Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Experiments in Meditation

Having read about brain imaging studies that monitor the differences between subjects who are meditating and those who are otherwise awake and alert, and having read about subjective improvements in stress levels and concentration from meditation, I thought I'd look into it and give it a try.

So the first thing I did was look around for a resource that didn't contain a bunch of woo-woo, NewAge (pronounced like "sewage") crap in it. I found this book on Amazon for cheap:

The Calm Technique: Meditation Without Magic or Mysticism

Sounded perfect. Then it arrived in my mailbox and I started reading it, and let's just say I'm not that impressed. It's relatively true to the title, in that the approach is non-mystical, but it still feels flaky.

Here are a couple of examples:

When he finally gets around to having you actually do something, it's a small exercise meant to highlight the difficulty in focusing on one thing at a time. He asks the reader to think about an egg, and nothing else, for two minutes. Presumably he wants you to close your eyes right there, try to think about the egg for two minutes, and then keep reading. Okay, so that's what I did.

Here's what comes next:

Almost impossible. You thought how easy it was. You thought of how you had to concentrate. You wondered if you were sitting the right way and whether your two minutes was up.

Well of course I wondered if my two minutes was up, you fool. You didn't tell me to set my alarm on my watch, or to go to the kitchen and get...an egg timer. You just told me to close my eyes for two minutes. If I don't actively mark the time, how the hell am I supposed to follow your instructions?

Later he talks about preparing the environment for meditation:

You could also burn a stick of incense if you wish. It does contribute to the calm atmosphere of your room (and has been known to affect the psycho-neuro centre of the brain).

No shit? The "psycho-neuro" centre of my brain? Wow...where exactly is that? I've read a fair chunk of psychology and neuroscience, and I have no idea what the hell he's talking about. Actually I do...he's speaking gobbledy-pseudoscience.

This is a shame, because he stresses the importance of keeping an open mind (which I always strive to do), but which is difficult when your bullshit sensors are sounding off. This doesn't mean that the meditation techniques described in the book aren't useful and worthwhile, but the flakiness of the writing makes me skeptical that he knows what the hell he's talking about, and that in turn makes it more difficult to trust him and follow his advice on how to meditate.

So, I did try a session yesterday morning, practicing what he called Zen breathing meditation, which is where you sit in a calm environment with low lighting, close your eyes for twenty minutes (I set a timer this time, so I wouldn't have to think about it), and focus solely on your breathing, counting your breaths from 1 to 4, then restarting the count. I didn't feel significantly different (e.g. more or less relaxed) when I finished than when I'd started. He does stress that it's analogous to exercise, and suggests doing it twice a day for several weeks.

Problem is, I doubt I'm willing to cough up nearly an hour out of every day to practice a technique being sold by a guy who uses phrases like "psycho-neuro centre of the brain".

If I do happen to keep it up, and reach nirvana, I'll let you know.

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