Meditating for fun and for profit

by Dorian Minors

July 5, 2024

Analects  |  Newsletter


Meditation has well and truly captured the imagination of wellbeing enthusiasts across almost every sphere they occupy. If you spend more than 30 seconds exploring any influencer’s guide to life, you will discover that meditation is at least part of their answer. Which is a shame, because sometimes, meditation is a bit fucked.

Meditation generally involves either acknowledging or excluding thoughts, but can be problematic. Movement-based meditations (e.g. yoga, running) are better for people who can't sit with themselves. More generally, many everyday activities meet the broad criteria.

Meditation has well and truly captured the imagination of wellbeing enthusiasts across almost every sphere they occupy. If you spend more than 30 seconds exploring any influencer’s guide to life, you will discover that meditation is at least part of their answer. Which is a shame, because sometimes, meditation is a bit fucked.

Meditation for wellbeing: a modern-day primer

I’m not going to get into the pre-contemporary, western face of meditation at all because I don’t actually think it’s particularly relevant to the kind of meditation most people are talking about in their Tik Tok reels or whatever. But I will talk a little bit about the introduction of meditation into this more contemporary form, because it will be important later.

Influenced by the hodge-podge of various Asian spiritual traditions imported into random other things during the cultural turmoil of the 60s and 70s, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The basic structure was 8-weeks of various mindfulness meditation practices like body scanning, sitting meditations, mindful movement (e.g. yoga), all in combination with reflections, some psycho-education, and some group discussions.

Initially, MBSR was focused on general stress reduction and enhancing overall wellbeing, rather than treatment of specific clinical conditions. MBSR was for prevention and maintenance, helping to manage stress and maintain gains made through other treatment programs. And at this, it was hugely successful.

From here, two things led to an explosion in mindfulness-based and adjacent practices in academic and clinical circles. Firstly, since MBSR was about maintenance and not treatment, people started to develop more specifically treatment oriented forms. But, more broadly the cognitive revolution in the sciences was well underway—a reaction against a psychological tradition which only considered how people behaved and thinking more about what was going on in their minds.

And so, to this day, cognitive therapies and mindfulness practices have walked hand-in-hand, eventually slipping into the cultural consciousness as so many therapy protocols have in the past.

The two major kinds of (research-based) meditation practices, and how they’re broken

Broadly, most meditative practices we see around our media streams can be grouped into two classes.

Probably more familiar, and certainly more well-researched, is mindfulness meditation—practices which are about letting our thoughts and memories pass freely through the mind without a response from us. You picture thoughts like leaves in a river, or clouds in a sky, and simply observe them without attachment or judgement. The goal is to become more aware of our mental processes, but also to cultivate a state of a kind of relaxed alertness. You’re not driven by your thoughts, merely aware of them.

An alternative group is usually called something like concentrative meditation, which is more about focusing the mind on a single point of reference. You could use a mantra, an image, a candle flame, a sound, or very commonly your breath or heartbeat. The idea here is a bit different to mindfulness. It’s more about excluding thoughts, and curtailing the impact of the environment on our thoughts.

Both methods seem pretty successful across a range of domains at producing better emotional regulation. By becoming more aware of our thoughts and emotions, and practicing letting them flow past, we are less influenced by them. Or by learning to exclude them more intentionally, we are less influenced by them. Either way, we probably get more of a chance to manage them better. And so it’s not surprising that we see corollary improvements in anything that better emotional regulation would improve—stress, creativity, focus, relationships, etc.

Unfortunately, meditation practices like these fail for one very specific reason. They’re only good if you can sit with yourself for a bit. Books like the Buddha Pill articulate this in more depth (you could just read Wilkholm’s summary article), but there are many groups of people who would be terribly served by sitting with their mental stuff for some period of time. Consider someone with PTSD as an extreme example. If your main problem is involuntarily reliving a terrible event in both mind and body, then sitting and reflecting on your mind and body seems like it might cause some problems, no? If you thought so, you’d be right.

Sitting only with ourselves provides plenty of opportunities for disturbing thoughts to arise, and if you can’t manage to let them float down the river, or drown them out with a mantra, then you might actually end up with harmful outcomes from meditating.

More generally, meditation isn’t a cure all. It can certainly reduce stress in some circumstances, but there’s a reason it was introduced as a maintenance program, and not a treatment program. Meditation is, broadly speaking, a tool for exploring ourselves. In isolation it provides no guidance for how to change ourselves. It’s no good noticing all this stuff going on in your mind if you don’t really know what to do with it once you’ve noticed it.

Another kind of meditation

One benefit of concentrative meditation over mindfulness meditation is that it’s a tool for excluding thoughts. Of course, in doing so you might be forced to examine them. Getting distracted by the effluvia of the mind is a common frustration for meditators, and to exclude these distractions usually means identifyng them.

In various conversations and sessions where I’ve raised my objection above, I’ve had people point me to media that cite Andrew Hubleman, notorious ‘one article is all I need to be convinced by some random self-optimisation possibility’ enthusiast, who has apparently suggested/discovered/read about an improvement on concentrative meditation that might address it.1

Roughly, you might choose less internally-oriented (interoceptive) practices, and more externally-oriented (exteroceptive) ones. Rather than concentrating on your breathing or whatever, you might concentrate on something in your surroundings, like a candle flame or a pot of boiling water. If you were anxious (an internal thing), then concentrating externally in this way might do a better job of alleviating your anxiety. This may well be true, although the literature on exteroceptive practices is very light, at the time of writing. This is probably because it’s not exactly clear how concentrating on something outside of you is substantively different from concentrating on something inside of you—you still need to manage distractions. So, using anxiety as an example, grounding techniques like describing items in the room or playing with a sensory kit, which are effectively exteroceptive practices, are quite effective at managing some of the acute physical symptoms of anxiety. But large swathes of anxiety-related symptoms are actually generated by the environment, so intuitively one would want to be pretty careful about this.

There is an alternative to both mindfulness and concentrative practices though that doesn’t get as much airtime.2 In the academic literature, this is often called dynamic or movement meditation. In fact, it’s one of the core features of Kabat-Zinn’s original program. Here, you’d engage in practices that intertwine physical activity and mindfulness. You might walk, and focus on the sensations of walking and the surrounding environment. You might do some form of Yoga, or Tai Chi, which emphasise concentration on the position and movement of the body. Or, especially if you’re approaching 30, you might have discovered running.

The benefit of these styles of meditative practice is very similar to concentrative practices, with the benefit of occupying your mind with something that actually requires occupation. It is much easier to have the act of running, or twisting your body into a particular pose, push stuff out of your head than it is by mere force of will.


Unfortunately, these more movement-oriented practices are much less well evidenced than concentrative or mindfulness-based practices. Indeed, the intertwined history of therapeutic mindfulness and cognitive therapy means that anything that isn’t mindfulness-based is far less well evidenced. So, if you’re looking for particular regimes, or Hubleman-inspired blog posts, you might find yourself disappointed.

But that doesn’t leave us empty handed. There is a bigger picture that all this points to. Meditation is the act of training our attention or our awareness for mental clarity and to quiet our emotions. The very act of doing so, whether by acknowledging our thoughts, memories, and emotions, or by excluding them3 allows us to better manage them. Certainly in the short-term, and possibly in the long term. Not only is this likely to improve anything that would be improved with better emotional regulation, but you also might learn something about yourself in the process.

What you’ll notice is that this describes an enormous range of activities. Anything that concentrates your awareness seems like it might do the job. The only real difference is the intention with which you enter into the activity. If you call it cleaning the house, you’re not so likely to come away feeling like you’ve taken steps on the path to self-improvement, but there’s a reason so many people describe cleaning as one of their de-stress activities. If you start running because you want to check a half-marathon off your bucketlist you’re not so likely to feel like you’re doing inner-work, but there’s a reason runners talk about running like they talk about water—some kind of need.

So, if you’re feeling the pressure to meditate because Instagram is telling you you should, then by all means, start. But I’d suggest thinking about what you already do that meets the criteria, rather than adding another to-do to your ever-lengthening list.4

  1. His episode is like three hours long, and I didn’t want to watch it, so hopefully [this lady]( accurately summarised what he said. Anyway, this is the most recent link I was sent, so even if it’s not it’s the kind of thing people are reading). 

  2. There’s also loving-kindness meditation, which I won’t talk about because I know substantially less about this form of practice, but it also seems distinct from the usual mindfulness and concentrative practices. Here, you concentrate on wishing kindness and/or compassion (two distinct practices) on yourself or another, typically by repeating affirmation-style statements. It seems promising, though the literature is not unequivocal and like anything that isn’t mindfulness-based, is much less well evidenced. 

  3. Or, in loving-kindness meditation, and surely, now I’m typing this, there are others in the same vein, by concentrating on very specific kinds of thoughts. 

  4. And, don’t forget that meditation in isolation is just observation. If you really want to make change, you actually have to do something with the observations. 

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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