Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sam Harris: How to meditate

In our IPS discussion on Harris Balder brought to our attention his new blog post, "how to meditate." Therein he recommends vipassana as it is most easily shorn of its metaphysical accoutrement. I agree with Mr. Harris yet again. This is why vipassana is the only "Buddhist" meditation I've been able to take up and maintain over the years. Particularly the brand out of Spirit Rock in northern CA, which is still Buddhist in orientation but also allows a more generic approach.  Jack Kornfield is one of the founders and I like his mix of psychotherapeutic methods and western education in his overall presentation. I also very much appreciate how Spirit Rock still operates on dana and has not commercialized (i.e., capitalized for profit) its teachings. Of Kornfield's writings one of my favorites is this one on the limitations of meditation.

Following is the excerpt of Harris' blog Balder provided:

There are many forms of introspection and mental training that go by the name of “meditation,” and I have studied several over the years. As I occasionally speak about the benefits of these practices, people often write to ask which I recommend. Given my primary audience—students of science, secularists, nonbelievers, etc.—these queries usually come bundled with the worry that most traditional teachings about meditation must be intellectually suspect.

Indeed, it is true that many contemplative paths ask one to entertain unfounded ideas about the nature of reality—or, at the very least, to develop a fondness for the iconography and cultural artifacts of one or another religion. Even an organization like Transcendental Meditation (TM), which has spent decades self-consciously adapting itself for use by non-Hindus, can’t overcome the fact that its students must be given a Sanskrit mantra as the foundation of the practice. Ancient incantations present an impediment to many a discerning mind (as does the fact that TM displays several, odious signs of being a cult).

But not all contemplative paths kindle the same doubts or present the same liabilities. There are, in fact, many methods of meditation and “spiritual” inquiry that can greatly enhance our mental health while offering no affront to the intellect.

For beginners, I always recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali, “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, of course—and most retreat centers in the U.S. and Europe still teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of “spiritual” instruction.

The quality of mind cultivated in vipassana is generally referred to as “mindfulness” (the Pali word is sati), and there is a quickly growing literature on its psychological benefits. Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to modulate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self awareness.

Programs in “mindfulness-based stress reduction” (MBSR), pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, have brought this practice into hospitals and other clinical settings. The Inner Kids Foundation (for which my wife, Annaka, has volunteered) teaches mindfulness in schools. Even the Department of Defense has begun experimenting with meditation in this form. 

The practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it is in no sense easy. Here, as elsewhere in life, the “10,000 Hour Rule” tends to apply. And true mastery probably requires special talent and a lifetime of practice...."

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