Ask Surly Amy: Meditation

Dear Surly Amy,

A lot of my friends are into meditation, and I have seen things in various places that lead me to believe that some of the benefits my friends seem to derive from it have scientific basis.

I’d be interested in adding meditation into my overall mental health routine, but a lot of the guides that I’ve seen recommended seem to come with religion or spirituality mixed inextricably in with practical information on the practices. Can you recommend some secular and/or scientific resources for someone interested in meditation practice minus any proselytism?

Dear Ericka,

Yes, meditation can be an effective relaxation and stress reduction technique but it is sometimes difficult to find a version of meditative teachings or techniques that don’t require one to also practice magical thinking.

But fear not, these techniques exist and are becoming more prevalent!

I contacted my good friend, Sue Gisser who teaches some traditional and nontraditional yoga and mediation classes to get her explanation of some useful non-spiritual meditation techniques.

From Sue:

The way you achieve your meditative state is entirely up to you. Most people actually meditate all the time, they just may not realize that they’re doing it. We can achieve mediative states effortlessly while doing dishes, folding laundry, going for a long walk or driving (my personal favorite) the repetitive rhythm of these activities allows our minds to wander until they find that much needed internal quiet, or they allow our subconscious to bring to mind what it is that is truly important to us, whether it’s something that has been bothering us, tugging on our attention or something that we wish to bring to fruition.

To meditate with purpose you can give your body something to do. Working with clay, knitting, peddling on an exercise bike, doing repetitive flows like Sun Salutations in yoga, walking on the beach, and even laying in the grass and watching each individual cloud roll on by are all effective examples of occupying our bodies with repetitive motion in order to release our minds.

If you take yoga or a mediation class, they may approach meditation in a slightly different way. For example, there may be chanting. Chanting is a way to achieve a meditative state by focusing on the vibration of sound. Keying into that, creating sound with our breath either individually or in a group, is both very soothing and an incredibly effective way to achieve our meditative state.

Try this: Meditating on your breath. Closing your eyes. Tuning in to the steady flow of inhale (clean oxygen rushing into our lungs, filling our minds, nourishing our bodies, acting as a purifier to grab all the physical, emotional, psychological baggage we’ve build up in our system) and exhale, air flowing steadily out again, carrying all that “stuff” away, only to be replaced by new breath. Listening for the moments of in-between breath, witnessing the moment of what it’s like to be completely full, experiencing the moment of what it’s like to be truly empty. Not holding on to any breath. This is an exercise in trust that our body practices approximately 17,280 times a day. Choose to notice and contemplate these moments. It’s the moments of the in-between that can define us. From the moment we are born to the day we die, it is what we do with the in-between, the choices that we make, in each moment that makes up who we are.

Mediate on that!

Thanks Sue!

I do reach what could be defined as a meditative state with my clay work on a regular basis. I also find that focusing on or envisioning a blank canvas or a white sheet of paper has been a relaxing and creative inducing exercise that has been helpful for me over the years.

I also found another explanation (by found I mean Elyse sent it to me) on the Sam Harris website that gives some great examples of current applications of vipassana meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. Click here to read it.

A quick search of “secular meditation” on google came up with this 2010 video from the humanist group at Harvard University that explains some meditative and concentration techniques:

There are lots more resources out there!

Meditation will not cure you of disease, or allow you to leave your body on a magical tour of the cosmos, or purge you of mystery toxins, but it may aid in stress reduction and concentration if it is practiced on a regular basis. Hope this helped in your search!

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. In my experience (so fair warning, this is anecdotal evidence and all that stuff.) meditation is very helpful in managing some relatively mild effects of depression. Like Amy said it is not a substitute for medication but it has been very helpful for the gap left when the benefits of a more effective medication are outweighed by the side effects.

  2. There’s quite a bit of research going on into the usefulness of meditation for managing chronic pain (I taught relaxation and meditation in that context for a while, it was a very interesting experience). Essentially, awareness meditation is about being focused and present in the moment – that’s why very focused art-making, sport and other activities can be a form of meditation. There are two main types of meditation – awareness meditation and trance meditation, you achieve both differently and their effect is different. Awareness meditation, as its name indicates, is about awareness and focus – this is the kind of meditation that is in many ways very much like a form of CBT (in that it’s about being aware of one’s thoughts and the stories one is telling oneself, and how emotion, thoughts/beliefs and one’s physical state are interconnected). Both Freud and Jung were very interested in Eastern religions and mythology – the “Orient” being very fashionable at the time. It’s from Eastern philosophy that Freud got the idea of the “super ego” (or “uber ego”, which can also be translated to mean the “over ego”) and Jung got the idea of the collective unconscious.

    Trance meditation, on the other hand, is quite a different thing – it’s essentially self hypnosis via repetition (whether it’s a sound or motion), sometimes it’s combined with euphoria creating physical endurance rituals. It can be quite fun and feel good – yay endorphins – but it’s actually a very different thing than awareness meditation. For whatever reason, there doesn’t seem to be much of distinction made by the people who believe that meditation gives you magic powers. I suspect that may be because they tend to pass off explainable experiences that people have when meditation as “increased psychic abilities” or “being in touch with god”. I’m not surprised these experiences seem like “magic” to people who aren’t very literate about cognition.

    The simplest way to meditate is to focus on your breathing and to use breathing as your touchstone….you are sitting and focused on your breath, then you realize you’re thinking about what to eat for breakfast, you return focus to your breathing, you realize you’re thinking about and telling yourself a story about that guy at the office, you return to focus on your breathing and only what is going on right now, etc. It’s important to remember that meditation is really all just practice. You’re essentially building up concentration stamina via exercising your concentration. Or, if you’re into trance meditation, you’re creating a state of euphoria via endurance and repetition (though I’d recommend just going dancing or take up an endurance sport if you’re looking for this kind of high, it’ll do the same thing without all the mystical trappings…not that most sports don’t have their quasi-religious practitioners too ;-)

  3. I actually lived at an Ashram of a sect of an Indian religion that has meditation at its core practice.

    While there I practiced meditating 2-3 times a day for half an hour. And by meditating I mean doing some body-relaxation yoga and then meditating completely silently. Hardcore meditation in other words.

    While there I learned a lot about their philosophies and spirituality and I actually enjoyed learning about it. Their philosophies were very focused individually on learning not to covet things you don’t need and live simply and focused socially on equality and justice for all. The spirituality of course was a lot of made-up-magic, but I found that pretty easy to simply ignore.

    I honestly found while living there I changed a lot. I stopped fretting about trivial stuff, I was a lot more focused at work, I was a lot more true to myself, etc and afterwards I changed the direction of my life to something that now makes me happy everyday.

    The reason I think all this was is that I was able to just shut out the hustle bustle of everyday life and really contemplate things and calm my mind. And that’s what meditation is good for, calming yourself and focusing yourself so that you can get what you truly want.

    So I’m sure secular meditation can be great, but I would definitely recommend learning from Buddists or other religious sects. Their spiritual talk may be made up nonsense, but I feel that they really know how to teach meditation and have some awesome social philosphies worth hearing.

    What I would NOT recommend is learning from new-age bullshitters or yoga studios. Generally all their ‘meditation’ practices are about is ego-stroking and indulging in pseudo-spirituality, not actually using the meditation to focus yourself.

    1. Also to your quote Amy:

      “Yes, meditation can be an effective relaxation and stress reduction technique but it is sometimes difficult to find a version of meditative teachings or techniques that don’t require one to also practice magical thinking. ”

      I disagree with this. Going to Buddhist temples or some other older religious sect is a GREAT way to learn meditation due to the fact that those people practice it day in and day out and can give you excellent instruction on how to do it right.

      There is some spiritual teaching that goes along with it, but it’s pretty easy to just ignore it. You’re not required to do engage in any magical thinking if you don’t want to.

      1. And some of us do not want to involve ourselves in spiritual or religious based meditation. Period. You may disagree for yourself, but how can you tell someone else what they should or should not prefer, when it comes to meditation? It’s a personal thing, after all. You should not, and simply cannot, tell someone you “disagree” with how they may go about pursing meditation. It doesn’t work that way.

  4. Hey, I have some personal experience that might be relevant here. fifilamour is quite right, there is a difference between trance meditation and awareness meditation. Awareness meditation is where it’s at.

    I did a 10-day meditation retreat with the Vipassana meditation teaching network. It’s entirely secular; although they claim that the techniques are the same as developed by the Buddha, they also claim that the Buddha himself didn’t endorse any of the woo stuff that has been married to Buddhism since then. They talk about how some people use chanting words or focusing on images to help them meditate, and why they don’t use those techniques. Rather, they teach awareness meditation. Start by sitting quietly and focusing awareness on the breath. Be aware of the sound of breath whooshing in and out of your nose and mouth. The sensations of air moving over your skin. Over the course of the ten days, you move your awareness outwards from your nose and mouth to encompass as much of your body as you possibly can. This is all in silence.

    The other thing I liked about it was that it was on a donation basis only. In other words, you don’t have to pay anything if you don’t want to. If you so want to pay, you can pay at the end of the retreat. If you feel you’ve not benefited at all from the retreat, then you’re not obligated to pay anything.

    Meditation is a wonderful tool. I’ve fallen off my practice in recent years. I should get back into the habit.

  5. I find meditation to be extremely helpful in both dealing with stress and in learning to calm racing thoughts. I’ve fallen out of practice, but I used to practice Zen meditation daily. Depending on your flavor of Zen, I find it a philosophy quite compatible with atheism and skepticism, and Zen meditation is pretty much what Sue described: focus on your breath, awareness, and learning to let those random thoughts go by without having to engage with them. Nothing magical or mystical about it.

  6. Buddhism is just like Christianity – despite how it’s marketed in the West – there are competing sects that claim to be the ones that truly represent Buddha, just like you have different Christian sects that claim to be the one true voice of Jesus/God. It’s also hierarchal and authoritarian, and male dominated (and considers homosexuality “unnatural”…you have the same old issues of celibate monks making up the rules about sex as you do in Christianity) – despite the secularized version sold in the West. Tibetan Buddhism also has a pretty ugly history of being feudal and brutal to the Tibetan peasants, and it’s got plenty of demons and rituals (and some really beautiful religious art :-) The whole “karma” thing has a whole lot of blame the victim mentality to it, and I see it used pretty continuously by religious Buddhists to blame victims of natural disaster because the blamer doesn’t like them – so, lots of talk of compassion but often very little compassionate action or even words/thoughts. Like all religions, it’s also promotes some nice humanist-type values but you hardly need religion for that – it’s just basic prosocial human values.

    While it can certainly be interesting joining groups that meditate or going to an ashram, if you’re at all aware of neurobiology or how cognition functions you’ll find your bullshit meter on overload a lot (and having to bite your tongue, there’s a lot of pseudoscience and magical biology pushed by both “new age” and “traditional” yoga or meditation groups). That said, it can be quite an interesting thing to do because you can start to see where certain beliefs came from and why/how they evolved. Christianity, of course, has its own versions of meditation – from the repetition of trance inducing rituals (doing 20 prayers at each stations of the cross, for example) to spiral walking meditations to silent practices.

    1. Yeah, I don’t disagree that Buddhism or other Eastern religions are bullshit.

      My point is that despite their belief in magic, they know very well how to cultivate a meditation practice and I think it’s a good source on how to learn how to develop a good, consistent meditation regime for yourself.

      Of course there’s some of pseudoscience taught, but I’m not really the typical neckbearded athiest who has write a 14 page rant every-time I someone make a religious statement. I just ignore it and focus on the meditation practices they’re teaching.

      Secular meditation is certainly fine, but I would advocate not discounting learning it from religious sects. It’s very high quality (and often free) instruction and you can simply ignore the religious side of it.

      1. So, if someone would prefer not to participate in religious-based meditation, they are “neck-breathing atheists”? Really?

        I’d prefer not to participate in anything having to do with religion (within reason, of course), because I am not religious, I do not believe in god or gods, and it just doesn’t fit my worldview. I have many religious friends. I even have volunteered for LGBQT churches. But for my day to day stuff, I’d rather religion not be apart of it. And I’m not some awful, judgmental, neck-breathing atheist.

        When it comes to mediation, I’d imagine that an overtly-religious message could be very distracting to someone who is not religious, or who, like me, is very comfortable in their atheism. I wouldn’t be able to meditate if I had to actively ignore almost everything the instructor was saying.

        For those who can ignore the religious aspects, that’s awesome, and I have nothing against you enjoying meditation that involves religion.

        But it seems to me that you’re trying to say there is something wrong with preferring secular meditation. There isn’t.

        Mediation is personal. If someone finds it easier to meditate when it is based on secular practices, then that’s fine. That doesn’t mean they are “neck-breathing atheists”.

        1. I have to agree. I have also taken yoga classes where I was annoyed by the religious implications of the practice so I stopped attending. It just wasn’t relaxing for me. I felt like an outsider and it wasn’t a knee jerk reaction, I just couldn’t get behind the spiritualism the teacher wanted to express, it was distracting for me.

          1. Yeah, if you’re not comfortable, you’re not comfortable and a secular option is better.

            If I may ask though, was the teacher part of a temple or was it a studio-type thing?

          1. And the entire point of this post is that religious based meditation does not work for the person posting the question. Nor does it work for several of us who have commented. And yet, you keep saying, “I have to disagree… Keep and open mind! Come on, don’t dismiss religious-based meditation right out of hand!”

            You seem to be really, really trying to convince us that we are somehow “wrong” in feeling uncomfortable with religious-based meditation, and that man, we should just give it a try!

            Nope. No desire.

        2. //You seem to be really, really trying to convince us that we are somehow “wrong” in feeling uncomfortable with religious-based meditation, and that man, we should just give it a try!//

          Meh, I’m just saying it’s on option to consider when looking into it. I think secular meditation options are a great thing too, because at it’s core, meditation IS a physical process so it doesn’t really matter who you get it from as long as that person is good at what they do.

          And man, I like free food.

  7. I’ve had mediation training in many different practices (including with a Tibetan lama who asked me, “Have we met before?” …seriously!) It can be a help, but mediation can also be an addictive drug and a means to escape from reality. Like all drugs, use in moderation.

    Martini anyone?

  8. @ Dr.Dr.Professor I went to a few different studio classes and an outdoor free (donation only) class. I ended up being happier with just DVD’s. Maybe I am the loner yoga type. ;)

    1. Ha, smart financial decision. Yoga classes are expensive and you don’t have to talk to DVDs afterwards.

      As far as classes, I prefer Ashram yoga over studio yoga because
      1. The Ashrams classes are FREE
      2. The teachers are monks, so they’re ninjas at meditation and are awesome teachers.
      3. The one I go to has free dinner afterwards!

  9. It’s not so much the spiritual talk that’s annoyed me at yoga and meditation classes I’ve been to with these kinds of overtones, it’s the bad science/pseudoscience being taught as science. It’s kind of a breeding ground for a lot of woo and “alternative medicine” stuff so it can be kind of hard not to want to speak up when you see people being taken advantage of or misguided (quite often by well meaning people but the road to hell is paved…). Over the years I’ve found teachers who I’m comfortable with who don’t push the woo, whatever their personal spiritual beliefs. For me, discussion of compassion or sharing or general social behaviour isn’t religious – even if many religious people frame it this way and tend to believe that it’s somehow the domain of religion and not secular discourse.

    1. Yeah, now that I think about it it was more the “release of toxins and push your energy through your heart chakra” crap that really bothered me. Not so much the “higher power” talk.

  10. I have read a lot about meditation in the context of nitric oxide, and I am pretty sure that the positive health effects of meditation are mediated through increases in nitric oxide. As I understand it (but being unable to meditate myself the distinctions I make are theoretical from physiology and not from practice), there are two main types of meditation and they are not well distinguished by practitioners.

    First there is the “mindfulness” type of meditation as practiced by the Dalai Lama. He considers himself an atheist, and is on record as saying that if science disproves a teaching of Buddhism, then Buddhism will change. This is the “good” type of meditation that will raise your nitric oxide level, relieve stress, reverse some aspects of the metabolic syndrome, improve mood, prolong life and so on. As far as I can tell there should be no adverse effects of this type of meditation.

    The other type of meditation is the Kundalini type.

    I think this is the opposite of the mindfulness type of meditation and causes a lowering of NO levels and so triggers the “fight-or-flight” state. If you have not previously mastered the ability to turn off the fight-or-flight state (via the mindfulness meditation), then invoking the Kundalini type can be life-threatening. There is what is called Kundalini Syndrome

    I think (but this is purely theoretical) that KS is a long term low nitric oxide state triggered by entering the fight-or-flight state and then not getting out of it. I see all the symptoms as having purely physiological basis with none of the non-material mind woo-woo.

    The only reason to try and invoke the Kundalini state is if you are running from a bear, or another life threatening situation where you need the capacity to fight to the death. I think that is what happens to people when they are in a PCP induced rage state (before they die).

    I can’t see the video, but there is a group at Harvard that has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation is a high NO state.

    As I see it, the good type of meditation is the opposite of the fight-or-flight state. You want to put yourself in a state of mindful beneficence. I think (but I am a guy so I haven’t experienced this either), that it should be analogous to the state that a woman enters when she is letting down milk. A state of peace and calm, of safety and of wanting to nurture and nourish those you love, and that you love everyone. I think that the state achieved during lactation is the archetypal meditative state.

    1. I went to a kundalini class one time and, even though I was trying to take it easy, hyperventilated. Unpleasant.

    2. “I think that the state achieved during lactation is the archetypal meditative state.”

      Lactation was great, and I sure miss it. I got a big rush of hormones for feeling happy and snuggly and contented with each nursing session. (I can see the attraction that being a professional wet-nurse held in the past. A career of snuglging babies and regular oxytocin surges. Heck, yeah. Too bad that career path is in serious decline. People get too weirded out these days by the thought of babies nursing from anyone except their own mother.) If meditation could replicate the mental state you get fromm lactation, it would be worth a try.

      1. I think that is exactly how meditation is supposed to feel. Try to channel that feeling and get back to us on how it works. The only problem would be if you start to leak milk.

  11. There are a lot of different types, and a lot of different weird shit people have invented. I think the key is getting a teacher (or DVD) that is focused on teaching whatever flavor you select well.

    Personally I the meditation I do is focused on pushing %100 of my thoughts out and during the session I feel like maybe a rock sitting on the floor of the grand canyon (mindless, lifeless, feeling the air pass over). And when I snap out of it, I’ve managed to push the day’s bullshit out of my head and focus.

    It’s quite personal surely, so I’d definitely advocate researching the different types and the way to learn it.

    I think many people actually learn from just reading from the internet or youtube videos.

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