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2013-11-30

Mindfulness

Nearly every day for the past six months I've been doing 20 minutes of guided mindfulness mediation, using a smartphone (and browser) app called Headspace (http://www.getsomeheadspace.com/). I've also done a bunch of related reading.

I highly recommend Headspace. Basically, you sit in a chair, put in the earbuds, and listen to a a very soothing British guy named Andy Puddicombe tell you what to do. Most of what you do is exercise your attention in different ways by focusing on breathing, physical sensations and feelings within your body. The app is free but to go beyond the first ten days you need to subscribe for $15/month, or $8/month if you go for a full year.

If this is new to you, you should try it right now for 10 minutes by listening to this youtube vid. But before you start, make sure you're ready to give it your full attention (that is the whole point, in fact) -- this is not something to listen to in the background while you do something else. OK, ready? Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVzTnS_IONU

Headspace starts with 10 days of 10-minute meditations, then 15 days of 15-minute meditations, and then settles into 20-minute meditations from there on out. There are periodic short videos that delve into a little bit of theory/explanation, but mostly it's the actual meditation with just voice guidance. By analogy to my 15-minute-per-day how to be fit and look hot workout, the idea is that you get profound benefits with a modest amount of focused daily practice, because it builds up over time.

I do find that (same as with the workout) it can be hard in a busy life to find 20 uninterrupted minutes to focus on one thing. The smartphone delivery platform goes a long way though.

I also find that the actual process of meditating isn't always pleasant. I have had some very painful feelings bubble up to the surface -- which is one of the main benefits -- but it's not always just a picnic away from my day.

Does it work?

The premise and promise of mindfulness in general is that it will improve your mood and make you happy and successful. Based on my individual experience, I don't think I've been doing it long enough to judge the successfulness part, but I can report some palpable improvements to how I feel and how I experience emotions and personal interactions. As well as some purely physical things. There are particular tensions in my body that have almost entirely dissipated, I haven't had a real migraine in some months (which is unusual), I'm much more likely to stay mentally present during times with my kid or with other family members, and I'm way looser and friendlier out in the world. Not quite all the way to "loose" and "friendly", but pretty far up from my baseline of uptight and aloof. Now, these effects are completely subjective and not scientific, and may be purely coincidental and/or bullshit, but I'm pretty confident they are real, and I ascribe a lot of them to the meditation.

Caveat: I remain skeptical that meditation has been "scientifically proven" to be the bee's knees, as is often asserted. Cecil Adams recently did a Straight Dope on this, see http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/3129/does-meditation-make-your-brain-work-differently

His point is basically that the studies historically have very inconsistent definitions of meditation making it hard to draw any firm conclusions. Now, one positive recent development that may help with this is Headspace in particular -- since it's competent meditation guidance delivered very consistently, measurably, and accessibly. That's great for the purpose of scientific study and I've heard of some studies using it, so perhaps we'll see some trustworthy statistical evidence in the future.

How does it work?

The book Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan (a former Google engineer) explains mindfulness meditation in scientific/engineering terms. Meng, like Puddicombe, has the goal of bringing the benefits of meditation to ordinary people. Actually, his real goal (as he explains in the book) is World Peace, and the meditation thing is just his mechanism to achieve that. A lovely ambition.

Central to the workings of mindfulness, according to Meng, is that the training gives you a high-resolution, real-time view of your emotions, as opposed to the typical murky signals with unpredictable delays.

The technique is: you see your emotions by directly observing physical sensations within your body. For example, I've discovered that the bottoms of my feet tingle when I get excited, and that the front of my chest gets tight when I'm afraid of something. There are particular sensations associated with me emotionally resisting something. The training doesn't explain these assocations directly; instead you unwind your resistances and observe the body during meditation, and take the body awareness with you throughout your daily life, where you can then learn how they associate with things happening around you.

Other

Brian Sharp blogs about some of this stuff, better than I do: http://www.madeofmetaphors.com/

I recently read The Way of Zen by Alan Watts which is much more philosophical and historical than practical, about Zen Buddhism in particular. But relevant if you're into philosophy or history.

I also read A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle which is some serious hippy dippy New Age Oprah-approved stuff, with a bit of an agenda. But I concur with most of it. Anyway, his practical advice, outside of the philosophy bit, seems to be entirely in line with the mindfulness approach.

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