Is Meditation Magic?

Published in Meditation and Spirituality - 21 mins to read

Imagine that you’re the mayor of a small town; let’s call it Samadhivale. The denizens of Samadhivale live peaceful, prosperous lives. Children frolic in the streets, galleries and theatres bustle with aficionados of the arts, men and women in suits broker business deals as titans of their respective industries. Samadhivale is a picture postcard of a place, the sort you only hear about in fairy tales or contrived analogies about meditation. You love it here. Everyone loves it here.

But… there is one little thing. Periodically, there are mysterious goings-on in Samadhivale. Disappearances, always without trace. Ailments that even the town’s world-class physicians are powerless to diagnose, let alone treat. Fires break out in spite of pouring rain. Car accidents despite every motorist diligently and soberly adhering to the speed limit. A malaise hangs in the air, forebodingly.

At a certain point, you start to hear whispers. People are talking. You’re the mayor; they want you to do something about the town’s problems. It’s your job after all. Lest these murmurings crescendo to a full-blown brouhaha, you cast your mind about, searching for what could be the cause.

There’s a cave mouth that lies just outside of town, to the east; the locals call it “Dukkha”. As a youngling, you and your friends would often wander up to its maw, but never could muster the courage to enter; it had a way of swallowing up the light, so that even on the brightest of days, it appeared as a black hole from which no colour could escape. If you looked at it for long enough, your brain started to think there was something wrong with your retinas, and you felt progressively more uneasy until you finally tore yourself away. As an adult, sometimes you’d go hiking in the hills near the cave and feel that same sense of fear whenever you gazed upon it. Later, your wife and kids accompanied you on these excursions and, although they never vocalised it, the shared unease you all felt around the cave was palpable.

There have always been rumours about the contents of Dukkha, with a variety of nefarious evils said to lurk within; from run-of-the-mill ne’er-do-wells to mephistophelian serial killers to nameless, formless, supernatural horrors. You’ve long since dismissed these as mere fishwives’ tales, spun to scare children into doing their homework on time and not wandering too far from their parents. Somewhat to your disbelief, the populace of Samadhivale seem to be starting to consider that they could contain some truth, and are imploring you to investigate what’s inside the cave.

After a couple of weeks of deflection and delay, you can no longer ignore their pleas. The cave must be explored, and, if necessary, cleansed.

You’ve always been adventurous; you did a lot of mountaineering when you were younger, and undertook many treks to far-flung places. You were a reservist and while you never saw fighting proper, you stood side-by-side with those that had, and learned from them, gained some of their grit. You spent several years as a Scout leader, teaching figure-eight knots and how to use the pointy end of a knife.

You’re a leader. A real leader. The kind who could not put someone in danger ahead of themselves; especially not someone who trusts you, who you’ve sworn to protect. You make the executive decision; you, and you alone, will undertake the first expedition into the cave.

Meditators make some impressively bold claims about meditation. These range from it being a highly-effective stress-management tool, to it allowing you to escape the infinite cycle of death and rebirth that is Samsara to reside in the Tusita heaven with the devas, and hang out with Maitreya before he descends to the material realm to remind humanity about the then-forgotten dharma. Many meditators also claim that anyone can attain the benefits of meditation, should they be suitably dedicated to their practice.

A smaller subset of meditation communicators attempt to cater particularly to folks who consider themselves to be of the scientific way of thinking. I feel strongly about rigour and reason, and so I think I qualify as their target audience. I’ve absorbed a decent amount of this flavour of proselytism and it often starts out well; I feel onboard, right up until some critical juncture which, to me, descends into the weeds of mysticism and becomes irrecoverable.

But here’s the thing. I do think there is something true in many claims about meditation. In fact, I will later claim that I have had a small number of, for lack of a better term, “meditative experiences”, where my perceived experience of consciousness materially changed, for a very short period of time, as a direct result of meditation or meditation-like practices. This blog post is going to attempt to communicate why I believe some of these claims about meditation in a way which requires leaps of neither logic nor faith, and keeps the train firmly on the rails of rationality.

Back to how you’re the Mayor of Samadhivale. The thing is, you aren’t just the mayor - you’re the whole town. And not just the people, you’re the plants and the buildings and the oxygen everybody’s breathing. And, obviously, you’re Dukkha, the spooky cave. These things are all part of you, and what you think of as being “you” is the sum total of all of them.1

Inside your brain is this whole town full of stuff. Inside everyone’s brain is a whole town full of stuff, but not everyone’s town is exactly the same. Everybody has their own version of Dukkha, but not everyone has spooky mysterious evil miscellany emanating from their unknowable subconscious brain cave.

Which is to say, a lot of people live perfectly fine and happy lives without ever spending much time exploring their own mind. They don’t notice anything untoward between the ears or in their heart in the moments ‘twixt lying in bed and falling asleep. There is nothing that nags at them in between thoughts, never a vague, dull sensation of a muted cry from the recesses of their cerebellum. There is no need for them to explore the cave; some are scared, others simply disinterested in doing so.

Some of those people might choose to explore the cave anyway, out of a sense of innate curiosity, or perhaps because in the fishwives’ tales they heard the cave was filled to the brim with wondrous riches instead of vileness and terror.

And some other people, like me, are like the mayor in the story. We know that something is deeply wrong on our town, and it’s our responsibility to investigate; we must deal with the cave.

As far as I can tell, there are three popular methods of “dealing with the cave”, or attempting to alter one’s consciousness to be more habitable; psychedelics, psychotherapy and psychotraining, aka meditation. I want to note here that a key reason why I chose this cave analogy is that this exploration of your mind, just like that of the cave, is plausibly dangerous. All three of these methodologies can have unintended and deleterious consequences, including meditation (I also think harmful consequences of psychotherapy are under-discussed, but that’s a topic for another day).

I have no personal experience with psychedelics, but as far as I can tell, the appropriate analogy would be that of throwing large amounts of explosives into the cave and pushing the detonator with crossed fingers. Psychotherapy is like getting a team of experts to help you scan the cave from the outside; you use fancy ground-penetrating radar techniques, you analyse rock samples from the mouth of the cave, maybe you send down some kind of probe into the darkness.

With meditation, you strap on a head torch, pack some sandwiches, an extra jumper and some rope, and waltz straight into the cave. On your own.

OK, so maybe you already reject the premise. Given that we inhabit our minds, how could there be a large portion of them that we can’t directly access? Moreover, how can the way to access them be by doing nothing?

There are many things I could point to in order to illustrate the size of our minds. We can only hold a small handful of things in our short-term memory, however we can store truly mind-boggling amounts of information in our long-term memory. Our brains process vast amounts of sensory data, but I usually only have 1-3 conscious thoughts at a time. There are people out there who excel in all manner of cognitive abilities, so the upper bound for cognition is clearly extremely high.

As for why we can’t necessarily “look at” every part of our mind, consider this - you’re doing a pub quiz with your friends. The question at hand is “which 18th Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh was the father of Tutankhamun and the husband of Nefertiti?”. You know the answer. You know you know the answer. Except that right now you don’t know the answer. You’re aware that at one time you knew the answer, and strongly suspect that given enough time, you would remember the answer, but in this very moment, you do not know the answer. Nobody else on your team knows the answer either, and so you dejectedly write “Ramesses III”, despite knowing that is categorically incorrect, as he was a 20th Dynasty ruler. Later, you’re at the bar while they are scoring that round, and miss the name of the correct pharaoh, and your teammates weren’t paying enough attention to remember. You go home and get into bed, but you can’t sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning, suddenly it hits you, a bolt of remembrance handcrafted by Thoth himself. You sit up and scream “IT’S AKHENATEN!”, startling awake your now-terrified spouse.

Another example that I often encounter is that I am stuck on a programming program. I diligently work on it all day, giving it my utmost attention and focus, but I can’t crack it. Defeated, I head home, put some shorts on and go for a run. I listen to a podcast and completely forget about the problem. I get in the shower afterwards, and while contemplating what to make for dinner, the answer to the previously-intractable problem pops unprompted into my head. This is how I solve the majority of difficult programming problems that I face.

The thing is, I can’t look at the mechanism that makes me forget and then remember esoteric pharaoh facts, or the one that makes me a highly competent coder but only when I’m shampooing my hair. These things just happen, and I can’t explain them purely in terms of my direct experience. I can learn about “diffuse thinking” but I can’t tell you what it feels like.

Hopefully now you are more open to the possibility that there are parts of your mind that are at present inaccessible by your consciousness. But you might understandably still be skeptical about meditation being a vehicle suited for exploration. I’ll try and outline the simplest case that I find compelling.

Imagine you’ve never tried meditating before, and today is going to be the first time you give it a go. You’re planning to attempt it for one hour. The way you are going to meditate is by sitting still and focusing on your breath. You will notice yourself breathing in, and notice yourself breathing out again. Every time you notice another thought, feeling or sensation, you will, to the best of your abilities, not engage with it, allow it to move through and out of your conscious mind, and return your attention to your breathing.

Firstly, does this sound in any way like anything you’ve ever done before? No, me neither. So we ought to have some credence that it could alter our conscious experience in some way.2 As I said above, our brain is processing an overwhelming amount of data, all of the time, and the way it makes sense of anything is to use heuristics. As every statistician knows, all models are wrong, but some models are useful, and we’re all just hoping that our brain’s janky view of the world is one of the latter.

Given our gargantuan sensory dataset is only producing a fairly rudimentary set of models, we obviously aren’t making maximal use of each datum; in fact, we’re probably ignoring most of them. Does it seem plausible to you, that, in your hour of focusing on your breathing, you might begin to notice pieces of sense-data that you’d never noticed before, despite your being a life-long breather? For example, the sensation of the passage of air through your nostrils; how it seems to be drawn up into the roof of your nose on the inhale, and then pressed down toward your upper lip on the exhale? Or perhaps a subtle impedance of the airflow in your left nostril? Or simply that every inhale is accompanied by a barely-perceptible moment of serenity; you are still breathing, you are still alive?

If you believe that you might notice new things about the act of breathing by attempting to focus solely on it for an hour, you can also believe that the same concept could be applied to any other sensation, thought or feeling. Perhaps it won’t take a single hour, and it will instead take hundreds or thousands of hours of practice, but this “noticing”, this new interpretation of previously overlooked data, can lead to what the Buddhists call vipassana - insight.

This is my core thesis; our minds are large, complex, and contain aspects that are difficult to focus our attention on. There are particular reasons we might be interested in trying to be better in tune with the parts of our minds that we cannot directly “look at”; curiosity, desire for better mental health, desire to attain nirvana. One way of looking at some set of meditative practices is that it is a kind of training to notice progressively subtler things, and once one is highly skilled at such training, one can notice more and more about one’s own psyche.

As a final anecdotal piece of evidence for my case, I’d like to share how I recently became so interested in meditation and came to hold the beliefs that I do. Then I’ll offer some practical tips for getting started with a meditative practice.

I was introduced to mindfulness meditation shortly after I first started having CBT, age 16 or 17. My therapist said it could help to avoid getting stuck in the downward spiral of negative thoughts I would frequently find myself in. I tried it a handful of times, but never felt like I had any success; my thoughts felt too loud to drown out, too powerful to let go of. Being forced to sit with them, with nothing to distract myself, proved to be deeply unpleasant.

And then I got into poker, where lots of players I respected preached openly about the virtues of meditation as a way to ensure they remained purely rational at the felt, and avoid the dreaded tilt. I tried it a little more seriously this time, but once again found that whenever I ventured into the cave, I heard rumblings down below and saw shadowy figures flit across my field of view. It was still too painful for me to sit with my own feelings.

This year, in many ways, my mental health has been solid. I’ve done a lot of work, and I’ve drastically improved my situation, my support network, and myself. But I’ve also found my current job brutally stressful at times, in a way that hasn’t seemed sustainable, although there are many reasons I would strongly prefer to remain where I am. Given I was already on antidepressants, having psychotherapy and doing the usual gamut of lifestyle interventions, trying to give meditation another go seemed to be the obvious next step. My intellectual interest had been piqued by Scott Alexander seeming open to the possibility that jhanas are real, and given how much I respect Scott’s opinion, I also updated to be more open to there being some truth in the more far-fetched claims made by meditators (if you think there is even a fairly small chance of these claims being true then it makes your upside a lot bigger and boosts meditation’s EV significantly). So I tried again. And this time, for now, it’s stuck.

I’m up to meditating for 30 minutes a day, every day. At the start 10 minutes felt tough, but now 30 is fairly straightforward. I’ve been practicing daily for about 3 months. I no longer recoil from my own emotions. It’s generally easier to let thoughts, feelings and sensations pass as they arise, although not always. There have been several occasions where something has upset me, but I have noticed that I am able to deal with it far more effectively, and the negative feelings don’t linger as they would’ve previously. When I asked her, my partner said she felt I was more present (although I didn’t ask her in the most neutral possible way). Meditation was frequently uncomfortable at first, whereas now it is often pleasurable. I appear to be marginally better at coping with work stress, although I think there is still a long way to go.

Finding time to meditate was also challenging at first. I often feel like I have a never-ending list of things to do, and so I’m always triaging for my attention. Deciding to do deliberately nothing with that attention made part of my brain scream in agony for a couple of weeks, but meditating helped me see the Sisyphean to-do list for the trap it really is, and so eventually that part of me quietened.

Two other things significantly boosted my motivation - the “meditative experiences” I alluded to above. Firstly, while reading the intro to Daniel Ingram’s Mastering The Core Teachings of the Buddha, I realised that I’d already had a moment of my entire conscious experience briefly changing, not while meditating, but instead in a sensory deprivation tank. I’ve floated quite a bit now (I would guess I have spent somewhere between 40-50 hours in a tank), but there was one session from a few years ago which I remember vividly, and now believe to have been something akin to what meditators are describing when they talk about insight. After about 45 minutes without any stimulus, I had an epiphany - not an intellectual one, but an emotional, and maybe spiritual one. I didn’t think it in my brain, I felt it in every part of my conscious experience. I had the feeling of my mind, my soul, my self, being distinctly separated from everything else, including my body. I felt like my self was a vessel, and it interacted with the world through a very small hole by which things could be poured in or out. I realised that this vessel was the only real thing in the whole world, and that it was so beautiful, and so worthy, and I loved it so fully and so deeply, in a way that I don’t have the words to describe, because it was the only thing in the world. I’d never considered this to be the kind of experience or insight that one might be able to have through meditation until I read more about advanced meditator’s experiences, and claims that it is possible for some people to have these experiences without meditating, or indeed under quite mundane circumstances.

The second came after a few weeks of daily meditation, where I felt like I was meditating “well”, and generally felt calm and relaxed in my day-to-day. Normally, new thoughts, feelings and sensations fairly constantly come into my mind, and I cannot really focus solely on my breath for more than a single cycle. On that day however, at one point I managed to concentrate on my breath alone for several cycles, perhaps 8 or 9, with nothing interrupting my focus. It’s difficult to describe, but this felt qualitatively and distinctly different to my usual experience of meditation, and indeed of consciousness. I interpret this as my first taste of samadhi (our inner-town’s namesake) - the Pali word for concentration.

One of the things that made meditation really “click” for me was reading this blog post discussing disagreements about key Pali terms like dukkha, usually translated as suffering, and tanha, usually translated as craving. The commentary around tanha in particular was a Eureka moment for me - rather than thinking of myself as constantly craving, I instead began to think of myself as constantly mentally clenching. Not being able to “let go” of difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations is what is causing me to suffer, and now I think of the worst of these as being like a cramped muscle - something that is currently contracted as tightly as possibly, causing a lot of pain, but that can ultimately be soothed, worked free and released.

You might’ve also noticed in my analogy about the three ways one might choose to handle our inner cave, that the options are not mutually exclusive, and indeed that employing multiple approaches would likely lead to the greatest chance of success. This was deliberate - I have found the combination of therapy and meditation to be complementary, and highly effective as a symbiotic pair. Therapy is the theory, and meditation is the practice. Therapy helps map out the potential space that my mind shies away from (it tries to analyse the cave from the outside), and meditation allows me to turn my mind towards that space, using the therapeutic map, to explore it and to work to let go of what I need to (I enter the cave on my own, but with an idea of its structure and potential dangers therein).

With luck, by now I’ve convinced you of the potential merits of meditation, and perhaps you want to know how to get started. I often hear people say “I’m worried I’m meditating incorrectly”, and teachers will reassuringly reply “it is not possible to meditate incorrectly”. To this I would say you are definitely meditating incorrectly, as am I, as is everyone else. If we were meditating correctly, we’d already be enlightened.

If you are a beginner, I think there are broadly three routes to go down. All paths can be entirely secular, and none require any involvement or knowledge of Buddhism whatsoever - although practically, Buddhists have historically pioneered meditation, and much of the most relevant writing on the subject is by Buddhist authors, so being comfortable with a little bit of Pali will go a long way in making the topic accessible to you.

The first path has a lower barrier to entry, but also a lower upper bound on potential benefits. This path looks something like building a regular guided meditation practice, perhaps using one of the popular apps, and doing maybe 10-15 minutes every day or every other day. I think that almost everyone could benefit from this; meditation apps seem generally great, I think even a small dose can have a meaningful effect size (for some people at least), and there are no dangers to this approach.

The second path is one that is serious about pursuing the goal of fundamentally, permanently altering one’s conscious experience. This is not something that should be taken lightly; there are ways it can go seriously wrong, and it takes a lot of work (although, if you are looking for an incredibly non-traditional take on meditation, there are those who think you can optimise the process and get there much faster). The in-some-circles-controversial, in-some-circles-canonical text on the matter is the aforementioned Mastering The Core Teachings of the Buddha (in the first view pages the author refers to Gautama Buddha as “Uncle Sid”, to give you an idea of the book’s tone), but for a purely secular, extremely online approach, you might also consider Meditation from Cold Start to Complete Mastery.

Thirdly, there is of course a more pragmatic middle path here. There is no need to rush towards enlightenment; after all, the circle of death and rebirth is infinite, so you have literally all the time in the universe to get there. I don’t think how you start meditating matters too much at all. Try to absorb the work of several different teachers, from multiple schools; see what resonates with you the most. Try different kinds of meditation, ask yourself which one you could realistically incorporate into your daily routine. What worked for me might not work for you. You shouldn’t have to try hard and meditation, although sometimes it can feel that way. It helps a lot to not only practice, but also to read and learn about meditation, and ideally find people to discuss it with - in his teachings, the Buddha placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of the Sangha, or community of monks, in the journey toward enlightenment.

Good luck, and maybe I’ll see you in the Tusita heaven.

  1. Maybe you’ve heard Buddhists talk about how there is no such thing as the self, and that the concept of “you” is illusory. This comes in direct contradiction to the fact that you’ve spent every single second of your life being constantly bombarded with the experience of existing as a self. To that I say, you’re totally right, that is weird, we’re not gonna say stuff like that around here. ↩︎

  2. If you’re reading this blog post and smugly thinking “but I’m a Bayesian and I have a very strong set of priors about my qualia” then congratulations, but also, rather than continuing to read this, instead go read Meditation from Cold Start to Complete Mastery or Mastering The Core Teachings of the Buddha; they’re much better suited to your sensibilities. ↩︎