What's the deal with meditation?
June 29, 2012 11:28 AM   Subscribe

How and why does meditation work? How does one do it properly (that is, in the way in which one may extract the most benefits)?

I've had anger and impatience issues for some time, and meditation has come up time and again as a potential solution, or at least something that could help me. The problem is that I've never been able to understand what's supposed to happen, and whatever that is, I've never been able to make it happen.

I posted this question a couple of years ago, and while I've mellowed a little since then, I still have anger issues and still don't get meditation.

What's the attraction here? How does sitting in a room thinking about nothing help one? All the good things in my life have either come from thinking or dumb luck, and meditation doesn't seem to enhance either. What's going on here? Why is it good? How can I make it better?

Maybe I'm just stupid, but I don't see how doing nothing is supposed to help one. Every time I've tried meditation, I've gotten restless and would rather have been watching a video or jacking off or checking my email or whatever, and I haven't been able to see how putting my head into neutral gets me any forwarder.

I have a scientific mind; my approach to health is essentially "clinical trials with p < 0.05 or GTFO." I deny the existence of all gods, spirits, saints, and other metaphysical entities; so-called "answers" citing them are nonresponsive.

Bottom line: how and why does meditation work, and how does one get the most out of it without selling your integrity to some tin-pot guru or god?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 88 users marked this as a favorite
Meditation is a way of quieting yourself, and calming your body. You become very relaxed physically, and your mind sort of unwinds.

I myself, have a very hard time getting into it, although I KNOW it's great for your brain. I have a low boredom threashold and getting to the point where I'm thinking of nothing and just being, is difficult for me.

I know that when I sort of hallucinate, flash, see colors, that I'm there.

I think of it as a brain re-boot. if you've got thougths swirling around, disrupting your peace of mind, meditation can help re-focus that energy and mellow you out.

If it works it works, if it doesn't, it doesn't.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:34 AM on June 29, 2012

One of the things they do in some forms of exposure therapy is have you get relaxed, then they expose you to whatever your trigger is. A lot of emotions have a physical component like tension for anger or stress or fear, and it's impossible to be tense and relaxed at the same time. You can't be all tense and ready to spring and fight or flight while all your muscles are relaxed and you're breathing deeply. Meditation works the same way. It also changes your brain.

Here's a starting place for the research on meditation.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:47 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hooray, meditation.

Lots of stuff about meditation out there, and you do what works for you, but a good place to start is Mindfulness in Plain English. The link there has html, e-doc and pdf versions of the book, and they're all free.

My personal opinion of meditation in general is that you don't need to believe anything for it to work, in much the same way as you don't have to believe in gravity for a ball to drop if you let it go. If you concentrate on an object long enough and with enough intensity, there are things the mind does, and those things have nothing to do with what you believe, or gurus or gods. They just are, even though the experiences can be somewhat different from person to person. Good luck!
posted by Mooski at 12:05 PM on June 29, 2012

I'm not any kind of meditation expert, but this is how it works for me.

I don't try to "think of nothing", because that's thinking. What I do is sit and focus on my breathing, in and out, in and out. My mind will start to chatter and I'll latch on to a given thought, and eventually I'll realise that I've gotten caught up in thinking about [whatever] and go back to focusing on my breathing.

If I were to try to visualise it, it would be something like this. I'm sitting in a chair, focusing on my breath, and in front of me is a television. At odd intervals, the TV will start displaying a TV channel. There's lots of channels to watch, and the TV cycles through them all, of its own accord. Eventually, I get engrossed in a soap opera. At some point, I realise that I'm watching Kyle making advances on Cherisse, or somesuch, and go back to focusing on my breathing.

Since starting meditating, I've been able to distinguish between volitional thoughts, liek thinking about what I need to pick up from the supermarket, and non-volitional thoughts, like the random nonsense that is going through my head at varying intervals (slight derail: I have a theory that this is connected to dreaming somehow). I can control the volitional thoughts, but the non-volitional ones are just the TV, cycling through its channels.

The problem with the non-volitional thoughts is that I will be reminded about something unpleasant, and then I'll start having revenge fantasies and other such things. This isn't beneficial to me, or to my mood. It just stresses me out about things that I can't do anything about. I don't think these thoughts come up any more often than emotionally-neutral ones, it's just that we tend to latch on to things that have a strong emotional component. I was in an unpleasant situation many years ago, and occasionally I'll have a memory of the situation float up into my consciousness, out of nowhere. Since meditating, I'm able to view this memory as a channel on my inner television and not get caught up in it.

Since starting to meditate, I'm much more about to take a step back from the TV and not get so hooked up in a soap opera. In the past, I'd really get into the storyline without even trying, but now, I can think to myself "it's just a thought, let it go" and not get hooked in to whatever unpleasant situation I've remembered in the past. Recently, I had to do something that I found quite stressful and when I got to the point at which I'd usually freak out, I was able to remind myself that I don't have to freak out any more. I still retained the option of freaking out, but it was deferred. I could make the choice of taking this path instead of that path, mentally speaking. I took the calmer path, and surprised myself by not freaking out at all. I didn't need to freak out any of the previous times, it's just that it was a well worn path in my head, so it was much easier to take.

Relatedly to that, you might want to google terms like "neuroplasticity" and "neurons that fire together, wire together". There's a lot of research being done right now into how our brains are wired, and how they're capable of rewiring themselves [bit more info here]. I don't know enough about neuroanatomy to talk with any kind of conviction on the matter (sadly, the subject fascinates me!), but it seems to me that a habitual thought process has to be wired into the brain somewhere. Learning new thought processes can quite conceivably change the way our brains are wired.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned any kind of spiritual aspect to this. For me, there isn't one. It's just my brain. Whether a deity exists or not is completely irrelevant to how I meditate. Certainly, some religions include meditating as part of their spiritual practice, but it's not necessary to be a theist to do it. I might be reading too much into what you're saying, but I'd caution against ignoring scientific testing on a religious individual. Most of the testing that has been done, as far as I'm aware, has been done on people who happen to be religious.

The kind of meditation you attempt will have an effect too. Compassion meditation is quite different to focus-based meditation which is quite different to transcendental meditation. Each has different methods, requirements and outcomes.

Also, you might find something useful at the Mind and Life Institute's website. Prominent scientists meet with the Dalai Lama to discuss the intersection of Buddhism and science. Meditation and it's effects on the brain gets discussed.
posted by Solomon at 12:07 PM on June 29, 2012 [12 favorites]

I have a scientific mind...

I would recommend looking into Vipassana meditation, which has a scientific outlook and a 10 day beginner's course in the technique.

My issues weren't exactly anger, but close. I've done the 10 day course and it's effect on me was very positive, leaving me with very little anger about anything, even in the face of people getting angry with me.

The key point in terms of your situation is that one don't do nothing with Vipassana. The 10 day course is an intensive education in the technique, which is very much about systematically observing yourself and your body, which can be appealing to the logic and scientific oriented.

My email is my profile if you have further questions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:17 PM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm not necessarily thinking about it like "thinking about nothing" is quite an accurate way of looking at it. It's more like, meditation is a different way of thinking.

Normally, we have all these random thoughts that flit through our heads all the time, and our instinct is to react to nearly all of them. We may be sitting in the park on a really nice day, but then we have a random fleeting thought about the guy who gave us the atomic wedgie in Junior High in the lunch room, and that puts us in a bad mood despite being in a lovely park. Or we're at work trying to concentrate on something, we suddenly think of the date we have that Friday, and that makes us either horny or nervous, which distracts us from work. Or, we're getting ready FOR that date and that reminds us of our last breakup and how bad that felt, and we fret about how this date may go wrong (and we're not even AT the date yet).

What some types of meditation helps us do is to learn NOT to react to all those random fleeting thoughts all the time. Rather than thinking of the atomic wedgie bully and letting that make us upset, instead the memory pops into our head and we think "oh, yeah, that's the atomic wedgie bully" and then we just leave the thought there. The types of meditation that ask you to concentrate on one thing or recite a mantra or something, that's just to give your brain something to go back to doing so you CAN leave alone the memory of the atomic wedgie bully; you're thinking of your mantra or whatever, the atomic wedgie bully pops into your head, you think "uh-huh, yes, that's the wedgie bully - but I'm going to go back to thinking about my mantra instead right now."

It's kind of like - you know how some very little kids try to get their parents to watch them do stuff all the time? They'll be hopping on one foot or doing a headstand or whatever while their mother is talking to a friend or a neighbor, and they're always saying "Mom, look at me! Look at me!" And often all mom has to do is say "yes, I see you," and the kid will happily go back to what it's doing, but if Mom doesn't look, the kid gets even more insistent and say "mom, look at me! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!" Our subconsciouses are like that insistent little kid just showing us all this random stuff and saying "Look at me, mom!" And we're used to either trying to ignore it (which makes the kid even more insistent) because we need to concentrate, or engaging with it (which is the equivalent of the over-eager parents who applaud every last thing their kid does). Meditation teaches us to react like the distracted parent who just acknowledges "yes, I see you" and goes back to what they're doing.

And in the long run, that helps you put all those earlier memories into perspective; you're able to react to the random thoughts about the atomic wedgie bully by thinking "yes, and that was sad that that happened, but that was then, and this is right now, and right now I'm in a park and it's lovely day," and you aren't unnecessarily in a bad mood and carrying that bad mood around with you all the time.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:17 PM on June 29, 2012 [12 favorites]

There is no way to do meditation "properly".

It's not a task that can be performed well or poorly or To Optimal Efficiency or whatever. In fact, that's the benefit of it -- meditation helps you see outside of those sorts of approaches to life.

There are a lot of techniques for meditation, if that's what you're getting at. In my experience, the best thing to do is to try a bunch and see what works for you.

In terms of getting "the most out of it" without joining a cult or whatever? Do it on your own terms. If someone wants money from you for anything beyond teaching you a technique or acting in some kind of therapeutic capacity (and even that, within reasonable limits of what people pay for those things), go try a different method. If someone is telling you that you have to accept a certain religious belief, or do other tasks for spiritual type reasons (and you're not in this to find God), go try a different method.

If you instinctively reject the Eastern/New-Age aspects of meditation, maybe try an approach that is more organic and less connected to those subcultures. A lot of people find running to be very meditative, for example.
posted by Sara C. at 12:22 PM on June 29, 2012

It's not really "thinking about nothing." For me, it's about learning to observe your thoughts as thoughts, rather than being caught up in their narrative or emotional content.

It's like watching water flow, rather than drowning in water.
posted by scody at 12:26 PM on June 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

Oh, and as an atheist, you may be interested in reading Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor, who writes about Buddhism from an explicitly non-mystical, agnostic/atheist perspective. The book isn't exclusively about meditation, but it is part of his wider discussion.
posted by scody at 12:32 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Meditation and most spiritual related things cannot be adequately described in words. It can only truly be known through direct experience, by doing it. It is important to realize the distinction between knowing something intellectually and internalizing something deep down. When you truly know something, then you have internalized it and not just know it in your head. You act differently when you internalize something.

If I had to throw out some numbers…you will not know the benefits of meditation unless you practice it regularly for at least 3-6 months. It’s like putting on a fleece sweater and going for a walk when it’s foggy outside. You start out dry and go for a long walk, where the fog is slowly penetrating your sweater. The fog penetrates so slowly you don’t realize it until you arrive back home and are inside soaking wet. Meditation is the same way, you don’t realize it's working until you look back at situations and see how you handled them differently.

I think meditation gives you space before reacting. That is, I automatically focus on my breathing and feel my chest when agitated. I ground myself in my body. I am better able to discern what thoughts I want to pursue and what thoughts I want to let go. This keeps me more present and in the moment. Perhaps read these chapters from Mindfulness In Plain English:
Chapter 1 ...(Meditation: Why Should I Bother?)
Chapter 16 ...(What's in It for You)

Meditation works best when you are completely open to it. There is no real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing it. You basically just sit and watch your breath. This is basic training, much like a musician practicing scales. You are building up your ‘meditation muscles’ in a controlled environment with the idea of bringing that skill over to daily life.

Find a group that meets regularly (1-2x a week) and sits for about 30 minutes. Shop around until you find a group and style that you like. Try looking on Inquiring Mind for vipassana (insight) meditation groups. You could also try calling Unitarian Universalist churches if they have sitting groups which are usually friendly and westernized. Spirit Rock and IMS are two major retreat centers with links to other sitting groups. Or googling around, etc.

-Do it regularly for at least 3-6+ months. It doesn’t work if you’re not practicing regularly.
-Do it with a group to give you structure and incentive to keep up with it.
-Be open when doing it. There really is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way. Be compassionate and non-judgmental with yourself and simply return to the breath and body. Everything is an opportunity to practice.
-As you progress try bringing meditation into daily living. That is, when you get emotional, notice that and go into your body and feel that. Go with the physical feeling.
-Just do it! Reading about it won't work, and is just a form of procrastination.
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 12:32 PM on June 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

All the good things in my life have either come from thinking or dumb luck
Some of my trains of thought have also taken me to some spectacularly bad places, where I've done things with unfortunate consequences for myself and others. Meditation makes it easier to hop off the train or to hop between trains. Basically, you learn to tolerate not moving forward, that being in neutral is ok. If you're not so desperate for a train, any train, you're less likely to get victimized by your own anger or impatience. At least that's how it works for me, when I'm practicing the specific form of meditation you seem to have in mind (shikantaza, or 'just sitting'). For more on this perspective, see Opening the Hand of Thought. Maybe start with 'Dependence on Others Is Unstable' (chapter 2 or 3, depending on edition), since you might recognize the predicament from your earlier AskMe. Also read 'Waking Up to Life'. That should give you a more concrete idea of how and why to do zazen.
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:34 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't think of meditation as doing nothing---in some techniques it's about focusing the mind, intensely and for longer and longer periods, on one thing. And if while you're doing that a different thought comes up and instead of reacting to it you can notice it, set it aside, and get back to what you were thinking about, then, if you can take that approach into day-to-day life, things get calmer.

A PubMed search for mindfulness meditation brain will lead you on to other sources. There's a large and growing body of research on mindfulness meditation, among other types. Research on Tibetan monks and neuroplasticity will also be relevant.

Seconding Mindfulness in Plain English.
posted by wdenton at 12:45 PM on June 29, 2012

Meditation helps with patience. When I want something I am very good at coming up with a plan to get it. The trouble is that these plans sometimes take weeks or months to unfold, and in the meantime my mind runs around in circles obsessing over whether the plan is going right, how long it will take, whether the end result will be as satisfying as expected, etc.

Teaching yourself to stare at a wall and NOT think about something is a very good antidote to that.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:51 PM on June 29, 2012

Meditation gives you a degree of control over your thoughts and your emotional reactions. Just like lifting weights regularly will make your muscles stronger, meditation practice will make your powers of attention and focus stronger. If something makes you angry, the nimbleness of mind that you can develop from meditation will give you the ability to choose how you want to respond to your feelings. If you yell or throw something, it will be because you decided that that was how you wanted to express yourself at that moment and that the consequences were tolerable, not because you lost control and went apeshit.

It can be equally effective to learn meditation from techniques other than sitting and trying to think about nothing -- you might do better starting with a very mindful physical practice like yoga or tai chi. If you do that, be sure to find a teacher who focusses at least as much on what you're doing with your mind as with your body.

You say that all the good things in your life have either come from thinking or dumb luck. I doubt it. You didn't learn to talk or walk by thinking about them, or by luck -- you learned them by practicing them. You start at the beginning, and when you get frustrated and it doesn't work for you, you try again. You keep practicing. It's a matter of training, much like athletics or math. It will give you skills that you will find useful every day.
posted by Corvid at 2:26 PM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Well, since you're scientifically minded, here are a few articles that may interest you:

I've made sure they're all from reputable journals. The science is there - meditation strengths prefrontal cortex control, reverses right frontal asymmetry, reduces amygdala reactivity, etc.

I've recommended MP3s from this site on here: http://www.insightla.org/audio/

I'd try the MBSR ones (I like Christiane), if you're actually committed to trying. The idea there is to strengthen your attention and focus, even if it is boring. With it comes self awareness and compassion, as well as more equanimity. There is a study out there that found that monks with 10,000 hours of meditation were 4 standard deviations above the mean on left over right frontal asymmetry. In laymen terms, that means that monk would literally be the happiest, most open person in a room of 10,000 individuals. I'm not saying go meditate for 10,000 hours - I'm saying the science is actually there. Even after 8 weeks of an MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) course, significant asymmetry changes have been measured (http://journals.cambridge.org.libproxy.usc.edu/download.php?file=%2FPSM%2FPSM40_08%2FS0033291709991747a.pdf&code=9a90f2cdc12137a3ead73b8e039e5e6c)

Maybe that should actually be your first step - find an MBSR course. If nothing else, you can say you've tried.
posted by namesarehard at 2:32 PM on June 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Whoops, none of those are going to work for you. Trying again:
posted by namesarehard at 2:35 PM on June 29, 2012

I liked the book "Wherever You Go, There You Are", which explained meditation clearly without any religion or nonsense.

I was never sure I understood what meditation was either until one night as an exercise I washed the dishes without thinking about how long it would take or what I needed to do next. I simply paid attention to every aspect of washing the dishes: the water on my hands, scrubbing the pots and pans, putting them away, etc. If I started to think about something else, I would stop and return to doing the dishes, taking my time and enjoying every aspect the activity. After a while, time seemed to melt away and I felt a wave of contentment wash over me.
posted by xammerboy at 4:07 PM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I love all the responses here. I just wanted to chime in and say meditation completely changed my life for the better. You'd think I was lying if I told you how good it got.
posted by meta x zen at 6:08 PM on June 29, 2012

Meditation isn't thinking about nothing. It's focusing your mind on one point, and not letting it stray. It's hard to think of things that would be more helpful for anger and patience issues than learning to focus the mind.
posted by 3FLryan at 10:10 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know much about meditating, because every time I try, I have super-intense panic attacks. A similar, but different discipline, called "focusing" is way more effective for ne. There are action steps and results that are identifiable, but it's still about becoming aware of what's happening internally and acknowledging that. A lot of the time, the thing I think I'm angry about is not the thing I'm actually upset over, and hiding from that makes it way worse.

The book is written in very vague, almost obscure-seeming terms. The first few times I read it, it read like nonsense hippie mumbo-jumbo and I had a hard time grasping it. I think the reason is that there isn't much of a language developed for this sort of experience, so it's difficult to articulate. I think the same goes for meditation. Because of this, it's easier to explain these kinds of things in mystical or spiritual language, which allows for the vagueness that's often neccesary when trying to describe an individual, emotional process. But just because we don't have good language for the experience doesn't invalidate it. Something you may want to consider; looking past the mystical or spiritual style of teaching to try and access the substance.

Anyhow, after a lot of attempts to understand the intention of the authour, I tried focusing. After a few false attempts, I began to find it super helpful. You might have a similar experience with either discipline.
posted by windykites at 5:00 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also note that you don't have to *sit* to meditate, if that's part of the problem for you. I haven't been able to really get into meditation because it feels to me like doing nothing, which is a huge anxiety trigger for me. But if I put my shoes on and start walking, it's like my brain says, "Okay, this is productive," and I can breathe and work on just letting my emotions happen.
posted by linettasky at 8:09 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I meant to say, google "walking meditation" to learn a bit more.
posted by linettasky at 8:09 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

My brain gets cluttered. Meditation washes out the dusty useless bits. This has nothing to do with any sort of saint or guru or whatever. We live in an age where we are flooded with information and mediated experience as never before, and the brain-clearing activities our ancestors engaged in (wandering the fields, repetitive physical work, etc.) just isn't present in our lives in the same way.
posted by judith at 9:53 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

kanata's post mentioned self-hate and that's pretty important. I think many of us have more self-hate in our lives than we choose to recognize. Given your earlier question this will probably be a productive subject for you to consider. Check out Cheri Huber's books. They may seem to be aimed at a different demographic, give them a try anyway. Start with 'There's Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self-hate".


It may be useful to consider thoughts as phenomena that occur to you, like the weather, instead of products of your labor. Meditation is cultivating your detachment, your ability to observe your thoughts and feelings without being compelled to react to them.

If you prefer a more scientific approach to meditation, read up on Les Fehmi, one of the early researchers on neuro-feedback, and the guided meditation he promotes, Open Focus.

If you're willing to listen to a less scientific approach, then I strongly recommend reading Toni Packer. She writes and talks about meditation (not that she uses the word) beautifully, consistently offering insight with an absence of bullshit. She is anti-authoritarian to the core, having grown up in Nazi Germany, and her approach does not require faith in any metaphysical entities. She left Zen because of her distrust of the rather minimal structure in a Zen community.

You don't need a teacher, or a practice group, or any kind of larger community. What you need is the willingness to do it and the curiosity to see what it is that's going on.
posted by BigSky at 11:15 AM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 12:29 PM on July 3, 2012

I just bumped into this article about the importance of choosing the right meditation technique fit your particular preferences. Looks like there are some links to other interesting studies there, too.
posted by Corvid at 4:01 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

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