As much as meditation brings us in touch with nature, it does so via something very unnatural to humans: stillness
Much of the selling of meditation and mindfulness is that the practice is all about the getting more in touch with the nature of reality and of yourself.
However, meditation is fundamentally unnatural. Sitting still is unnatural. Humans are like sharks; They have to keep moving to stay alive. Fidgeting is more common than not, so that when we see someone sitting frozen, we wonder if something is wrong with them.
But this just goes to show the contention inherent in discussing what is and isn't natural. A guru in meditation would embrace the paradoxical nature of the proposition, and state that meditation is about becoming "more natural." Sure, creatures do move very often, but plants and the soil, which we all eventually return to, remain motionless unless moved by grand external forces.
Be wary of panaceas, except for one: meditation
When embarking on self-improvement, it's important to be weary of panaceas. Panaceas are remedies for all disease, evils, or difficulties, i.e. a cure-all. Self-help, religion, and therapy are all selling panaceas. The body craves them, because it usually doesn't have just one problem, but a pattern of problems, and it usually doesn't want a single solution, but a universal solution so that the solution-finding process can be laid to rest.
There is one glaring exception, though, and that's relaxation and meditation. Relaxation will help with nearly every problem. If you hurt your leg, relaxing will soothe your pain while also calming you down enough to listen to what your doctor is saying. If you have a broken heart, relaxation will not only ease your pain but also reduce the chance of a destructive neurotic episode. What makes relaxation so reliable of a pill is that it very often provides both symptomatic and causative redress. Not only are the symptoms of your problems (stress, agony, pain) alleviated with relaxation, but so are the causes (relaxing helps with problem-solving and deliberation while helping to avoid over-thinking).
Even if everything is going well, you can justify unhappiness if deep down you believe you're heading in the wrong direction
If we were elementary particles of physics, then happiness would not be about our position, but rather the velocity of where we're going in life. It's not our current state that vexes us, but rather our beliefs about what is happening to our current state. If you're poor, the lack of money doesn't strike you as something negative at the moment; rather it's the thought that that state will persist. The upsetting thing is not that you're poor today, but that you will continue to be tomorrow. If a hungry rich man forgets his wallet when he is on the street, he is technically, at that moment, in the same position as the perpetually impoverished. It is through future-attached activities and emotions, such as hoping, planning, and complaining, that we develop a perception of poorness.
Mindfulness is a better substitute for happiness because it is focused solely on the present. Meditation reduces the load from projecting into the future, which is a subtle, but crucial, perceptual shift. The state of being poor transforms into "unalleviated future poorness," which is a more manageable and less vexing proposition.
Even meditators must, from time to time, fear the loss of meditation
Those who don't meditate probably consider dismemberment an unimaginable horror, but seasoned meditators have enough faith in their practice to know that as horrific as losing an arm or a leg would be, it would still just be another "circumstance". This doesn't mean meditators are fearless, rather that the edge of their fears are further out than most people. Such fears include being tortured and having dementia. No one can meditate through any of those experiences. Having no potential for peace or calm would then undermine the whole point of meditation, and therefore defeat whatever coping shield meditation was supposed to afford.
If calming a turbulent mind is relief, and deepening a calm mind is sublime, then meditating from somewhere in-between is boring
People who meditate are likely to feel a glow or high after meditation practice. Even just 30 minutes of breath-monitoring can leave you feeling elevated with a heightened sense of perception. What's interesting, though, is that the intensity of that glow depends on your mindset when you start meditating. If, for example, you start your session at a low point, when you're depressed or anxious, then the glow at the end may be extra-heightened because of how much it contrasts with where you started.
But you may also feel a similar experience if you start at a high point. If you're already calm with equipoise, then it's almost like you have a head start. You begin your meditation enthusiastically and end it at a higher level of consciousness. The glow is extra-heightened, because you began the practice already practiced, and are reaching deeper and further than you've experienced before.
Which leaves the third starting point: somewhere in the middle. If you start a meditation practice neither particularly set nor particularly in the dumps, the feeling you get at the end of the session is likely to be mild.
In other words, that post-meditation buzz really sings when you start things off either really bad or really good, but usually not in-between.
If neuroticism is marked by "load, repetitive thoughts," then mindfulness is marked by "quiet, organic thoughts."
One way of describing a neurotic is by saying that they have minds filled with "loud, repetitive thoughts." Likewise, then, the way of describing a calmer, neurotyical person is to say they have "quiet, organic thoughts."
This label also applies to the typical feeling practitioners feel after meditating. Mindfulness makes it easier to zoom into and out of situations, noticing something as soft a pin drop and as large as your life's purpose. Meditation lets you focus on something, while not being consumed by it. Meditation, by quieting distractions, also lets you move your choice of focus more freely.
If you took a bird's eye view of a meditator's mind, you would notice that the thoughts are quieter, and that they flow more organically. Instead of sticking to one topic and obsessing over it, their mind may stick on one spot, then move to another, but it won't be jumpy. Instead, it'll be smooth like a new stream of water slowly developing into tributaries, like a pleasant wander.
Even without the brain scans or meta-studies that confirm this, just inspecting the nature of meditation alone shows why it's so effective of an anxiety-reducer.
If there is no such thing as good or bad meditation, what kind of meditation are they teaching?
Teachers of meditation urge students not to think about better or worse ways of meditating. In practice, this makes sense, because to have some process to strive for in your head goes against the strive-less methods of meditation. However, this a paradox of meditation instruction, because the very act of writing a book on meditation is to identify better or right ways of meditating.
The instructor could avoid critique by saying that their book is offering just one way to meditate. But the act of curating this particular way elevates it to a special status.
It's convenient that meditation feels good. If it didn't, we wouldn't do it, and there would be no religion to rationalize it
Just the attempt to be happy requires self-love and hope, which puts you already half-way there
The most persuasive thing you can tell a depressed person is that depression is self-perpetuating. Depressed people hold onto beliefs like, "Happiness is not important," "Positive thinking is silly," or "Why should I be happy when not everything is okay?" Depressed people often erroneously think their depressions are justified by external events, without realizing that depression is often the biggest cause of depression. The depressed mind wants further depressing thoughts, whereas the happy mind seeks positive thoughts.
While there are studies that prove this, I noticed this clearly in myself. One day, I decided to apply positive thinking, but I couldn't fathom anything positive at that moment. So I pushed myself to keep trying, to dig deep into the events of the day or details about my life situation, and after a few minutes, I noticed myself feeling better. However, I felt better before I arrived at an actual positive thought. By seeking to deliver positivity to myself, I was already emulating the typical behavior of a happy person.
This result suggests that the key pathway out of depression is to want happiness. To look at yourself and think, "This person needs to be cheered up," already implies a certain self-love which is fundamental to a positive outlook on life.
A parallel pattern happens in meditation. When someone works through their reluctance to meditate, they have already made substantial progress toward mindfulness, without even having begun to meditate.
Meditation, by alleviating suffering, can open one's eyes to boundless forms of suffering, i.e. solitary confinement and dementia
The worst situations in life are the ones you can't meditate or cope through. Even in most awful situations, whether it's imprisonment or divorce, one can find some peace, and in tandem, happiness, assuming you have the right skills. But there are a few situations that are beyond limits of coping, one of which is torture. If someone were to periodically slap you, move you around, or blast music in your ears, it would be too hard to reach a state of anapana, i.e. concentration, wherein you could then find your center and accept the present.
Meditation also only works if you have a mature, neurotypical brain. Some people are wired such that meditation makes them more anxious, not less. Others are afflicted with mind diseases, such as dementia, that make it impossible to build a practice of any kind.
Suffering could then be divided in two: copeable and incopeable. The former could be defined as anything that someone trained in meditation could ultimately find peace with. This division elevates the suffering of those in solitary confinement — which is a mixture of torture and insanity — since their suffering is uncopeable and therefore unlimited. The horror of losing a job or being dismembered is relatively contained thanks to the availability of remedy through a coping mechanism such as meditation.
Meditation, if it is to become a daily habit, has to go from being something you have to do to something you want to do
A common myth about meditation is that it requires discipline. If anything, discipline is counter-productive to keeping a regular meditation practice. Discipline is about force against internal resistance. Meditation, on the other hand, is about letting go and enhancing what your mind wants to do naturally, which is to achieve peace.
This concept is tricky for the beginner to grasp. They may consider meditation to be like physical exercise, something they have to gear themselves into doing every day. But this is an incorrect analogy since most physical exercise is about defying yourself. The actual physical strain that happens in the gym has a parallel mental force or triumph of the will.
Meditation, on the other hand, can't only be sustained by force. Meditation, if it is to become a daily habit, has to become something you want. You have to seek it for its own sake like you do when watching TV to relax after a stressful day at work. The trick is to convince yourself that meditation is what your mind is really seeking, rather than vegging out.
Meditation came about from trial-and-error, from poking holes in the puzzle of our minds, and discovering there was a trick
Meditation exists only as a result of trial-and-error. We couldn't have invented meditation directly from the philosophy behind it. Mindfulness philosophy exists to rationalize a convenient back-door to our mind that doesn't require psychoactive drugs. We could have very well been designed not to be receptive to meditation. In that sense, anybody who relies on meditation to calm them down and find happiness should be grateful evolution worked out that way.
Mindless passion is sometimes just as important as mindfulness
A common objection to Buddhist philosophy or mindfulness practice is that by accepting everything as it is, it may de-motivate us to fix things when they are horribly wrong. The reality is that many of our problems are recursive problems, whereby our negative attitudes and resistance to the way things are are what gives the problems life in the first place. Therefore, meditation often solves problems indirectly by obviating them or by improving our ability to cope with them. Mindfulness literature often mentions this effect along the lines of, "And you may find that once you start meditating, the problems somehow fix themselves."
Mindfulness teaching presumes that a high percentage of modern man's problems are like this, which is probably true, and it explains why people are often very receptive to the philosophy.
However, it's important to note that meditation can't always have a neutral impact. It does change, in some way, your response to problems. Therefore, at least some of those changes are not as ideal as they would be had you not meditated in the first place. Sometimes, you want to fill your motivation with all the fire and brimstone in the world. Sometimes, that mindless passion is what a situation truly demands.
Mindfulness is often about accepting everything, but what if you don't accept being an alcoholic? You may decide that you want a deliberate, frequent, and potentially aggravating, workshop that focuses on a true solution. You reject all half-measures (so-called "coping"), and you want guaranteed results, regardless of whether the work involved initially drives you insane.
Monks aren't meant to set an example, but rather a stretch goal, one that by striving for, we can get at least some meditation
Buddhist monks espouse a philosophy that isn't something everybody should do 100% of the time. Rather their philosophy and their lifestyles are stretch goals. When they say, "Accept this moment, and this moment, and the next one, and so on and so on forever," they only really want you to follow their instructions in theory. In practice, the average listener only follows their maxims .001% of the time. A society that was entirely composed of monks wouldn't function. But monks exist for the same reason that Olympic athletes exist, to show the rest of us the logical conclusion of 100% devotion. At least some of it eventually rubs off on us.
Never mind that stating "You should meditate every second of your life" is unrealistic. It's inspiring, and inspiration sells
Is Eckhart Tolle's book The Power of Now a stretch goal or an actual goal? A stretch goal is one that is further than where you're trying to go. By setting the bar higher than you are likely to go, if you fail and only get part of the way, you will still get the core thing that you were seeking.
Tolle pushes a worldview about being completely immersed in the present, one where you have practically zero concern for the future or the past. More precisely, he espouses that the past and the future are ultimately illusions. (He still wants you to care about the future, just not be consumed by it.)
The thing is, as an ethical model, not everybody should be like Tolle. His life is completely wrapped up in all things spiritual. It's his job to be an example for the rest of us. It's the same with monks. They aren't models for how we should be exactly, but rather they are symbols. They are a model that we can point to and say, "Now there is someone living in deep introspection, I should imitate that."
In other words, The Power of Now is meant to get us to at least 10-20% of Tolle's level. The goal is to include aspects of mindfulness and present-thinking into our lives, but not be so completely consumed by it.
Tolle's worldview leaves almost no room for worry since worrying is so self-destructive. And yet, worrying can be very useful for others, such as when a parent worries about the safety of their child, or when a flight traffic controller worries about crashes.
While our locus of control is only in the present, "living in the future" is simply another way of describing planning, preparing, strategizing, considering, or motivating. It's not thoroughly useless as suggested by some mindfulness literature.
Self-help books re-enforce the belief that thinking is all that's needed to change the mind, which itself is a leading cause of neurosis
Self-improvement books operate primarily by telling readers what to do with their mind. The books are written independent of readers' personal experiences, and so they must speak through the plane of concepts, with exercises the reader can do right then and there. The books emphasize finding focus, finding purpose, thinking positive, clarifying one's mission, etc., all of which drive towards looking inward at one's thoughts. As a result, self-improvement acolytes develop metacognitive judgment, which leads to internal conflict and neurosis.
Meditation, which is a clinically proven practice for affecting life-change, goes in the opposite direction and teaches people that they are not their thoughts. The reason this works is that real self-improvement doesn't happen in the plane of concepts, but through experience followed by insight.
The "wisdom to know the difference" between what to accept and what to change most easily comes from meditation
One of the common questions that comes up in meditation is in the following form: "If something bad is happening, let's say I see my children are fighting violently with each other, do I just meditate on it, and accept what's happening?" What you actually do is accept that this is the situation in front of you. You cannot avoid the reality as it exists in that moment. But meditation only goes that far, and therefore acceptance shouldn't be confused with approval. You accept that there is a fight in front of you, that it is not good, and you respond accordingly.
The difference between approval and acceptance may seem minor, but this subtle language difference is a common pattern in meditation. Oftentimes, meditation brings about a response that is perpendicular to the problem at hand. If problem and solution are arrows pointing in opposite directions, meditation often goes toward something that moves in neither direction. Coping is often in that gray area between problem and solution.
In cognitive therapy, one will also encounter that a fear of acknowledging the reality of the situation leads to distorted negative thoughts. And a common distorted negative thought is, "If I accept things the way they are, then it will make me okay with them." While it may be true that some element of non-acceptance feeds a stronger sense of disapproval, it comes at a price of sacrificing objectivity, and potentially harming yourself with exaggeratedly negative thoughts, likely making the problem worse.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are the symptoms, not causes, of effectiveness
It's possible to read an entire self-improvement book, thinking you're learning a strategy for undergoing a particular transformation, only to realize you are reading a highly detailed description of someone already transformed. Consider, for example, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Do these seven habits describe how to become a highly effective person, or do they describe what highly effective people tend to exhibit?
For example, the first two habits (Habit 1: Be Proactive; Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind) are about the idea of principle-centered living. The logic is based on two points: 1) Highly effective people aren't torn between superficial and always-changing centers, like money or social acceptance; 2) Your principles are unchanging, and therefore are the best candidate for your new center.
The author, Stephen Covey mentions how his philosophy was partly inspired by meditation and Eastern philosophy. Wouldn't the better advice, then, be to meditate? That feeling of centeredness is a common symptom of regular meditation. That sense that our normal day-to-day lives are chock full of misplaced, always-fluctuating centers, is also a common symptom of regular meditation. Reading about meditation can provide vivid descriptions of this concept, but it won't illuminate it as clearly as actually engaging in meditation practice.
On the other hand, reading the symptoms of a highly effective person, and then emulating those habits, may be enough to elicit a placebo effect in the reader. The reader may feel changed, which could retroactively elicit the antecedents of those habits (i.e. believing you are centered may bring about the same mindful feelings that inspired Covey to write about that idea in the first place.)
The chaos of cities has forced us to take the next step in consciousness evolution, which is meditation
A capacity for meditation may be an evolved trait, enabling us to switch temperaments when necessary. Human evolution is ultimately the evolution of choice, and so meditating may be yet another choice, one crucial when we join chaotic environments, like cities.
Times of upheaval reward the mediator, who can obviate entire institutions, such as marriage, by simply getting in touch with their prime directives
The war between the sexes is inevitable, but so is détente. Social customs and institutions are like treaties that automate the process of compromise between man and woman. When there is social upheaval, such as what we've seen in the past 70 years (thanks to contraception, equality in the workplace, equality in the home, etc.), the customs are no longer useful. Given the high divorce rates and the subsequent acrimony, we're back to open warfare between the sexes.
But the sexes need to mate, and so they cling to the old institutions, naively hoping this time will be different. Or they smash themselves together with one-night stands while keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that somehow blindly following their nature is the path to happiness.
In times like these, meditation is critical because it returns us to first principles. Instead of waking up one day, proclaiming to the world, "I want to get married" or "I want a girlfriend," you say, "I want love" or "I don't want to be alone." You cut through the institutional prescription and get back to basic need fulfillment.
Times like these favor the independent thinker, so long as they are also emotionally intelligent, or barring that, have tools like meditation. Sure it takes them longer to get what they want—because essentially the indie has to re-invent a new compromise between the sexes—they'll ultimately be happier living from their prime directives.
Times before or after this, though, when social structures were or will be in place, reward the conformist. Perhaps before 1950, it paid to be a "good son" or "good daughter." To be a rebellious free-thinker was to resign yourself to wandering the lands, searching in vain for someone who fits your particular needs just right.
Zen koans are a cheap simulation of meditation
A big part of mindfulness teaching consists of koans or koan-like sentences. A common koan is that of the professor who keeps filling a student's cup of tea until it overflows, splashing hot liquid everywhere. The student objects, and then the professor replies, "Like this cup, you must empty your mind of your opinions and speculations before I show you Zen." The koan is designed to end the conversation and give you a feeling of being stumped, as if you were in the face of a riddle you couldn't answer. However, often that feeling is a cheap substitute for enlightenment or meditation. Your mind is blank because it has no way of wrapping itself around confusing sentences.
On the other hand, perhaps it gives introductory listeners a taste of the kind of feelings that they should be expecting out of further mindfulness instruction.