Meditation for the Non-Religious

My first encounter with meditation was uninspiring. As a fifteen-year-old, I was enjoined to sit Indian-style on a cold, mercilessly hard floor with unyielding carpet roughly the texture of sandpaper and redolent of post-workday feet, close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing. These sessions lasted anywhere from five to twenty minutes, and I went through the same motions at the beginning of every martial arts class I attended, two or three times a week for four years. I won’t say I got nothing out of it. Just knowing how important concentrating on your breath is can get you through some otherwise panic-inducing positions in submission wrestling. And knowing not to hold your breath while throwing or absorbing punches can keep you from getting winded or having the wind knocked out of you. But my martial arts teachers never taught me to go beyond the first level of meditation.

My dad had a heart attack near the end of May in 2006. Even though my lifestyle choices have always tended to be quite a bit healthier than my dad’s, I was moved, partly because I thought I might discover simple hints to pass along to him, to read up on stress. As a science-minded graduate of Anthropology and Psychology programs, I naturally gravitated toward primatologist Robert Sapolsky’s work on the topic Why Zebras don’t Get Ulcers. I’d read articles in science magazines about how Buddhists monks in fMRI machines had demonstrated meditation was a mental state clearly distinguishable from mere resting and relaxing (which was surprising to me given my experiences), and now I was reading about evidence that meditation has clear health benefits. But, though I remember a few attempts at establishing a routine back then, it took me until recently to really get into experimenting with it.

Having been shocked at the beginning of this semester at how well my memory palace worked to help me encode and store the names of my students, I started poking into Mind Performance Hacks, the book that introduced me to the method. (I also have a friend who’s been telling me about his experimentation with it of late.) I’d actually read the hack on meditation (and I use the four-fold breath when I can’t sleep) a couple times before, but what stood out this time was the idea of walking meditation. I ended up doing a breathing and visualization exercise while I was on the elliptical and watching the NewsHour. Next thing I knew, I was looking down at the display and it was several minutes later. I’d missed most of the news. Being so out of it while exercising has obvious benefits.

Many of the explanations and suggested techniques for meditation are marred by purposely elliptical philosophizing and mumbo jumbo about universal consciousness. The best account I’ve come across of what it entails is in Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. And the easiest technique to start with is in Mind Performance Hacks. But I’ll attempt an easy and direct explanation and set of directions here, all of which can be personalized as you practice and figure out what works best for you. Keep in mind, though you’ll know it when you’re in the state of meditation—or more likely when you’re coming out of the state—the initial experience of a beginner is only a taste of how it feels as you log more and more time in developing the skill.

The process I use consist of four, usually sequential, levels:

Level one is concentrating on your breathing. You don’t have to sit in the lotus or anything like that, but you want to be comfortable enough to relax yet not so comfortable that you’ll fall asleep. Try Indian-style or half-lotus, or lying with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. It’s important to take each breath into your belly first and then gradually let it into your chest; this will increase your capacity for air intake. To help you concentrate on breathing, actually say to yourself silently in your mind, “Breathing in, I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out.”

Level two is body and sensory noting. Once your breathing rhythm is established, do an inventory of each part of your body beginning with your toes and moving all the way up to the top of your head. It may help you relax if you tense and then deliberately relax each part as you note it. So pay attention to how your toes feel as you wiggle and tense them before letting them relax as you move on to tense and release the muscles in your feet, and then your calves—and so on all through your body. Noting your body will already move you in the direction of noting what’s going on with your senses. Consider all the things you feel and hear and smell and taste. I like to imagine my surroundings visually (remember your eyes are closed) and feel myself blend in with the environment. As your body relaxes like this, you’ll find your imagination is really freed up.

Level three is mind noting. This is where Hofstadter’s idea of jootsing comes in. Joots stands for jumping outside of the system. Imagine you’re driving and someone cuts you off. You start to get pissed off, your blood pressure rises, and you start to think all kinds of nasty things about your fellow driver. The system you’re concentrating on here is the offense this other person caused you. Jump outside of it. It’s hard to do in the moment of course but in a state of relaxation it’s much easier. Consider yourself. Is it really such a big deal that you got cut off? Were you in any real danger? Are you going to arrive at your destination significantly later? Has the condition of your life been in any way diminished? Now, consider the other driver—he’s probably stressed out and in a hurry just like you. He didn’t mean to cut you off. It wasn’t personal.

Mind noting doesn’t have to focus on anger or frustration, but these are the things that usually make it hard to relax so you’ll end up beginning the process with them most of the time. The idea is to focus on yourself experiencing the emotion instead of on what triggered the emotion. You may even want to say, “I am feeling frustrated about how that guy cut me off earlier,” or “I’m feeling angry that my boss doesn’t appreciate me,” etc. Doing so means you’re jumping out of the first system, up one level. And you can keep jumping to higher levels. You’re pretty much just putting things in perspective, taking the long view, and saying to yourself that in the scheme of things these stressors are insignificant. You can keep jumping levels until you’re at the level of the entire cosmos, in which neither you or your family or friends—or anything you know about and spend time thinking about has much significance. Thinking at this level makes it really hard to be reactionary. (But there is a danger: if you stay at this level, you may get past your stressors only to get depressed that everyone and everything you love or care about will end.)

Level four becomes possible when you’ve thoroughly relaxed your body and cleared the clutter form your mind. (Sometimes, if nothing's preoccupying me, I skip level three.) Now you can chose what you want to focus on. This is the level at which many monks will recite mantras. Ohm, for instance, when pronounced properly, begins at the back of the throat and moves forward to the lips, making every vowel sound possible and thus symbolizing the totality of existence. Against this backdrop, their individual sense of themselves, their egos, diminishes drastically and they come ever closer to enlightenment. But, as a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu, I concentrate on moods or states of mind I want to spend more time in. You can personalize this level any way you want. What I do is concentrate on colors I associate with moods, and scenes or images or plots I associate with broader states of mind. For instance, there’s a state of mind I associate with reading Walter de la Mare’s ghost stories or watching certain schlock horror movies that I must enjoy because it represents moments of excitement and happiness in my childhood. So I focus first on a certain shade of blue and gradually resolve the image into a view of the moon through silhouetted tree branches. You can choose anything you like to concentrate on. The important thing is that you devote all of your attention to it, with no part of your consciousness occupied with anything else.

I’ve been trying to do this at least twenty minutes a day, five days a week. I also have quite a bit of success doing it while on the elliptical, perhaps because the rhythmic pedaling helps to synchronize my breathing and get me into a near-trance state. Anyway, just keep in mind it takes practice. I have a feeling what I’ve experienced with it to date is only the tip of the iceberg.