Why Meditate? A Practical Guide for Rational Skeptics

Why Meditate: Mike at Mt. Tam

That voice in your head? The one that never seems to shut up and criticizes everything you do? Yeah, that one. It’s not going away. Not anytime soon.

And no, that internal monologue doesn’t mean you’re crazy. In fact you’re not alone. Everyone else has it, too.

The main problem with this inner critic isn’t that it won’t shut up. The real issue is that we give too much value to what it says. Most of us are unable to take a step back from its criticism. And over time, we internalize everything, including its exaggerations, to be true.

Confronting this inner voice isn’t easy. In fact, most of us fail, letting it derail us instead. Depression, anxiety, addiction, and insecurity. These are some of the byproducts left in its path.

That inner critic won’t go away. But, there is a way to lower its volume. For me, I’ve had success by making mindfulness a keystone habit. Along with gratitude, a morning meditation anchors that daily practice.

Why meditate? Well, for me, it’s transformed my relationship with my own inner critic. I take what it says with a grain of salt and less personally than before. I’m far from a finished product, but I’ve found that meditation works for me.

What do you have to lose by giving it a try?

Consider yourself a life-long learner?

Then sign up to my newsletter The Dime. I distill learnings from experiences I’ve had as well as successful people I admire that you should know. I also share big ideas and knowledge from some of the best books, podcasts, and articles I’ve read.

    I won’t send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Why the Skepticism Around Meditation?

    I can understand if you’re a little skeptical about meditation because I was, too. There are a handful of reasons why most people have their doubts. Some are legitimate, while others are only excuses.

    Here are two particular arguments that come to mind.

    “I Can’t Clear My Head”

    People resist meditation when they can’t silence that voice in their heads. They argue that it doesn’t work because they have too many thoughts. But the reality of meditation is very different from the perception.

    “Getting distracted and started again is not a failure,” said Dan Harris, a journalist and meditation advocate, during a talk at Yale. “Getting distracted and starting again is the act of meditation. When you get distracted, that is, in fact, a victory.

    “I think the important thing to do is to reframe this as a victory,” he continued. “And it’s a victory of real consequence, because when you see how crazy you are, the craziness owns you less. And that is what we are doing in this practice.”

    The main purpose of meditation is to learn how to sit with your thoughts and detach from them. Meditation is a developed skill that lets you disconnect from your inner critic, not silence it. As I mentioned earlier, that voice isn’t going away. But meditation teaches you to hear it with no judgment, as neither good nor bad.

    Meditation is like working out at the gym. If you don’t experience some stress, the workout is useless. In the case of meditation, the benefit comes from the effort to refocus during moments of distraction.

    Meditation’s Reputation Needs A Reboot

    Meditation, along with mindfulness in general, has a branding problem. Two things in particular stand out.

    First is its association with new age mysticism. This is a quality that doesn’t help its case in appealing to western culture. Meditation has often been packaged with supernatural ideas rooted in pseudoscience.

    Second, meditation’s connection to religion doesn’t help either. Meditation has strong ties to Buddhism. And whenever religion involves itself in anything, the non-religious often cast their doubt. Without tangible proof, stress-tested by science, skepticism is a natural reaction.

    But, there has been progress. In recent decades, the health and scientific communities have started to come around.

    “Forty years ago, it was virtually inconceivable that meditation and yoga would find any legitimate role, no less widespread acceptance, in academic medical centers and hospitals,” wrote Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned researcher and practitioner of mindfulness, in his book Meditation Is Not What You Think. “Now it is considered normal.”

    These days, there’s plenty of scientific research into the effects of mindfulness meditation. In fact, published studies on the subject have grown at a rapid pace over the last decade.

    Why Meditate: Mindfulness Journal Publications by Year, 1980-2018

    What many researchers have concluded is what I’ve discovered through my own practice.

    Six Major Benefits of Meditation As Backed By Science

    Recent studies have only scratched the surface on mindfulness meditation. But, what research has uncovered so far points to significant advantages. If you’re a skeptic who wonders “why meditate?”, then this next section is for you.

    Meditation Can Improve Immune Function

    People who meditate are more resistant to illness. That’s one discovery Richard J. Davidson and colleagues found in a 2003 study.

    They conducted an eight-week clinical training program that taught select participants mindfulness meditation. At the end of the period, they vaccinated meditators and a control group of non-meditators for the flu. They found that the former group had a “greater rise in antibody titers” than the latter.

    Meditation Can Increase Cognitive Abilities

    There’s strong evidence that meditation can increase the depth of our intellect.

    Researcher Britta K. Hölzel and others studied 16 healthy non-practitioners of meditation. They scanned their brains before and after the subjects participated in an eight-week mindfulness program. Hölzel and her colleagues compared their MRIs to a similar group that didn’t do the training.

    They discovered that those who took part in the program had increased gray matter. This is the stuff in our brains that helps with cognitive functions. Gray matter enhances our ability to learn, remember, manage emotions, and empathize with others.

    Meditation Can Improve Focus

    Living in the digital age, our attention is in high demand. And as a result, many of us have trouble sustaining concentration. But, there is a way to improve it through the practice of meditation.

    Catherine E. Kerr and colleagues examined the relationship between meditation and focus. To do so, they put a group of non-meditators through several weeks of meditation training. These people learned how to narrow attention to their body and breath-related sensations.

    The researchers concluded that the meditators improved their ability to regulate distracting information. The meditators also focused better than people who didn’t complete the mindfulness training.

    Meditation Can Improve Body Awareness

    Training our minds can make us more in-tune with our bodies. That’s what four researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found in 2010.

    The experiment compared three different groups:

    • seasoned vipassana meditators
    • active modern or ballet dancers
    • people who had no training in either

    Each group watched emotional film clips while having their heart rates measured. They then made guesses about their heart rates after seeing each clip.

    One would think that the dancers had the edge. But the study found the opposite. The meditators were the most accurate at perceiving their heart rates. Dancers, meanwhile, achieved only moderate accuracy, and non-experienced participants were the least correct.

    Meditation Can Decrease Stress and Help Build a Positive Outlook

    Traumatic events can go one of two ways. They can cripple us, leaving us broken and battered. Or, they can make us stronger. One 2010 study found that mindfulness can help us achieve the latter.

    Richard Bränström and colleagues studied effects of mindfulness stress reduction training. Their research subjects? Seventy women and one man with previous cancer diagnoses. Some embarked on an eight-week mindfulness training course, while others didn’t.

    The researchers found the group that trained in mindfulness enjoyed less perceived stress. They also experienced fewer symptoms of “posttraumatic avoidance.” Finally, the mindfulness group also relished in more “positive states of mind.”

    How to Start a Morning Meditation Practice

    Meditation isn’t supposed to be hard. In fact, the act is very simple. The biggest hurdle is in developing a consistent practice.

    I’ve built my discipline by implementing a morning meditation. Making mindfulness one of the first things I do when I wake up has allowed me to reap its rewards. If you want to cultivate your own morning meditation routine, here are some basic tips to follow.

    Morning Meditation Tip #1: Go to Bed Early

    To start a meditation practice, it’s best to do it as early as possible. But to wake up early, you need to go to bed early. So, make an effort to sleep at an appropriate time.

    For me, that’s usually around 9:30 to 10 p.m. I get around six-and-a-half to seven hours of sleep and still manage to get up by 4:30 or 5 a.m. I’m sure some of you groaned over the thought of waking up that early, but that’s what works for me. You need to figure out what works best for you.

    There are some key advantages to developing a morning meditation. You’re more likely to cross it off your to-do-list if it’s one of the first things you do. Also, the early morning is one of the calmest times of day. If you’re new to meditation, the quiet of the early morning will help you stay focused.

    Whatever you decide, consider the extra time you need to meditate. If you know it takes an hour to get ready for work, add an extra five to 10 minutes for your mindfulness practice. Also, make your morning meditation non-negotiable. Think of it in the same way as you would brushing your teeth. You wouldn’t head to the office without doing that, would you?

    Morning Meditation Tip #2: Keep Your Practice Simple

    If you’re new to mindfulness, don’t do too much. In fact, start small. To build a habit, it’s best to make your morning meditation practice as easy as possible.

    Five minutes is a good place to start. As you grow more comfortable, you can increase the length of your meditation. This is what I did when I started meditating in 2016.

    The first few sessions weren’t easy. But it didn’t take me long to increase the difficulty of my practice. About three months in, I found myself meditating for an average of 15 minutes a day.

    My experience might not be the same as yours. You may find it takes you a little longer to get comfortable with your morning meditation. Everyone is different, so don’t compare yourself to others.

    On a related note, don’t get caught up in the how of meditation. Whether you’re sitting cross-legged or lying flat on your back, it doesn’t matter. There isn’t one way that’s better than the other. Do what’s comfortable and encourages you to keep at it for the long haul.

    Morning Meditation Tip #3: Experiment With Technology

    If you’re new to meditation, there isn’t a shortage of apps you can use. In my own practice, I’ve tried everything from Headspace and Calm to Insight Timer.

    Apps are great for beginners because they often include guided meditations. These come in handy because the experience is like having a coach teach you the fundamentals. If you’re disciplined, you’ll internalize their lessons over time.

    But, using these apps isn’t a must. If you prefer to practice with an analog timer and sit in silence, that works, too. Meditation is an act that predates all our modern comforts. Buddha didn’t need a smartphone to reach enlightenment, so why should you?

    What I’ve Learned From My Morning Meditation

    I’m not a meditation expert, but I do have a few years of experience under my belt. And as a result, I’ve gained plenty of insight into the restless nature of my mind.

    My meditation routine has evolved over time. In my first two years, I relied on the guided meditations of Headspace. I spent about 17 to 23 minutes per session. But in the beginning of 2019, I made my biggest change yet. I challenged myself to meditate for an hour, every day, for two straight months.

    I’ve learned a lot since starting my mindfulness practice in 2016. Here are some key takeaways from increasing the difficulty of my morning meditation:

    A One-Hour Morning Meditation Is Not as Daunting as I Thought.

    Our ideas of what an experience will be often turn out very different from reality. I had some questions about whether I could sit or lie down with my thoughts for an hour in silence. But, it didn’t take me long to discover my doubts were unfounded.

    It took me less than a week to adapt to the longer meditation. Meditating in silence, I discovered, allowed me to lose track of time. An hour seems like forever in theory. But it goes by fast when you’re in the thick of a mindfulness session.

    The Impermanence of My Thoughts Was Even More Obvious

    There are already a ton of thoughts racing through your head during a short meditation. Increase the session to an hour, and the ideas running through the mind multiplies tenfold.

    One of meditation’s most important lessons is on the temporary nature of life. Thoughts, like the moments in our lives, are always fleeting. When your meditation ends, you won’t remember most of the things that crossed your mind during that one hour.

    My Productivity Didn’t Decrease

    In theory, increasing my morning meditation to 60 minutes meant that I’d have less time for other things. That, though, turned out to be false. In fact, I still get as much or even more done than when my morning meditation was shorter.

    It’s all about time management. Yes, I lost an extra 40 to 45 minutes of my day. But if anything, meditating for longer has made me better at figuring out my priorities. For example, I spend much less time on activities like Instagram.

    The voice in our heads is a permanent fixture, but the thoughts it cooks up aren’t. They’re impermanent ideas, always coming and going. Our thoughts aren’t reality unless we decide to act on them.

    But this inner voice is the most judgmental critic we’ll ever meet. It questions all our choices, and second guesses all our decisions. Some things it says are mean and severe. And we would never talk to someone the way this voice talks to us.

    Because of its harshness, we all struggle to keep our composure and maintain a level head. Meditation is a skill that can only help us in our daily battles with self-doubt.

    It can teach us how to detach from that inner running monologue. It can teach us how to listen with less emotional judgment. But most of all, meditation can teach us how to see life for what it is.

    Enjoy my writing? Then, sign up to The Dime, my monthly newsletter. Books, podcasts, travel recommendations, and more. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Jon is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.