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)
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
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.