A Skeptic’s Testimonial on Mindfulness Meditation

One of the things that I like to promote on The Frame Problem is Mindfulness Meditation. Meditation is a practice I began a few years ago. I am a rigorous skeptic. What brought me to meditation was having read a number of scientific papers published in leading Psychology and Medical journals on its scientifically demonstrated efficacy at promoting enhanced psychological well-being, focus, self-awareness, present-moment orientation, and as a means of treatment for depression and anxiety. I have personally experienced each of the just-mentioned benefits, in addition to insight—I’m not sure if insight has been scientifically demonstrated. The body of this post however will not be my work, but that of a good friend of mine. This friend, Randy McVeigh, like me is a steadfast skeptic—once when we were in a room alone together he threw a crumpled up piece of paper at me and then exclaimed “YOU CAN’T PROVE ANYTHING!”. Well, anyway, he’s a skeptic. Like me, what made him interested in trying meditation was hearing of the strong scientific support for the practice in addition to positive testimonials from skeptical friends. Below the fold is a story of Randy’s personal experiences with meditation. Because I’m a social science educated skeptic, I expect that some readers may be skeptical of a testimonial from a stranger, as well they should be. So here is a link to the Wikipedia article on meditation, which broadly outlines some of the research and medical uses of meditation.

Without further delay, here is A Defense of Meditation, by Randy McVeigh (2006)

Hi all, instead of working I’ve decided to write a sort of defense of meditation. I can say that meditation has had a greatly beneficial impact on my life in the last 6 months or so. I’ve always been a pretty anxious person and meditation has helped me get a handle on that. Now more than ever I feel in control of my response to external events. My ability to focus on tasks has improved noticeably, and I find I’m a lot better at relaxing in stressful situations and I’m enjoying life more. I suspect there’s still a lot to learn. Anyways, it occurred to me to write a note about meditation because I was recently reminded that a lot of people probably view it with distrust, assuming that it’s some sort of wacky new age crap involving questionable beliefs about the universe. Having myself been a skeptic about this topic until recently, I can understand at least some of the skepticism directed toward it but now feel in a position to address those bits that I understand, and speak a few words for meditation.Meditation is not a system of wacky new age beliefs. Meditation is not a system of beliefs at all – it’s a practice, which a person may or may not experience as being beneficial to their life. In this sense, it is like playing basketball, driving, brushing your teeth, lifting weights, etc., as these are all practices that a person may consider beneficial to their lives. The main point of meditation, to me, is to practice being aware of your thought processes and practice focusing your attention. Therefore, the only belief that a person may need to hold in order to practice meditation would be:1. Improving my focus may be beneficial to my life
2. Practicing focusing my attention will improve my ability to focus my attentionNeither of these are outlandish beliefs that require leaps of faith – these are things that can be guessed at intuitively and then tested. There is pretty good reason to think that improved focus might be beneficial to one’s life – however, a person can test this theory for themselves and then discontinue meditation if they find improved focus has lowered their quality of life. The second belief is that practicing focusing your attention will improve your ability to focus your attention. This is not a ridiculous guess because many things improve with practice, but again, it is something that a person can test and then confirm or disconfirm for themselves.

I think a natural suspicion may be that people who meditate only *think* that it’s helping them improve their focus, when in reality they’re just wasting their time sitting there. The suspicion may be that:

1. People are not actually improving their focus – they just think they are
or
2. That the improvement is just mental (i.e. placebo).

The first one is unfair, because generally people are pretty good at noticing changes in their own practices, as these changes are directly experienced. Anyone who’s taken up a new sport and watched themselves improve over the first couple months of playing would understand how ludicrous it would be to accuse them of “imagining” this improvement. The second criticism, that any change is a result of placebo, does not seem to make sense in this context. There doesn’t seem to be a way to define a placebo as separate from a “real” treatment. In drug testing, a patient is given a fake drug (a placebo) which they believe is real, and they experience some tangible health change because they are convinced the drug they are taking is beneficial. They actually create this change for themselves – it’s an internal mental thing rather than a result of the material pill. This parallel doesn’t work for meditation, because meditation *is* an internal mental thing – that is the whole point. If practicing shooting a basketball gives one the confidence to sink more baskets, the practice is not referred to as a placebo – rather, the practice is serving an important function, building confidence. If practicing focusing my attention improves my ability to focus my attention in my day-to-day life by improving my confidence, then it is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, and it’s a worthwile practice.

There we go, I’ve tried to address some of the suspicions about meditation that I can sympathize with and understand, and which probably keep a lot of people from trying it. This is still an ongoing learning process for me, and there’s still tons to learn, hence the practice must continue. The main thing I’ve found so far for myself is that with a bit of practice, it’s possible to take more control over thoughts and emotions than I previously thought possible. A lot of worry and tension is exerted in ways that are unhelpful and even destructive, and it turns out it’s possible to let go of these things and thus get more out of life in general. Good stuff! I like life – might as well get more out of it.

END
If anyone would like to make any comments or ask any questions, please post them below. Randy will be reading the comments of this thread.
A few comments that I would like to like to make:
1) The scientifically-demonstrated effective Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a valuable partner to the practice of meditation for promoting insight and psychological well-being. The two are an effective combination for helping to identify the types of thoughts, assumptions and core beliefs that one is harbouring, to evaluate them rationally and honestly, and to purge the irrational ones, thereby helping the person develop wisdom and well-being. A relevant note: the mood-lowering and anxiety-provoking thoughts, assumptions and core beliefs underlying depression and anxiety have a tendency to be irrational.
2) Regarding athletic performance, I wouldn’t say that we get better just because we get more confident. We get better because we get better and we become more confident. When we practice something our skills become more honed as our perceptual-motor systems and understanding of the task improve through structured practice. This experience and improvement leads to increased comfort and confidence in the activity, which in turn leads to more improvement, and back and forth the positive feedback loop goes.
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Comments
22 Responses to “A Skeptic’s Testimonial on Mindfulness Meditation”
  1. Andrew says:

    Can either of you provide a link to any good skeptic-friendly resources on how exactly to practice meditation? I’d very much like to try, but I’d like to learn from someone who isn’t crazy.

  2. ronbrown says:

    Andrew:

    John Vervaeke has written a meditation instruction manual and also gives free lessons on Mondays at I think 12-1 PM at the Multifaith Centre. I’ll send you an email with more info.

  3. ronbrown says:

    Randy, have you come across any good sites, books or places for instruction?

  4. Randy says:

    The first description of meditation I read was in George Leonard’s “The Way of Aikido”, which may not be considered the most skeptic-friendly book. Since then, I’ve pulled descriptions of slightly different techniques from various webpages and experimented with them to see which ones worked best for me. Often the webpages may have their own cultural and traditional attachments, but in no cases did the techniques themselves require belief in anything irrational.

  5. poetryman69 says:

    hmmmm…is “sitting there” a waste of time? Maybe the way you think about it is the source of the problem.

    Moon Loon

  6. ronbrown says:

    What’s wrong with how he’s thinking about it and his conclusions? He’s saying that there is great value in the practice and this is supported not just by testimony of peers and people he’s read about, but based on scientific study.

  7. quotesqueen says:

    One of the best treatments of techniques as well as the value of meditation that I’ve found is in Steve Hagen’s very readable book, Meditation Now or Never (paperback, Harper Collins, 2007). He says, “All we really need to do is just stop. We get caught, and then, without trying, we free ourselves. We get caught again, and free ourselves again, over and over…It’s all very simple. Either you’re present or you’re not. If you’re genuinely present, there’s nothing to seek. If you’re not, then you’ve lost your way–in which case, simply come back. Don’t think there’s any more to meditation than this.”

  8. Rachel says:

    Thank you for posting this! I am happy to see that I am not the only skeptic who finds meditation useful!

    There are a couple of resources that I have found particularly helpful (for those who have asked about resources): Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living” where he outlines his mindfulness-based stress reduction program. This book is a description of his work at UMass and is – as far as I can remember – devoid of all the Buddhist overlay to meditation. Skip his later work because that’s bringing Buddhism back, which, imo, does not hold up to skeptical inquiry. MBSR is very well researched and it’s taught all over the country though many teachers bring back the Buddhism… A spin-off from MBSR is a combination of mindfulness with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. There are two books Zindel V. Segal et al written about that (the more expensive one is more technical…).

    Now, unfortunately, because mindfulness meditation originated from Buddhism, most sitting groups are steeped in Buddhism, including making the goal of meditation not the scientifically supported health benefits but enlightenment, which is as aloof a concept as heaven and hell. Maybe we skeptics can start our own groups and bring meditation down to earth.

  9. ronbrown says:

    Rachel:
    Hi! Yes, meditation is fantastic. I’m familiar with Kabat-Zinn. In fact, his work played a substantial role in getting me to look into meditation in the first place. A few years ago I was taking a psych course which dealt with major big-picture and societal issues with respect to psych, and one of the topics discussed was mindfulness meditation. Of course, J K-Z’s work was front and centre during this discussion.
    MBCT is the ultimate. I practice it myself. The two fit together like lock-and-key, making an amazing synergy.

    I once attended a Zen Buddhist sitting group and at the time I felt kind of like a tool following along with the various cultural practices from ancient Japan. I would very much have preferred a more straightforward meditation group, rather than one that focused on the ancient traditions.

    I am currently doing reading on Buddhism. While, like you, I don’t endorse holding or paying lip service to supernatural beliefs such as reincarnation, I have been learning a lot of valuable things from my Buddhist readings—e.g., the dangers of identifying oneself with one’s beliefs, of not being aware of one’s cognitive frameworks, etc. I see a lot of wonderfully wise ideas in Buddhism. I can even draw messages out of their more supernaturally-framed ideas. For instance, perhaps karma and reincarnation are better interpreted as internal processes occurring within this life time. To the extent that we become to absorbed in our own ego, differentiating ourselves from the rest of the world, the more anxiety-prone we may become. Perhaps the karma of selfishness is being overly egoistic and thus more vulnerable to anxiety. The reincarnation may be in the sense that with egoistic thinking and behaviour we continually build up a more and more egoistic self. Y’know how Buddhist writing talks about wisdom as being the supplanting of an ego by a more broadminded ego that is more anchored to the hear and now, sees a bigger part of the picture, and so on. Perhaps reincarnation is better thought of in this way. With certain thought and behavioural patterns, we recreate ourselves.

    As a skeptic, I’m not gonna take an idea as being good just because it is an idea I read of in a Buddhist writing, or any other writing (e.g., by a completely nonreligious scholar). Likewise, I’m not going to reject an idea just because it’s from a theistic religion. Like you, I would evaluate the idea on its own sensibility. Using this means of evaluation, my readings in Buddhism thus far have been very favourable.

    Like Sam Harris and you, I suspect, I think it would be good to move Buddhism further and further away from being considered a religion and closer and closer to being a set of philosophies and practices that can be practiced independently and in a group setting and that does not endorse faith-based claims. Or, to at least the secularized Buddhism become more and more wellknown and active.

    And now I’m going to check out your blog.

  10. ronbrown says:

    Rachel:

    I wanted to comment at your blog but I don’t have a wordpress.org signup–only .com. Perhaps I’ll sign up for one. Anyhow, I really liked your blog. I’ve added it to my blogroll as my first listed rationalist blog on Buddhism, meditation, wisdom and well-being. I’ll certainly be checking back regularly.
    Ron

  11. quotesqueen says:

    Same here–wanted to comment and couldn’t get in. I like the blog, too, and am adding it to my blogroll.

  12. Rachel says:

    Ron:

    I have been musing over Sam Harris’ attempt to convert Buddhism into a philosophy. While I think that there is a lot of interesting stuff in Buddhism, I don’t think it’s a philosophy. Nor do I think we can turn it into one by stripping away the religious stuff we don’t like. This would be similar, imo, to liberal Christians picking and choosing which parts of the bible to believe. Harris even talks about that in his “The End of Faith.” That is no longer Christianity then. Same with Buddhism. While there are branches of Buddhism that are less steeped in rituals and might look more non-religious, it IS a religion that requires faith in the possibility of enlightenment and thus the existence of at least one Buddha.

    Instead of attempting to create another branch of Buddhism, as Harris seems to argue, I think it makes more sense to just pick the parts we find helpful and leave the rest behind. Mindfulness is certainly one of those. Maybe even some forms of Lovingkindness practices. No hungry ghosts required for that…

    Also, I am not sure if we need concepts like karma and reincarnation – even as you redefined them. There is too much “blaming the victim” in the idea of karma for my taste. Just knowing that our actions have ripple effects is enough for me…

    Ron & Queen:

    Thanks for letting me know about your commenting problems! I am almost a complete newbie to blogging and had no idea it was set up so painful to comment on my blog… I will see if I can figure out how to change that… And thanks for adding my site to your blogrolls 🙂

    Thanks!

    Rachel

  13. ronbrown says:

    Rachel:
    I’m probably not as well read on Buddhism as are you. What I’ve read, though, are very wise ideas and practices that are secular in nature. However, I’m not sure if Buddhism couldn’t stand as a philosophy if we pulled the irrational components out–or provided more reasonable interpretations as I did above for karma and reincarnation. From what I understand of enlightenment, it is just becoming very keenly aware of yourself, the big picture (e.g., the goal of living a good life and the way things fit into this big picture), the world, and the way one relates to the world. From what I’ve read and my own experience, believing that meditation and introspection can promote these things is not unreasonable. While I definitely don’t think that I have attained enlightenment, I have definitely had a lot of important and transformative personal insight as a result of MBCT. Given this in addition to the relevant research, I don’t see it as being unreasonable to figure that one can become more and more and more enlightened through prolonged mindfulness practice.

    Another Buddhist tenet I recall is impermanence. This is also a rational belief. The world and we as people are constantly in flux and don’t have a stable tangible static existence.

    Another tenet is that it is wise to simply accept that all life will have bad times, and we will all feel discomfort. Buddhism recommends accepting that bad times will come, facing them when they come so as to experience them, learn from them, and to appreciate our commonality with others: we all have hard times, worries, and discomfort and are all trying to become better and happy secure people.

    In my reading and practice, Buddhism seems to offer a lot in the way of valuable wisdom and practices for individual and social living, and this may be maintainable even when purging irrationalities. However, I restate that you may well know far more about the writings than I and may be able to point to something that is less reconcilable. In this be the case, though, I still think it’s possible extract a great deal of valuable philosophy and practices from Buddhism, as surely you would agree.

    Lastly, I’m really glad that you posted because I did a post a few days ago that I think you’ll really appreciate. It presents an account of an ex-fundamentalist’s finding of meaning without Christianity. I connect themes in his writing with notions of wisdom from various schools of thought. I hope you’ll check it out and leave a comment. I’m hoping that it gets enough views and comments to stay on the hot topics list as I just personally really like the post and think it contains useful ideas.

    https://theframeproblem.wordpress.com/2008/01/11/finding-meaning-in-wonder-and-well-being-an-ex-fundamentalists-tale/

    Best,

    Ron

  14. paulrohe@live.co.uk says:

    The word “meditation” is a pretty meaningless word in english (a bit like the word god, means different things to different people). From a Buddhist point of view there are 2 types, 1. concentration (i.e. the progressive foccusing of the mind) & 2. Insight (i.e. the training of awareness to greater & greater depths or subtleness), ignoring visualisation practises found in Tantric practices for the moment.

    Buddhism & Yoga are Empirical Mind Sciences at least 2500 years old which some of the greatest geniuses of the east have studied, western Mind Sciences are much younger.

    Hope this helps.

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  16. Vladimir says:

    I agree with you about both statements you made for sceptisism of meditation and disagree with both your conclusions why they’re unsupported. I think, they’re just cope out for your wishful thinking and here’s why:

    1st statement:
    People are not actually improving their focus – they just think they are.

    You said this statement is unfair of scapticism because in your opinion people are just good at valuing their own progress, which I think is complete bogus.
    People, I think, are pretty terrible at experiencing objectively their own progress and valuing it corectly and that’s precisely because it is about them and because it’s pretty hard to be unmotivated to stay completely objective and unbiased about the issue.
    For instance, at sports, because you chose that example, if your argument is right, coaches wouldn’t be need anymore.
    Players could improve on their own because they’d be their own best judges of what they’re doing right and wrong, they’d watch themselfs from the distance and know precisely where to improve.
    But, the truth is, their progress can be measured well and objectively, no matter what they or even their coach think of them. For instance, you can measure how much you improved your score in a game, in a season, how many bad moves you had etc. In almost any sport, qstatistic is a pretty important stuff and that’s a good way to know whether you really improved or you’re just deluding yourself. So, way to know, like in any science based test or experiment, is by valuing the data and evidence and not opinions and feelings of improvement.

    2nd statement:
    That the improvement is just mental (i.e. placebo).

    Conclusion for your second statement that is unfolded for scepticism is even worse.
    You said that because there is no pill in maditation, they’re not on the same ground for conclusions that sceptic might draw from that.
    That’s complete bummer, I might say.
    With placebo pill or with real madication you’re trying to influence something that is again measurable in some way and that is in this case sickness.
    Placebo pill is there only to provide insurance that your conclusions of data will not be biased and that the changes in data, improvements or disimprovements, will be objective and real as it can be.
    In your case of maditation, there has to be some tests that you could do in a periods of couple of months where you could measure your improvement of focus of attention ,or whatever you want to measure, and see if it’s really improved or you just thought it is.
    Again, valuing data and evidence is what matters, not opinions or feelings, especially not feelings.

    P.S. please don’t comment my English, it’s not my first lengauge.

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