Here’s the promise: Meditation – and mindfulness meditation, in particular – will reduce your cortisol level, blood pressure, social anxiety and depression. It will increase your immune response, resilience and focus and improve your relationships — including with yourself. It will also bolster your performance at work and provide inner peace. It may even cure psoriasis.
50 Cent meditates. So do Lena Dunham and Alanis Morissette. Steven P. Jobs meditated, and mindfulness as a practice is sweeping through Silicon Valley. A week from Saturday, 2,000 technology executives and other seekers will gather for a sold-out conference called Wisdom 2.0, suddenly a must-attend event for the cognoscenti.
Even Rupert Murdoch has tried meditating, summing up its appeal in a haikulike tweet: “Everyone recommends, not that easy to get started, but said to improve everything.”
Really? For what it’s worth, I don’t think so.
I first learned to meditate 25 years ago, built a daily practice in mindfulness and spent hundreds of hours sitting with my eyes closed and my legs crossed. I also interviewed dozens of meditators, including the most prominent teachers, for a book I wrote in 1995 called "What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America.” But the more time I spent meditating, the less value I derived from it. Which is not to say I think it has no benefits at all.
The simplest definition of meditation is learning to do one thing at a time. Building the capacity to quiet the mind has undeniable value at a time when our attention is under siege, and distraction has become our steady state. Meditation – in the right doses — is also valuable as a means to relax the body, quiet the emotions and refresh one’s energy. There is growing evidence that meditation has some health benefits.
What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier.
Consider what Jack Kornfield has to say about meditation. In the 1970s, after spending a number of years as a monk in Southeast Asia, Mr. Kornfield was one of the first Americans to bring the practice of mindfulness to the West. He remains one of the best-known mindfulness teachers, while also practicing as a psychologist.
“While I benefited enormously from the training in the Thai and Burmese monasteries where I practiced,” he wrote, “I noticed two striking things. First, there were major areas of difficulty in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds, and patterns of fear that even very deep meditation didn’t touch.
“Second, among the several dozen Western monks (and lots of Asian meditators) I met during my time in Asia, with a few notable exceptions, most were not helped by meditation in big areas of their lives. Meditation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives.”
So how to use meditation to best effect?
First, don’t expect more than it can deliver.
In the modern world, meditation is far more effective as a technique of self-management than as a means of personal transformation, much less enlightenment.
Second, start simply.
Mindfulness – or “vipassana” — is a specific type of meditative practice from Theravada Buddhism. It involves learning to watch one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise and pass, without becoming caught up in them. By building the capacity to witness one’s own experience without attachment or reactivity, the teaching goes, one slowly begins to see through the illusion of permanence and separateness.
The problem with mindfulness as a starting place is that it’s an advanced practice. In traditional teaching, students first learned to stabilize their attention through “samatha,” or concentration meditation. Concentration involves focusing on a single object of attention, such as the breath or a mantra, as in transcendental meditation. Only when students learned to reliably quiet their minds – a process that often took years of practice – was the more subtle and advanced practice of vipassana introduced.
In my experience, concentration meditation is a simpler and more reliable way than mindfulness to build control of one’s attention, quiet down and relax – especially so for those in the early stages of meditating.
Finally, don’t assume more is better.
“Mindfulness practice has its benefits,” said Catherine Ingram, author of “Passionate Presence,” “but in my case, after 17 years of practice, there came a point when mentally noting my breath, thoughts and sensations became wearisome, a sense of always having homework and of constantly chopping reality into little bits.”
Even a few minutes of sitting quietly and following the breath goes a long way. I’ve found it especially effective to breathe in to a count of three and out to a count of six – effectively extending the outbreath and deepening the experience of relaxation. Counting is also an effective object of attention, and therefore enhances concentration.
I’ve also found that it’s more practical to truly focus and relax for a minute or two several times a day than to meditate for a long period and constantly battle with distraction along the way.
There is a difference between mindfulness meditation and simple mindfulness. The latter isn’t a practice separate from everyday life. Mindfulness just means becoming more conscious of what you’re feeling, more intentional about your behaviors and more attentive to your impact on others. It’s about presence — what Ms. Ingram calls “keeping quiet and simple inside, rather than having any mental task whatsoever.”
The real challenge isn’t what we’re able to do with our eyes closed. It’s to be more self-aware in the crucible of our everyday lives, and to behave better as a result. That’s mindfulness in action.