My goal with this article is to reframe meditation in my own terms. I will outline a version of meditation which solves a problem and which I can agree is worthwhile.
I will also use this article to set some kind of miniature, incomplete example. I will model for the wider community a more acceptable standard of introduction to meditation practice which is rational and explanatory, not woo-woo, vague, confusing or mysterious.
I used to meditate ~everyday. I was interested in meditations about:
This lasted for a couple of years, before about three years ago, when I stopped1.
I don't have a perfect model for why I stopped. I'm putting pieces together a bit, and I might be misremembering, but I think it goes something like this:
I needed to break free. Meditation was a big source of coercion in my life. Meditation was a thing which I rarely really wanted to do, but which I beat myself into doing anyway because it was 'good for me'. It was 'good for me', because after meditating, Executive Adam could come in and take control and impose his values.
At the time, parts of myself which were pushing for expression -- who wanted to be impulsive, loose, fun, pleasure-seeking, casual, sleepy, easy-going, and so on -- would just be ignored and told to shut up. Those parts wouldn't have their concerns addressed, be treated seriously, and be party to terms of mutual benefit. It was a time where Executive Adam was in charge, and he would use meditation to establish his power and threat over the others. I needed to break out of this little prison I'd created for myself.
That meant ultimately -- why I stopped meditating -- there was a kind of internal rebellion. I chose to abandon tyranny and to leave the dictator meditator behind.
Assuming that the picture I've just painted is somewhat accurate, it definitely made some sense for me to run away, to get as far from meditation as possible. The internal arrangement was irrational, and felt bad, like a pit in my stomach.
But it wasn't until recently that I've thought about gracefully retreading old ground and trying to recover the good in what was lost. As in: Is there a reason still to meditate? How should I think about meditation? And in what ways might I still wholeheartedly benefit? It's only recently that I've felt I've developed the thinking tools, and the awareness, to approach meditation practice without any kind of conflict or silliness.
I'm back, because I'm smarter, and because of the legitimate thought behind this article which suggests that there is something still to gain. The idea will be that I am starting over in completely my own words, and that I'm making sure that my arguments stay convincing.
Assume that you have some idea about how you want to live; and assume that there's no conflict or controversy about it. No matter your mood, no matter how tired you are, etc., whenever you think about that idea, you're like yeah, that's a pretty good way to live. Start with something really simple and easy. For the sake of example, imagine that you have the idea I should be kind to the doorman to my building.
Any such idea should entail that you follow some kind of principle or goal. It's not just like a list of object-level things to do which you already know about in advance; it's not clear what all the details are. You'll have to figure it out some and to reserve some attention for the idea to make sure that you're doing it right when it's needed. If you see the doorman at the door, in the lobby area, or in the local supermarket, you'll need to invent some way of interacting with him, something to say or do which you can't necessarily anticipate.
For a second ingredient, assume that there is some way in which you can get distracted from your idea. For example, you're passing the doorman on the way to work, but you're distracted from saying "Good morning" because someone is calling you, or because you're thinking about an argument you just had with your spouse, or because you're playing a new level on an app on your phone, or some such. Assume that there's something which can take up your attention and means that you'll forget the greeting; which means that you'll fail to live consistently with your principle or goal.
Now, you don't really want to get distracted. You would prefer to be without the distraction and to be freely living your best life. By hypothesis, when you see the doorman, you want to remember to be kind, because you're already confident that you want to be that sort of person.
But ... you do get distracted anyway. It's not entirely voluntary, and it's pretty realistic that it happens pretty often -- typically by force of habit. We're assuming that this is something that you have to factor in and deal with. We're assuming that you are going to get distracted, and that introduces a problem. But there is one obvious thing which still remains in your control -- and that is whether or not you stay distracted.
So what can a person fall back on, that they might exit their distraction? Because just keeping up some external source of reminder is problematic.
Suppose that you have some reminder of what your goal is which without loss of generality regularly puts out a notification on your phone. And suppose that you had that going off frequently enough to interrupt a distraction at every point prior to an event in which the goal is relevant.
Then that reminder would have to be going off all the time! It would be incredibly suffocating and annoying! And before long you would become desensitised to it. Besides, who wants to be skidding between distraction and focus by means of some dumb reminder? That's not what you would naively imagine as the right kind of solution to our problem. In the right kind of solution, you should be able to trust yourself to return to focus.
So, is there a way, in which you can better trust yourself to exit your distractions, to remember such things as a "Good morning" to the doorman, and not to rely on external influence? Can you fall back on your own mind, your own intentions, and focus on what you say you value?
Well ... maybe. But if you really want to be able to focus -- if you really want to be able to always say "Good morning" to the doorman by yourself -- you require the relevant skill. And you don't just necessarily, automatically already have that. That doesn't just come for free. You need to have developed that skill, to have practiced it over and over, to be confident that you can use it. Enter:
Focus meditation is about practicing your focus. It's about making you better at breaking through your distractions, and devoting your mental resources to the right things. And for the gist, it's best to just jump right into a basic how-to2:
First, you pick a really simple thing to focus on.
Typically people choose the breath. Try different objects of focus though! You don't want to become too dependent on just using the breath.
Second, notice when you get distracted from the object of focus. Make a literal note of it. I would advise at least tallying it on some notepaper. But occasionally also write down specifically what you were distracted by -- what were you thinking or feeling or sensing. To be concrete, you could have a repeating interval of 5 minutes, and at the end of that interval, that's when you stop and actually write something down. Say, you write down the last thing you were distracted by.
Third, try and focus on the object again. If you get distracted, go back to the second step.
Fourth, when you've been doing that for long enough, say 10-20 minutes, reflect on:
That's the basic formula, but don't expect to reap a bunch of rewards of expert focus in one go. The practice works by repetition. You want to do it regularly, like once a day.
The practice is about automating the internal 'recognition' software which is checking, generally, whether or not you are focused on a goal (for example, following the breath) -- so that eventually the recognition should become easy and unconscious3. It's also about gradually strengthening your 'focusing muscle'4, which performs the mental action which takes you from a state of distraction to non-distraction.
I include the information-gathering step of step four so that you can customise that recognition software, and make it more powerful. You can group together typical types of distractions for you, typical causes for distractions, preconditions for distractions, and so on. For example, I am typically distracted by the urge to reply to a text. Then you can start noticing things as repeat or as in categories. You can name them and you can simplify your mental models some. Continuing the example, you can call that urge neediness, where you need to send the reply right now when you could actually more appropriately do that later.
Focus meditation helps you to develop your focusing faculty. The idea is that, over time, you should become increasingly able to focus on ... whatever you want to focus on. And since a pre-decided, non-controversially-good way-of-living -- like being kind to the doorman -- should be one of those things, you should become increasingly able to solve our earlier problem.
You should be able to exercise this focus without finding yourself in a situation like of Executive Adam. We're assuming that you've already been cautious about what you really think is in your interest to focus on. You've picked out easy examples of goals for your life; you're confident in them; and no parts of yourself are gonna throw up their hands in anguish and object when it actually comes down to putting away your phone and remarking "Good morning".
Which is ... great. But is that all? Is there anything else that focus meditation can help with?
Meditation is popularly presented in a bunch of different forms, and purported to serve a bunch of different purposes, so I also consider it appropriate to state some of the things which focus meditation does not help you with, or at least is not designed to help with:
I have approached meditation in a partially novel and fairly organised way; and so I think that the article serves its purpose for now.
I could certainly add more dimensions and variations to the practice in the future. But I think that it's good to start off with something minimal, and to make sure that I get that right. Also, going beyond what I have described in a responsible manner, escalating to less well-understood forms of practice, would have to involve much more discussion of hazards, risks, bad experiences, ambiguities, possible misinterpretations, prerequisites, and other such rational stuff, to help avoid those practices going awry; and I think I'm long from being qualified to do that right now.
The actual scheme for focus meditation can be considered in beta. I think that there is a lot more room for optimising these things than is typically made out, and for approaching them with an engineering mindset. So it would be great to hear from readers of any appropriate modifications or additions.
Stopped consistently meditating at least. I sporadically returned to meditation, but never for long or with any seriousness. ↩
This is an innovation on/variation of Sam Harris' instructions. ↩
See Critical Fallibilism for more on the role of practice in learning. Good accumulation point with links to other articles here. ↩
I first heard this kind of phrasing from Dan Harris. ↩