Meditation: a self-experiment

bySwimmer9635y30th Dec 201330 comments



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.