Thursday, January 27, 2022

Meditation for Nerds


This is a very short guide, based on my own experience and what I have read.  I may update it over time, since the topic is very important to me.   Best to get something down to start with, though, so...

Why Meditate

You can find a lot of reasons why in popular literature.  My own experience is:

  • I'm better able to handle stress (I actually feel less of it, rather than being able to handle more).
  • I'm less reactive, and less likely to get caught up in someone else's anger.
  • I sleep better.
  • I understand my own emotions and wants better, and I have much more control over them.
  • I'm better able to understand the emotions and wants of others.

How to meditate 

There are many different ways to meditate.  Most "concentration "practices boil down to:

  • Choose an object of meditation, and pay attention to it as well as you can. A common object is the feeling of breath at the tip of your nose.
  • Your mind will wander, pretty much constantly, whenever it does, gently bring your attention back to the meditation object.

Most "insight" practices boil down to almost the same thing, but with an extra step:

  • Choose an object of meditation, and pay attention to it as well as you can. A common object is the feeling of breath at the tip of your nose.
  • Your mind will wander, pretty much constantly, whenever it does, note what thoughts were present when you realized your attention had wandered.
  • Gently bring your attention back to the meditation object.

That's it. 

That makes no sense.  Why would that help with anything?

The main reason is that it gives you a clear view into your own mind.  It teaches you that your default state is for your attention to wander from object to object, constantly.  It also brings to light the thoughts and your reactions to them, mostly either attraction or replusion.  Knowing this in yourself, it becomes easier to see in others.  Understanding that basic truth at an experiential level makes your self-understanding and understanding of others intuitive, which means you are able to apply this understanding at a level below conscious thought.  This means that the thinking part of your mind can be used to infer deeper meanings because you don't have to work as hard to understand the basic context of the situation.

Another reason is that the simple exercise of deliberately and repeatedly redirecting your attention to an object you choose increases your ability to keep your attention where you choose, which seems obvious.  It is powerful because you can keep your attention on a person who is expressing intense emotion, rather than reacting to the emotions this triggers in you. 

That sounds too easy.  How long does this take?

 Seems like forever, sometimes.  My own experience is that after a few days of daily sits, I felt like I was a bit less reactive.  After several weeks I was sure of it.  After several years, I feel like I have a fundamentally different relationship to myself and other people.  It isn't blazingly obvious in any given situation or context, but I find that I'm content much more often, and reactive much less often.

Answered in another way, I found that I got good results by sitting quietly for 10-15 minutes per day when I started doing this, and that was my schedule for several years.  The important thing seems to be consistency, rather than duration.  That said, I aim for 30-45 minutes per day now that I'm 10+ years into my practice, and I find that I get more out of it. 

That still sounds too easy.  

I have found that I get much more out of it from reading on the subject, and trying a lot of variations on the basic techniques.  I also find that having a "core" practice is helpful. 

When I say "variations", I'm referring to traditions with millenia of history behind them.  Much of that history is concerned with things that I don't find useful (the divinity of the buddha, the definition of an adept meditator, obedience to a teacher or practice, etc.).  As a non-theist, I simply skip those parts and work with the rest.

One of the most useful variations which I have tried is "Metta", with the closely-related "Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation".  In this practice, the "object" is a feeling of happiness and goodwill toward yourself and others, rather than the feeling of the breath.  There are stock words that help to bring up this feeling ("May I be free from suffering, may I be free from ill willl, may I be filled with loving kindness, may I be truly happy").  There is a lot of useful writing on the subject.

Another is "noting", where you pause to notice what your current thoughts are.  This can be done as part of a breath meditation (whenever your attention wanders, note before returning to the breath as stated above), or while doing any undemanding or repetitive activity.


There are a LOT  of works on this subject.  The one I have found most useful and accessible is "The Mind Illuminated", by John Yates a.k.a. Culadasa.  It is the closest to a detailed instruction manual that I have found.

For a much more in-depth (and much less accessible, IMHO) but still mainly secular take, Daniel Ingram's "Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha" is hard to beat.  Full disclosure: I bought it a year ago & haven't read all of it yet.  It has given me a number of useful insights and ideas for my practice, but I think it was written for meditators who are much more advanced than me.  Also, the author makes no bones about being an opinionated S.O.B., so be prepared.

More to follow, probably.