Most people are familiar with meditation on the breath, using techniques of mindfulness to focus single-pointedly on a curiously hard to follow object. This type of meditation, called stabilizing meditation, focuses the mind through concentrated awareness. But did you know there’s another form of meditation that fills your mind with stories and images, and that engages your creativity, intellect, and emotions?
Many of the techniques we explore in the Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment Podcast are this second kind, called analytic meditations. This is a form of meditation uniquely elaborated in the Tibetan Tradition, and A Skeptic’s Path adapts this tradition to a secular form. Analytic meditations use a rich narrative stream of thoughts and images that engage our emotions and creativity to gradually bend our minds toward beneficial habits. With enough practice, these thought patterns become second nature.
Stabilizing meditation helps calm your mind
Stabilizing meditation is the meditation you’ve already heard about, and likely the only type of meditation you thought there was, now popular in guided meditation apps like Calm, Headspace, and Ten Percent Happier. It’s a form of meditation where you focus on an object to stabilize your mind, slow down your thoughts, and become aware of your body and mind.
The most common object for stabilizing meditation is your breath. The way you breathe reflects your inner state—quick and shallow when you’re nervous, slow and steady when you’re calm. And, since your breath is always with you, you can meditate anywhere and anytime.
Analytic meditation helps change your mind
Analytical meditation, in contrast, is a meditation where you deliberately fill your mind with thoughts and emotions. An analytical meditation is like a mental movie or podcast that moves from scene-to-scene, idea-to-idea, taking your mind on a narrative journey to cultivate beneficial states of consciousness.
One of the encouraging things about analytical meditation is that many people—right from the start—can focus 100% on the experience, even for a full hour, without distraction. Because an analytic meditation’s story changes from moment to moment, it more easily keeps our interest. That’s in great contrast to stabilizing meditation, where most people are only able to focus single-pointedly for about seven seconds.
Because of its narrative form, an analytic meditation can be as effortlessly engaging as watching TV or listening to a podcast. Analytic meditations leverage our capacity to pay attention to stories, a capacity some say humans uniquely evolved. The book Sapiens argues this point, backed up by recent neuroscience—that stories are humans’ way of transmitting important lessons for survival, for us to absorb accumulated knowledge and wisdom without having to repeat others’ tedious experiments or painful mistakes.
Absorbing the story of an analytic meditation can make the difference between mindlessly moving through the day, or being mindfully present through every moment; between a day of distracted disconnection or a day of heartfelt connection.
Topics of analytical meditation include love, compassion, wisdom, patience, generosity, impermanence, suffering, and death. These don’t all sound like beneficial states of mind. However, cultivating topics like suffering and death with the right attitude can be wholly beneficial.
For example, meditating on impermanence helps us become less attached to worldly things by understanding we’ll eventually lose them or grow tired of them. Meditating on death gives us the energy to make the most of life by realizing we could lose it at any moment. Meditating on the world’s suffering can help us get out of our self-centered view and open our hearts to others.
A special kind of analytical meditation involves visualization, where vivid imagery is used to strengthen the power of constructive emotions, concentration, and clarity.
Visualization doesn’t require multi-armed deities like you see in Tibetan Buddhism. It was hard for me to at first understand these culturally-specific images, but my brother once told me that the Buddha is the ultimate action figure. This helped me see how such embodied representations of enlightenment help train the mind of a Buddhist to become more like this ideal of a stabilized, compassionate being.
Today, our culture isn’t focused on deities, but on superheroes like Iron Man, a tech wizard archetype who I hope inspires kids to be unconventionally resourceful and brave. Hopefully? The morality of superheroes can sometimes be primitive, reduced to adolescent revenge and power fantasies, but at their best, Marvel morals can also be an aspiration to live selflessly and help others.
If Iron Man inspires you to be your better self, sure, meditate on Iron Man. More traditionally, though, we can meditate on the imagined end-state of ourself if we were to perfect our best human qualities, imagining what it would be like if we could take away others’ pain, if could give everyone on earth all that they lack. These are forms of meditation honed over a millennium in Tibetan Buddhism, transmitted in secret for most of that time, until teachers like The Dalai Lama opened them up to the world. We’ll explore these techniques together in upcoming episodes of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment’s podcast.
Whether it’s meditating, watching movies, or scrolling through Instagram, any new habit you adapt gradually changes your mind. The most common change associated with meditation is mindfulness, becoming more aware of what and how you think, able to distinguish the thoughts from the thinker, gradually bringing you to a more present, accepting, controlled state of mind, where you have the choice at any moment of what to think, say, or do, rather than compulsively following your urges. When you hear and understand these benefits of meditation, you become curious and motivated to actually meditate.
If you’d like to give it a try now, sample our first guided meditation, “Stabilizing the Mind and Watching Thoughts,” which offers a taste of stabilizing meditation on your breath, mindfully becoming aware of your thoughts, and a subtle analytic meditation beginning to probe the nature of mind itself.
How to Meditate, Kathleen McDonald. Crystal clear instruction on traditional Tibetan Buddhist analytic meditation techniques by a senior western nun, one of Lama Yeshe’s original students.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari. On the evolutionary importance of story to humanity.
Wired for Story, Lisa Cron. On the neuroscience that supports our human need for stories, and their value for survival.