Mindfulness: skeptics guide

medatationI hate mumbo jumbo so I was initially very sceptical about meditation. I would go as far as to say that in the past i have openly mocked people for doing it. My wife does yoga and I am ashamed to say I once made a snide comment when I found out that yoga classes end with a guided meditation.

That having been said I think I have been meditating regularly for the best part of a year now and finally felt like I may have something constructive to say on the subject.

My early experiments with meditation didn’t go particularly well. I have a list of repeating weekly to-do’s and I added ‘5 minutes mindfulness’ to that list only to remove it after a brief period of time. Initially I found that creating an obligation with myself to meditate was adding to my stress levels. So i hit the delete button on that one pretty quick.

However on a very adhoc basis I did try and do some meditation throughout the year. I have heard that cocaine is a drug that becomes more addictive the more you do it. I think the same must be true of meditation, as the more i did it, the more i tended to get out of it.

I took the view that if there were any benefits to be gained from meditation that the majority of those benefits would be accrued with a very small but regular investment in time. So I decided that 5 minutes was how long I was going to try and do.

Now I do regularly meditate, almost every day and I will do 8 minutes. I have also found that I do find it to be a useful addition to my day. It is most useful for quickly reducing stress. Now we have had a child I just don’t get the enormous spans of uninterrupted time that I used to luxuriate in.

I didn’t know it before Isaac our baby showed up, but my once a week treat of watching the whole Andrew Marr Show on a Sunday before I did anything was a ridiculously decadent luxury. I find I can sometimes watch a whole episode in little bouts throughout the Sunday if I can be bothered. However that amount of relaxation can be achieved in a single 8 minute session of mindfulness. There is a tired almost hot feeling that I get in my head and being mindful of that almost feels like I am working those knots out of my mind a bit like a sports massage.

The other place were I find it really helpful is if I can’t sleep. If there is something on my mind, and that is stopping me from sleeping I can get up go next door and meditate. That has proved really effective at stopping thoughts from spinning around in my head.

How does it work? 

elephant eyeMeditation helps with insomnia by preventing rumination.

Rumination is the habit of turning something over and over in your head. Thinking about everything you have to do, or want to do. The trouble is that it is a self re-enforcing habit. The more you do it, the greater your tendency to want to do it. It also tends to amplify any feelings that you are having. If you are ruminating at night, you are also thinking about something at a point when you can’t do anything about it. So it is particularly pointless. Interestingly, you normally only need an activity to take your mind off the rumination for 2 minutes to break the cycle of rumination and meditation is a perfect activity for this, as it occupies the auditory part of your mind.

Meditation is an interesting activity because it helps you get a bit of a handle on how your consciousness really works. Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. His great insight is that the voice you hear in your head isn’t the guy making most of the decisions in your life.

Kahneman describes system 1 and system 2.  System one is the one that you use for the vast, vast majority of the decisions that you have to make through the day. It uses unconscious reasoning. No matter how clever you are, you are making judgement calls largely based on how you ‘feel’. What is really cool is that particularly if you are intelligent, the conscious part of your brain retrospectively comes up with justifications for the decisions that you have made that day. This gives all of us the illusion that we made a decision because we really thought it through, but the truth is that often we just did something cos it felt right and then came up with a neat justification later.

System two is the slow thoughtful part of your brain. It is the voice you hear in your head when you think. The reason we don’t use this part of our brain, to do most of our thinking is that it is really expensive. It takes a lot of mental resources to think about things in detail, so we don’t. However we need to maintain an internally consistent record of why we did the things we did, and so our mind builds this illusion for us that we thought it all through.

The best metaphor I have heard is that the voice in your head thinks he is the oval office, making all the decisions, but in reality he is the press office, just telling everyone what the oval office wants people to hear.

I think meditation basically gives that guy in the press office something to do for long enough for ‘you’ to at least have a peak at what the guy in the oval office is dealing with.

monkeyAnother similar metaphor is that your mind is two animals: A monkey riding an elephant. the monkey is on the top bouncing around and making a lot of noise, he also thinks he is ‘driving’ the elephant, but the reality is that the elephant, is walking exactly where he wants to go and only very occasionally taking any notice of the monkey. Fundamentally that must be true when you think about it: If you aren’t woken in the morning by an alarm, then you are woken by some unconscious part of your brain. Basically you will eventually get up because the elephant realises it has to eat and like wise, even if the monkey wants to stay up all night and watch TV, eventually the elephant will sleep on the couch, or drag you to bed. The fundamental decisions including who you are attracted to aren’t in fact taken by the voice in your head, many of the important calls get taken behind some kind of psychological curtain.


What I do

When I meditate I close my eyes and point my minds eye at different parts of my body. A good trick I started with was to focus on the places where I could feel one part of my body touching another part of my body. You can feel were one toe touches another, then you might feel where your foot contacts the floor, or if you’re sat cross legged, your other leg. By moving from one contact point at the most distal parts of your body and heading slowly towards my head, I can easily do 5 minutes self-guided meditation.

The other thing I do is find my heart beat. Then I find my pulse in my hands, then I ‘listen’ for both, My hands and feet pulse after my heart. Once I have found those I can feel the pulse in the forearms. And if things go really well I can feel a pulse travel through my body out to my hands and feet.

All these things are normally below the level of conscious awareness. They need to be or even ordering coffee or holding a simple conversation would be an ordeal, but it is amazing to think of the shear number inputs and the amount of information that you lower brain is just handling for you throughout the day. I don’t imagine that i would ever get to see everything my lower brain is dealing with, but looking at those two things does give you some insights.