Over the past few years meditation has become popular as a way to help reduce stress, be focused at work, sleep better, or simply relax. Yet meditation isn’t just a tool to improve focus or relax, but a way to strengthen the positive qualities we all naturally possess: compassion, kindness, generosity, patience, humor, and finding joy in everyday life. This episode explores this higher purpose of meditation through the less familiar technique of analytic meditation that uses stories, thoughts, and emotions to steer our minds toward happiness, meaning, and benefiting others.
This is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment with Scott Snibbe. Each of our episodes is usually released in two parts, first a lecture, and then a meditation on the same topic. You can tell which is which right from the start, because the lectures begin with that tune you just heard, and the meditations start with a gong.
“What is Meditation?” is our topic today. It’s our first topic that we’re addressing, after last week’s introduction. You’ve likely tried popular apps like Calm, Headspace, and Ten Percent Happier that have made meditation go mainstream as a way to reduce stress, sleep better, focus at work, or simply relax. These are some of the same reasons I started meditating twenty years ago.
But as I got more into meditation, I found out that meditation wasn’t invented just to improve focus or to relax, but for the utopian-sounding purpose of enhancing our greatest human qualities.
According to the Buddhist tradition, Meditation is training the mind to bring out its best qualities, conditioning the mind to expand beneficial thoughts and emotions and to let go of painful, unproductive thoughts and emotions.
In meditation, you’re totally honest with yourself: gently, but frankly observing the thoughts that pass through your mind and cultivating techniques to steer your mind toward happiness, meaning, and benefiting others. You’re not judgmental or down on yourself. And it’s possible to use every type of thought and emotion that arises in the mind as a tool toward happiness and stability.
What are beneficial thoughts and emotions? These are mental states like compassion, kindness, generosity, patience, humor—which I’ve seen in the Dalai Lama and many of the giggly Tibetan Lamas that I’ve had the privilege to know. These beneficial mental states also include concentration and a form of wisdom that understands the changing, interdependent nature of reality. A mind filled with these qualities finds joy in everyday life, a joy in simply being alive and aware. These are the beneficial thoughts and emotions from a Buddhist point of view.
Disturbing thoughts and emotions are the ones that agitate the mind: anger, jealousy, pride, and compulsive desires that won’t let you feel satisfied until you grasp hold of whatever it is that you crave.
You might try meditating to help you sleep, for example, but sleeplessness itself isn’t the root problem. It’s really one of these disturbing mental states. Buddhism refers to these disturbing states as “delusions” because they aren’t wholly aligned with reality. You might find yourself up late at night worrying, ruminating; your mind fixating on problems and exaggerating fears that grow unmanageable in the darkness. Or obsessing on something—or someone—you dearly want.
Though the underlying fears and needs may be genuine, our agitated state of mind is one that exaggerates both the negative and the positive. We often experience this when we get up after an agitated night and suddenly have a clearer state of mind. We see the concrete steps that we might take to resolve our problem. And we see how exaggerated our response to fears and obsessions was the night before.
We can diminish disturbing thoughts and emotions
Through meditation, it’s possible to lessen our disturbing thoughts and emotions and to develop the positive ones, gradually building healthy mental habits. But how far can we go in eliminating disturbing emotions and cultivating the positive ones? Buddhism asserts that we can completely eliminate disturbing mental states and have a mind filled only with beneficial thoughts.
Not only that, this view of the mind asserts that the mind’s true nature is good, kind, warm, at peace with itself. It’s almost the opposite of Original Sin – it’s Original Goodness. The disturbing thoughts that pass through our minds are seen as transient, unrelated to the mind’s true nature, which is clear, aware, and open. It’s a nature you begin to sense directly as quiet introspection becomes a daily habit.
Delusions appear frequently, but from this view, they’re seen as pesky bad habits, and not reflections of our true nature. Through meditation, we can gradually diminish the frequency and intensity of disturbing thoughts. It’s said that we can even eliminate them entirely, in a state of mind referred to as enlightenment.
The concept of enlightenment is similar to the upper-bound of mathematics’ infinity or of cosmology’s ever-expanding universe. These are useful theoretical limits that serve important purposes in each of their conceptual systems. But each of these, though conceptually useful, are also equally hard to understand in practical, human terms.
Enlightenment can bring to mind a glowing being levitating above the earth in lotus position, like Rae in The Rise of Skywalker floating above the forest, at one with The Force.
But the less sci-fi way to look at enlightenment is as this far endpoint of a gradual path toward eliminating our disturbing thoughts and emotions, letting the natural clarity and warmth of our human minds shine through.
The power of enlightenment’s ideal
You don’t have to believe in complete and total enlightenment to improve your mind. But embracing—or even just imagining—this ideal can be helpful. And it can be useful to compare this ideal of enlightenment to another ideal: the ideal of World Peace.
I was once at a talk by the Dalai Lama and someone asked him, “Why do you say you’re working for World Peace? Don’t you know that’s impossible? There’s always going to be fighting of some sort.” The Dalai Lama pondered the question for some time, and then he answered. He said, “Yes, you are right. It is impossible to fully eliminate violence. However, if you have the ideal of world peace, then you will go as far toward that ideal as possible in your lifetime.”
So, just as the ideal of world peace guides an anti-war activist, the ideal of enlightenment—of totally eliminating one’s delusions and perfecting one’s good qualities—helps you advance as far in that direction as you can.
Science is confirming the benefits of mind training
But you don’t have to take the Dalai Lama’s word on this. Scientists have been studying both long-term meditators and people new to meditation. Though scientific research into meditation has only been going on for a couple of decades, studies suggest that meditation improves health, happiness, self-control, productivity, and our social connection to others.
Psychology is also confirming the benefits of mind training approaches, with the expansion of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a technique that breaks down big scary problems into more manageable psychological bits that can be constructively approached with repetitive mental tools.
And psychologists are also moving beyond merely treating mental problems to enhancing their patients’ best qualities. It was only twenty years ago when few psychologists noticed that their field had focused wholly on pathologies of the mind. This group of psychologists started a new field called “positive psychology” that addresses how to expand healthy states of mind.
Some these “positive psychologists” have even turned to meditation techniques that enhance our natural goodness, drawing from lineages that have been practicing mind training for more than two millennia. There’s a great book by the psychologist Lorne Ladner called The Lost Art of Compassion that skillfully integrates heart-opening meditation techniques into a Western psychological framework.
Meditation isn’t only for when you’re feeling bad
People often come to meditation out of desperation, feeling they’ve lost control of their minds, wanting to diminish fear, anxiety, or compulsive desire. But meditation is also a technique for those who feel okay but want to make their lives more meaningful, or even extraordinary.
These people often come to meditation at a point in life where they’ve achieved their goals. Life is quite fine, even envious by worldly standards, and yet they ask, “Is that all?” They don’t feel satisfied. They ask questions like, “Why am I still worrying? Why am I still competing, craving, and getting angry?” “Are fleeting moments of pleasure all I can hope for?” These are people who want to move from surviving to flourishing, and they realize that their mind is the source of their problems and the source of their solutions, not their outer achievements or possessions.
What are the outer limits of happiness, generosity, patience, and love? Meditation’s greatest practitioners demonstrate that it’s possible to have unbounded wells of these qualities. We see this in people like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa. And we see it in nurses, and social workers, and mothers, and other humble people who dedicate their lives to helping others, who seem to have infinite patience, who appear not to even hear when others criticize them, much less react.
My sister-in-law is a person like this, and I’ve been with her when someone was blatantly insulting her. It actually got me pissed off, and I asked her later how she dealt so well with this jerk, and she just said, “Oh, I don’t think he was insulting me, do you?”
This optimistic view of mind—which is testable in the lab and on the cushion—is that the very nature of our consciousness is good; that disturbing thoughts and emotions are fleeting; and that it’s possible to diminish our painful mental habits and cultivate constructive, positive states of mind, even in the face of pain and suffering.
The state of enlightenment is an upper bound to this path, a state, whether real or imagined, where you’ve completely eliminated disturbing thoughts and emotions and maximally cultivated the positive; where you see inner and outer realities as they truly are.
Meditation is practical
Maybe this sounds a little far out, and maybe the references to the Dalai Lama and enlightenment aren’t helping you skeptics, but the whole point of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is to honestly draw from an authentic tradition while noting that meditation doesn’t have to be holy or religious or tied to any belief other than the recognition that the mind can be trained toward greater good.
Moving the mind toward greater good means making it more stable, expanding our heartfelt connection to others, and seeing the interdependent nature of reality.
One of the simplest ways to think about meditation is to consider that you are not your thoughts. There’s no need to clear your mind of thoughts, but simply to stop becoming wholly absorbed in them and identified with them.
When you look at your thoughts from a distance, a new sense of self begins to arise. You start to observe thoughts objectively, like a scientist in a lab. With practice, you can carry this technique into daily life, becoming aware of the anger arising at your boss, and then consciously deciding to let it go; noticing your compulsive desire for an attractive body, or a caramel latte, and then letting that agitation dissolve into the ease and satisfaction of just being alive.
Meditation is practical, a proven cause of a lasting happiness that we all have the potential to achieve. And as we attain more happiness and stability, we also train to expand our compassion and concern for others, becoming a naturally warmer, more helpful, less reactive presence in their lives.
Meditation isn’t relaxing
From this description of its results, meditation can sound compelling and even exciting, and one of my personal hopes is to make meditation cool enough that people get together on a Friday night for meditation parties. When you’re on a meditation retreat that’s exactly what you do. And this can be a lot more fun than hanging out at a bar, which brings up another point.
It’s worth talking a bit about what meditation isn’t, and one important point is that meditation isn’t always relaxing. There are easier ways to relax than closing your eyes and sitting on a cushion. You can relax by going to the beach, by listening to music, by taking a bath, or enjoying a glass of wine, watching Netflix, or even vaping! People do these things to relax. And they’re genuinely relaxing.
But none of these activities intrinsically enhances our better nature, none of them enduringly diminish our disturbing states of mind. That’s the purpose of meditation. If you’re coming to meditation just to relax, it may compare unfavorably to warm sand between your toes, binge watching House of Cards, or enjoying a smoke 50 feet from the entrance to your hectic office. Understanding the unique benefits of meditation helps keep you on the cushion even when it’s difficult.
In this sense, meditation is like working out—it’s an exercise of the mind that puts you into a supple, open, warm, and wiser state of being. Like exercise, merely reading about it, or even listening to a podcast about meditation has limited impact.
You can study meditation for a lifetime, and even become a meditation scholar, but without actually meditating, you won’t gain an experiential understanding of your mental states. You won’t train your mind. It’s like someone accepting medicine from a doctor but never taking it.
Meditation is also not spacing out. The state of mind you’re in during meditation is alert, concentrated, sharp, and focused. It’s the level of attention you give Netflix while you’re enthralled in its stories: completely engaged.
You already know how to meditate
People often find it difficult to focus on the most common object of meditation, which is the breath. Our mind drifts, thinking of plans, regrets, the pain in our knees, or what’s for lunch. But in daily life, we’re able to focus—sometimes for hours—on objects besides the breath. When we desperately want something—a girl, a boy, an iPhone, an apartment, or a job—we can stay focused on that fantasy for hours without drifting.
And when we’re upset about something—feeling resentful, indignant, alone, or angry—we can also stay with the feeling for long stretches without drifting from it. This shows that we have the ability to focus single-pointedly so maybe all we need to do is change the object of focus.
But meditation isn’t just shifting the object of attention. How you think about the object of meditation is also important. When you’re focused on obsessive anger or desire, that’s not meditation, it’s rumination.
Rumination is a state of mind where you’re not seeing the world or your mind clearly, where you’re exaggerating and obsessing. Your mind chases or flees objects, people, and ideas that don’t bring you satisfaction or peace. And some of these objects are even wholly imagined. Ruminating, we lose sight of the distance between our awareness and the object of our obsession. We effectively become our obsession, handing it the keys to our mind.
Meditation takes our natural power of attention and controls it. It directs us toward beneficial states of mind, and makes us fully self-aware, no longer overpowered by inaccurate, exaggerated craving, misery, or rage.
Meditating for the wrong reasons
It’s also possible to meditate for the wrong reasons. I’ve been meditating for about twenty years, but I think for long stretches of that time, I used the stabilizing effects of meditation to take on more activity and more stress, trying to achieve more in the world, and not necessarily for the altruistic benefit of all beings. I used the calming, stabilizing powers of meditation to heap on more activity and ramp up my pace.
So, I worry that some of the high-performing corporate executives and superstars who’ve taken on meditation may suffer from the same problem of using meditation to pile on more worldly stress, to achieve more and pursue more goals of limited value, while avoiding the moral reckoning as to whether this frenetic activity is truly fulfilling.
Even the military is using meditation now, to train the attention of soldiers so they can dispassionately maintain focus instead of panicking about killing another human being. Meditation isn’t necessarily virtuous.
When I consider this way of meditating—of becoming more focused and effective in one’s mundane or even harmful actions—I think of my favorite Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. (And I really didn’t intend to put two Star Wars references in this episode, but please stay with me).
In Empire, Darth Vader is constantly meditating. He’s meditating more than he’s killing or piloting a spaceship. He has this giant, shiny black egg that opens like a lotus, and there he sits cross-legged in shiny plastic body armor becoming one with The Force, meditating on evil. And he’s definitely got the breath thing going for him.
You don’t want to be like Darth Vader.
Have a good motivation for your meditation: to weaken your disturbing states of mind and to cultivate the beneficial ones; to bring joy to others and ease others’ pain; to see the fleeting nature of life and to make the most of it; and to find meaning and happiness in simply being alive and aware in the present moment.
Meditation doesn’t end when you get up off the cushion
Our meditation doesn’t end when we get up from the cushion. The point is to take the peace and the insight we cultivate in a quiet place and take it out into the world. Ultimately, this is the most important practice—how we engage with others to form meaningful connections, to achieve shared goals, to soothe each other’s pain, and to share our joys.
The true measure of meditation’s success is that you become happier, more at peace, and more present. These qualities are knowable through your own inner insight. Our practice on the cushion nurtures, strengthens, and renews these qualities.
How to meditate
So, now we’re going to get into the details of how to meditate.
If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably family with breath-focused meditation, using techniques of mindfulness to focus single-pointedly on the breath. The breath is a surprisingly difficult object to follow. And one of the biggest reasons we wanted to start this podcast is to explore together another form of meditation that fills your mind with stories and images, and that engages your creativity, your intellect, and your emotions.
Though we’ll always do some stabilizing meditation in our sessions, the main purpose of this podcast is to explore the meditations of the second type, called analytic meditations. This is a form of meditation uniquely elaborated in the Tibetan Tradition, and A Skeptic’s Path seeks to adapt this tradition to a secular form.
The first type of meditation, stabilizing meditation, helps calm your mind. It’s the meditation you’ve already heard about, and likely the only type of meditation that you thought there was. You focus on an object to stabilize your awareness, slow down your thoughts, and attend to your body and mind.
The most common object for stabilizing meditation is your breath. It’s an object that’s always with you, and your breath is also a reflection of your inner state—quick and shallow when you’re nervous, slow and steady when you’re calm.
In contrast, analytic meditation is a meditation where you deliberately fill your mind with thoughts and emotions. Analytic meditations are like a mental movie or a podcast that moves from scene-to-scene, idea-to-idea, taking your mind on a narrative journey with the purpose of cultivating beneficial states of mind.
One of the encouraging things about analytic meditation is that many people, right from the start, can focus 100% on the experience, even for a full hour, without distraction. I think this is because we are used to watching TV and listening to stories.
Some say humans uniquely evolved to tell and to learn from stories. The book Sapiens makes this point, that stories are humans’ way of transmitting important lessons for survival; that stories help us absorb and transmit our accumulated knowledge and wisdom without having to repeat others’ experiments or make their mistakes.
Because the story of an analytic meditation changes from moment to moment, it more easily keeps our interest and attention. That’s in great contrast to stabilizing meditation, where the average person is only able to focus single-pointedly for about seven seconds.
Topics of analytic 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 useful.
Meditating on impermanence helps us become less attached to worldly things by understanding that we’ll eventually lose them or grow tired of them. Meditating on death gives us energy to make the most of our life by realizing we could lose it at any moment. Meditating on the world’s suffering can help us get out of a self-centered view and open our hearts to others.
A special kind of analytic meditation involves visualization, where you use vivid imagery to strengthen the power of your positive emotions, of your concentration, and your clarity. Visualization doesn’t require multi-armed deities like you see in Tibetan Buddhism. My brother once said that the Buddha is the ultimate action figure. And you can see how an embodied representation of enlightenment could be helpful for the human mind, just like Michaelangelo’s frescoes are for Christians.
Today our culture isn’t focused on deities, but on superheroes like Iron Man. Iron Man isn’t real, but thinking about him inspires those who watch his movies to be creative, resourceful, and self-reliant. I hope.
When you question, as a skeptic, whether you’re willing to try these meditation techniques, you should consider that you’re already willing to go to the movies and to run your mind through Hollywood’s values, so why not try experimenting with the deliberately cultivated fantasies of analytic meditation, stories that you experience through meditation that have been proven to strengthen the mind’s best qualities.
Whether it’s 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 are thinking; becoming able to distinguish the thoughts from the thinker, and gradually bring yourself to a more present, accepting, controlled state of mind: a state of mind where you have the choice at any moment of what to think, what to say, or what you do, rather than compulsively following your urges.
The meditation session
A meditation session, like a workout, has a sequence to it, adapted to the mind just like a workout is adapted to the body. And just like exercise, a meditation begins with some warmups. In sports, if you don’t stretch and warm ups. You’re not going to hurt yourself if you meditate without warming up. But you’ll get more benefit if you condition the mind according to certain sequences.
Just like a workout, properly arranging your body is a first step in supporting meditation. There’s a strong connection between the body and mind. If you’re a scientific materialist you should believe this even more, since you see the mind as something that emerges wholly from the body’s material activity.
Based on millennia of experience, there’s agreement that arranging the body in a cross-legged, straight-spined posture supports mental clarity. For anyone whose body doesn’t allow this, sitting in a chair with feet on the floor, and legs uncrossed can be just as beneficial.
After arranging your body, a first “warmup” in meditation is to establish your motivation. Why are we meditating? It can be helpful to think personally of what you’re working on at this moment. Without feeling guilty or judgmental, think about the qualities of mind that you’d like to diminish, and those that you’d like to cultivate.
And then more broadly, you can consider the aspirational aims of meditation: to live a meaningful, connected life; to be fully present to those around you; to better understand your inner and outer realities.
After setting your motivation, it can be helpful to think of any people, living or historical, who manifest these qualities. If you know someone who genuinely shows these qualities, thinking of them at the start can help make these qualities concrete. Even Iron Man. According to the meditative traditions, all of us equally have the capacity to achieve these qualities, and it’s encouraging to know that others moved along this path to greater awareness.
You can also simply think of the qualities themselves, sometimes with a visual component of warm, bright light suffused with positive mental states. We’ll do some form of this in the beginning of many of our guided meditations.
One of these qualities worth cultivating is our capacity to care for others, to wish them to be free of pain and suffering, to wish them the same happiness we want ourselves. Doing a short heart-expanding practice at the start of meditation helps color our meditation with a concern for others, and provides further motivation to meditate.
Stabilizing meditation on the breath can come next. This is the practice that calms and slows the mind. It’s good to end the stabilizing component while your mind is still fresh and alert—to quit while you’re ahead so you build a positive relationship to meditation. This session can be as short as five or three or even one minute. The last thing you want is to hate meditation, so quit while you’re ahead.
After stabilizing the mind, you can move to an analytic meditation, the narrative storytelling form of meditation. This technique is highly elaborated in the tradition we’re drawing from, with thousands of patterns for analytic mediations that support diminishing delusions and cultivating virtuous states of mind.
While following the basic outline of an analytic meditation, it’s possible to elaborate each topic with your own creativity and imagination. It’s similar to the way a jazz musician follows a song’s structure and scales, but infuses her performance with her unique personality and style.
The last part of a meditation session is dedication. This is a reiteration of our motivation, where you can feel good that you’ve spent some time gently acknowledging, accepting, and then letting go of disturbing states of mind. And you can feel good at having spent time recognizing, cultivating, and increasing your beneficial states of mind. There’s nothing better you could have done with your time, which isn’t something we can often say. So, we can feel wholeheartedly satisfied that we’ve moved incrementally closer to expanding our natural goodness.
Now that we’ve introduced A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment in the last episode, and talked about what meditation is in this episode, next week (Episode 3: Guided Meditation — Stabilizing the Mind and Watching Thoughts)we’ll guide you through our first meditation session with an analytic component on observing our thoughts while exploring who or what that observer might be.
We’ll start to become aware of the subtler aspects of awareness itself, and begin to explore who we are beneath our worries, our cravings, and our busyness.