40 day mindfulness.
I'm looking forward to practicing this habit to see for myself. I will experiment and report back.
Until next time,