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Meditation: a self-experiment

50 Post author: Swimmer963 30 December 2013 12:56AM


The LW/CFAR community has a fair amount of interest in meditation. This isn't surprising; many of the people who practiced and wrote about meditation in the past were trying to train a skill similar to rationality. Schools of meditation seem to be the closest already-existing thing to rationality dojos–this doesn't mean that they're very similar, only that I can't think of anything else that's more similar.

People are Doing Science on meditation; there are studies on the effects of meditation on attention, depression, anxietystress and pain reduction. [Insert usual disclaimer that many of these studies either won't be replicated or aren't measuring what they think they're measuring]. Meditation is apparently considered a form of alternative medicine; this is quite annoying, actually, since it's a thing that might help a lot of people being lumped in with other things that almost certainly don't work. 

[There's the spiritual enlightenment element of meditation, too. I won't touch on that, since my own experience isn't related to that aspect.]

Brienne Strohl has posted about meditation and metacognition; DavidM has posted on meditation and insight. Valentine, of CFAR, talked about mindfulness meditation helping to dispel the illusion of being hurried and never having enough time. 

In short, lots of hype–enough that I found it worthwhile to give it a try myself. The main benefit I hoped to attain from practicing meditation was better control of attention–to be able to aim my attention more reliably at a particular target, and notice more quickly when it drifted. The secondary benefit would be better understanding and control of emotions, which I had already tried to accomplish through techniques other than meditation. However, I’d had the experience for several years of thinking that meditation was a valuable thing to try, and not trying it–evidence that I needed more than good intentions. 

The experiment

Sometime in early September, I saw a poster on the wall at the hospital where I work, advertising a study on mindfulness meditation for people with social anxiety. I called the number on the poster and got myself enrolled because it was a good pre-commitment strategy. The benefits were deadlines, social pressure, and structure, with a steady supply of exercises, audio recordings, and readings. This came at the cost of two hours a week for twelve weeks, not all of which was spent on the specific skills that I wanted to learn. Another possible cost could be thinking of myself more as someone who has social anxiety, which might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I don’t think this actually happened. If anything, sitting down in a group once a week with people whose anxiety significantly affected their functioning had the effect of making my own anxiety seem pretty insignificant. (I was able to convincingly make the case that I suffer from social anxiety during my interview; I've cried in front of my teachers a lot, including during my last year of nursing school, which caused some adults to think that I wasn't cut out for nursing). 

I didn't quite do all of the homework for the study, which would have amounted to almost an hour a day. The social pressure of having to hand in a sheet had me doing most of it, though. I Beemindered twenty minutes a day of meditation; according to Beeminder, this has amounted to about 25 hours since mid-September despite the several occasions on which I derailed. 

The Dropbox folder with the audio files for most of the meditation exercises I've done regularly is here

Breakdown of different meditation exercises

Compassionate Body Scan: a 25-minute tape with a man talking soporifically about exploring your feet like you would the feet of a beloved child and being curious about the experience of your ankles–and, eventually, the rest of your body. I've often done this one in bed when I hadn't gotten around to meditating earlier that day, and I often fall asleep around the pelvis area. I wish I could do this on demand; without the tape, it generally takes me 45 minutes to an hour to fall asleep. 

10 and 20 minute sitting meditation: A walkthrough of focusing on the breath in various places; the nostrils, the throat, the chest and abdomen; and later focusing on the whole body. I like this one because sometimes near the end I feel like I'm floating in a void. I also do it in a particular position–kneeling and supporting my bum on a low stool–which I've conditioned myself to associate with meditation to the point that the posture is calming in and of itself. 

Loving-Kindness meditation: Walks through feeling kindness towards someone you love, someone you're indifferent to, and someone you dislike. I don't usually feel very different after this one, but this is partly because I've been training myself to like people in general for years, and because nursing school in and of itself is an exercise in empathy-building. I have noticed that I can't do it as effectively anymore because there's no one I experience a strong emotion of dislike towards–I used a particular nurse on my unit for a month or so, and now, although I have the same thoughts about her, I don't have the actual emotional experience of dislike. So I guess it worked. 

Mountain Meditation: a complex visualization/metaphor of yourself as a mountain. I would say that your mileage may vary the most on this one, because of variations in mental imagery. I have very vivid mental imagery, so I like it a lot. I've got some salient mental images cached now to draw on the metaphor of "I am a mountain and I will endure seasons, storms, winter, every single alarm in my patient's room going off at once, and WHATEVER ELSE THE UNIVERSE WANTS TO THROW AT ME!" 

The Results

Initial positive; I like meditation enough to want to keep doing it. It feels good, overall. That doesn't mean that I want to do it all the time, or that I effortlessly accomplish my Beeminder goal; it does require willpower to put away the computer/book/food/music and focus on doing nothing for 20 minutes, and I do moan and groan and put it off. But it's generally pleasant while I'm actually doing it, and there are times when I feel a lot better afterwards.

There are several reasons why, a priori, I would expect meditation to be especially helpful for me. My natural state is to daydream. I'm good at remembering complex sequences of things, but not at noticing details, because I'm too busy thinking about all those complex interesting things that happened earlier. This is all very well, but as a nurse, it's important for me to be paying attention to what I'm doing. 

The single most helpful time for me to meditate is when I'm feeling very frazzled. This usually happens when I've had an extremely busy day at work, running around all day trying to save someone's life, and I feel very motivated, but at some point I get overwhelmed by all the object-level tasks that keep flying at my face, and I lose track of the "big picture" and with it the ability to prioritize or plan anything, and end up dealing with tasks in the order of which thing beeps the loudest. Even once I get home after a day like this, the frazzled state persists and I can't actually settle onto any tasks that need to get done at home. A friend of mine once described his experience of having tried cocaine as "I felt very alert, but it was an illusion because I was also really scattered." I haven't tried cocaine, but those words describe the me-after-a-busy-shift very accurately. 

I don't always get myself to meditate as soon as I get home (or on break during the busy shift); it takes willpower, and this is a willpower-reduced state. It would be an excellent habit to train, though. To clarify: I find meditation really difficult in this state. My thoughts are racing and the last thing I want to focus on is my breath, because I did exciting things today and I should think about all of them really fast. But at least meditation forces me to focus on the fact that my thoughts are racing, and notice that from a calm perspective, instead of completely identifying with and being caught up in the flow. Twenty minutes later, I'm generally reset and able to do something else, although that thing is most often sleep. 

The biggest overall change I've noticed after I started meditating regularly is more awareness of my physical and emotional states; physical especially. It's easy for me not to get around to drinking any water at work, for example, and then ten hours later noticing that I "don't feel well" in some vague way, but experiencing this mostly as the phrase "I don't feel well" in my head, as opposed to focusing on any physical sensation that might clue me in to the source of my discomfort. (Of course, outside view puts drinking water on the list of things I should try if I mysteriously don't feel well, but it's nice to have an actual physical sensation, too). Several of the meditation exercises had aspects of focusing on the body, focusing on sensations of discomfort without trying to apply words to them or interpret them, etc. This is a 5-second-level skill that I've improved hugely at.

A specific instance is when I suddenly clue in that something very urgent and serious is happening, and I go from my general at-work state of mild anxiety to a full-blown SNS fight-or-flight adrenaline response. If I pay attention to my thoughts, they generally aren't going anywhere useful. But meanwhile, my body is doing all these interesting things; racing heart, shaky hands, that weird sinking crampy feeling in my stomach, etc. Meditation has trained me to automatically notice and pay attention to the physical sensations, which gives me a couple of seconds to get my thoughts calmed down. I also have a much easier time getting rid of the annoying physical effects like shaking hands, which make it hard to do fiddly things like draw medications up into syringes–and heaven forbid I ever have to try to put an IV in on a patient in cardiac arrest.

I identify less with my moods. I was already generally good at recognizing that moods were temporary coloured glasses on the world and not just the way the world actually was, but I'm better now. I can sometimes notice a negative mood and also notice the thing I actually have to do to fix it; this might be as simple as eating something, or might involve observing my thoughts and realizing that the bad mood started unnoticed because of an interaction with someone else which I interpreted negatively. This is a skill that was discussed a great deal in my meditation class, and it's actually not where I've improved the most; the biggest change has been in the level of physical awareness. 

The skills of body scanning and focusing on breathing have been helpful for forms of exercise that I find aversive, such as running. I can notice the cramps in my shins and explore them, rather than getting caught up in the mental verbal loop of "I have cramps in my shins and this is awful and I want it to stop!" Surprisingly, this helps. By focusing on my breathing in a meditation-y way while running; by this, I mean literally focusing on the cold feeling of the air going into my nostrils and throat and the feel of my clothes stretching over my stomach as it expands; I somehow clued in that my diaphragm actually could move independently of my legs and I could breathe at a normal rhythm and depth. 

One of the homework exercises was executing certain activities "mindfully". I quickly learned which things I could do mindfully without changing my schedule much, and I noticed that various things just felt better. Swimming, for example, is really sensual when you are actually paying attention to the sensation of water flowing over your skin and the sound of it in your ears through a swim cap and the patterns of reflected light through foggy goggles. I have memories of my 11-year-old self experiencing this; at some point, I stopped. I spend a lot of my life on automatic. This isn't always a problem, but when I notice a negative mood, I can turn on more sensory experience and often get rid of it that way. 

I've gotten somewhat better at actually experiencing myself as a modular mind, with various voices that want different things for different reasons. I don't have to endorse or identify with or experience myself as one of the voices; they're all me, and none of them are the "real" me. This helps with mental clarity, and being able to think about difficult decisions without actually experiencing the agonizing and aversiveness and confusion; yes, the different parts of me disagree with each other, that's just a fact about the state of the world and it's okay and doesn't mean I have to be angsty. 


The science on it predicts that meditation has positive expected value as a thing to try. My personal experience showed it to be an overall positive for me in particular; not life-changing, but worth spending 20 minutes a day on. Your mileage may vary, and anecdotally there's a lot of variation in how much people value get from it, but it doesn't take a lot of effort to try. I pre-committed to a twelve-week experiment, but it's likely possible to get an idea of whether meditation helps or not in a much shorter time span. 

Speaking from my personal experience, meditation is likely to be helpful if you tend to daydream and are in a position where you need to daydream less. Science also says that meditation will probably help if you suffer a lot of distress from rumination or mulling over unpleasant thoughts. 

If I were to repeat the experiment, I would do it with actual mood tracking, so that the data I got was more accurate than "In hindsight and upon reflection, I think I feel this way." I still haven't found a good method of mood tracking that does all the things I want it to.

Meditation is a clearly defined activity; there are groups of people who do it together, books about how to do it, and guided-meditation recordings that you can download from the Internet. If having structure helps you to actually do things, there are plenty of ways to obtain structure. 

I am happy to discuss meditation further with anyone who is interested. 


Comments (30)

Comment author: Benquo 28 December 2013 03:40:49PM 11 points [-]

This post is helpful because it is very specific about some types of meditation, use cases, and benefits, in a fairly short space. Thanks for putting this together!

I used to find meditation frustrating and boring, and didn't feel like I was getting anything out of it, because it didn't feel like practicing hard at something. One thing that had to "click" for me before I could put up with any meditation at all is that you're practicing a behavior you want to be able to do at other times. (That may seem obvious, but it wasn't to me.) In particular, one skill almost all kinds of meditation seem to train is the skill of redirecting your own attention without getting upset, or distracted by the thought of redirection. (I should mention that I had this click moment during a conversation with you.) So the "easiness" of the experience is the whole point - you're practicing redirecting your attention without expending effort.

In other words, meditation teaches you a viable strategy for "don't think of an elephant." This can be very useful in real life if the "elephant" is something you're worried about but can't do anything about (or aren't thinking productively about), like if you're waiting for the outcome of a medical test and want to get on with your work in the meantime. Or if you're mad at your friend because of something they said but also need to do your math homework. Getting your brain to think about "don't think about that" is a skill most people have already, but getting your brain to think about the thing you actually want to think about is hard. Meditation can help you do that.

Comment author: Swimmer963 30 December 2013 08:14:14PM 2 points [-]

I used to find meditation frustrating and boring, and didn't feel like I was getting anything out of it, because it didn't feel like practicing hard at something.

Interesting, meditation does feel to me like practicing hard at something, and did from the very beginning. Even if that something is just sitting still and doing nothing and not getting up to do all the things that I'm constantly remembering I should do. It was hard.

Comment author: Benquo 30 December 2013 10:03:49PM 0 points [-]

Hard as in effortful, requiring willpower, &c.? Or just hard as in you were trying to do something & weren't good at it yet?

Because the "click" moment for me was realizing that meditation could be in the second category but not the first.

Comment author: Swimmer963 31 December 2013 12:59:06PM 3 points [-]

Both. I think we're different in that way.

Comment author: Benquo 31 December 2013 01:41:00PM 1 point [-]

:| Maybe this is part of why meditation is so hard to talk about and conffusing to read about.

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 January 2014 04:01:05AM 3 points [-]

I'm leery of developing increased physical awareness. At any given moment, if I care to notice it, I start feeling mild pain in random parts of my body. As long as I'm not paying attention to the pain, it's not there, but when I start to think about how, say, my legs are feeling, I notice that there's a bit of pain there that wasn't there before because I wasn't thinking about it. So I often try to suppress physical awareness by focusing on absorbing activities such as reading, etc. Am I wrong in expecting that increasing my physical awareness would also mean increasing my awareness of annoying (mild) pains that I'd prefer to just shut out completely?

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 January 2014 01:35:19PM *  2 points [-]

If there's pain there's probably a reason for that pain. Simply associating all pain is no good long term strategy.

If you become aware that your legs are in pain it usually results in changing the position of your legs. Your body might also increase the blood flow in the tissue on which you focus your attention.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 01 January 2014 08:22:59AM 2 points [-]

This was certainly my experience. That said, my experience was also that I stopped experiencing such mild pains as something aversive. I suspect the two were related.

Comment author: Nisan 01 January 2014 07:28:00PM 1 point [-]

Who knows how much of your behavior is indeliberate responses to such inexperienced pain, rationalized with reasons that are more available to your consciousness?

Comment author: Swimmer963 01 January 2014 10:41:45AM 1 point [-]

There are a number of meditation exercises that have components where you try to focus on a painful sensation and stop experiencing it as aversive. I don't know if this would counteract the negative affect of noticing pain. Of course, there might be actual reasons why you're in pain; posture, not exercising enough, not stretching, exercising too much, etc etc. My brain wants to say that it's worth being aware of pain because then you can try to find the cause and fix it, but this is optimizing for my brain and not yours.

...There are definitely days when I ignore physical states because I'm busy at work. This doesn't help in the long run; it ends with me being really cranky and not knowing why and it being obvious from outside view that it's because I forgot to drink water. It's more efficient to be paying attention to thirst the whole time, even though then I have to suffer and be thirsty a bit when I'm stuck in my patient's room.

Comment author: CronoDAS 02 January 2014 07:00:55AM 0 points [-]

I have no idea what the causes of most of these pains are, they're very mild, and they tend to go away on their own once I stop paying attention to them.

I do seem to have frequent trouble with pain behind my ears that probably comes from my eyeglasses, though. Having my eyeglasses adjusted doesn't seem to help very much, and I can't focus more than six inches away from my face without them, so I just live with it and take over-the-counter painkillers when it gets bad.

Comment author: ryjm 30 December 2013 03:32:54AM 2 points [-]

For anyone interested in vipassana meditation, I would recommend checking out Shinzen Young. He takes a much more technical approach to the practice. This pdf by him is pretty good.

Comment author: epigeios 28 December 2013 01:01:06PM *  2 points [-]

Speaking form personal experience, the breathing meditation you did is what spawned the ability to be mindful of your physical state. This is because in order to successfully breathe into various areas of your body, you have to be mindful of that area. It is directly practicing physical awareness.

The fact that you have become aware of subtleties of flight-or-flight responses is extremely good. That's stage 2 of what it is possible to be mindful of.

Stage 3 is emotions. Try purposefully creating emotions. Try listening to music, and enhancing the emotions you feel from the music one at a time, and slowly. Try changing your emotions the same way you breathe into different parts of your body. Try creating an emotion when you breathe in, and letting it dissipate when you breathe out.

Stage 4 is thoughts. Stage 5 is intuition. Stage 6 is deep subconscious data grouping and relationships. Stage 7 and 8 are a lot more complicated. Stage 8 is what Taoists call "the Tao".

At stage 4, you should also begin practicing what is called "dissolving" in Taoist meditation. That's the ability to be aware of a stuck thought/feeling/whatever, and allow it to dissipate. Methods of doing this involve breathing into the very precise spot you feel is tense when you become aware of the stuck feeling, or slowly stretching and contracting that spot to get the tissues and fluids moving; and may also include image training to imagine that spot liquefying, then gassifying, then becoming a part of your breath so that you can breathe it out. The trick is to become as aware of the stuck feeling as you possibly can, and then relax it slowly. It's necessary to realize that your thoughts and feelings are connected to your fibrous body tissues in order to accomplish this (for example: thought control is connected to nerve tissue control).

Be careful of image meditation. If you choose to go beyond halfway through the path of meditation, you will have to remove all of the images you accidentally lock into your body.

PS. "stages" overlap. "stage" is a loose term I came up with to describe it just now. The Taoists call it "the 8 bodies". They're just a reference so that you can know what is possible, and approximately how much effort is required in order to accomplish it. Half way through, the game changes. All of the way through, the game changes again.

Comment author: Swimmer963 30 December 2013 08:14:29PM 2 points [-]

Stage 3 is emotions. Try purposefully creating emotions. Try listening to music, and enhancing the emotions you feel from the music one at a time, and slowly. Try changing your emotions the same way you breathe into different parts of your body. Try creating an emotion when you breathe in, and letting it dissipate when you breathe out.

CFAR actually has a class on this–well, not as specific as creating an emotion when you breathe in and letting it dissipate when you breathe out, but on purposely creating emotions in general. This is something I've been doing for years, because emotions are interesting to explore.

Be careful of image meditation. If you choose to go beyond halfway through the path of meditation, you will have to remove all of the images you accidentally lock into your body.

I'm not at all sure that my current goals involve going "more than halfway" along a path that's described in such abstract terms that I have no idea how it actually maps onto my real-life experiences. I'm happy to, y'know, keep meditating and reap whatever benefits may come.

Comment author: ChristianKl 30 December 2013 07:56:52PM *  1 point [-]

Speaking form personal experience, the breathing meditation you did is what spawned the ability to be mindful of your physical state.

I'm very certain that you don't have personal experience of what spawned her mindfulness of her body.

Breathing meditation is certainly a way to develop it but it's not the only way. Body scanning is probably partly responsible for her gains in that area.

Be careful of image meditation. If you choose to go beyond halfway through the path of meditation, you will have to remove all of the images you accidentally lock into your body.

What do you mean here? I would just avoid visualing negative images. If you visualize something positive and it doesn't disappear there no harm done.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 28 December 2013 10:05:23PM *  0 points [-]

That is strange. I'm not versed in meditation except as tried here. But I'd think that can do stages 2 to 5 and possibly 6 at least to some lesser degree guessing from your summary. But I can't breath consciously. I always get short winded until I let go of control (which I consciously can). Maybe it is related to my asthma.

Comment author: hyporational 30 December 2013 08:38:24PM 1 point [-]

Note that breathing consciously and being conscious of your breathing are not the same thing. I think the latter is usually what people are trying to do when they meditate.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 30 December 2013 09:30:00PM 2 points [-]

Interesting detail. It appears that I cannot observe my breathing without altering it (and altering diverges to the mentioned short-windedness). At least not in any detail. Sampling doesn't seem to alter it. I will experiment with this distinction.

Comment author: hyporational 30 December 2013 09:43:33PM *  4 points [-]

It helped when I realized I should concentrate on how breathing feels instead of how it's done. I usually concentrate on the rims of my nostrils and the sensations that passage of air causes in them. I think it helps that the sensations are very subtle, because it forces me to concentrate more. Concentrating on how to breath doesn't even cross my mind once I become nostrils hanging in the void ;)

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 30 December 2013 10:38:21PM 1 point [-]


This experiment and its associated reflection on how the brain does it has led me to some (possibly obvious/well known) insight I'd like to share:

What does concentration mean brainwise? Roughly speaking letting 'activation patterns' of a perception (or thoughts) stabilize and suppressing non-salient aspects of the perception e.g. environmental noise.

(To do this with neuronal nets implies moderation feedback from a higher network level to a lower level)

Such a concentration allows to detect and learn finer differences in the perception structure because these finer differences can be picked up better in the absence of the filtered out 'noise'.

(for neuronal networks this seems to correspond to e.g. selective training of kernels of deep learning nets)

Concentration/meditation on body perception then allows to become aware of its inner workings (as far as that is possible in principle given the 'body noise' and suppression capabilities).

If there are conscious control paths leading to feedback via the perception (and in the end even most subconscious control paths should be in principle controllable to some degree) then it should in principle be possible to learn the cooccurence patterns of control to perception (the same way that thoughs feedback on thoughts are routinely learned).

And this effectively means to consciously control (to a some degree) body functions normally working subconsciously.

This answers one question I long had: How it is possible for e.g. zen monks to achieve such feats as selectively controlling body temperature.

(for neuronal networks I'm not aware of algorithms for this kind of cooccurence learning)

Does this sound plausible?

PS. Focussing on nostrils did work.

Comment author: bbleeker 30 December 2013 12:21:31PM 0 points [-]

After reading Swimmer's article, I was thinking about starting to meditate; but you're making it feel very hard, complicated and dangerous now.

Comment author: Swimmer963 30 December 2013 08:19:10PM 5 points [-]

There are a lot of people who think widely divergent things about meditation. The people who are looking in in terms of "enlightenment", in my experience, make it sound harder and scarier. The people who are doing studies on meditation as a nice way to relax or be less anxious. Googling just "meditation" turns up scary enlightenment blog posts; googling "meditation and anxiety" or "studies on meditation" or any variation seems to turn up the less scary variants. Also, I promise, none of the recordings in my Dropbox folder are scary.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 28 December 2013 10:14:09PM 1 point [-]

Breakdown of different meditation exercises

If I further compress your summary of the exercises to train

  • Compassion to your body and objective evaluation of your constituion.
  • Ability to consciously relax with a focus on breath.
  • Ability to feel kindness toward everyone.
  • Ability to stay calm and conscious at all times.

Would you agree with this summary? Would you say that it was successful to achieve this? Could you imagine that there are different approaches to achieve these?

Comment author: Swimmer963 30 December 2013 05:46:36AM 1 point [-]

Excellent summary. Of course there are other approaches to achieve these goals...however, I can't name three.

Comment author: epigeios 28 December 2013 02:00:01PM *  -2 points [-]

RE: your frazzled after-busy state. Yeah, breathing meditation at that time is not only hard, it's kinda pointless. Well, until you get to the point where you can either enter a state of right-brain flow on purpose, or enter a REM-like state on purpose. When you can do those, breath control is a natural part of it.

A trick is to control your breath while you are busy. Every chance you get, especially when heavily focused on something, take a single slow breath, preferably into either your gut or your whole body (but just a slow breath with no direction is better than not doing it at all). If you can't do that while you are focused on something, practice. This is one of the most important things people learn by practicing QiGung or internal martial arts.

In my experience, controlling my breath while I am busy allows for a faster recovery, and lessens the need for sleep after recovery.

Comment author: ChristianKl 30 December 2013 09:04:37PM 0 points [-]

Yeah, breathing meditation at that time is not only hard, it's kinda pointless. Well, until you get to the point where you can either enter a state of right-brain flow on purpose, or enter a REM-like state on purpose.

Could you illuminate what you mean with REM-like state? I do enter from time to time a state where I have REM activity meaning that my eyes move. I don't see that as particular useful or a state that I would seek intentionally.

Comment author: hyporational 30 December 2013 10:01:07PM 1 point [-]

Just before I fall asleep, I usually enter into a state where visualizing is very easy and my eyes vibrate. It took quite a while for me to realize that it was my eyelids, not eye movements that caused the vibration. This was before I understood anything about sleep physiology. Perhaps he's making a similar mistake.