Ended: Jan. 15, 2016
mindfulness meditation is a psychological technique that involves paying attention to your present-moment sensory experience in a nonjudgmental manner, and which makes the unconscious conscious for the purpose of improving your life.
The goal is to get you meditating 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week. That’s an achievable goal for most people. At that level, you’ll begin to get the advertised benefits of mindfulness meditation very quickly (a month or two at most), and be able to sustain and grow those benefits over time. Of course, it’s not required that you do that much. Even 10 minutes a day will get you far.
In meditation class, we also begin with a concept of three separate but interconnected pieces: concentration, sensory clarity, and acceptance (CCA). No matter what meditation technique you’re using, it will probably be composed of some ratio of these three core elements.
Concentration means being able to train your attention on whatever object you choose, and sustain it there over time. Sensory clarity means having a lot of resolution of the details of whatever object you’re focusing on. Acceptance means having an attitude of openness, curiosity, and nonjudgment with whatever is happening in the moment.
It’s natural and even healthy that, in the beginning, your attention is going to be captured by things that are not your meditation object. (“Meditation object” or “focus object” are the clunky-but-concise phrases I’ll use to mean the thing you’re supposed to be focusing on.)
The solution is simple: brute force repetition. Each time your attention is drawn away from the meditation object, gently bring it back. Over and over, notice that your focus has wandered and return it to the chosen object. Each one of these returns can be thought of as a concentration “rep,” just like a weightlifting “rep” at the gym. With each weightlifting rep, your muscles are growing stronger. In the same way, with each concentration rep your concentration grows stronger. Luckily, concentration is a trainable skill, so it just keeps getting more buff as you iterate your reps. Bulking up your focus power is one of the most widely demonstrated benefits of meditation46 practice.
We can model concentration as a kind of extremely simple algorithm: 1.Place attention on the focus object. 2.Check if attention has wandered. 3.If no, continue. If yes, then 1.
Iterating through this algorithm not only creates focus as you’re doing it, it permanently builds your concentration “muscle,” your focus power. Iterating through this a large number of times (something like 106 or 107) will build immense concentration that can stay on a single object for a very long time. So this sort of iteration increases the time dimension of your concentration. Your attention span gets huge.47
The good news is that your attention span doesn’t just become longer during meditation practice, it becomes longer for all the other activities of your life. You can do better at school work, work projects, or anything else you want to devote attention to. Even a two-week course in mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase working memory and GRE performance.48 Gaining the ability to focus on anything you want to, for as long as you want, is one of the most powerful ways the mindfulness meditation can improve your life.
If, however, you’ve developed a bit of sensory clarity, something different happens. Let’s say you’ve worked for a year on your mindfulness meditation practice, and you’ve developed a walloping 128 pixels of sensory clarity anywhere on your body. Then, when the warm, soothing shower water hits any part of your body, you can experience it with startling resolution and depth. Each pixel feels good in its own way, so the experience is much richer and more rewarding. Secondly, it takes up much more room in awareness—hogs more of the RAM in your working memory—and so pushes out extraneous thoughts and feelings. There’s far less room in your mind for anxiety about the day, for example. So the whole experience of the warm shower goes from something that’s “nice” to an all-consuming experience of quasi-orgasmic pleasure all over.
The third of the three elements of meditation is acceptance.52 Acceptance is extremely simple, much simpler than the other two. Just accept whatever your experience is, that’s all.
Mostly acceptance means to not judge your sensory experience.53 The motto for acceptance is, “It is what it is.”
It’s important to notice that acceptance means accepting your sensory experience, not accepting the conditions of your life. You’re free to take all the actions necessary or desirable to make your life better. Acceptance doesn’t mean becoming passive or inactive. It just means that the current sensory experience is what it is, and you accept that part of things.
Most of us live in a state of perpetual “could be better.” We’re so used to having control over every little parameter of our lives that we cannot focus on what’s going right, only on what’s going wrong. That’s the viewpoint we always seem to be coming from, and it means that we are perpetually unsatisfied, unhappy, disappointed, and ungrateful. These are not pleasant emotions to be constantly soaking in.
Another metaphor for how the three elements work comes from a video screen. Concentration means you can direct your attention to any part of the screen you want. Sensory clarity is like switching the screen setting from low-res to HD. And acceptance is how the screen displays whatever signals it gets, without judging or controlling the content.
Each of the three elements of meditation—concentration, sensory clarity, and acceptance (CCA)— can almost function as a complete meditation on their own. That is, there are practices that strongly utilize only concentration, sensory clarity, or acceptance individually. Putting them all together in a single practice, however, each one of them tends to reinforce the others.
Just as concentration can be expressed as an algorithm, the process of mindfulness meditation can also be modeled as a repeated sequence of steps. This algorithm assumes that you’ve already sat down, relaxed, and gotten all set to meditate. It also assumes that you know which meditation technique you’re going to practice. Once you are ready to actually meditate, the practice is expressed by this algorithm: 1.Notice the focus object. 2.Label the focus object. 3.Allow awareness to deeply contact the focus object. 4.Feel acceptance toward whatever you find there. 5.Continue focusing, contacting, and accepting for about 5 seconds. 6.Repeat.
The good news is that the opposite is also true—positive emotional experiences can make physical pain much less intense—and we can use this fact to our advantage in meditation. By cultivating a stance of acceptance of and even curiosity about painful experiences, we reduce the emotional distress about them, and can often reduce the experience of suffering as a result.
However, like most upgrades, our planning ability comes with its own concomitant set of new problems. The important one here is that we can imagine future scenarios that are very troubling. You may be sitting at home in a warm, safe home, with a belly full of food, and absolutely no immediate problems, and yet you can be acutely distressed about the tax bill that you know will be coming nine months hence. Depending on your psychology, you can even be distressed about an impending alien invasion or the Rapture. In other words, our ability to imagine means that we can be worried about things that are not currently happening, and may never happen at all. Although our stress response
Imaginary problems in a distant future are the cause of much chronic stress for human beings. We worry so much about the future that our stress response is on almost all of the time. And all of the advantages of the stress response—the beautiful things it does to our bodies in order to get us out of danger—become disadvantages when they continue over time. Chronic stress actually damages you both physically and psychologically. Chronic stimulation of the HPA system disrupts serotonin levels, and is a major factor in the development of depression and anxiety. The physical problems that can be caused or assisted by stress include heart disease, stroke, immune deficiency, cancer, serious gastrointestinal disorders, eating disorders, cancer, chronic pain, sexual and reproductive dysfunction, sleep disturbances, and other problems including allergies, skin problems, hair loss, periodontal disease, as well as increased probability of drug and alcohol addiction, and other unhealthy lifestyle choices. Clearly, chronic stress is a major cause of serious problems in our society, and drastically reduces our sense of wellbeing.
Meditation training reminds me of training for a track race. The important difference with meditation is that there’s never a race. It’s not really training for any specific event in the future. Instead, it’s training for every event in the future. It’s upgrading your abilities to succeed at whatever activities you do all day, every day, for the rest of your life.
The trouble is that you have to practice meditation almost every day—at least five days a week—to fully reap the benefits of the mindfulness we’ve been discussing. Meditation is much more like brushing your teeth or taking a shower than training for a marathon. The best mindset is to just make it an integral part of your daily routine.