Theory and practice of meditation

post by Craig_Heldreth · 2010-12-22T01:23:48.124Z · score: 2 (5 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 9 comments

This is a (slightly revised) concatenation of three of my blog posts which I wrote after reading:

Understanding vipassana meditation by Luke Grecki in October 2010. The originals may be seen here (part I), here (part II) and here (part III).

I posted some comments myself in the original thread, but after giving it some thought I have decided to write a little more systematically on the topic.

There are three parts: one theory part and one part each on descriptions of the two techniques in my current practice.

Part I, a theory

I have been meditating daily for over thirteen years and did it sporadically for fifteen years or so prior to that. My menu of tried protocols is wide: vipassana, zen, transcendental, Gurdjieff self-remembering, Jung active-imagination, Erickson self-hypnosis, Loyola spiritual exercises, and probably a couple others I have totally forgotten about. The common thread through all of these techniques is mental health benefit, or spiritual benefit, or stress relief through calming mental processes. It is a purging of obsession and compulsion and anxiety and worry. Don Juan advises Carlos Castaneda the way to become a sorcerer is to learn to make one's mind perfectly still. (Castaneda's regimen may be the only one that I have heard about that I have not tried--I have seen people under the influence of deliriants and that is definitely not for me.)

There is modern scientific research in support of this, most notably in the work of the psychologist Albert Ellis and the psychiatrist Aaron Beck. Their therapy techniques are based upon the idea that our problems of mental life are twofold: first there are the human stressors which plague all of us to one extent or another--family problems, relationship problems, money problems, diseases--what Zorba called the full catastrophe; second there is the stuff which we tell ourselves on top of these typical and normal human stressors.

"This always happens to me."

"Nobody loves me."

"I am a freak; I am a loser; &c."

We could make a very long list. Ellis and Beck say you may be unable to eliminate the family problems and whatnot at the source of your grief, but you surely can quit telling yourself the exaggerated and goofy crap you pile up on top of it. Their experience (and a large amount of subsequent clinical experience) is that modifying the self-descriptions will benefit mental health. This can involve work, and sometimes a lot of it. This is the scientific research behind the psychobabble in the self-help books regarding being a friend to your self.

Meditation provides the ancient path towards quieting these activities of our minds which can be such a burden. There are two basic techniques: a technique of concentration and a technique of emptying. In the technique of concentration you focus your awareness as completely as possible on one stimulus. It can be listening to a mantra as in the example of the hare krishnas or the transcendental meditation. It can be staring at a mandala or a crystal ball or a blue vase or a saucer of ink. It can be saying a rosary. In the technique of emptying you focus your awareness as completely as possible on the minimum possible field of concentration; this is usually the breath. You simply follow only your breathing as purely as possible for a period of a few minutes. A hybrid of the two is use of the minimum possible sense stimulus, the mantra Aum.

In this attention to nothing, or attention to as little as possible, time and space is provided for the mental burdens of anxiety and such to run their course and escape from our attention center. This is the process by which meditation leads to better mental health. This apparently is not the intent the innovators who developed these procedures were going for, however. They were aiming at something much more profound.

If you participate in meditation practice for a very long time (like, thousands and thousands of hours), you may have an opportunity to attain a state of being where you are connected link-pow-one-with-the-universe. Samadhi. You attain Samadhi, and presumably you never again need care about all the girls thinking you are too short.

Part II, my (shorter) daily practice

This is adapted from a self-hypnosis relaxation script I obtained from the book Mind-Body Therapy: Methods of Ideodynamic Healing in Hypnosis, by Ernest Rossi and David Cheek. I call my variation the homunculus meditation. The name is taken from a neuroscience figure, a homunculus, which is made by inflating anatomical parts in proportion to the amount of the somatic sensory cortex which are involved in our sense of touch for the particular anatomical part.

The script is very simple. You sit quietly in a relaxing posture and invite yourself to sequentially relax different portions of your body. There are thousands and thousands of terms which pertain to various anatomical structures, so you cannot name them all in one single meditation (or self-hypnosis) session. The ones I routinely use are (in order): eyes, optic nerves, visual cortex, cerebral cortex, limbic lobes, hindbrain, throat, spine, median nerves, fingertips, (back up to) limbic lobes, hindbrain, throat, spine, sciatic nerves, toe tips, foot soles, ankles, calves, ankles, shins, ankles, fibulas, knees, hamstrings, knees, quadriceps, knees, femurs, glans, testicles, anus, lumbars, navel, seventh thoracic vertebrae, nipples, seventh cervical vertebrae, shoulders, elbows, thumbs, index fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers, little fingers, elbows, wrists, thumbs, index fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers, little fingers, wrists, fingertips, wrists, elbows, shoulders, seventh cervical vertebrae, nipples, seventh thoracic vertebrae, navel, lumbars, anus, testicles, glans, testicles, anus, lumbars, navel, seventh thoracic vertebrae, nipples, seventh cervical vertebrae, spine, throat, tongue, palate, gums, lips, nostrils, nasal cavities, sinuses, eyes, temples, ears, eustachian tubes, ears, temples, eyes, forehead.

On average this takes about twenty minutes to work all the way down and back up through these features of my anatomy. There are three additional important details:

1.) In the Rossi-Cheek recipe they instruct us to instruct ourselves "Relax eyes, &c." There is an old philosophical conundrum here regarding who is talking to who when we are talking to ourselves. When you sink a long basket and you say to yourself "Good shot!", who is talking to who there? There is some implicit dissociative model like perhaps Freud's--and perhaps it is your superego talking to your ego, or something similar to that. Anyway, what I do instead of commanding myself to relax, is to invite myself to relax. I substitute "I may relax my eyes, &c." for the literal instruction provided in the Rossi-Cheek recipe.

2.) A few of these invitations are repeated, sometimes over and over. Roughly, I devote the proportion of the session along the proportions in the homunculus diagram, hence my name of homunculus meditation. I invite my fingers and my lips and my tongue to relax far more than I invite any other portion of my anatomy to do so.

3.) The other weighting is toward the eyes and ears; a large fraction of our brain is allocated to the processing of visual and audio sense information. By concentrating on the parts of the body that involve the largest brain fractions, the given twenty minutes (or whatever) of meditation can have the largest total brain footprint! That is one theory.

I have been using this meditation (or one close to it) on a nearly daily basis since 1997, since I first read Rossi and Cheek's book. I will be using it for the foreseeable future.

Part III, my (longer and at least) weekly practice


This one takes me about forty minutes.

Step one is to sit still in a comfortable position with eyes closed. Breathe slowly and count, one count for each breath to one hundred. For each breath, I visualize a sphere which looks like, or almost like a billiard ball, with the number of the breath inside the little white circle area (like on a standard billiard ball that is numbered one to eight.) The spheres alternate on an interval of ten in color and in spatial position. This sequence is patterned after a common representation of the Kabbalah Tree of Life.

1, 11, 21, 31, &c are a white sphere on the crown of my head;
2, 12, 22, 32, &c are a gray sphere on my right shoulder;
3, 13, 23, 33, &c are a black sphere on my left shoulder;
4, 14, 24, &c are a blue sphere on my right elbow;
5, 15, 25, &c are a red sphere on my left elbow;
6, 16, 26 &c are a yellow sphere on my crotch;
7, 17, 27, &c are a green sphere on my right fingertips;
8, 18, 28, &c are an orange sphere on my left fingertips;
9, 19, 29, &c are a purple sphere between my knees;
10, 20, &c are a brown sphere between my feet.

I used to play a lot of billiards so visualizing billiard balls is quite easy for me. A million other things do cross my mind during this forty or so minutes of meditation, but I try and hold my attention as closely as possible to my breath and to the billiard ball images. After, I make notes of: how many minutes (37 - 51 is the range in recent memory); if I lost count at any point (if I lose the count, I just guess where I was and continue from there--this is an excellent marker for me on how well I am attending to the meditation); if I had a hiccup or a cough or a saliva swallow or a saliva drool (I prefer not to, and sometimes I will stop meditating if any of these occur.)

Sometimes I will try and extend this to an even longer meditation. About once a month I will go for 200 breaths, and about once a year I will go for 300. 300 breaths is the longest I have ever gone. If I am going for a long meditation, I always stop if I lose count or if I hiccup or if I drool or if anything is not perfect.

9 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Broggly · 2010-12-22T11:50:23.552Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

you surely can quit telling yourself the exaggerated and goofy crap you pile up on top of it.

This sounds pretty much like Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which is used to treat depression and anxiety.

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2010-12-22T17:22:41.125Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This sounds pretty much like Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which is used to treat depression and anxiety.

Not "sounds pretty much like"; it is the basis of CBT. Beck was the M.D. Psychiatrist who began it (he called it Cognitive therapy), and Ellis was the Ph. D. Psychologist who began it (he called it Rational emotive therapy).

comment by Davorak · 2010-12-22T07:33:44.860Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you think of meditation as a simple form of practicing mental discipline?

I have read of meditations that have you focus on one thought often a mantra or an image. I think of this as practicing a steady focus or concentration for long periods of time.

I have read of meditations where in you are supposed to thin of nothing at all, banish all thoughts from your mind. This form of meditation would practice the ability to not think unproductive thoughts to not be distracted by new ideas when you have a problem at hand.

Can you think of other meditation types that practice other mental skills?

Are there any resources that take this kind of approach to meditation in general?

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-22T08:05:36.575Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you think of other meditation types that practice other mental skills?

Meditating on physical processes such as breathing and heartbeat is something I find useful. Gaining that sort of self awareness does wonders for maintaining emotional control too, the mind/body relationship being what it is.

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2010-12-22T17:17:26.095Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In chapter one of The Complete Yoga Book, James Hewitt presents a nine-category classification scheme.

Jnana yoga: union by knowledge;

Bhakti yoga: union by love and devotion;

Karma yoga: union by action and service;

Mantra yoga: union by voice and sound;

Yantra yoga: union by vision and form;

Laya and Kundaline yoga: union by arousal of latent psychic nerve force;

Tantric yoga: union by physiological and sexual discipline;

Hatha yoga: union by mastery of body and breath;

Raya yoga: union by mental mastery.

Hewitt's book is a terrific resource. He has figures of hundreds of postures. He is mostly rational about it and cautious about superstition and so forth.

There are a number of westernized bastardized things called yoga which are absolutely not yoga. Joseph Campbell famously described his primary "yoga regimen" as the "yoga of underlining sentences in books".

The distinction which Campbell lost is that in meditation one is looking within, that the resources are there inside you. The guideline might be something like Feynman's dictum that the single most important scientific fact is "everything is made out of atoms", or William Blake's poetic metaphor that the whole world is encapsulated in a grain of sand and all of eternity is contained within an hour.

comment by Davorak · 2010-12-22T20:48:40.039Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For the techniques of concentration, emptying, and focusing on a bodily process mentioned by wedrifid, I operate under the assumption that they benefit some simple skill like mentioned above. I operate under this assumption because relationship seems straight forward much like exercises and muscle strength, though the later is much easier to much quantitatively.

I would like to see a book/article where meditation x causes benefit in skill y measured quantitatively with method z. Baring this extreme it might still be helpful to have a book/article that makes as simple and direct connection between the form of meditation and benefit.

I currently have the impression, from your post, that Hewitt's book does not preform either of the two above approaches.

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2010-12-23T00:09:41.094Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would like to see a book/article where meditation x causes benefit in skill y measured quantitatively with method z.

I have searched for this and not found it. Hewitt's book is the best at describing the most complete spectrum of what is possible I have read. There are no measurements in there.

The guy who may have done the most quantitative studies is Charles Tart. Tart is an academic psychologist whose undergrad was in Electrical Engineering. I found his books States of Consciousness and Altered States of Consciousness useful. I don't remember anything in there remotely like "zen ups your IQ" and "tantra benefits your intellectual endurance".

I am doubtful that this is a well-posed line of inquiry. People report from their own experience that they find meditation benefits their anxiety level or their attention span or their recall ability (memory theater, method of loci are also closely connected to meditation mechanically) or whatever, but: i) these are not merely anecdotal reports but they are reports of incidental benefits of mostly unintended consequences and ii) if you look at the research on intelligence measurement or intellectual performance measurement you are very likely to find processes which provide more benefit with less effort than the use of meditation for these specific benefits. Monks do not meditate for any payoff of this sort. They meditate for its own sake. When I started meditating many years ago, my motivation was to use it as a mental health hygiene practice; this is long in the past. I regularly meditate now strictly for its own sake and if it fully worth my time or if it is a complete waste of time is a meaningless question. I would like to accumulate utility units as much as anybody, but 61.81818% of the maximum possible utility units ought to be plenty as near as I can figure.

comment by Davorak · 2010-12-23T01:07:30.464Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am doubtful that this is a well-posed line of inquiry.

I want to isolate and extract useful practices of meditation from the mysticism that often surrounds it. Maybe you can not call it meditation afterwards but it will still fall under the heading mental exercise perhaps. I am more interested in discussing a new line of conversation starting with my next question.

I regularly meditate now strictly for its own sake and if it fully worth my time or if it is a complete waste of time is a meaningless question.

What is your reasoning for not inspecting the usefulness of meditation as part of your life?

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2010-12-23T03:45:21.335Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is your reasoning for not inspecting the usefulness of meditation as part of your life?

Short answer: I do not know.

A (bit longer) elaboration: I claim to be a Rationalist to the extent that my experience is 100% consistent with rationalism being the single most valuable tool to solving the problems I have had to try and solve so far in my years of living. In the words of Daniel Robinson, rational thought is the thread of Ariadne by which we might escape from the many labyrinths, problems, which our lives in this world pose to us. He considers it our greatest debt to the Greeks.

It is not a panacea. It has little power for any love / sex relationship I have ever been involved in, for example. Meditation, in my experience, is also highly resistant to rational analysis or even empirical analysis beyond a crude treatment. I can be such a ruthless skeptic that I have said that skeptics in general are incapable of discerning their own viewpoint to be self-contradictory. I am skeptical that meditation is a proper discussion subject for this board, but I noticed the interest in the topic when it was posted and discussed previously, so I have tried to present something systematic (although not entirely rational) regarding my own experience.

This issue of "usefulness of meditation" makes little sense to me; but my interest in my meditation has continued for many years and I anticipate it will continue to do so for many more. I suspect many will find my elaborate answer pussyfooting so I will repeat and emphasize my short answer above: I do not know.

I believe I have a few of the same questions that you have.