Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics
The Case for Meditation
If you had told me as recently as a few years ago that I would someday become a traveling evangelist for meditation, I would have coughed my beer up through my nose.
In 2004, I had a panic attack while delivering the news, live, on ABC’s Good Morning America. Being a masochist, I asked our research department to tell me exactly how many people were watching. They came back with the vastly reassuring number of 5.019 million. (If you are in the mood for a nice dose of schadenfreude, you can readily find the whole clip on YouTube. Just search for “panic attack on live TV,” and it will pop right up. Which is awesome for me.)
In the wake of my nationally televised freak-out, I learned something even more embarrassing: the entire episode had been caused by some phenomenally stupid behavior in my personal life. After spending years covering war zones for ABC News as an ambitious and idealistic young reporter, I had developed an undiagnosed depression. For months I was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, and felt as if I had a permanent, low-grade fever. Out of desperation, I began self-medicating with recreational drugs, including cocaine and ecstasy. My drug use was short-lived and intermittent. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, in which the characters are pounding Quaaludes every five minutes—it was nothing like that. However, my consumption was enough, according to the doctor I consulted after the panic attack, to artificially raise the level of adrenaline in my brain, exacerbating my baseline anxiety and priming me to have my very public meltdown.
Through a strange and circuitous series of events, the panic attack ultimately led me to embrace a practice I had always dismissed as ridiculous. For most of my life, to the extent that I’d ever even considered meditation, I ranked it right alongside aura readings, Enya, and the unironic use of the word “namaste.” Further, I figured my racing, type-A mind was way too busy to ever be able to commune with the cosmos. And anyway, if I got too happy, it would probably render me completely ineffective at my hypercompetitive job.
Two things changed my mind.
The first was the science.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of research into meditation, which has been shown to
•Reduce blood pressure
•Boost recovery after the release of the stress hormone cortisol
•Improve immune system functioning and response
•Slow age-related atrophy of the brain
•Mitigate the symptoms of depression and anxiety
Studies also show meditation can reduce violence in prisons, boost productivity in the workplace, and improve both behavior and grades for school children.
Things really get interesting when you look at the neuroscience. In recent years, neuroscientists have been peering into the heads of meditators, and they’ve found that the practice can rewire key parts of the brain involved with self-awareness, compassion, and resiliency. One study from the Harvard Gazette found that just eight weeks of meditation resulted in measurable decreases in gray matter density in the area of the brain associated with stress.
The science is still in its early stages and the findings are preliminary. I worry that it has provoked a certain amount of irrational exuberance in the media. (“Meditation can cure halitosis and enable you to dunk on a regulation hoop!”) However, when you aggregate the most rigorous studies, they strongly suggest that daily meditation can deliver a long list of health benefits.
The research has catalyzed a fascinating public health revolution, with the ancient practice of meditation catching on among corporate executives, athletes, U.S. marines, and entertainers, including the rapper 50 Cent. That man got shot nine times; I believe he deserves some peace of mind.
The second thing I learned that changed my mind about meditation is that it does not necessarily entail a lot of the weird stuff I feared it might.
Contrary to popular belief, meditation does not involve folding yourself into a pretzel, joining a group, or wearing special outfits. The word “meditation” is a little bit like the word “sports”; there are hundreds of varieties. The type of meditation we’ll be teaching here is called “mindfulness meditation,” which is derived from Buddhism but does not require adopting a belief system or declaring oneself to be a Buddhist. (In defense of Buddhism, by the way, it is often practiced not as a faith but as a set of tools to help people lead more fulfilled lives in a universe characterized by impermanence and entropy. One of my favorite quotes on the matter is “Buddhism is not something to believe in, but rather something to do.”)
In any event, what we’re teaching here is simple, secular exercise for your brain. To give you a sense of exactly how simple it is, here are the three-step instructions for beginning meditation. You don’t actually have to do this right now; I’ll bring in a ringer soon.
1. Sit comfortably. It’s best to have your spine reasonably straight, which may help prevent an involuntary nap. If you want to sit on the floor in the lotus position, go for it. If not, just sit in a chair, as I do. You can close your eyes or, if you prefer, you can leave them open and adjust your gaze to a neutral point on the ground.
2. Bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and out. Pick a spot where it’s most prominent: your chest, your belly, or your nostrils. You’re not thinking about your breath, you’re just feeling the raw data of the physical sensations. To help maintain focus, you can make a quiet mental note on the in-breath and out-breath, like in and out.
3. The third step is the key. As soon as you try to do this, your mind is almost certainly going to mutiny. You’ll start having all sorts of random thoughts, such as: What’s for lunch? Do I need a haircut? What was Casper the Friendly Ghost before he died? Who was the Susan after whom they named the lazy Susan, and how did she feel about it? No big deal. This is totally normal. The whole game is simply to notice when you are distracted, and begin again. And again. And again.
Every time you catch yourself wandering and escort your attention back to the breath, it is like a biceps curl for the brain. It is also a radical act: you’re breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of rumination and projection, and you are actually focusing on what’s happening right now.
I have heard from countless people who assume that they could never meditate because they can’t stop thinking. I cannot say this frequently enough: the goal is not to clear your mind but to focus your mind—for a few nanoseconds at a time—and whenever you become distracted, just start again. Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation, it is succeeding.
I think this pernicious clear-the-mind misconception stems in part from the fact that meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever. The traditional art depicting meditation, while often beautiful, can be badly misleading. It usually shows practitioners with beatific looks on their faces. Examples abound in Buddhist temples, airport spas, and in this picture of a man in a loincloth I found on the Internet.
Based on my own practice, this image better captures the experience of meditation:
Meditation can be difficult, especially at the beginning. It’s like going to the gym. If you work out and you’re not panting or sweating, you’re probably cheating. Likewise, if you start meditating and find yourself in a thought-free field of bliss, either you have rocketed to enlightenment or you have died.
The practice does get easier the longer you keep at it, but even after doing it for years, I get lost all the time. Here’s a random sample of my mental chatter during a typical meditation session:
Man, I am feeling antsy. What’s the Yiddish term my grandmother used to use for that? Shpilkes. Right.
Words that always make me giggle: “ointment,” “pianist.”
Wait, what? Come on, man. Back to the breath.
Likes: baked goods.
Dislikes: fedoras, dream sequences, that part in techno songs where the French accordion kicks in.
Dude. Come. On.
Alternative jobs: papal nuncio, interpretive dancer, working double time on the seduction line . . .
You get the idea.
So why put yourself through this?
Meditation forces you into a direct collision with a fundamental fact of life that is not often pointed out to us: we all have a voice in our heads.
(The reason the above looks amateurish and slightly creepy is that I drew it, but bear with me.)
When I talk about the voice in your head, I’m not referring to schizophrenia or anything like that; I’m talking about your internal narrator. It’s sometimes called your “ego.” The Buddha had a cool name for it: “the monkey mind.”
Here are some key attributes of the voice in my head. I suspect they will sound familiar.
•It’s often fixated on the past and future, at the expense of whatever is happening right now. The voice loves to plan, plot, and scheme. It’s always making lists or rehearsing arguments or drafting tweets. One moment it has you fantasizing about some halcyon past or Elysian future. Another moment you’re ruing old mistakes or catastrophizing about some not-yet-arrived events. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.”
•The voice is insatiable. The default mental condition for too many human beings is dissatisfaction. Under the sway of the ego, nothing is good enough. We’re always on the hunt for the next dopamine hit. We hurl ourselves headlong from one cookie, one promotion, one party to the next, and yet a great many of us are never fully sated. How many meals, movies, and vacations have you enjoyed? And are you done yet? Of course not.
•The voice is unrelievedly self-involved. We are all the stars of our own movies, whether we cast ourselves as hero, victim, black hat, or all three. True, we can get temporarily sucked into other people’s stories, but often as a means of comparing ourselves to them. Everything ultimately gets subordinated to the one plotline that matters: the Story of Me.
In short, the voice in my head—and perhaps also yours—can be an asshole.
To be fair, our internal narrator is not all bad. It is capable of brilliance, humor, and compassion. It is also extremely useful when designing irrigation systems and composing piano sonatas. Nevertheless, when I bother to listen, most of what I hear inside is rather obnoxious. I am not alone in this. I have a friend, a fellow meditator, who jokes that when he considers the voice in his head, he feels like he’s been kidnapped by the most boring person alive, who says the same baloney over and over, most of it negative, nearly all of it self-referential.
When you are unaware of this ceaseless inner talkfest, it can control and deceive you. The ego’s terrible suggestions often come to the party dressed up as common sense:
You should eat that entire sleeve of Oreos; you’ve had a hard day.
Go ahead, you have every right to make the wisecrack that will ruin the next forty-eight hours of your marriage.
You don’t need to meditate. You’ll never be able to do it anyway.
One of the things that most powerfully drew me to meditation was the realization—many years after the fact, sadly—that the voice in my head was responsible for the most mortifying moment of my life: my on-air panic attack. It was because of my ego that I went off to war zones without considering the psychological consequences, was insufficiently self-aware to recognize my subsequent depression, and then blindly self-medicated.
I began my meditation practice slowly, with just five to ten minutes a day, which is what I recommend everyone aim for at the start. (And, frankly, if you only find time for one minute a day, you can count that as a win. Much more on this soon.) For me, the first sign that meditation was not a waste of time came within weeks, when I started to overhear my wife, Bianca, at cocktail parties telling friends that I had become less of a jerk.
Internally, I pretty quickly began to notice three primary benefits, in ascending order of importance:
The act of stepping out of my daily busyness for a few minutes and simply breathing often injected a dose of sanity into my hectic day. It served to interrupt, if only briefly, the current of mindlessness that often carried me along. The issue of calmness is a bit tricky, though. Many people are drawn to meditation because they want to relax, but they end up disappointed because the ever-declaiming ego keeps butting in or because itches and knee pain arise. While meditation can often be calming, it’s best not to go into it expecting to feel a certain way. And, importantly, even if an individual meditation session isn’t mellow, I’ve found that the net effect of having a daily practice is that, overall, my emotional weather is significantly balmier.
We live in an era defined by what’s been called “omni-connectivity.” Many of us are beset by emails, texts, status updates, and push notifications. It can leave us feeling frayed and frazzled. In my job, I actually have other people’s voices piped directly into my head, and I have to get the facts straight, on short notice, in front of large audiences. I found that the daily exercise of trying to focus on one thing at a time—my breath—and then getting lost and starting again (and again, and again) helped me stay on task during the course of my day. Studies show the more you meditate, the better you are at activating the regions of the brain associated with attention and deactivating the regions associated with mind-wandering.
This rather anodyne-sounding word has become quite buzzy of late. There are now countless books and articles on mindful eating, mindful parenting, mindful sex, mindful dishwashing, mindful yarn-bombing, mindful conjugation of verbs in Esperanto, and on and on. The media fuss has, at times, turned this down-to-earth, universally accessible concept into an impossibly precious thing, and provoked a not-entirely-unjustified backlash. And yet, if you can get past the breathless headlines and press releases, mindfulness is an enormously useful skill.
It is a rich, ancient term with lots of meanings, but here’s my personal definition:
Mindfulness is the ability to see what’s happening in your head at any given moment, so that you don’t get carried away by it.
As an example, imagine you’re driving down the road and someone cuts you off. How does that moment go for you, usually? If you’re like me, you may feel a big blast of anger, which is normal. But then you might automatically act on that anger, honking, and cursing, and so on. There’s no buffer between the stimulus and your reflexive reaction.