Meditation is all the rage these days. The piece linked at the end of this post speaks to the growth in the use of the popular app Headspace. Many are using it to cope with the vicissitudes of modern life. Should you engage in meditation?
To answer the question, you have to remember that meditation is not one thing. Rather, there are many forms of meditation. Today I will briefly separate out four of the likely psychological consequences of meditation so that you might have a better sense of whether meditation is what you are looking for. The list is not exhaustive. Nor are my suggestions based on psychological research. While we psychologists are doing much better research on meditation now than we were 20 years ago, it is an enormously difficult topic to tackle. I don’t know of data that are particularly helpful yet for the topics I discuss below.
1) Meditation as attentional control.
Have you experienced runaway thoughts? Perhaps you have test anxiety or social anxiety and have found yourself caught up in thoughts of terrible things that might happen. Perhaps you have strugged with addiction and you find your thoughts galloping to that which you crave. Perhaps you struggle with depression and the accompanying thoughts of hopelessness and lack of self-worth.
In each of these (and others) people ruminate. They chew over these awful thoughts again and again. And part of the experience of that is our own sense of inadequacy. “Why can’t I control my thoughts! What sort of awful person am I?” This can bring shame, hopelessness, and other bad stuff.
Some forms of meditation seem quite likely to be very helpful with rumination. For instance, in some meditation we bring our attention to our breath or our body sensations or something else. As our attention strays, we bring it back to that to which we intend to attend. With practice it seems likely that people can come to exert a fair amount of control over their thoughts so that when rumination comes along they can escape it.
That by itself can be powerful and helpful.
2) Meditation as moving away from quick judgment of self and other.
If you pay attention to your thoughts you might notice that a lot of them involve judgment. What sort of awful person am I that I can’t pass that exam, or get someone to love me, or sit still or….? What sort of awful person would cut me off in traffic, or not attend to me, or do so much better than me?
Now, I am inclined to think that judgment is important. I’ve survived to this ripe age in part by making the judgment that playing in traffic and eating moldy food are both bad things. But how much of our judgment is instead a tool we have come to use to navigate the world?
For instance, I’m around a lot of talented students and professors. It’s not at all uncommon for them to motivate themselves through negative judgment. “Oh, I’m so awful a student…I really need hard to do better to pull the wool over others’ eyes!” People do that because it works for their purposes. Just as folks sometimes use a whip on a horse to motivate it, people use the whips of their judgments on themselves and others. And that makes them move! But in the long run the whip loses its effect. Exhaustion sets in. And folks wonder at how they just can’t motivate themselves to act as once they did.
But there are better ways to motivate ourselves. We might act because of love of that which we do. We might act with a sense of compassion and solidarity.
Some meditation can help with that tendency to quick judgment. We can notice our thought “I am unloveable” and recognize that this is just a thought, not a reality. We can notice our thought “I am lazy” and realize that the thought is irrelevant to acing with intention.
Meditation can help us move from reflexive judgment.
3) Meditation as breaking up impulse.
How often do we do foolish things on impulse, perhaps because we just can’t stand waiting any longer? People with addictions give in to the urges. People with anger issues snap at others. People with fears run away.
Often impulses are helpful. I think again about dodging cars. It’s helpful to act on the impulse to run. Were a car oncoming and were I to patiently reflect, it’s likely I would wait too long to act.
But often impulses are destructive. Some meditation can teach us to wait when we have impulses. We can be taught to observe our thoughts without acting on them. We can learn to tolerate the distress that arises from not acting on impulse.
We can sense that we feel that we HAVE to do something, have a smoke, or a drink, or a fight, or a flight. And through meditation we can tolerate the distress of this and decide if that’s really what we want to do.
In that, there is a certain freedom.
4) Meditation as the source of purpose.
It’s all well and good to be able to focus attention and to not to be driven by impulse and by harsh self-judgment. But once we’ve found our way past wandering attention, self-judgment, and impulse, where do we go? If we’ve guided ourselves by impulse and beating ourselves up we are likely to feel quite naked and disoriented when we stop attending to those guides.
One incident regarding mindfulness has long called my attention. A Sufi Master friend was aghast that I was studying mindfulness. Why? In his part of the world, assassins were trained in mindfulness.
If I wanted to be a good assassin I’d want to be a mindful assassin. I would not squander attention. I would not waste energy beating myself up. I would want to be able to restrain impulse.
Much meditation teaches attentional control, nonjudgment, and impulse control. But then what? My bet is that a lot of meditators harness that newfound attentional control, nonjudgment, and impulse control to distract themselves from the deeper existential questions.
But some meditation is designed to help people develop purpose. The trick is that the purpose is likely to be tied to the tradition in which the meditation was developed. How do we choose which sort of meditation?
What are humans for? Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and other religions seem to have slightly different understandings of what people are and so what we are for. [I am inexpert at much of this so could particularly easily be wrong here.] The meditations designed for each religion is designed to help us pursue our purpose as understood by that religion.
And so I worry about the narrowing of meditation in psychology to Buddhist-inspired practices. Have we, without thinking, adopted a particular purpose as the goal of meditation? Now, I’ve had a Tibetan Buddhist-inspired practice myself for over 20 years and have found it a blessing, particularly for the first three purposes above, cultivating attentional control, nonjudgment, and impulse control.
But why are we here? Why should learning to attend, learning to not judge oneself, and impulse control help one to find purpose? My instinct is that attentional control, nonjudgment, and impulse control should be helpful in finding purpose but will not inevitably lead there.
I am inclined to think that, having grown up Catholic, my own search for purpose was greatly assisted by engaging in particular Catholic (Ignatian) meditations. As I listen to other people, I find similar experiences with meditations from other traditions.
Consider, by analogy, rafting. It is important to be able to respond to the challenges the river places before us. Attentional control, nonjudgment, and impulse control are certainly helpful for handling the challenges of our lives. Difficult relationships. Difficult health. Difficult work. Difficult culture. But they don’t tell us which river to choose for our rafting. Contemplative practices focused on purpose seem a better bet for that purpose. In choosing meditative practices, the tradition from which it is drawn seems likely to affect the purpose toward which we are shaped.
Meditation is popular. But if you are thinking about pursuing it I would encourage you to think about what is calling you to meditation.
Are you frustrated by your inability to focus?
Are you caught up in judgment?
Do you find yourself acting on impulse?
Are you trying to find purpose in your life?
Different meditation practices are likely to be helpful for each of these four, though the data are years from even being scant.
For psychological scientists….we need to be careful about not treating different forms of meditation as equivalent and for allowing ourselves to study many different dependent measures. And I think we should cast a wider net. Our attention as of now is too narrowly focused.