Meditation: The Skeptic's Guide

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Learn about the benefits of meditation as a proven tool to reduce stress and deal with anxiety.

Posted by Konrad Kopczynski on December 20th, 2016

Meditation.

I never bought into it. My views on the subject could be summed up something like this:

Meditation is hocus pocus that no serious people practice. It’s left over from the days when people were stupid and believed that organized religion was going to save them from the inevitable poverty, lack of success and eventual death that has been the reality for most of the 108 billion people that have lived on this planet. To top it off, it’s a waste of time to sit still and do nothing.

To give you a little more context about how I came to this view, let me tell you a little bit about myself.

For the past five years, I’ve done what I call a “Personal Evolution” every business day. It’s a checklist that now contains 35 items and its purpose is to get myself into a “power” mindset (you know that feeling when you’re ready to tear through the work in front of you?).

For the past two years, I’ve been scheduling my days out in 30-minute (sometimes 15-minute) increments.

For the past year I’ve been tracking a set of metrics about myself on a daily basis that started with whether I exercised or not. It has grown to 76 items.

All of this has allowed me to make enormous logic-driven changes in my life and habits. I’ve gone from dreading social situations to excelling in them; from constantly overlooking details to being a detail enthusiast.

So, when I first encountered meditation and its treatment in popular culture, my reaction was: “This sounds like bullshit.”

I was not alone. It is not hard to come to this conclusion based on the image of meditation in the public view. When you hear meditation, you likely think of a Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged with his hands on his knees staring off into the sunset on the path to enlightenment. And so does everyone else. The top results on Google image search for meditation are just that:

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Look at all those sappy words that Google is suggesting to filter by.

So, like you, I was extremely skeptical.

Then, about 12 months ago, I was going through an atypical mental downswing. I’m normally the eternal optimist and everything is going to be fucking amazing and rosy and awesome. But, I was down.

In the past 10 years I’ve changed myself and my habits considerably, so instead of just giving up and accepting this as the new normal, I began to search for solutions.

I took another look at the concept of meditation. To be more accurate, I noticed that meditation had been beating me over the head for years with its benefits and I just wasn’t paying attention.

This time I listened.

It turns out that nearly every person who I considered successful attributed their success in large part to meditation.

The Inspiration

“[Meditation] is like having a charger for your mind and body.”

Jerry Seinfeld

"Meditation, more than any other factor, has been the reason for what success I've had."

Ray Dalio (founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest and most successful hedge fund in the world with $160B under management)

"If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there's room to hear more subtle things—that's when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before."

Steve Jobs

There is Steve Jobs giving a nearly perfect description of how to perform a mindfulness meditation.

It started getting to the point where it seemed that EVERY successful person had done it. Then there were a few even more interesting examples. Examples of where even a little bit of meditation seemed to have made a huge difference quickly:

“There was a, perhaps unusual, very surprising, example. Long before Google was teaching emotional intelligence courses in Mountain View, Monsanto, of all companies, tried mindfulness. They had a very progressive CEO for a moment there, who had a personal interest in this practice. He brought in a very skilled and experienced teacher named Mirabai Bush, and they began teaching mindfulness to the executives of the company.

These executives who had been in the corporate world for the duration of their careers suddenly were exposed to ways of thinking and ways of relating to themselves and to each other and even to their customers and maybe even to the planet, that they had never experienced before. Some people had these real, very emotional openings. Some people, I've heard, actually quit the company when this started to happen. It was starting to make a difference in the way some of the top executives at this company were thinking about the world.

And then of course what happened is the CEO got fired, they shut down the program, and no one ever mentioned it again. These things happen in corporate America.”

Corporations' Newest Productivity Hack: Meditation in The Atlantic

Wow, so executives at a public company began to practice mindfulness meditation, and within a short amount of time they were changed so drastically that they completely reconsidered their position in life and quit, presumably to pursue their passions in life. What is this drug and how can I get on it?

I was intrigued. However, the plural of anecdote is not evidence, so what if this is just survivorship bias?

“Survivorship bias, or survival bias, is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that "survived" some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. The survivors may be actual people, as in a medical study, or could be companies or research subjects or applicants for a job, or anything that must make it past some selection process to be considered further.

Survivorship bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored, such as when companies that no longer exist are excluded from analyses of financial performance. It can also lead to the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than just coincidence. For example, if three of the five students with the best college grades went to the same high school, that can lead one to believe that the high school must offer an excellent education. This could be true, but the question cannot be answered without looking at the grades of all the other students from that high school, not just the ones who "survived" the top-five selection process.”

Wikipedia

How many unsuccessful people also practice meditation and get no benefit from it? Did all these people just attribute what was simply luck to meditation? It’s possible. So, is there evidence of benefits?

Is There Evidence?

There are thousands of studies that have addressed the question of whether meditation is beneficial to people. To make the search even more daunting, there does not seem to be a scientific consensus on the benefits.

The reasons for this lack of consensus include:

  1. Most studies of meditation are low quality.
  2. Scientists and spiritual practitioners alike struggle to define meditation.
  3. When they do define it, they tend to use the “mindfulness,” and there is no reliable way to measure what “mindfulness” is.
  4. There are dozens if not hundreds of types of meditation.
  5. Scientists tend to focus on health benefits (since it is so hard to measure other benefits like increased happiness or productivity).

Low Quality Studies Are Exaggerated

We could, and will, write an entire article on what makes for a quality study. For the purpose of this article, however, it is important to know that American culture has a study fetish.

Scientific studies are usually extremely incremental in their findings, while the media is looking for sensational stories. So, a sleepy scientific study that is a stepping-stone to five other studies is often blown way out of proportion. To give one example:

“A scientist, Arpad Pusztai, disclosed on national television that genetically modified potatoes, in preliminary studies, exhibited dangerous levels of toxicity in rats that ingested them. The media ... publicized that there was a danger of eating genetically modified produce and this scared the public. A year later, Pusztai published his final results demonstrating that the statements which the media made to the public were flawed. The media must understand that preliminary does not mean final results. A problem also occurs because when the media inform the public of preliminary results, they
fail to keep the public informed of the final results.”

The Use and Abuse of Science published at University of Texas at El Paso

This sort of rampant abuse by the media has led to studies being misrepresented, and to low-quality studies being presented as gospel.

To show you just how low the quality of studies on meditation tends to be, the largest-to-date meta-review, a review of existing studies, of meditation studies done at John Hopkins University discovered that out of 3,714 studies that fit other selection criteria (type of meditation, adult population and relevant to key questions), only 41 were up to snuff on study quality. That’s barely 1 percent.

A key observation in the last point of the conclusion in this meta-review helps us to understand another reason why the research into meditation is so bad:

“Becoming an expert at simple skills such swimming, reading, or writing (which can be objectively measured by others) take a considerable amount of time, so it only follows that meditation would also take a long period of time to master.”

Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being

The implication here is that skill in meditation cannot be objectively measured by others. That’s a big deal if you are trying to ascertain its effectiveness.

So, if skill in meditation cannot be measured, does it exist?

What Is Meditation?

The biggest challenge that is preventing this consensus from being made is in defining meditation and its benefits.

Google’s definition of “to meditate” is tellingly vague:

“To think deeply or focus one's mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.”

In order to try to test the benefits, scientists have attempted to categorize all forms of meditation into two broad categories (I’ll get into more specific details on each of these methods later):

  1. Concentration-based methods: This includes methods such as Transcendental Meditation (TM) and other mantra based meditation programs.
  2. Mindfulness-based methods: These emphasize “mindfulness,” and include the most commonly studied programs of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). The spiritual ancestor of these methods and one of the most common forms of meditative practice is Vipassanā, which in the Buddhist tradition means “insight into the true nature of reality.”

The problem with this distinction is that it doesn’t tell us anything meaningful about what people are actually doing when they are meditating and if there is an actual “mindful” state that they are entering.

The closest definition to a “technique” are the facts that:

  1. All meditation methods involve some form of concentration, whether it is concentration on the body (mindfulness meditation) or on a mantra (TM and other mantra meditations).
  2. All meditation methods also seem to be dynamic, meaning that you can get better at it over time.

To make matters worse, the teaching of these methods is very rarely standardized. And when it is, it is extremely hard, arguably impossible, to test for skill at meditating.

Because of these problems, meditation looks a lot like a black box. Practitioners can try to describe what it is like to meditate, often using flowery metaphors (we’ll see some of these in a bit) that seem to do more harm than good, but they cannot conclusively tell whether you are meditating.

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It is sort of like painting a painting when the only feedback you get is a verbal description. There are blind people that can do it, but it takes a lot of practice and is effectively not study-able if all the researchers studying the painting are also blind and relying on you to describe the painting (that you can’t see) to them. The blind leading the blind, so to speak.

Another visual metaphor for this basic missing knowledge is a simple X/Y chart. If X is your meditation practice, what is Y? We know that there may be a variety of benefits happening, but what is the driver of those benefits? We have no idea.

You may be thinking: “But what about brain scans? Do they show what meditation is?” This is definitely the most promising field of research currently being done. However, studies done in this area are of extremely low quality, as I touched on earlier. They are often done retroactively (meaning that they take advantage of the narrative fallacy. The tendency to attribute coincidences to causation in retrospect.), do not have active controls and/or the results are not easily attributable to a specific technique or practice.

Take this study, for example:

“In a study published in the journal NeuroImage in 2009, Luders and her colleagues compared the brains of 22 meditators and 22 age-matched non-meditators and found that the meditators (who practiced a wide range of traditions and had between five and 46 years of meditation experience) had more gray matter in regions of the brain that are important for attention, emotion regulation, and mental flexibility. Increased gray matter typically makes an area of the brain more efficient or powerful at processing information. Luders believes that the increased gray matter in the meditators’ brains should make them better at controlling their attention, managing their emotions, and making mindful choices.”

Your Brain on Meditation

Although this study is directionally interesting, there are major problems with the results that are being taken away from this study in the article I quoted above:

  1. Correlation does not equal causation: As every statistics student is taught, just because a practice and a result are correlated it does not mean that the practice causes the result. Especially in this case, where any number of selection biases or other lifestyle factors could be the cause when you are comparing monks and non-monks.
  2. Retroactive studies suffer from selection bias and lack of direct cause: The study was done on people who either did or did not meditate in the past. Not only was it not designed with a control group, it is hard to know if meditation was the only factor that they had not in common.

A more scientific review of meditation studies from 2014 asserts:

“Despite over 50 years of research into the states of consciousness induced by various meditation practices, no clear neurophysiological signatures of these states have been found.”

A neurophysiological signature is a signal in the nervous system that could be used to identify a certain state. Such a signature would allow us to measure whether one is meditating and the quality of their meditation.

Measuring brain activity to prove the effectiveness of mediation is a promising lead, but by no means is it hard evidence for a specific technique of meditation that can affect your life.

Since we’ve run into a dead end, let us look at how meditation practitioners define meditation using metaphors and let us see if we can make any sense of that.

Let’s use transcendental meditation, Vipassanā and MBSR as examples. They are the most common forms that the layperson may encounter in their quest for enlightenment, and they are also the techniques that scientists have studied the most.

Transcendental meditation:

“What happens when you meditate? The TM technique allows your mind to easily settle inward, through quieter levels of thought, until you experience the most silent and peaceful level of your own awareness — pure consciousness.” –TM.org

Let’s take another look at that, but this time emphasize the key phrases:

“What happens when you meditate? The TM technique allows your mind to easily settle inward, through quieter levels of thought, until you experience the most silent and peaceful level of your own awareness — pure consciousness.”

Four phrases that mean absolutely nothing scientifically. It’s all bullshit.

Vipassanā

Vipassanā, as described by most teachers, is no better. Take this example from the meditation website, Lion’s Roar:

“Vipassanā, or insight meditation, is the practice of continued close attention to sensation, through which one ultimately sees the true nature of existence.”

MBSR

Even if you take the more structured form of mindfulness meditation used by scientists in studies, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), you still get gibberish. For example, from the MBSR administrating organization, Mindful Living Programs:

“Mindfulness meditation is moment to moment awareness. It is being fully awake. It involves being here for the moments of our lives, without striving or judging.”

You may be thinking, “Isn’t the point of this article to support meditation?” My answer to you is no. The point of this article is to examine the pros and cons of meditation from a skeptic's perspective and then take away any positives that may come from it.

And yet, through all this bullshit, we still get the raving testimonials regarding meditation that I went over at the beginning of this article.

Meditation is an extremely complex topic to study from a scientific perspective. It isn’t like a pill that has the same composition every time it is ingested and thus tells the scientific method, which has been so instrumental in humanity’s progress, to go fuck itself.

Before we get to how scientists are getting around this, let’s examine the one term that all meditation proponents seem to agree is what is created through meditation: mindfulness.

What Is Mindfulness?

Let’s start again with Google’s definition:

“A mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”

Another frustratingly vague definition. What about our friends at TM, Vipassanā and MBSR?

Transcendental Meditation

TM claims that their meditation method is not based on mindfulness at all but rather on “effortless transcendence” through repetition of a mantra. However, once you push into the concept of transcendence further, you find that it is essentially the concentration on a mantra that gets you there. This is identical to the concentration on sensation in other types of meditation. That said, for that reason they do not give a definition of mindfulness so I will move on.

Vipassanā

“Mindfulness in insight meditation refers to bare awareness of the physical and mental phenomena occurring in the present moment. These phenomena include the movements of your body, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations of touch, pain or pleasant feeling, thoughts, etc.”

Dhura Meditation Society

MBSR or a scientific definition:

“Mindfulness has been described as self-regulating attention toward the immediate present moment and adopting an orientation marked by curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Others have described mindfulness as including five key components: nonreactivity, observing, acting with awareness, describing, and non-judging. Still others have criticized these descriptions, noting that originally the practice emphasized qualities of awareness, which are not adequately captured by these definitions.”

From a study titled Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being

These definitions are actually more helpful than the definition of meditation.

Based on these and other sources and doing some heavy reading between the lines I’ve come to the following definition of mindfulness as it pertains to meditation:

Mindfulness is the ability to observe yourself and your feelings in a way that is completely disconnected from your experience of those feelings.

Or in layman's terms: self-awareness.

The idea is that you can see things happening in your body and brain as if you were a neutral third-party observer. Being able to do so has obvious benefits, the most obvious being the ability to shut off your emotional reaction to events and react in the most optimal way. In the words of Ray Dalio:

“It means when things come at you—challenges, stresses, disruptive events—you can be calm and analytical and approach them almost, I imagine, like a Ninja sees things coming at him in slow motion so that he’s obviously in control. Being “centered” is that state in which your emotions are not hijacking you. The ability to think clearly, put things in their right place and have perspective: That’s what I mean by ‘centered.’”

So meditation builds self-awareness. Great. Unfortunately, this doesn’t get us any closer to measuring mindfulness (or self-awareness).

Upon a bit of extra research, I did find a way to measure mindfulness. The Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) developed by Kirk Warren Brown, PhD at the Department of Psychology at the Virginia Commonwealth University is a self-assessment that outputs a mindfulness score. This has all the drawbacks in accuracy of a self-assessment but is better than nothing. Unfortunately, this scale has not yet been used in any significant studies tying meditation or mindfulness to specific benefits.

Which brings us back to the original problem of how to study the effects of meditation and attempting to answer the question: “Is there evidence of the benefits of meditation?”

So, Is There Evidence?

Maybe.

How do scientists get around the fact that there is no clear definition of meditation? They do their best. Most studies attempt to skip the definition of skill in meditation and instead put participants through an introductory course and assume that it gets them to a certain level of meditative skill, and then measure if there are any benefits from that practice. It’s an approximate method at best, and so far most credible studies are done on short (a few months) timeframes, whereas much of the meditative benefit is said to come through years of practice. (See why the lack of scientific evidence may not necessarily mean that there are no positive effects?)

Either way, it is going to take scientists more time and breakthroughs in measurement of the mind to conclusively describe what meditation does, let alone determine whether it is beneficial or not.

Instead of attempting to do a comprehensive review of the existing studies (again, there are over 50,000 studies on meditation), I will address the most publicly visible forms of meditation, discuss the evidence that does or does not exist in its favor, and offer a verdict. Then, in the next section I will propose a framework that cuts through the dense detail to get to something practical for you to apply.

The forms of meditation I will address are:

  1. Transcendental meditation: As taught by the TM organization.
  2. Vipassanā: The popular definition of it and the more lightweight way that it is used.
  3. Mindfulness meditation: Specifically, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

Types of meditation (or similar practice) that I will ignore and why:

  1. Movement-based meditation: These include yoga, tai chi and others, and they’ve been excluded because scientists have not yet devised a way to separate the effects of the meditation from the effects of exercise (very much since nobody knows what meditation does exactly). This includes routines that incorporate both exercise and meditation like those promoted in Healthy Brain, Happy Life.
  2. Visualization techniques: These include affirmations (as espoused by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert) as well as visualizing physical acts (there is some evidence that this helps to develop skills). I am excluding these because they are fundamentally different techniques with more complex benefits than meditation.
  3. Other non-standardized forms of meditation: Any other form of meditation that is even less standardized than those that I’ve introduced here.

Without further ado, here is the spectrum of beliefs surrounding meditation.

1. Transcendental meditation

Transcendental meditation makes many plausible-sounding claims. I mean, take a look at their homepage (as of 12/2/2016):

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Unfortunately, when you start to dig into their claims further, they begin to fall apart and lose some of their appeal. Before I get into that, though, it’s important to note what these claims are largely about. It’s the pieces of TM that claim to be “proprietary” or “secret” or that must be learned through the TM organization. That’s where their claims fall apart. The reason why there is so much anecdotal evidence for the benefits of TM (as you may remember, most of the quotes at the beginning of this piece are from practitioners of TM) is because for most people, TM essentially enables a form of mindfulness meditation or relaxation (more on this below).

The TM organization does not grasp this. It’s effectively attempting to ignore this fact and build a business around their “unique” technique. But enough hyperbole—let me show you the facts:

  1. Most of the studies referenced by the TM organization are not up to quality levels of a scientific study. Of the “More than 380 peer-reviewed research studies” that TM claims support the effectiveness of their technique, only five studies were high-quality enough to be included in the 2014 meta-review referenced earlier.
  2. The studies on TM that were included in the meta-review are inconclusive regarding their results.
  3. The TM organization has a history of funding research on TM and hiding that fact. This introduces a huge risk of bias.
  4. There is evidence to suggest, though not to prove, that TM is essentially a relaxation technique and does not provide any benefit over other forms of relaxation like taking a 20-minute nap two times a day.
  5. The TM organization behaves in an extremely sketchy fashion, suing detractors and routinely having their suits thrown out by courts for lack of evidence. If you’re curious and would like to jump down the rabbit hole, here are some places to start:
    a. A TM lawsuit against investigative journalist Andrew Skolnick was dismissed, or his original work.
    b. “Is TM a cult?” on Quora
    c. A TM Dissenter’s FAQ
    d. Problems with TM Research
  6. Finally, although the modern TM organization attempts to hide this fact, it supports some sketchy shit. Specifically:
    a. The Maharishi Effect: This is the assertion that by having hundreds or thousands of people meditating in one place, they can actually affect an entire region. The only study proving this suffers from extreme narrative fallacy.
    b. “Scientific research found that in cities and towns all over the world where as little as one per cent of the population practices the Transcendental Meditation Technique, the trend of rising crime rate is reversed, indicating increasing order and harmony.” source

The Verdict: Tangentially doing a good, thorough introduction to mindfulness meditation and relaxation, but essentially a profit-driven scum machine.

2. Vipassanā

Vipassanā is one of the types of meditation that has been handed down to us in the Buddhist tradition and has become much more mainstream in recent years.

You’ll find centers all over the world that will teach Vipassanā in a variety of different ways and levels of spirituality. It focuses on mindful breathing, and you can ignore the spiritual teachings and still benefit from it.

Since many of the techniques of Vipassanā overlap with mindfulness meditation, it is another, arguably more convenient, way to learn the practice. There are many Vipassanā retreat centers, some of which are completely free to attend (www.dhamma.org).

In recent years Vipassanā has become nearly interchangeable with a simple form of mindfulness meditation in which you focus on your breath. This is by far the most accessible form of meditation.

Verdict: Vipassanā is a spiritual meditation practice that has scientific support for parts of its practice and is very accessible.

3. Mindfulness meditation

This is the most scientifically studied form of meditation and also the only version that is completely secular. One of the most comprehensive applications of this form of meditation is MBSR. From Wikipedia:

“Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a program that incorporates mindfulness to assist people with pain and a range of conditions and life issues that were initially difficult to treat in a hospital setting. Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to help people become more mindful.”

This is the form of meditation that has most often been shown to have positive effects in the meta-review of meditation studies that I introduced earlier.

The only drawback to this form is that it requires an in-depth course to get started. This makes MBSR or similar forms of meditation not easily accessible. Courses generally cost around $400 and require two hours once or twice a week for eight weeks with one full-day retreat.

Verdict: MBSR and other forms of mindfulness meditation are an excellent secular way to experience the benefits of mindfulness, even if they are a little hard to get started on due to the structured and costly nature of the program.

Summary: The Benefits of Meditation

The meta analysis finds that people who practiced mindfulness meditation for a period of four to eight weeks experienced an 18 percent decrease in pain, a 22 percent decrease in anxiety, a 26 percent decrease in depression, and a 10 percent decrease in stress.

These are significant findings.

In addition, there are other benefits of meditation that are harder to measure and are not yet proven but likely:

  1. Disassociation of ego: This is the concept of realizing that you can examine the thoughts that you have. That you don’t have to give in to every feeling that you have; instead, you can observe your feelings and choose how to deal with them.
  2. Calmness: With consistent meditation you will be less emotional in difficult situations. This will allow you to react in a better, more effective way.
  3. Clarity of mind: You will learn to dissect ideas in a clear and simple way. Gaining greater control of your thoughts will allow you to explore more complex ideas, remember better, and create better plans.
  4. Increase of willpower: Meditation is an act of willpower. Just like exercising will increase your muscle mass, meditation will increase the reservoir of willpower that you have access to.

Applying This to Your Life

One of the issues with investigating whether meditation is effective is that although scientific studies are limited in their reach, they don’t necessarily indicate that you can’t get benefits from meditation. If you agree with the efficient market hypothesis (that there is no way to predict the stock market because all information is already factored into the market) then there is no way to explain the continual success of hedge fund managers like Ray Dalio or George Soros. Yet they are able to beat the market consistently over the years. Sure they lose sometimes, but honestly, it’s so rarely that we can effectively ignore it. Wouldn’t you love to lose as often as they do?

It’s important to understand that there is a difference between a perfect theory and a method that works. This is the difference between an economics professor and a successful hedge fund manager. The hedge fund manager usually has a framework that the economics professor would laugh at, but the hedge fund manager’s framework is good enough to make him money and that is all that matters. In a similar way, I am looking for a technique that is good enough to make a difference. So, I’m OK with some grey areas in all of this.

Mindfulness Meditation Is the Way to Start

Now that I’ve come to the conclusion that there are some scientific benefits to meditation and that there may be even more benefits that have not yet been researched, it is time to pick a method.

Mindfulness meditation is the most obvious because:

  1. It has the most scientific benefits.
  2. It can be learned at home in less than five minutes a day.

Building a Meditation Habit

Most people have an extremely hard time building habits. How many times have you tried to lose weight by following a new diet only to fail to move the needle at all?

The good news is that it’s not an inherent ability. Habit building is a skill that can be built like any other. And there are frameworks that you can use that will make the process easier.

We’ve written an article on how to achieve goals using habits, which you can see here.

The key is to follow this method:

  1. Identify the specific habits you are looking to build.
  2. Test you current mindfulness.
  3. Track it.

Sounds simple, right? Let’s get into the details.

1. Identify the habits of meditation

When creating a new habit, make sure that it follows the following guidelines:

  1. Start small: The smaller the habit when you start it, the more likely it is that you will complete and exceed it. For example, if you are having trouble meditating daily, a good habit to build may be: “Meditate for at least one minute.” This may start as one minute, but you will notice that over time you will be doing more than one minute of meditation daily.
  2. Be specific: When setting a target for yourself, you must be able to easily tell whether or not you completed a habit that you set for yourself. For example, “meditate” is not a good habit, while “meditate for one minute” is much better. It is both small and easily measurable.
  3. (optional) Schedule it: Especially if you are having trouble completing habits, it is vital that you schedule time to complete those that can be scheduled. Putting it on your calendar will get it out of your head and make it much more likely to be completed.
  4. (optional) Anchor it: Another good way to make sure a habit is going to happen is to anchor it to an existing habit. For example, after I wake up or before I go to sleep. For this to work, the anchor must be:
    a. A well-ingrained habit: It must be something that you always do.
    b. A precise event: It doesn’t work well if it’s a fuzzy event like “when I am unhappy”; it is much better if it is specific, like “when I open the front door.”
    c. Match your new habit in frequency: If you want do your new habit once a day, pick an existing habit that happens once a day.

To further put these points in perspective, the results of a recent study show that if you use the following sentence to plan your habits, “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE],” people are two to three times more likely to be successful in following through on this habit.

The two key habits to a meditation practice are:

1. Doing it consistently

Practicing meditation, every day even if for only five minutes.

2. Doing it correctly

Completing the meditation correctly instead of just sitting and thinking for five minutes. To do this:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with a straight upright back on a chair.
  2. Close your eyes and start breathing.
  3. Focus on where you feel your breath coming in and out of your nose or mouth.
  4. If you catch yourself thinking about something, focus on your breath again.

That’s it. The act of remembering to focus on your breath again is meditation. Every time you do that you are training your brain to be more aware and to focus on what is happening now.

To get these habits up and running, commit to creating two of them. They should be filled-in versions of the following:

  1. For the next [NUMBER] days, I will meditate for at least [NUMBER] minutes at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].
  2. For the next [NUMBER] days, when I meditate I will return to my breath from my thoughts at least one time.

For a template to fill out and track these habits, download here.

2. Test your current mindfulness level

To get an idea of whether meditation is working you must test for the results.

We’ve created a version of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) that you can take for free here. It takes less than a minute to complete.

This will give you an idea of where you stand now and by taking it again in a month you will be able to see if you made any progress.

3. Track your habits

Key to actually following through on your new meditation practice is tracking it. As the cliché goes, “What gets measured gets managed.”

This can be done simply on paper using the “Don’t Break the Chain” methodology or with the help of an app.

1. We’ve created a template you can download to track your meditation habits.

2. We also have a piece of software that will track habits for you. Sign up here.

Common complaints and resolutions

1. “I don’t have the time.”

Start extremely small and see if you experience benefits. Try five minutes or even one minute a day.

2. “I can’t stop my thoughts. / I’m not good at it. / I get restless.”

If you are having trouble, try a guided mediation either through an app like Headspace or from UCLA. Guided meditations will help to build the habit and eventually you will be able to complete the meditations on your own.

3. “Why isn’t every session amazing?”

Meditation is a practice. What this means for you is that the important part of meditation is the returning from your thoughts to your breath. You will never be able to focus on your breath non-stop for the whole meditation period, and you don’t need to. Just getting one return to your breath in a session will help you to build the skill over time. Some sessions will be better than others, but over time they will improve.

4. “I keep falling asleep.”

If you are having consistent trouble with falling asleep you’re not getting enough sleep at night. You should adjust your routine to sleep more and your quality of life and productivity will improve.

Conclusion

After a year of experimentation and research I have concluded that meditation is a promising tool for self-improvement that has yet to be fully studied. There are a few landmines to navigate in avoiding the overly religious or culty trappings of several forms of meditation but if you stick to the simplest form you will see benefits. In addition to the studies I’ve cited above I personally have found much greater calm and control over my actions through the daily practice of meditation.

My original paragraph of dissent should be modified:

Meditation is a legitimate technique for greater mindfulness practiced by some of the most successful people in the world.

To test the benefits for yourself follow the following steps:

1. Identify a meditation habit to learn.

2. Assess your current mindfulness level. (Free assessment here.)

3. Track your progress. (Free template or software tracker.)




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