Is meditation worthwhile?

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Discussion by: Pumpkin_Programmer

As someone with a naturalistic worldview, I have been interested in mindfulness meditation as a means of enhancing my experience of the world. Although I’m aware that meditation can be entirely divorced from mystical, woo-woo assumptions, I am not entirely sure whether it's really worth my time.

Can anyone else relate or offer any thoughts or suggestions? Thanks!

30 COMMENTS

  1. The short answer is if it works keep doing it. The longer answer requires a discussion of what IMO is one of the most poorly understood concepts in medicine right now, the placebo effect. Essentially we can ask “does meditation work better than a placebo?” I think the evidence is that yes it does but I think even if the evidence went the other way that wouldn’t mean meditation wasn’t worth doing.

    I don’t remember the specific passages where I read about meditation but I’m sure I’ve read some fairly convincing evidence that meditation works better (just a bit better but still better) than a placebo in helping people manage stress. I know Harris has said that but to be honest I don’t put a lot of stock in what he says but I also think I’ve read the same thing from people I respect more such as Pinker and Trivers. BTW, Robert Trivers, in case you don’t know the name, is probably one of the most important biologists alive today and he wrote a fascinating book on human behavior called The Folly of Fools. I would strongly recommend that book, I know he talks about how talking therapies have good evidence to reduce trauma and I think he also talked about meditation as well. And he definitely talked about the placebo effect and how important it is.

    I think there is evidence that meditation works better than a placebo but even if there weren’t such evidence I don’t think that would mean meditation wasn’t worthwhile. Even if it was no better than a good placebo it might still be very worthwhile. The placebo effect is real, it’s not just that people think they are getting better they actually do get measurably better when given placebos that they believe in. Why doctors don’t pay more attention to this, and why they don’t realize that this almost certainly means that the psychological outlook of the patient is a crucial part of a good recovery, is a bit of a mystery. I think it’s partly because of the way medicine is taught and that doctors like having a God complex where the patient just depends absolutely on them rather than a process where they acknowledge that the patient’s outlook is essential.

    • In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

      Why doctors don’t pay more attention to this, and why they don’t realize that this almost certainly means that the psychological outlook of the patient is a crucial part of a good recovery, is a bit of a mystery.

      Hi Red Dog,
      Are you sure they aren’t? I know of doctors that use the placebo effect in a number of situations. However, for it to work the patient needs to believe it is an effective drug being given. Typically they will say something like ‘Here try these, see me in a week if there is no improvement.’. They cannot therefore be saying to patients I’m going to give you sugar pills or a saline injection they need to mislead you therefore a low level of publicity.

      Encouraging a positive outlook of course is something we should be looking into more as you suggest. The problem as I see it is that at least in Australia, government cut backs and deregulation of Universities have resulted in now very few doctors outside of cities so any doctor who bulk bills(charges straight to medicare- patent is not charged) is very rare indeed now and those that do are now under incredible time pressure, the only way many doctors now have the time to go beyond the basic diagnosis and prescription or referral is in practices that do not bulk bill. Patients therefore who might go to a quack (I was going to say alternative medicine provider but I couldn’t bring myself to) get time and someone listening to them. The fact that people are prepared to pay much more than an evidence based doctor and actually feel as though (at least in the short term) they are getting better speaks to how powerful the placebo effect is.

      • In reply to #6 by Reckless Monkey:

        Hi Red Dog, Are you sure they aren’t? I know of doctors that use the placebo effect in a number of situations. However, for it to work the patient needs to believe it is an effective drug being given.

        Just to clarify I’m not advocating that doctors start prescribing placebos left and right. In fact, since I think trust is one of the most important requirements for a good doctor patient relation I would mostly be against that. My point is more on the general way that most doctors (at least in the US) treat their patients. And I agree the for profit healthcare system we have in the US had a lot to do with the problem.

        I have specific examples in mind from managing my own disease where doctors were insanely incompetent in helping me understand a diagnosis and effects of medicine. Many of the doctors that I’ve had are just awful at that part of the job. I listened to a talk once by Andrew Weil, where he said the same thing. It was interesting because Weil is essentially a woo peddler IMO and most of his talk I was listening to just to laugh at and mock but then suddenly he switched to berating the medical establishment for their lack of empathy and telling horror stories, similar to ones I could tell about doctors completely ignoring their patient’s mental state and how important that was and suddenly I was in total agreement with the woo peddler.

  2. I think everyone does their own version of meditation. (Or, nearly everyone.) A blank stare at the wall while soaking in a tub, a quiet sit down in a comfy chair with your headphones on, even an afternoon laying out in the sun and getting (not too much) a tan, all of these things accomplish what meditation does more formally and, of course, more rigorously. I think you will find learning meditation techniques and putting them into practice in your own way, in your own life, will be a big plus!

  3. Is it worth it? Only you can decide. You may find that it helps you to organize your thoughts much better and clearer. It can lead to finding solutions to a problem, reduce stress, lower BP, relax tensions in your muscles… Just know that a bath, shower, exercise, knitting, sleep, or any form of relaxation can do this also. You simply need some sort of “down” time. If you can’t take a nap during the day, meditation or something that quiets and focuses our thoughts is needed.

    Studies show that relaxation after effort leads to a high probability of problem solving. Ever notice how you come up with ideas taking a walk, bath, or just sitting in thought. Our brains actually continue to process information while we are in a relaxed state and or sleep. We can more easily bridge unrelated ideas connecting them together. (This can have some negative consequences if your a making creative connections without the input of intelligent thoughts and ideas grounded in reality.) Relaxation is a bedfellow of creativity. I like to think of quiet contemplation/meditation as getting the benefits of sleep without having to spend 8 hours.

    In case you want to try meditation. I outlined a couple of methods below. You could stop reading here if you’re not interested.

    Meditation may be a waste of time depending if this is guided which usually has woo mixed in, but is a good way to learn.There is meditation free of woo in which you clear your mind and sit focusing on your breath with awareness of your physical state of being. Yet both can reduce stress.

    The first type usually has you imagine light either white light, golden light (honey) or crimson. Just know that this is rooted in the chakra system. Either “energy” in the form or light or general energy is flowing from top down or from the bottom/ground up. Usually there is a facilitator speaking through the meditation. “Imagine golden light flowing down through the crown chakra through your face, your neck and shoulders. Imagine all you troubles and concerns being released and focus on your breath. This divine energy, this golden light, like honey now flows down through your arms releasing any tension…” This type of meditation does result in a calm relaxation which can clear your mind ultimately resulting in creative thought and problem solving. If you find yourself in the middle of this type of meditation, my suggestion is just to go with the flow of it. You already understand that it is awareness of your body and focused attention rather than some sort of invisible divine light. Usually there will be some sort of ohmm… stated. I actually like this because I find that a unified sound is additionally relaxing. It may or may not end with “namaste” which means that I recognize the light within you. I simply rephrase this with the idea that I recognize the good in you and you as a person. Yoga frequently uses type of chanting and wording. I’ve noticed that several people, likely Catholic, do not say namaste or do any of the hands folded and bowing in honor of oneself. Feel free to adapt it to suit yourself.

    Any type of relaxation, even sleep or a walk will have similar benefits. (There are walking meditations such as a labyrinth or a general walk. )What is effective about this type of meditation is that the attempt is to clear the chatter in your head.I don’t think you will ever be able to clear you head of all thought completely, but it slows down the tension. The idea is simple, but more difficult to achieve. You usually sit quietly on the floor with you hands extended on your knees. Keep your eyes closed and focus on the inhalation and exhalation of your breath. When you find a thought coming into your head, push it aside and continue to focus on your breath perhaps coming in through your nose and out through your mouth. Relax you body and muscles. Similar to the above meditation you draw your attention to each body part from head-to-toe inhale and relax that part of your body with each exhalation. When you are completely relaxed continue to focus on your breath and clearing out any thoughts of daily life that come into your head. This is difficult because thoughts do come in. I find focusing on my hands or other area of my body to be helpful.

    Hope this gives you a better understanding for you to make a decision.

  4. I guess it depends on what you want to accomplish with your time. If you are currently serene and well adjusted maybe you don’t require any meditation or other activities meant to calm yourself. If you are stressed out, there is a body of research that indicates that meditation can help. This isn’t clear cut evidence, and there is still concern the placebo affect is working here, but there is enough evidence that it would be worth your while to try a class and see if it works for you.

  5. Well, it works for me. It helped me get through a very serious prolonged depression, and I have been meditating every day since that… I don’t know what you want to achieve so I can’t really evaluate whether it is worth your time or not. Although, I think a common mistake people make is that they think that in order to meditate they have to spend weeks alone in a cave or follow a very strict routine for a long time. Yes, these forms of meditation exist and perhaps you can achieve life altering experiences by following these routines. But, most people frankly don’t have the time or motivation to do something that radical. Hence, I would like to stress that meditation is really something very simple that most of us do without thinking about it. Reading a good book, taking a walk, exercising, knitting, watching movies, or almost any kind of activity can be forms of meditation. The whole idea with meditation is to relax and feel good. I think there are countless ways to achieve this. The Eastern ways of meditation are only some methods. Yes, many of them are quite good. But, I would like to ask you what you want to achieve by meditating. It’s hard to really give any advice before I know what kind of experiences you are seeking or what kind of problems you are trying to solve…

  6. Meditation is a great idea as long as you don’t take it to seriously and keep your feet on the ground :) . I spend 20 minutes each day sitting still in a semi dark room and putting as much attention as I can to my own breathing (ie. Meditating). Only been doing this for past 3 months but it has certainly made more relaxed, improved my concentration and I also find it very interesting. Trying to control or limit your own conscious thoughts is like conducting your own personal experiment on free will and the nature of consciousness. As you can see I am not much on the woo-woo factor. But I do get some woo-woo value (ie. calmer, better relationships, clearer thinking) out of this “attention exercise” (ie. meditation) too.

  7. Whatever you decide, only you must know if it is worth.
    It would be a wise decision on difficult times, you need to be aware of your inner reasons, and I think if would not be you to decide by yourself it could be a serious mistake (something like know yourself), don´t follow others advice like a foolish.

  8. Sam Harris, atheist of renown, has written on the subject, both online and in a new book. At the most recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne Australia he had 4,000 atheists meditating, including the lovely Richard Dawkins. An Australian psychiatrist, Ainslie Meares, wrote on meditiation/self-hypnosis in the earlier days of their intro to the West, cautioning that it not be interpreted as connecting with some “higher self” or some “universal mind”. His view, after experiencing it and recommending it, along with case reports, was that it is simply a means of regression to a simpler state of mind, such as of a child or an animal, which is good for you.

    • In reply to #11 by annette williams:

      Sam Harris, atheist of renown, has written on the subject, both online and in a new book. At the most recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne Australia he had 4,000 atheists meditating, including the lovely Richard Dawkins. An Australian psychiatrist, Ainslie Meares, wrote on meditiation/self-…

      His new book is coming here.

      Michael

    • In reply to #12 by annette williams:

      I note that Red Dog also mentions Harris, not flatteringly. Wonder why?

      I disagree with Harris on most topics. I don’t think he’s really that deep a thinker actually, he seems to me to always just advocate for the “common sense” view of philosophy and in so doing he doesn’t understand or ignores the most interesting questions. I’ve gone into some detail picking apart some of his positions: Harris and free will and Well Being is not Enough

      Also, on the political front I think he is very shallow and often takes positions that are really indefensible from the standpoint of reason and critical thinking. His stand on gun control for example is ridiculous, he repeats the same emotional macho free market nonsense and ignores the overwhelming and clear data that a gun in the home is far more likely to end up being used against a family member (either through accident or emotions) than defending the home.

  9. Meditation can be achieved doing anything. It means thinking of nothing or everything. It is a tool to teach yourself how to focus regardless of the noise that surrounds you. It has nothing to do with woo or the metaphysical woo it has to do with learning how to control your body with your mind. Like to lower your blood pressure and such.

    You can meditate while swimming laps. You don’t need to sit in lotus flower position or be laying down. You can even Meditate while watching TV.

    What to expect from meditating ? depends on what you want to get. If you need to solve a problem, meditating on it might yield a solution. It is simply a way to focus on something. Some people like to use it to blank their mind but I find that impossible. I don’t think you can hallucinate that you are a higher self without the stuff to get you high lol But even then it was highly disappointing . Maybe my view of the universe and myself is already high so it did not get any better …

  10. Have you tried any of the attempted ASMR triggers currently popular via YouTube?

    I suspect that the mechanisms that generate ASMR sensations involve similar elements as for hypnotism, a relaxed mental state, and may be important in enabling the placebo response.

    ASMR seems to have a lot in common with all kinds of alternative medical therapies. It’s like keeping the bedside manner but discarding the treatment. And then finding out that the bedside manner is the dominant effect.

    My main trigger is hearing various passages in classical music. Kind of strange though, as I mostly listen to jazz, blues, hard rock. But spent a lot of time playing classical pieces in my youth.

  11. I think meditation can be worthwhile – indeed, I should get back into into (as often happens I have dropped off daily sessions after a short break). In a way, meditation is like other mind/body maintenance/ improvement activities. So its a bit like asking Is it worth exercising regularly (etc)? Personally I’ve found meditation can be helpful in the longer run but also pleasant in itself.

    But I’m not sure about comparing / viewing it entirely to medication/therapy, as implied by discussions of a placebo effect, although it is used in treatments for mental health problems. My point here would be that a therapy/medication should only be expected to work regarding a health problem. If we compared meditation to physical exercise (i.e. meditation as a kind of mental exercise) then while physical exercise can be a treatment, say in rehab after injury, it is not primarily a treatment for a health problem. Exercise might help prevent future ailments but that is a different issue. Likewise, meditation can can help in abnormal, disorder-level anxiety (etc) but for the most part that’s not how it is used.

    I’d suggest trying meditation, it might enhance your life as you hope. Perhaps (like exercise) it needs a bit of ‘sticking power’ to reap the benefits (I need to step up on that!!) but in the end if it doesn’t help, it’s not as if you have committed in a religious way to pray so many times a day etc. As I’ve been advised in a meditation group there really is no-one watching you as you sit, (despite any childhood indoctrinations) so do what works for you, end of.

  12. Meditation is a form of contemplation. It wouldn’t be possible to enhance your experience of the world without contemplation. Meditation allows you to clear your head and focus on the things you choose. You could see it as a tool for structured thought, a means to help contemplate the world around. Give it a try, it may help you gain a qualitative and quantitative assessment of your experiences.

    I sometimes think we can loose a sense of our humanity, the things that make us who we are. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to discover the inner ‘you’, the real world or your place in it… There’s nothing mystical or woo-woo about it… ;-)

  13. Sit still and clear your mind of conscious thought. I don’t need to make meditation any more complicated then that.

    It’s ok to do for a few minutes a day, preferably upon awakening or just prior to bed or both. At some point, though, you are just sitting around doing nothing.

    Well, that’s my two cents.

    • In reply to #21 by The Jersey Devil:

      Sit still and clear your mind of conscious thought. I don’t need to make meditation any more complicated then that.

      It’s ok to do for a few minutes a day, preferably upon awakening or just prior to bed or both. At some point, though, you are just sitting around doing nothing.

      Well, that’s my two cents.

      Not everything involving sitting quietly is meditation. There is a definite technique involved.

      Michael

  14. I’ve recently listened to an ABC Australia All in the Mind program called, The Mind at Rest. The program highlights research by Dr Muireann Irish, Senior Research Officer, Neuroscience Research Australia and Penelope Lewis Neuroscientist, University of Manchester.

    Have you had one of those moments when the solution to a puzzling program suddenly pops into your head, hours or days after you have been stumped by it. The researchers show that the mind is not still, regardless of your conscious state. It continues to process data. The researchers observed people ‘daydreaming” akin to meditation. They conducted experiments and found there were positives to be obtained from daydreaming. For the full details, listen to the program at this link. I think it supports the cause of letting your brain go into free fall, day dreaming, or meditation if you like. (I dislike the term meditation because of its links to whacko stuff) Here is the executive summary.

    “The surprising science of sleep and daydreaming. Letting your mind wander involves complex brain activity and facilitates problem solving, creativity and even enhances our sense of identity. Also, scientific sleep studies are showing that our memory can be enhanced and we can learn new things … all while we’re quietly snoozing. This program looks at the benefits of zoning out.”

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/the-mind-at-rest/5141356

  15. I will attest that meditation can be quite invigorating and useful. I think that is an intensified form of “mindfulness,” which I take to be a certain concentrated attitude toward experience. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddist monk who has written quite usefully about both meditation and mindfulness. His works are very accessible.

    I’m a rock-ribbed atheist and I do not believe in any sort of spiritual world or spiritual entities. But I don’t think that that rules out the truth of, or at least usefulness of, most of Nhat Hanh’s ideas, which may find their basis in inherited (via evolution) qualities of the human mind.

  16. i find particularly interesting the idea of meditation offered by “zen ” wich revolves around the concept of contemplation of nothing. Meditation in Zen is not concentrating on something but the total absence of the mind. Being able to free it from any kind of thinking. II think the idea of void and nothingness is completely ignored and underrated in western culture while in eastern culture it’s almost an angular stone and i’m not talking religion, i’m talking philosophy. The void in eastern culture it’s for example something concrete even when decoring a house while in western society an empty space is simply something to fill with something, it has no real dignity by itself. I don’t think trough meditation you can find the nirvana, the enlightment and so on but i still think is something really interesting to explore and also more difficult than you would think.

  17. I guess meditation is fine for those who need to ‘get away. For others like myself it’s probably a waste of time that would be better spent getting caught up in this wonderful universe and all its marvels. I’d just go for a long walk in the hills on my own, listen to birdsong and breathe in the fresh air.

  18. Try it and find out.

    What’s the worst that can happen?

    My personal experience is that it is impossible to stop my stream-of-consciousness-thoughts. Because of that I don’t understand what people are talking about when they talk about their experiences of meditation, We have no common reference point. Therefore, it all seems like hogwash to me.

    However, I do value personal time to relax and reflect without external stimuli. Music, particularly low-volume classical, orchestral, non-dramatic pieces, I find good for helping me actually eliminating other external stimuli like sounds from my neighbours. Also communing with nature by simply walking alone or with a close friend (because close friends have little that’s new to say). Also keeping clear of both alcohol and caffeine (and other foods and drinks that have strong stimulants like sugar), turning off any electronic technology that’s newer than the radio (TV, mobile, tablet, laptop, etc.) and a good night’s sleep, all help.

    Doing this will help you get your ‘ducks in a row’ and turn off the pressure of modern living. The result is very like meditation (as far as I understand it). Like anything, it’s good to try from time to time. It doesn’t have to be a way of life.

    Peace.

  19. Hello Pumpkin_Programmer

    I’ve done Marital arts for most of my life now, and we practice a form of meditation at the end and beginning of every class. When I was young, I was taught the spiritualistic values to meditation. As time passed, I started to realise that the main goal was all about centering your thought process, and making use of it. Reflecting on what ever you had just gone through and using that to better yourself next time.

    For me now, Meditation is purely a way to center my thoughts and focus about what is happening around me. I know this may differ from your naturalistic worldview, BUT it is worth your while.

    Kind regards,

    Jarrad

  20. I can only speculate as to the possible benefits of meditation. Meditation helps to alleviate anxiety, anger, stress, and other negative feelings and/or thoughts. It can induce feelings of calm and clarity in some people. But, in order for it to be effective it must be practiced regularly (15-30 mins per day, everyday). I believe the point is to sit in a quiet place, relax your entire body, and clear your head of all thoughts by focusing on breathing. Certain Asians that regularly meditate claim other holistic benefits. In the past when I have attempted to practice regularly, I usually end up forgetting about it for several days between sessions and thus have abandoned it.

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