Part One: What is meditation?
If you’ve ever spoken with me at any length, odds are that meditation has come up at some point. I swear I don’t just go around looking for opportunities to insert the topic into my conversations, but it has a way of finding me anyhow.Meditation has done me immeasurable good, and I want to help others see if it might do the same for them. But meditation can be confusing, hard, and even dangerous, and most attempts to explain it do little to help with this fact. In fact, they frequently worsen the situation.
Clear, concise, and somewhat comprehensive accounts of the subject are rare, and off the top of my head I know of none.This one will likely be little better, but I’ll try. I’ve been studying, practicing, and exploring meditation for almost 10 years now, which makes me very far from an expert, but probably a bit more experienced than you, given that you’re reading an article titled “Meditation 101.” My point in saying this is not to put on airs—I’m still ass at meditating, actually, though I have had periods where I was in phenomenal meditation “shape.” Rather, I note this mainly to publicly justify to myself that I might have something of value to offer in writing this piece, because I do have some experience.
And that really is why I’m writing this. I get asked questions about meditation all the time (and am happy to answer them!) so I see how many people are eager to learn but don’t really know where to start. Yet I struggle to point them to one single, easy resource to get them started. My hope here is to provide such a resource through a series of three short pieces on meditation. They will in turn examine what meditation is, why you should (or perhaps shouldn’t) do it, and how to get started. Books are long. Courses in apps like Calm and Headspace leave something wanting. And retreats are a fat commitment. So this is for you, the smart, curious internet article consumer interested in betterment of self and world, who doesn’t want to read a whole book just to learn how to do something difficult that you’re only begrudgingly coercing yourself into in the first place. Without further ado, then, let’s take a look at what meditation actually is.
Okay, a brief bit of further ado. You don’t realize how hard something is to define until you have to sit down and spell it out. You rack your brain for a short collection of words that captures the essence of that thing and that thing only, no exceptions. Of course, you fail. Because a thing defined is a thing reduced. Life as lived is far more complex than any set of words could capture. Meaning is a compression algorithm, and no compression algorithm in the real world is lossless.Definitions are patterned but nebulous. They exhibit an identifiable shape and core, but grow fuzzy around the edges, with exceptions inevitably popping up on the outskirts of their definitional jurisdiction. But we define anyway, and sometimes we even come up with something useful, if not perfectly accurate. Definitions exist to be useful. And the most useful kind of definition is the one that gets you to shut up and quit thinking about it.
Meditation, then, is a family of techniques used to cultivate more deliberate control over one’s attention and awareness. As used here, attention is the faculty of holding something in the “center” of consciousness, while awareness is the process of monitoring the periphery of consciousness. They exist side by side, working in tandem. The difference is perhaps best illustrated by analogy to the visual system.Attention mirrors focused vision, what you see at the center of your visual field; awareness mirrors peripheral vision. Attention renders things (whether they be sights, sounds, smells, physical sensations, tastes, thoughts, or emotions) crisp, clear, well-defined, capable of being grasped and manipulated. Awareness precedes attention. Things are fuzzier, murkier here, more shapeless and dynamic. While attention holds and uses mental objects in one way or another, our relationship with things in awareness is less instrumental—they just are. If something in awareness seems important, awareness will call attention over to take a closer look.
Why are attention and awareness so important? Because to control them is to control your reality. They’re the base layer on top of which everything else filters into your mind, the metacognitive functions that precede the rest of consciousness. They set the stage. There are a lot of things, both good and bad (or at least perceived as such), in this world. Control over the attentional system (attention + awareness) enables you to choose which of them to invite into your experience of reality, which to amplify, and which to let go. The implications of this are even broader than they appear at first glance, and are not easy to convey in a mere few lines. Instead of trying to do that, I’ll continue spelling out some of these implications over the rest of this piece and the pieces that follow.
This definition plays out in one way or another in the various kinds of meditation practice. Many of these practices look quite different from one another (e.g. sitting in silence vs. walking down the street), just as exercise can take on myriad distinct forms. Soccer is exercise (my personal favorite). Lifting weights is exercise (my third favorite). Yoga, jogging, cricket, and mowing the lawn are exercise. Sex is exercise if you’re doing it right.As exercise encompasses a family of practices for building physical fitness, meditation consists of practices for developing attention and awareness, and the numerous changes in the mind that follow from this. Though various, they can be meaningfully bound as one.
Just about anything that can be described can be described at various levels of granularity or “zoom.” Take yourself as an example. I could describe you at the interpersonal level—a collection of relationships, a node in a network (friend of Kevin, sibling, boyfriend/girlfriend, and so on). I could also zoom in a bit and describe you at the individual level (intelligent, good-looking, immune to flattery, etc.). Throw on a biological lens and zoom in even further and I could alternately describe you in terms of organ systems, organs, tissues, cells, and onward. Swap the biological lens out for a physical one and zoom in further yet, and you’re a buzzing metropolis of atoms, all dancing in concert. None of these descriptions is more true than another (despite what materialistic reductionists might try to tell you). Instead they complement one another, weaving together a more comprehensive picture of reality across different scales. Thus far, I’ve described meditation at the cognitive level, since this is the one most familiar to us—it’s the lens through which we most proximally experience the world. We experience thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, not neural impulses, and so it is these that we know best. But to examine meditation at several levels offers a richer picture than any single definition can provide, just as understanding tissue-level processes like hypertrophy strengthens our grasp of what exercise is. With that in mind, let’s take a look at meditation through a few different lenses.
The macrocognitive level sits atop the cognitive, so big that it’s difficult to see, like the air we breathe or the water in which fish swim.What resides here, permeating every aspect of our experience, is our sense of self. In macrocognitive terms, meditation is the reconstitution of our sense of self through deliberate training. More on this to come. The accounts that follow under this heading are macrocognitive framings of meditation.
Historically, meditation has its deepest roots in Buddhist and Hindu religious practices, in which practitioners were attempting to dramatically alter their experience of self. In Buddhist tradition, this means attaining the visceral realization of “no-self,” where you recognize your sense of self as illusory. Note that this isn’t merely a cognitive realization. It’s not an abstract knowledge that one might come to through philosophizing, but rather an embodied experience. To no longer feel a sense of self is the highest aim in Buddhist practice. In Hindu tradition, seemingly by contrast, the aim is tapping into Brahman, the divine source that pervades all things. The idea of Brahman suggests that all beings are part of one greater self, merging together through meditation, rather than that no self exists at all. I said that this is seemingly by contrast to the Buddhist no-self because the two appear to me to be fundamentally the same thing. This cute little infographic thing might help illustrate what I mean.
Both Buddhist and Hindu practices aspire to erase the boundary between self and universe. You might formulate this as a dissolution of the self, or as a merging into a greater whole, but really the difference is a semantic one as I see it. When you see that the boundaries between things are arbitrary, it all becomes an amorphous (albeit heterogeneous) blob. Whether that makes it all one thing or no-thing—in my eyes—is the same thing. I’m not suggesting that Buddhist and Hindu meditation lead to identical experiences, but I am positing that their metaphysical implications are more similar than they might at first appear. For both traditions, it is through this experience that we attain nirvana, or moksha—freedom from all suffering. You don’t need to think of this as a spiritual or metaphysical state (though you’re also welcome to, if you favor that interpretation of reality). It can just as well be explained as a cognitive process, marked by enduring changes in the brain.
An examination of different meditative traditions within Hinduism and Buddhism reveals a few common roadmaps to this process of radical self-modulation. The one I’m most familiar with is shared by several schools of Buddhism, and begins with developing the clarity and durability of one’s attention. Awareness is needed for this. Without awareness, whenever lapses of attention occur, you’re liable to spend large amounts of time drifting or jumping around, thinking about other things. Strong awareness shortens these spells by making you conscious of them, snapping you out of it and giving you the opportunity to return to your intended object of focus. With attention sufficiently sharpened and stabilized, you can then begin insight practices. Insight practices are a group of techniques in which you closely examine the contents of your experience, with the intention of generating deep insights into the nature of reality. Eventually, this string of insights leads to a recognition of the illusory nature of the self, and the freedom from suffering that accompanies it. The progression, succinctly put, is: attention + awareness training —> insight practice —> enlightenment! This is just one such roadmap, but it helps to illustrate the logic of how a seemingly mundane daily practice can lead to profound and lasting changes in your experience of reality.
The point of all this is to say that if you’re meditating, you’re probably altering your sense of self to some meaningful extent, even if you’re unaware of it.The religiously-affiliated descriptions of “no-self” and “merging with the divine” may be too lofty and esoteric to effectively communicate what’s going on, especially to Western newcomers, but the message is an important one. So here are a couple more Western-friendly ways of understanding what’s happening at the level of the self in meditation.
Subject to object
Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan’s model of human development frames the growth process as a “drawing and redrawing of the distinction between self and other.” As we develop and become more complex as human beings, we continually redefine what is subject (i.e. what I am) and what is object (i.e. what I have). For example, a baby’s movements go from being mere reflexes—something to which she is subject—to object, something which she can implicitly recognize as separate from herself and over which she can exercise conscious control. The baby goes from being embedded in her movements to having them. Meditation, at its very core, is the enactment of this subject to object transition. It involves moving the contents of our consciousness from subject to object, seeing things we once considered parts of ourselves as no longer so. You’ve probably heard Andy from Headspace, or Sam Harris, or whoever your go-to meditation guide is instruct you to notice your thoughts as they arise without getting swept up in them, like watching clouds float by in the sky. To do so is to take what you were previously internalizing as self and to recognize it as something separate. It becomes a “thing” that you can observe, control, and de-identify with. The more adept you become in your meditation, the deeper the layers of self you can shed away. As your attention sharpens, you’re able to notice more and more subtle thoughts, emotions, and perceptions that you identify with that might’ve previously escaped the clutches of your conscious recognition. Eventually, even the most subtle and pervasive narratives of selfhood can be peeled back. All becomes object, until no subject remains. Why this might be desirable, which may not be immediately intuitive, will be the topic of the next piece in this series.
Another way to consider meditation’s impact on the mind and our sense of self is as a function of cognitive and emotional distance. As you gain the ability to render the contents of your consciousness as objects, you attain a certain degree of remove from them. At varying distances, things might appear in greater or lesser clarity or as more or less beautiful, or they might exert a stronger or weaker gravitational pull. We’ll return to this metaphor when we explore the good and bad of meditation.
I’d be remiss to go without touching on a neuroscientific analysis, but I’ll meet density with brevity to make this section palatable. A neuroscientific exploration of meditation can be applied at all sorts of different scales. Here we’ll look at just three.
The first of these is the hemispheric.One way to conceptualize meditation is as a process of development in the way the two hemispheres of the brain act and relate to one another. Broadly, and perhaps crudely, speaking, the left hemisphere governs the function we’ve been referring to as attention, while the right manages our faculty of awareness. Meditation might then involve a reshaping of the relationship between the two hemispheres, preferentially developing one or the other, or both in tandem, depending on the style of meditation and which of the two faculties is being prioritized. It could thereby redistribute power between them, leading one hemisphere’s mode of thinking to precedence or striking a healthy balance between the two, if such concepts makes any sense (and Iain McGilchrist’s work suggests they very well might).
Meditation can also be described as a regional process within the brain, activating certain areas while quieting others. Jud Brewer’s work suggests that meditation involves a quieting of the default mode network, or DMN, a collection of regions associated with self-referential processing.It’s so-called because it tends to be particularly active when we aren’t doing much—that is, it’s what we default to. This effect is both acute (happens while meditating) and enduring (a lasting change occurs in those who practice consistently). This all makes sense in light of the above macrocognitive models as well. Self-referential processing could be called “sense of self” in normal people speak. In these terms, Brewer’s research then reveals a lasting diminution in the sense of self on account of meditation.
A final neuroscientific model (for now) is the subminds hypothesis, deriving from Culadasa’s The Mind Illuminated, which in turn drew inspiration from Marvin Minsky’s work in Society of Mind. This is, roughly, that the mind is a collection of different “subminds,” each with their own function and thus their own “desires.” The existence of different regions in the brain that account for different functions offers a clear depiction of this system. Each of these subminds then is made up of several other subminds, with this recursive structure unfolding all the way down to the level of the neuron. For a more familiar example of this kind of structure, just look at a corporation and the way it’s divided into departments, each consisting of different functions, those all containing several teams, each of which has multiple individual members.
Each submind can be conceived of as an “agent,” an autonomous entity possessing goals and the ability to interact with the world around it in pursuit of those goals. An agent is selfish, but the emergent behavior of the collective of selfish agents turns out to be for the benefit of the whole. One submind might compel you to read this article. One might fight for preservation of your sense of self. Another might want pizza. By acquiescing to or refusing these desires, you either feed or starve these subminds. In more formal neuroscientific terms, this can be expressed as long-term potentiation, a process wherein repeated activation across a synapse (the connection between two neurons) makes it easier for that same pathway to activate again in the future. Like a trail in the woods, as more and more travelers pass along it, a path is more thoroughly carved out.
In meditation, the aim is generally to try to rally all of one’s subminds around a single thing, whether that be the breath, a mantra, the act of letting go, etc. By repeatedly turning to this object of focus even after your mind has wandered off, you send your subminds the message that this is your sole priority at the moment. You’re effectively saying, “All those other distractions are superfluous right now.” Do this enough times and they begin to get the message that you’re serious. Through this process, you train them to work in harmony with one collective goal in mind.And just as any organization or group is more efficient and effective when its members are aligned, so too with your brain/mind. The experience of flow, most frequently encountered through sports, music, and the like, may be one place where we regularly see this degree of internal harmony come to life. Meditation appears to be moving the brain’s baseline toward a state more like this.
My hope is that inspecting meditation from these different angles has created a patchwork perspective that’s more colorful, comprehensive, and nuanced than any single account could offer. It may well instead be that refusing to settle for a single, simple narrative makes the matter much more confusing. Feel free to let me know. But not every model needs to stick with you, and that’s exactly the point. We all understand the world through different metaphors. If just one of the models outlined above got something to click, I’ll be moderately satisfied, or at least not distraught.
A brief note on mindfulness
Before concluding, I want to mention the concept of “mindfulness”, since the modern Western meditation world loves that word and I couldn’t find a fitting place to talk about it above. You’ve surely heard of it, so I think it’ll be helpful to see where it fits in with the rest of what we’ve discussed. Wikipedia has a nice and straightforward definition that generally accords with the way others tend to use it:
“Mindfulness is the practice of purposely bringing one's attention [into] the present moment without evaluation.”
When mindful, you experience the present moment as it is, rather than getting caught up in thoughts about the present, or thoughts that take you elsewhere. This is pretty much just what meditation is, so I don’t really get what people mean when they say “mindfulness meditation”—it’s redundant. But I do think “mindfulness” itself is useful as a term to describe the state of mind cultivated in meditation and the act of bringing that mindset into one’s life beyond meditation. This is probably far from a consensus opinion, so take it with a grain of salt, but that’s where I find it most illuminating.
Well, this kind of became exactly what I wanted to avoid on the brevity front, but the damage is done and right now is not the time to try to force concision on myself.Instead, I need to write, and write liberally, until the words flow freely and consistently, for at present they do not. In the words of the great poet Charles Barkley, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” We’ve still got a lot more ground to cover, and my next piece on meditation will look at how meditating could save your life. Or ruin it. Or maybe something in between. I’ll do my best to cover that ground in a little less time.
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Usually. After writing that, I realized I did go out of my way to bring it up in my last piece.
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If it’s unclear what I mean by this, fear not. I’ll be writing about this idea at some point.
Contestable claim, I know. Hit me up and we can get into a heated argument about it.
This is because the visual system creates a clear dichotomy between visual focus and visual periphery at the biological level, thanks to the differing functions of rods and cones. The higher level cognitive dichotomy of attention and awareness exists separately, on top of this. As an example, fix your vision on some object in your surroundings. Now, while keeping your vision fixed there, shift your attention to an object a couple feet away. The first object remains at the center of visual focus, but your attention has peeled away. This can be construed as two layers of attention, the sensory and the cognitive. See the footnote below for more on this.
Julian Jaynes, in his fascinating work The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, argues that consciousness is something like a metaphor for reality, an interior map of the territory. Certain features of consciousness, he posits, then reflect physical realities. He believes our attentional system may be a representation of sorts of our visual system, drawing its properties from it, as the visual system is the primary way in which we attend to the world at the sensory level.
This is mostly tongue in cheek. There's no right way to have sex. Whatever floats your boat, man. But even the most motionless of sex, like Mormon-style soaking, presumably involves some sort of isometric muscle holds. Mormon readers, feel free to chime in.
“Macrocognitive” is a term I made up for the purposes of this article. It turns out it already has a definition, but I like mine better so we’re going to roll with it.
For those who might suggest that we're always altering our sense of self in some way, I’ll call on the analogy to exercise once again. While everything you do is subtly reconstituting your body, exercise does it in a more deliberate and directed, and thus more meaningful, way. So too for meditation.
This one is speculative, based as much on the theorizing of myself and others as on empirical evidence, and may prove to be little more than a useful metaphor (although this alone would be a great accomplishment).
Research by Shinzen Young and Jay Sanguinetti’s team out of University of Arizona’s SEMA Lab provides further experimental corroboration of Brewer’s work via direct neuromodulation. They’ve used transcranial ultrasound to induce deep states of meditation by dampening activity of the PCC.
This pun was legitimately not intended.
I recognize that I have liberally interchanged between saying "brain" and "mind." They do not mean the same thing. They are, however, two sides of the same coin. The brain is the physical embodiment of the mind. The mind is the mental manifestation of the brain. Because of this, in certain contexts their use can be functionally equivalent. If I have wandered from such contexts, forgive me.
Looking back on it, it’s actually not that long, I was just hoping for something really crisp.
Every attribution that I’ve found for this quote appears to be apocryphal, so it seems like it’s fair game for me to attribute it to whoever I damn well please. So Charles said it. Charles Barkley is the original author of this quote.