how to meditate (one perspective)

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[UPDATE: Also see my more recent post, How to Do Foreground/Background Meditation]

I’ve been given a nudge to do a presentation on meditation, but I’m not sure if I’m going to have time, for quite some time. In lieu of a presentation, I wanted to put some info out here that other people might find useful. I do actually want to road-test a meditation protocol I have designed, that I use myself, if people are interested. Please nudge me if you are. That could happen at some point. (Also, if anyone has some editing suggestions for the quickest way to turn this into an acceptable LW discussion post, I would greatly appreciate it.)

Background, Context, Speculation

I’ve been meditating, on and off, for over 12 years. I did one stretch of an hour a day for maybe 200-something days. But, for the most part, it’s been a handful of 15-minute sessions per week, sometimes with months-long gaps in between. That’s really not very much if you’re hardcore, but I think I’ve done a good job of balancing expected value and expected opportunity cost. Twelve years in, I like my time allocation, and I do not recommend hardcore.

I’ve experimented with protocols from most of the major traditions. I have an aversion to authority, so I’ve never had regular contact with a meditation teacher. Meditation teachers and meditation students say you need a teacher. Oh well. Tacitly transmitted knowledge and living communities of practice can be very valuable. But, I like written documents, so I can inspect, dissect, and experiment with their contents at my own pace. Below I’ll list the resources I spent the most time with in learning how to meditate.

In any case, this document isn’t meant to be authoritative. I’m just some guy who does this thing, and here are my impressions.

Meditation can be hard to learn, hard to teach, and, as a set of mental models and behavioral protocols, hard to refine over time. The reason being that everything happens inside people’s heads. That doesn’t mean meditation’s not worth learning, teaching, and improving, just that it’s hard. Hard like a would-be powerlifter who first learns how to lift weights with proper form (and continues to refine his or her form forever) and then learns how to perform during competition. (The analogy being learning to meditate and then deploying accumulated assets in daily life.)

There is lots of peer-reviewed meditation research. But, I don’t know what the average quality of meditation research is, and I don’t know what the best stuff is. Various claims have been made: Meditation is correlated with increased cortical thickness in various brain regions, and there is a reasonable argument that the relationship is causal and that meditation may counteract age-related cortical thinning [3]. Another study shows that, “Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice” [4]. Perhaps importantly, meditators behave more rationally in an ultimatum game [1]. You can use also use meditation to become more compassionate [2].There is tons and tons of peer-reviewed meditation research out there.

Now, why do *I* think you might want to meditate?

Keith Stanovich differentiates rationality from intelligence [5]. (CFAR cites Stanovich, btw.) He calls for an RQ, a rationality quotient, which measures something distinct, though of course interacting with, IQ. According to Stanovich, you are being rational when a metacognitive process thinks your automatic thought or behavior is about to become suboptimal, and you get kicked into a less automatic, more reflective mode. An important aspect of this is that you need to have the right “mindware” packages installed (cf. software, hardware) which a) are used by the metacognitive monitoring process to know when to trigger reflective mode for a particular situation and b) are used to do the correct thing when reflective mode is triggered. (You can also be automatically rational when the right thing to do has become automatized through life experience or deliberate practice, so that the metacognitive process doesn’t need to trigger reflective mode.)

I speculate that meditation strengthens and tunes that metacognitive monitoring process, so that reflective mode is triggered more robustly and flexibly. For example, if a situation is emotional, intense, real-time, or dangerous, I think long-term meditators probably move in and out of reflective mode more quickly and decisively, as the demands and opportunities of the situation evolve on a moment-by-moment basis. I think long-term meditators are also better at online mediation between various mindware packages and endogenous concerns.

More personal speculation: I think meditators are less likely to privilege the question. I think meditators are more likely to update their beliefs. I think meditators are more able to attend to things surround by ugh fields. I think meditators are more likely to notice when they’re confused. I think meditators are more likely to notice when they’re deploying cached thoughts or referring to cached selves.

I think meditation is one of the most valuable things you can do with your time. (Another of the most valuable things you can do with your time is learning how to do distributed operational cognition, e.g. something vaguely like David Allen’s Getting Things Done. That’s been another fraught, decade-long project. Lots of ways that can go wrong, too; see next paragraph.)

So those are some possible reasons to try meditating if you place weight on what I think. I am also ethically obligated to note that meditation can fuck your shit up, for hours, days, weeks, months, or years. Google “negative side-effects of meditation,” “meditation adverse effects,” “meditation dark night of the soul,” and so forth. There’s tons of anecdotal reports out there as well. I don’t know if bad things are more likely to happen with particular meditation protocols or particular personalities, or if particular kinds of people are more likely to try meditation and report bad things. I don’t know what’s going on, but bad stuff happening is a thing that not enough people talk about. I have had multiple really terrifying “oh shit I hope this isn’t permanent” moments and days. Some people have years or lifetimes. Some meditation teachers think the risk is overblown. I don’t know.

My advice to avoid bad things is this: If someone has specified a meditation protocol with impressive linguistic precision, and you religiously and rigidly execute it for long periods of time with minimal deviation, something bad is probably going to happen. You’ll probably have lots of warning signs, but you’ll probably ignore those warning signs. You have been warned.

Meditation should be inquisitive, experimental, tentative, sometimes grueling but never torture. Meditation would be impossible without protocols to get you started and protocols to fall back on. But you should have a relaxed, skeptical, reflective relationship with whatever protocol you’re using. There is a distinction between rule-governed behavior and environmentally-contingent behavior. Rule-governed behavior is useful when you don’t walk out into the street as a five-year-old, because your mom said so, even though you’ve never been personally run over by a car. Environmentally-contingent behavior is when you pay attention to the actual, immediate consequences of behavior under your control, and sensitively, creatively, deftly, subtly make changes in what you’re doing based on what’s actually happening moment-to-moment. Most behavior is a combination of the two types, but with one dominating.

Meditation protocols give you some rough guidelines and are invaluable when you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, what’s supposed to be happening, whether you’re “doing it right,” and so forth. They get you going in vaguely the right direction, which is the best you can hope for when you’re starting out. I, finally, design my own protocols for personal use. They reduce cognitive load and provide a dash of gamification. But a meditator is rewarded, and protected, by being able to engage in both rule-governed and environmentally-contingent behavior as the situation calls for.

Below are resources containing meditation protocols that I have found helpful, at various times. I have skimmed or experimented with many more protocols than I am including here. There could be plenty of books out there that speak to you that I haven’t included. Scholarly, coherent, seemingly authoritative, non-metaphysical, and linguistically precise resources are not necessarily better–all maps are wrong, but some are more useful than others, depending on what you’re actually trying to do. There’s plenty of “scientifically” inspired meditation writing that is complete crap.

The way to work with these resources is to look for clear instructions and/or for assertions about clear, short-term outcomes. Ignore or enjoy all the weird theories, grandiose long-term claims, spiritual language, sloppy thinking, unless something resonates with you. Work with the protocol as long as it interests you, and see if you can find in your experience what the author is describing or claiming. If you start becoming dissatisfied, or you feel like you’re noticing things in your awareness that seem important but the author hasn’t mentioned, it’s fine to experiment with another protocol. If you start feeling cramped, gross, or anxious, try something else.

Meditation progress is measured on a scale of months to decades. I can tell what a protocol is probably going to do to me, over time, after playing with it for a couple days, but that’s something that I started to get confident about around year eight of meditating. I flailed around in the dark for a long time. Maybe there are far better ways to learn to meditate.


Mindfulness in Plain English
Henepola Gunaratana
[type: unified concentration/mindfulness]

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha
Daniel Ingram
[^^^ authorized pdf version]
[type: noting]

Five Ways to Know Yourself
Shinzen Young
[type: noting]

Opening the Hand of Thought
Kosho Uchiyama
[type: not precisely unified concentration/mindfulness]

Meditation for the Love of It
Sally Kempton
[type: mantra-esque]

Recollective Awareness Meditation
Jason Siff
[type: traditionally inspired but unique]

Upasaka Culadasa’s material
[type: concentration oriented]


Below are a subset of dense theoretical books that have been invaluable to me in thinking about what meditation is, what it actually does, why I should care, what the heck is happening to me, why is this going horribly wrong, and so forth. Some are quirky, but they are pretty much all deeply fucking brilliant and some of them are based on decades of research. This is a subset of the smartest stuff I’ve read in my entire life. Some might not seem to be immediately about meditation, but I promise they are relevant, at least from my perspective. If there is interest, and I have time, I will try to elaborate. I have also included some journal articles and blog posts that have been superlatively influential in my understanding.

I do not include evolutionary psychology or neuroscience resources, here, with a couple of exceptions. Rest assured, I have considered their absence, and I do not find them relevant to this particular project of the phenomenology of actually doing meditation.

PRISMs, Gom Jabbars, and Consciousness

Coming back to remember

Sensation’s Ghost: The Non-Sensory “Fringe” of Consciousness
Bruce Mangan, 2001

Maitreya’s Distinguishing Phenomena And Pure Being: With Commentary By Mipham
[excellent, careful, authoritative translation]
Publisher: Snow Lion (April 2, 2004)
ISBN-10: 1559392150
ISBN-13: 978-1559392150

Investigating Pristine Inner Experience: Moments of Truth
Russell T. Hurlburt

Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning
Eugene Gendlin

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (1st or 2nd ed.)
Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, Kelly G. Wilson

After the Fight
Dan Wile

Being No One
Thomas Metzinger

[1] Kirk, U., Downar, J., Montague, P.R.
Interoception drives increased rational decision-making in meditators playing the ultimatum game
(2011) Frontiers in Neuroscience, (APR), art. no. 49

[2] Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., Davidson, R.J.
Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of meditative expertise
(2008) PLoS ONE, 3 (3), art. no. e1897

[3] Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., Gray, J.R., Greve, D.N., Treadway, M.T., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B.T., Dusek, J.A., Benson, H., Rauch, S.L., Moore, C.I., Fischl, B.
Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness
(2005) NeuroReport, 16 (17), pp. 1893-1897.

[4] Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Rawlings, N.B., Ricard, M., Davidson, R.J.
Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice
(2004) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101 (46), pp. 16369-16373.

[5] Rationality and the Reflective Mind
Keith Stanovich

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4 thoughts on “how to meditate (one perspective)

  1. . But, I like written documents, so I can inspect, dissect, and experiment with their contents at my own pace. Below I’ll list the resources I spent the most time with in learning how to meditate.

    The things people write down in books about meditation are things that they believe beginners should learn.

    There also stuff that not easily to write down in a book. If you meditate in a group you react towards other people. You hear them breath. A meditation teacher who does a guided meditation sees how his students react to the words he says and chooses the words he says accordingly.

    I don’t think you can replicate the experiences of group mediations completely by reading a book. You might still learn a lot by reading books and meditating on your own but it won’t be the same.

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

  3. I’m sure you know of it, but I’ve found that lovingkindness/compassion meditation to be a great way to protect yourself from your practice “fucking your shit up”. It definitely takes the edge off the greater clarity with which you can see your condition.

  4. Interesting stuff, good to hear after being probably a bit to into pragmatic dharma – The problem is my progress since I have started has generally resulted from “finding a new way to meditate” rather than “having some profound experience that changes my life forever after.” Seeking the latter rather than the former seems to be causing me some issues recently as I note an hour a day but seem to be only getting anxiety and darkness that isn’t very workable.

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