In the many discourses I host or participate in, both online with our members, and in my local chapter of the Society, it is a common thing to hear a visitor talk about a certain kind of problem they are facing. This is the problem of mental stress which, they are often aware, is caused by ruminations and preoccupations. Sometimes the complaint is a lack of focus or attention. Other times it is forgetfulness. It could be an inability to get to sleep at night, or continuous worrying, or just general stress. A fewer number of times, the complaint comes from a person engaged in spiritual practice, who is having trouble staying mindful of various truths which are a part of that path’s teachings.
All of these are rooted in the same thing: an inability to sovereignly decide what their minds will think about, and when – including an inability to still the mind at will. When I recognize this common ailment, I usually ask, “Do you meditate?” I have recently realized that I need to be far more specific because there are many things that people call ‘meditation’. Even more challenging, some of these are activities which have the exact opposite purposes and effects than what I mean by the word. Therefore, the practitioner may not realize this is why “meditation” doesn’t seem to be working for them. What they are doing may, in fact, be exacerbating their issues.
One of the most common things I hear from people who are either thinking about meditating, or who have tried meditating, but have not received very knowledgeable instruction or explanation of it, is the following: When I ask them to describe what they are doing, they will often tell me they close their eyes, relax, and let their mind float freely, drifting on to whatever thoughts they may have, and then examining those; allowing them to inform them about themselves and what’s on their mind. This is not what I meant when I asked them about meditation.
Now, let us pause to be sure the reader doesn’t get distracted by a semantic debate (semantics being generally less interesting and less important than discussions about the concepts behind the semantics). Certainly, there are traditions that refer to practices like the above with the word “meditation”, and there is nothing wrong with using whatever words we like for various things. It may be enough to say that there are different kinds of mediation, and it is important to know what kind we are talking about. To be clear, I will use the word “introspection” to describe the above. It is not important that your use of terms match mine, however; only that you know what I’m talking about when I use them.
Among those who have read or been taught very little of Buddhist philosophy (or even Eastern philosophy), it is very common to think introspection is what these meditators are doing (it looks the same from the outside). This is because, in the Western world, far more people are familiar with the popular psychology techniques, at least as they are often caricatured in the media. This ‘letting your mind drift’ may be helpful for an external observer to gain understanding of what is on your mind, but it is the exact opposite of mindfulness meditation. And, likewise, their effects are radically different from one another.
If rumination-caused stress is your issue, then this form of introspection may deceptively feel, in the time you are doing it, like an answer. It is definitely relaxing to let go and let your mind wander – and relaxing is the opposite of stress. But when you are finished, you will be right back where you started. In fact, you might even be worse off because ‘wandering thoughts’ are precisely what ruminations are. If you are plagued with worry or aggravation over some issue, then letting your mind wander might simply drum up more and more circular ‘wheels turning’.
Mindfulness meditation works differently. You might think of introspection like laying in a hot tub – very relaxing. But what people under these particular conditions need is to develop a capacity which they are lacking. They need to develop the ability to focus their attention, and in so doing, allow all the other distracting mental activity to quiet down. Meditation is not relaxation – it is hard work. If introspection is lying in a hot tub, then meditation is working out in the weight room.
In this kind of meditation, you do the opposite of letting your mind wander. You stay focused on one sensation – one very boring and difficult sensation to stay focused on. Some people use repetitive drumming or chants, etc. But the most common thing to focus on is the breath. To be sure, your mind will fight you. It will try to wander. And when it does, you will set those thoughts aside and return to the breath. You will do this hundreds of times (an understatement). And, eventually, you will notice that you are able to stay focused on the breath, and only the breath, for longer and longer periods before the mind wanders. You will eventually get to the point where you can maintain a meditative state in your normal activities, or return to a still mind at will. This is the capacity that must be rigorously developed to resolve the kinds of issues I’ve described.
It makes perfect sense that ‘free roaming mind’ techniques are favored so much in our culture. They are all about ‘me’. They are about my thoughts, my opinions, my feelings. Introspection, improperly applied, can feed an attachment to these thoughts, beliefs, and judgments and reinforce an over-identification of them with ‘you’. This is not the path to escape from the ego – part of the problem underlying the symptoms described.
Having said that, it’s not that there isn’t a place for introspection. Certainly, it is important to have times where you let the mind wander. This can help us learn about our own subconscious, and it can be a wonderful tool for stoking creativity. This kind of state is greatly exaggerated in certain rituals such as vision quests, the ceremonial use of ritual substances, and other exploration-based practices. Free-roaming introspection can be an invaluable source of epiphany and a part of peak experience, which is helpful in cultivating a deep, intuitive grasp on certain profound perspectives. But, as with all spiritual practices: the right medicine for the right ailment.
Exercise as Meditation
Exercise is another thing which is commonly claimed to fill the role of meditation. Many people have reported a meditative-like experience when engaged in athletic activity. They say this helps them to ‘clear their mind’ and ‘work off stress’. Surely, it does do this. There are some ways in which athletic activity is like mindfulness meditation, and other ways it is not.
The most recognizable sensation exercise shares with meditation is the absence of ruminations (distracting thoughts and concerns) when in flow. Yet, it seems to me that this is achieved in a different way. In the case of meditation, the ruminations subside after an increase in the skill of sharply focusing all attention such that the mental activity doesn’t spread onto other things. In physical exercise, this diminishing of ruminations seems (from my experience) to take place because the brain is forced to shift activity and blood flow to more motor-based functions, and away from the conscious part of the brain.
In other words, you can’t help but stop ruminating because your frontal lobes aren’t being given priority by the rest of your body*. While it is true that you choose to stay focused, the physical activity is itself a distraction. I have, at times, tried to read while on a treadmill or similarly engage in intellectual activity while under physical exertion, and it is difficult. This difficulty was not due to my discipline of keeping my attention focused or my mind still. It was, rather, due to my inability to think about things even when trying. The blood and energy were simply in another place.
Of course, the very fact that you got a break from ruminations that may be plaguing you is something attractive. And, add to that, physical exertion alone is a form of stress relief. Therefore, exercise has many good mental benefits, only adding to the body health benefits. Exercise too, has an important and valuable place. But it would be a mistake to think it is doing everything that meditation is doing.
Although your ruminations subsided during exercise, your ‘attention faculty’ did not have to discipline itself in order to make it happen. Because of this, exercise (seems to me) to be less capable of developing in us the ability to utilize that increased focus in our daily activities, as well as the ability to still the mind (closely related to focus). None of this is sharply and absolutely the case between exercise and meditation. But, in general, the skilled meditator will have an increased equanimity and ability to stay mindful and clear headed when encountering difficult circumstances in life. Consider, for a moment, top athletes who nevertheless do not seem very mindful outside of the sports arena, and may experience many forms of emotional disruption, anger, or stress.
The difference becomes even more pronounced when you are engaged in a philosophic and spiritual practice that includes far more than just meditation. It is here where the benefits and necessity of meditation begin to be more obvious. This focus, mastery of attention, enhanced mindfulness, and stillness of mind is absolutely essential to taking some of the more profound philosophic value systems in, for example, Stoicism or Buddhism, and integrating them into your daily walk. And, only through that integration can habits form and real character transformation begin to take place. This is the continual transformation to an evermore enlightened state in which a True Happiness can be experienced.
As a footnote, there is another classification of attention practices, alongside introspection and meditation, which should be mentioned. What I am calling ‘contemplation‘ is something different from either. Like meditation, contemplation is focusing and, unlike introspection, not letting that focus deviate. However, the object upon which you are focusing is not persistent or cyclical, such as with the breath, a mantra, and so on. In contemplation, you actually do work with language-based and logic-based data. You are handling thoughts, addressing what-if’s, considering scenarios, weighing options, and so on. But unlike introspection, you are doing so in a very orderly and deliberative way, on a particular topic or issue. You are not letting whatever subjects pop into your mind as they will. As you might imagine, skill at mindfulness meditation would be a good prerequisite to contemplation, in order to maintain a disciplined focus. Contemplation would likely be a harmful prescription for those plagued by ruminations, as much of the wheel-turning going on in their heads is a kind of non-productive dwelling on particular issues. Again, the right medicine for the right ailment.
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*This description is merely my first-hand sense of what these experiences are like subjectively, compared to one another. They should not be taken as literal explanations of objective brain functions, for which rigorous scientific studies are a better source. These kinds of studies are still new, and interpretation of their data is still often debated.