The levels above your own

[My plan was to immediately hack out another "how to" post, this time for the kind of meditation that I actually do. But I realized I needed a few more background posts to try to avoid people practicing "cargo cult meditation." This post takes an empirical look at meditation and tries to sell it from that perspective. The next post, I think, will be analytical phenomenology ("meditation theory"). And then I'll have a "how to" post.]

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” –Marcel Proust

There is a musician, we’ll call him “Bob,” whose parents are Southern Baptists [1]. He blogged once about how sad and surreal it is that his parents will live their entire lives, and die, as Southern Baptists. Bob loves his parents, and his parents love him. Bob’s dad gave him his first guitar. But Bob’s parents are living in a different world.

We all share a basic humanity. We are all running the same hardware. If someone is sad, we know how they feel, even if we don’t know why. But, I am not a Southern Baptist. I fight, live, care, fuck, strive, suffer, and think differently than a Southern Baptist. The world that exists for me is different than a Southern Baptists’. It’s built out of different things and subject to different laws. What I care about is different. What I’m capable of conceiving is different. The worlds that could be, for me, are different. It’s not necessarily happier, but it’s better over here. It’s freer, more beautiful, more heartfelt, more scary, more dangerous, more complicated, and more alive. More is at stake, and my ultimate concerns are different.

But, actually, I am a Southern Baptist. And so are you. There are many levels above your own. What level makes yours look like a Southern Baptist’s looks to you?

So here’s why meditation is important: For some people, under some conditions, for some collections of meditation protocols, meditation makes you go through levels faster, and meditation makes you hit higher levels that you wouldn’t have otherwise hit at all [2].

I would go so far as saying that meditation can be a moral imperative if you value making the world a better place. Other moral imperatives of mine are respecting the dignity and autonomy of a) Southern Baptists, b) people who choose not to meditate, and c) people who think I’m an idiot. Remember meditation can fuck you up if you’re not really careful and even if you are. This is powerful stuff, and it’s not for everyone. And this world belongs to Southern Baptists and everyone else on the planet, too.

So, I repeat: “For some people, under some conditions, for some collections of meditation protocols, meditation makes you go through levels faster, and meditation makes you hit higher levels that you wouldn’t have otherwise hit at all.”


Check out the references, below. A heads up–you’re going to see “spiritual” language in peer-reviewed research papers. (wat.) The way to read this stuff is to implicitly operate like this:

“Based on the everything I know about everything, what does the content of this human artifact, and the fact that I’m reading it, tell me about the structure and state of reality, if anything? And, given all that, what do I do next?”

In other words, you look at the methods, you look at statistical power, you look at p-values, you look at effect sizes, and you decide whether or not some of this stuff has maybe nailed down a little patch of reality, a little isolated map that can make some accurate predictions of the territory. You have to do the extra work of finding the signal in the noise, and you have to do the extra work of translating the map into language and concepts that might or might not hook up with the rest of science. But empiricism is empiricism, if you take responsibility for interpreting it, and if you choose to make use of the thousands of hours that well-intentioned people have put in.

See below…

[1] I can’t find the really old blog post that corroborates this story, so maybe I’m confabulating it, so we’ll leave him as “Bob.”

[2] Some of those conditions for making meditation effective are trying new things; reading your brains out; meeting new people; facing your fears; paying attention to your still, small voices; treating meditation memeplexes with caution and skepticism, having certain kinds of goals [3], and generally being a complete human being. It wouldn’t hurt to find an open-minded meditation teacher who’s been doing it and teaching it for decades, too (but good luck. Maybe scroll through the Buddhist Geek podcasts).

[3] Bauer, Jack J., and Dan P. McAdams. “Eudaimonic growth: Narrative growth goals predict increases in ego development and subjective well-being 3 years later.” Developmental Psychology 46.4 (2010): 761.


[Depending on how you look, there are broad patterns ("stages") of how people move through their understanding of self and world. Loevinger captured some of that structure with the WUSCT. Cook-Greuter extended Loevinger's work. For a fun, woo, overview of all this, read "Nine levels of increasing embrace" which is free online. (Lots of the peer-reviewed papers below are, too.) Read through all the stages in "9 levels." You are allowed to get extra skeptical towards the end.]

Cook-Greuter, Susanne. “Ego development: Nine levels of increasing embrace.” Unpublished manuscript (2005).

Gilmore, John Manners, and Kevin Durkin. “A critical review of the validity of ego development theory and its measurement.” Journal of Personality Assessment 77.3 (2001): 541-567.

Cook-Greuter, Susanne R. Postautonomous ego development: A study of its nature and measurement. Diss. Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1999.

Hy, Le Xuan, and Jane Loevinger. Measuring ego development . Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1996.

Loevinger, Jane, and Ruth Wessler. “Measuring ego development.” (1970).

Pfaffenberger, Angela H., Paul W. Marko, and Allan Combs. The postconventional personality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Loevinger, Jane, ed. Technical foundations for measuring ego development: The Washington University sentence completion test. Psychology Press, 1998.


[One of my old professors told me a story about how one of his colleagues was so excited that they'd found that schizophrenics' brains were significantly different in some way. And, my professor was like, well, duh? They're schizophrenic. Back to meditation: It's very mildly encouraging that meditation does noticeable stuff in the brain and body. Great, it's, distinguishable from the normal waking state. And maybe we can use those differences to elucidate mechanisms and learn more about the brain, directed attention, executive control, and so forth. And maybe we can design better meditation protocols. But it shouldn't be all *that* surprising that, like, objective stuff changes when you're meditating…]


[Meditation changes how quickly you go through "stages" of development.]

[Note, I don't do TM.]

[Update: Note: Be really careful with the TM movement: ]

Alexander, Charles N., Kenneth G. Walton, and Rachel S. Goodman. “Walpole study of the Transcendental Meditation program in maximum security prisoners I: cross-sectional differences in development and psychopathology.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 36.1-4 (2003): 97-125.

Alexander, Charles N., and David W. Orme-Johnson. “Walpole study of the Transcendental Meditation program in maximum security prisoners II: longitudinal study of development and psychopathology.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 36.1-4 (2003): 127-160.

Alexander, Charles N., et al. “Walpole study of the Transcendental Meditation program in maximum security prisoners III: reduced recidivism.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 36.1-4 (2003): 161-180.

Chandler, Howard M., and Charles N. Alexander. “The transcendental meditation program and postconventional self-development: A 10-year longitudinal study.” Consciousness-Based Education (2005): 381.


[More reminders to be careful. The percentage of people that experience bad stuff is staggering.]

Otis, Leon S. “Adverse effects of transcendental meditation.” Meditation: Classic and contemporary perspectives (1984): 201-07.

Shapiro, Deane H. “Adverse effects of meditation: A preliminary investigation of long-term meditators.” International Journal of Psychosomatics (1992).


One thought on “The levels above your own

  1. Pingback: how to do foreground/background meditation | Meditation Stuff

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