What you could change your life for the better in only twenty minutes a day?
Sounds like a celebrity fad-diet from a late-night infomercial or some New-Age craze designed to quickly separate you from your “material concerns” in exchange for a few fleeting weeks of artificial self-esteem. It’s hard to take something like meditation seriously in a skeptical consumer climate.
The question is, what is mindfulness meditation, and why would anybody bother with it?
Ron Young says the point of meditating “to see that both the past and the future are both completely imaginary-they are just thoughts.”
Young runs a meditation group at the Toronto School of Theology on Tuesday evenings while the group’s founder and regular teacher, Philip Starkman, is on retreat in Burma.
Young has been practicing himself for over 20 years, and he’s learned a great deal about how the mind works: “The natural state of the mind is to deal with the past… or trying to project itself into the future-creating an idea of hope and anticipation, or fear and anxiety.”
Alright, but how do you do it? The technique itself is not terribly complicated. “There’s two aspects of the actual meditation,” says Young. These are Shamatha, or concentration, and Vipassana, or insight.
“Shamatha is a focused concentration on a subtle object like the breath,” Young continues, “You’re trying to, over time, train the mind to be able to settle on a single object. Each time it wanders away, you gently bring it back.”
Each week, Young begins the lesson by instructing newcomers to sit up straight, relax, and try to follow the feeling of breathing by noticing the movement and sensations at the nostrils, chest, or abdomen. This rapidly gets boring, and distracting thoughts, sounds, or sensations intrude.
But that’s okay. Young says this is supposed to happen. “Recognizing that the mind has wandered-that bringing back is in the present; that’s being mindful. So you bring it back a million billion times, but you’re also learning something, because you’ll often note what the mind was wandering to. Was it contemplating the past? the future?”
After students have had a chance to practice getting their minds to sit still, Young introduces them to Vipassana-a technique for observing the mind objectively.
“Instead of focusing on a single object,” he says, “you’re trying to open completely up, drop all resistance to what is happening, and try to see clearly. Vipassana literally means ‘to see clearly.'”
The trick to Vipassana is “just noticing” whatever comes to mind, but not letting it distract you.
Young explains: “You’re trying to see clearly exactly what is happening in the present moment, without getting carried away with the storyline. You simply touch and come back.”
According to Young, “it’s kind of like the mind-state for: ‘listen’… you sort of go: ‘I wonder what the next thought will be.'”
He says the purpose of this is to keep the mind in a state of calm readiness-one that is not distracted by worries about the past or the future, and is therefore happier and more responsive.
“Even when tragic events occur,” Young says, “you feel them, but they don’t end the world. You can experience and let it go… If you’re feeling good, great, enjoy it; it’s going to pass.”
He adds that the idea is to let go of all our egotistical thinking. “We’re normally so busy trying to keep track of who we are and how we’re doing and what our territory’s like, and to just drop all that-it’s a big load you can let go of.”
It certainly seems to have worked for Madeline, a member of the Tuesday night meditation group who spoke to the Varsity under a pseudonym.
“I take more time,” she says. “When you’re mindful, life is a meditation. Everything that you do becomes a meditation. You’re totally focused.” She added, “You learn to let things go. We become less critical of ourselves; we become less critical of other people.”
Sounds promising, but is there any solid psychology behind meditation?
John Vervaeke teaches undergraduate psychology at U of T and UTSC, and taught cognitive science (the meta-discipline of psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and computer science & artificial intelligence) at University College. He has practiced meditation for over a decade.
He summarizes mindfulness as “a training of attention to focus on current perceptual, experiential processes, and focus less on internal monologue.”
Vervaeke explains that it all has to do with how human beings cope with a constantly changing environment: “You have so much information coming at you, you have to screen off what’s irrelevant, focus on what you consider relevant, and then you have to organize it so that you can act on it.” Cognitive scientists call this “framing.”
Framing is what gets you to pay attention to the cars as you cross a busy street, and to ignore things like the particular shade of blue the sky is today or your fond memories of breakfast.
The process of framing is all done very quickly and very much outside of our awareness (because it would be too slow if we had to do it consciously), and the process is not perfect.
Our frames sometimes screen out useful information, and we end up in trouble-like when a driver is too busy with a cell phone to notice the person in the intersection staring up at that wonderfully blue sky.
According to Vervaeke, we can bust these bad frames (and avoid subsequent troubles) with insight.
“Insight,” he says, “is the way in which you break out of habitual patterns that the mind uses to frame experience [and] to organize awareness and behavior. A lot of times the ways in which we’re deceiving ourselves and slowly destroying ourselves are empowered and maintained through these frames on our cognition and our perception of reality.”
It’s like we see the world through tinted glasses. Insight is like taking off the glasses, looking at them, and noticing how they’ve changed what we see.
Mindfulness has also gained the attention of the psychiatric community in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders.
Kate Kitchen, a clinical social worker at the Centres for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), has been using a technique called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) to help reduce relapse in patients recovering from depression. With MBCT, the patient learns to step out of habitual, negative patterns of thinking with the mindfulness, and then uses standard cognitive therapy techniques to critically evaluate these thoughts.
Kitchen notes that patients “are able to view the problems with more neutrality, as in not seeing their reactions to problems as truth with a capital T… they are able to see themselves as having more choice about how to respond.”
While the MBCT is certainly not a cure for depression, it certainly seems to be a cost-effective way to help patients cope with their illnesses in the long term.
Selma, a patient of Kitchen’s who also spoke to the Varsity under a pseudonym, has used MBCT to deal with her recurrent anxiety and depression.
She had this to say: “This is working-nothing else has.” Being able to live in the moment and step back from her thoughts has greatly improved Selma’s quality of life.
“Even when I’m depressed now,” she says, “it doesn’t go to the abyss it would have at one point. If it does I just think: ‘okay, this is today, I’ll get through the day.’ I don’t think: ‘oh my god, I’ll never get out of this, there’s no hope for the future.'”
So, is all this meditation stuff for real? Unlike a lot of self-help fads, the techniques are freely available (just Google “mindfulness”), and it’s certainly hard to resist the thought of freedom from worry at no cost except time and effort.
As Vervaeke puts it: “You gain freedom from these patterns and frames that are to a very significant extent enslaving you, and then with that freedom you have possibility to enrich and deepen your experience of reality.”
This deepened experience is often called “flow,” which Vervaeke defines as an enriched, responsive experience of reality. “You feel that the connection between you and reality is clear and flowing,” he says. It’s a state much like an athlete who is “in the zone.”
To Vervaeke, this naturally leads to a better life: “A life that’s more flowing tends to lead to a life that’s happier, both in the sense that you enjoy your life more, but also in the Greek sense-it’s a more virtuous life…your moral sensitivity to other people is increased.”
For twenty minutes a day? I guess we’ll just have to try it out and see.