Here is how I think we should approach the topic of meditation/Buddhism in the rationalist community. The short version is that a meaningful "yes" requires a credible possibility of "no", and the long version is that:

  • If we post scientific studies showing that "meditation works", then we should either also post scientific studies showing that "meditation doesn't work" or explicitly mention their absence. Otherwise there is a possibility that simply by doing a lot of studies about any topic, 5% of them will confirm the hypothesis at "p<0.05". In other words, is there a meta-review on meditation research? (Then we should ask Scott Alexander to review it.)
  • There are many different claims made about the effects of meditation. I find it quite plausible that some of them may be true (e.g. "meditation helps you relax") and some others may be false (e.g. "meditation helps you remember your previous reincarnations"). So instead of talking about proving "meditation" we should talk about proving specific claims about meditation.
  • Actually, we should first make the list of "claims usually made about meditation" and then evaluate each of them individually. Otherwise, if we mention the claims that are supported by evidence, but keep silent about those that are not, it creates a biased overall picture, and contributes to a halo effect. (It is easier to assume that X is supported by evidence if all you know is that A, B, C are supported; compared to a situation where you know that A, B, C are supported, but D, E, F are not.)
  • The problem with anecdotal evidence about meditation is that we would get it even in a universe where meditation helps 1/3 of the population, does nothing for another 1/3, and actively harms the remaining 1/3. The people who get no or harmful results would simply stop doing it, the people who get useful results would continue... and one or two of them would happen to be high-status in the rationalist community.
  • Generally, how do you distinguish between "meditation only works for some people, or only in some situations" and "you are doing meditation wrong / not enough"?
  • What about the anecdotal evidence in the opposite direction, such as sex scandals of famous experts on meditation? (In context of Buddhism, "sex scandals" is not just a bad behavior, but specifically the kind of behavior that meditation is supposed to prevent. So I am not mentioning it here as a moral judgment, but as an evidence that the claims of effects of meditation are falsified by the very people who spent huge amounts of time meditating presumably the right way.)
  • If you find scientific support for some Buddhist dogma, consider the possibility that you could also find scientific support for its opposite, if you approached it with the same degree of charity. For example, if the teaching of "no self" makes you say "yes, mind is composed of agents which are not themselves minds", maybe a teaching of "all self" would make you say "yes, neurons are all over the human body, not just in brain; also our mood is influenced by gut bacteria and sunshine and talking to other humans". Similarly, if the teaching of "impermanence" reminds you of changing moods, growing up, effects of sickness, etc., maybe a teaching of "permanence" would remind you of the stability and heredity of the OCEAN traits. So maybe the actual lesson is not "Buddhism is correct about so many things" but "for a sufficiently general statement one can always find a charitable interpretation".
  • Especially if you keep silent about those Buddhist teachings where there is no charitable interpretation that would appeal to the rationalist community. (Such as Buddha doing miracles, using the superpowers he got as a result of meditation.)

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4 years ago, before I started meditation, I was appropriately skeptical (I still am), not just of the obviously bullshit claims of reincarnations and the weird reverence that people had for the historical buddha, but I was extremely skeptical of the descriptions of advanced states of meditation. So I started meditation with great skepticism in order to calm myself down, which is what the studies showed that it was good for... and then weird shit started happening exactly like the books said it would. Vibrating sensations started happening exactly like the books said they would, I started gaining on-demand access to states of immense happiness, joy and contentment (jhanas), and I started having the exact insights that were predicted. I even started, with extreme skepticism and no small measure of disgust in myself, reading books about chakras, and practicing the exercises they said would "open" my chakras, and again I was supremely surprised to find that, indeed, there were very strong sensations I could feel at specific points along my spine, exactly where the book said the "chakras" ought to be. The books were filled with nonsensical attempts to connect these sensations to phenomena of cosmic significance, but that didn't make the sensations themselves false. 

As far as I am concerned, the books made advance predictions, I made the experiment by practicing the techniques, and found that the predictions were borne out, and updated my beliefs accordingly about the likelihood of advanced states of meditation. Then I started talking in private with people with decades of practice about the claims of reincarnations and weird powers, and came away from those conversations convinced that these people had indeed had something like the experience of a hyper-realistic wakeful dream where they seemed to interact with people they didn't know, but treated as their family. These practitioners interpreted these as "past lives experiences", and even though It's impossible for this frame to actually be true, the experiences themselves appear real. 

The problem with using studies of meditation is that they are likely to severely underestimate the long-term potential upside. The money and interest just isn't there to track people over a decade of intensive meditation practice (which is what would be required to get the large upside). 

What I would like to say when trying to recommend meditation to people is " (in a desperate voice) You fool! You are burning alive and fundamentally confused about why you are suffering, please, for the love of everything good in the universe, walk to the lake right there and extinguish your flames!". There was a period where normal conversation seemed almost cruel to me, how could I sit here talking about the weather when my interlocutor was in so much suffering, and I knew the solution to their problem?! I quickly realized that my zealousness didn't convince many people at all, and I found that I could make more people meditate by telling them that they could get a little stress relief from it. I was deceiving them, since I would never spend so much of my own time meditating if stress relief was all I was getting, but this seemed like the utilitarian thing to do. This is all to say that people who have actually achieved some of the more extreme benefits of meditation very very rarely talk about them with normal people, since painful experience has shown this to not be useful at all. Whereas people with negative experiences have no such problems in talking about it. 

reading books about chakras, and practicing the exercises they said would "open" my chakras, and again I was supremely surprised to find that, indeed, there were very strong sensations I could feel at specific points along my spine, exactly where the book said the "chakras" ought to be

From an outside view, this seems at least plausibly like a placebo - you were primed to expect sensations at certain locations and then felt them there. As far as I know (and I’m not an expert here), the location of chakras is only found in forms of meditation that are related to Buddhism, not in other forms (eg. Christian meditation, Native American practices, etc.). But if it were a general truth about humans, rather than a social truth, one would expect it to have been discovered independently.

One way to test this, though actually doing the study would be difficult, would be to get two separate groups to learn meditation, teaching one group the traditional location of the chakras and the other group a separate but equally plausible location of the chakras. If the second group still detects the chakras in the traditional location, or doesn’t all while the first group does detect the chakras, this would be strong evidence that there is something fundamental.

Of course, things that are created socially can still be very important and have real effects. I’m not saying in any way that you should stop or change how you meditate.

As far as I know (and I’m not an expert here), the location of chakras is only found in forms of meditation that are related to Buddhism, not in other forms (eg. Christian meditation, Native American practices, etc.)

Hindu religion focuses a lot more on chakra's than Buddhism does. 

When it comes to locations of chakra's there's one interesting question. There's a chakra that the Hindu's call the Manipura chakra. 

You sometimes read that it's located where the navel is. Other sources say it's located where the solar plexus is. Years ago I asked a question in the Hindu stackexchange and they told me "Place the little finger of your hand on the navel. Your navel is the solar plexus or the manipura chakra". Quite obviously, in Western anatomy the navel and the solar plexus are not the same place. 

To me, this experience was really weird as I would have expected to get clear answers about where the chakra is supposed to be. It's quite unclear to me what those people for whom chakra's are a central concept actually believe about them. 

The lack of concern from the users of the Hindu StackExchange for the inconsistency also felt weird. 

Ah, true, the locations themselves could very well have been expectation effects, though what that would reveal about the power of expectation effects would be even more interesting than the existence of specific points along the spine. These weren't subtle sensations! they were often intense to the point of great discomfort, and the books did mention weird "channels" that were supposed to link the points along the spine, but I never experienced those, so it's not like my experience fully matched what the chakra books said should happen. And I never got deep enough into chakra-based practices for them to yield any positive effects that I could see, apart from the generic concentration benefits that any focusing practice yields, regardless of focus object. To me they remained just a weird phenomenon that happens when I pay attention to the spine. I got into chakras out of a "surely that stuff can't be real too, can it?" instinct after some initial weird experiences shattered my view on what meditation could do.

I'd test the meditation -> vibrating thing first, and start with a control group not taught about that before trying to modify it.

What I would like to say when trying to recommend meditation to people is ” (in a desperate voice) You fool! You are burning alive and fundamentally confused about why you are suffering, please, for the love of everything good in the universe, walk to the lake right there and extinguish your flames!”.

Did you think you were burning alive before you started meditating? Do you now think you were burning alive before you started meditating?

I ask because I don't think I'm burning alive. I'm open to the possibility that I might change my mind in future about whether I'm currently burning alive, and that meditation might trigger that change. If that happens, I'm open to the possibility that current-me is mistaken, and also to the possibility that future-me would be mistaken.

(This isn't specific to yourself, or to meditation. But I feel like a lot of people want to convince me I'm less happy than I think I am. I find this distasteful.)

I did not think I was burning alive before I started meditating. I've never been depressed and I generally thought of myself as a happy person before I started meditation (now I'm the happiest person I know, and a bunch of friends have told me that I'm the happiest person they know), so it's not quite a matter of me being especially miserable before starting meditation, and then becoming normally happy. The insights of meditation kind of reveal to you a suffering that's always been there, all your life. It's like I realized that I had been clenching my fist all my life, the very concept of an unclenched fist being inconceivable until the moment that my hand finally opened, and I realized just how much better life is capable of being. Said another way, my estimation of the ceiling of human well-being got dramatically increased. I should be clear that in the "clenched fist" metaphor, I'm not going around through life with my fist completely unclenched, that's a much higher level than I am, but I can see my fist unclench regularly enough to let me understand what is possible, and I've talked with very advanced meditators who confirm that my extrapolations about the ceiling of human well-being are accurate.

However, the journey of increasing happiness was not monotonic, and at times I did feel significantly unhappier than I started, and it is true that some people are hit much, much harder than I was. This is a pretty heavy-duty psychological transformation, and people have been known to quit jobs and generally ruin their lives when passing through the difficult stages. This is not an easy journey, and only going through it halfway can leave you in the worst of all worlds. Generally the people who really try to go this route are either really desperate, or feel that they've achieved everything in life, yet still feel incomplete, I just didn't know about the risk when I started, and by that point I had experienced enough to be irresistibly attracted to the upside. Everyone I know who has gotten to the end feels like it was massively worth it, and are moved to tears when thinking of the people who have made their journey possible, but the fact remains that I am basically advocating that you sail across the Atlantic in search of gold, and your prior should probably be to not do this.

Do you have any recommendations on chakra books?

Sure, the two I'd recommend Energy Work, by Robert Bruce and Kundalini Exposed. The former has lots of very weird techniques for paying attention to the spine that I found very effective, stuff like paying attention to the spine at the level of your navel using a circular motion, kind of circling around one of your vertebras as fast as you can. The other way that I know to elicit chakra-like reactions is through breathwork, in particular through holding your breath while doing a bunch of weird "bandhas", and the latter book I mentioned was the best one I found for that, in particular check out the "Kriya Supreme Fire" section for the most extreme technique in that genre. That basically involves holding your breath for 2 minutes while paying attention to your navel, holding your gut in and up toward your ribcage, squeezing your perineum as hard as you can and holding your chin tucked-in. I have no idea which parts of this weird technique are load-bearing, but I know that it was frighteningly effective for me, the author spends a bunch of time on warnings to not do this is you are a novice meditator.

Did the books about chakras have similar instructions as the ones in http://bewelltuned.com/tune_your_motor_cortex ? I've tried it before and had a experience similar to what you briefly described.

Oh, very interesting, from what I can see that technique is a sort of Body Scan technique with a focus on relaxation and calm. A technique that makes you focus systematically on various parts of the body is generally called a "Body Scan", the most famous one is the Goenka variation, that makes you scan your skin in an MRI-like fashion, focusing on horizontal slices across your body, moving the slices from head to toes and back. Yes, body scans in general are reasonably good at eliciting the general phenomenon of chakras, and people going on Goenka retreats can sometimes be badly surprised (since the Goenka teachers never mention that any of this is possible) by a ridiculously intense feeling moving up their spines, getting more and more intense as it gets closer to the head, until it feels like the top of their heads are about to explode and the whole world is vibrating furiously or twisting on itself. If their heads do end up exploding, this is called a "kundalini awakening", and is generally accompanied by quite a mind-blowing experience, this causes a bunch of permanent changes in people, not all of them good.

However, body scans aren't really made to awaken chakras, and generally focusing more directly on the spine goes much faster, together with specific breathing techniques. Check out this book for the least dogmatic and most clear instructions I've found on this stuff.

Do you have any personal resources regarding "kundalini awakening"? Specifically regarding permanent changes.

10 years ago I had similar experience in Goenka retreat as you described accompanying hallucinations, vibrations and dissociation (lasting almost a few days afterwards). I rightly left before it become more severe since no one there seemed to have a clue what was happening and were seemingly just following a script. I largely gave up meditation since then, but still practice sporadically, but with no body scans. I've always wondered what mental alterations would have occurred if I continued. Although I have no desire to repeat the experience.

The general cluster of things called "kundalini awakening" is also called the "Arising and Passing Away" stage in some early buddhist traditions, check out the section with that title in Daniel Ingram's book. The A&P is seen as a "mini-awakening" and the real beginning of the spiritual path in some traditions, because after you have it, meditation quality changes permanently. In particular, vibrations (or "impermanence" for the official buddhist lingo) are much, much easier to see during daily meditations after you get this experience, that change is permanent as far as I can see. Immediately after the big amazing experience usually comes a deep crash, where your meditations feel like shit, you feel like you can't narrow your focus very well even in daily life, and generally get sad and unmotivated, these stages are called the "dukkha nanas", or "knowledges of suffering", and immediately precede the first stage of traditional awakening, which generally has less fireworks than the A&P. 

You did well to stop meditating if you were feeling unbalanced psychologically, the general recommendation in those situations is to do plenty of physical exercise and very non-spiritual stuff like playing video games. Very motivated people sometimes go straight from the A&P through the dukkha nanas and get awakening in the same retreat, but it is really, really rare, so you'd likely have spent the rest of the retreat miserable and wondering why your meditations started sucking out of the blue, and without a framework where you expected something like this to happen, these events could be ridiculously confusing.

Don't worry about repeating that exact experience if you start meditating in daily life, retreat conditions are very extreme, and if you do get something similar in daily life it will be much milder the second time. However, the general theme of feeling terror during peak meditation experiences is likely to remain. For a few months before my initial awakening experience I had hundreds of "near-misses" during which I was sure I was going to die, these were flashes of a few seconds of terror peppered in 2 hours of very peaceful meditation, but it took a while for these flashes of terror to decrease in intensity. The awakening sort of felt like realizing that I had been punching myself in the face while I was confused about why my face was hurting, the terror I felt was clearly revealed to be a complete misunderstanding. It felt like hanging over a great void by my fingertips, terrified of falling down, only to let go and find that the floor had been 6 inches away the whole time: complete and utter relief, with the feeling of being unburdened. More advanced stages apparently feel like Letting Go of the ledge and falling in the void, only there's no ground at all to hurt you, and after a while you just get used to free falling, but I'm not there yet.

Thank you for your thoughtful and extensive reply. Whilst I have read up on the subject, the matter is esoteric and widely opinionated online; I was curious on your take and signed up just to ask that question (I didn't realise you replied). I have also largely forgotten about the subject since a long time has passed without anything of note.

And thank you for relating your experience. I have never spoken to anyone directly about this who has also experienced similar. 

I will relate my experience just to hone into a point at the end...

I have also experienced a similar feeling to the falling - it feels like my body is vibrating a couple of times a second and the sense of gravity moves around like a pendulum; it even feels like there are multiple gravity wells. If I hang onto this vibration my head gets "sickly"/hot my vision vibrates back and forth and after some time there is break through like an explosion into an altered state of reality where everything looks and feels golden (doing open eyed meditation) and joy and rapture completely envelops my body quelling any negativity like drinking without realising I'm thirsty. Although I have not experienced this state for over a decade now it is still vivid in my memory.

I used to be able to do this almost every meditation session before the "Kundalini" experience. The difference with the "Kundalini" experience was that it persisted outside of meditation which was the frightening thing; it accompanied terror of disappearing and hallucinating fractal patterns as if I'd taken LSD (I've largely forgotten this).

So my understanding is that the first experience is called the first Jhana whilst the second is called "Kundalini awakening". The first experience felt grounding and safe, the second experience felt like descending into madness. I was able to ground myself slowly with metta meditation. 

I am far from realised/awakened and certainly there are people much more practiced (and wiser) than me who haven't experienced similar states.

I was experiencing trauma at the time of being able to enter into these experiences and I was using them as an escape from reality. I believe that the trauma was the catalyst and it wouldn't have happened without it...

My current theory is that if one is not sufficiently grounded nor practicing right livelihood, effort and action before delving into these altered states of mind then it may cause an unravelling of the mind. I believe that there is a danger in trying to force these experiences rather than letting them unfold naturally through years of strenuous practice. I believe that there are short-cuts (that I accidentally stumbled into), but they should only be attempted once one has arrived at it naturally.

The Buddha certainty highlighted the benefits of these experiences but they were never meant to be practiced in isolation of all his other teachings. My understanding is that Buddhist texts are generally absent of negative "Kundalini awakening" experiences which leads me to think that it's something that wouldn't naturally arise with correct practice. 

Does what I say agree with your thoughts on the matter?

Which resources do you recommend to start learning meditation this way?

You can go unbelievably far with the book The Mind Illuminated, that was my primary ressource and generally considered the best way to start, the book describes a 10-stage journey from complete noob to meditative virtuosity, with detailed instructions about the pitfalls and goals of each stage. For any questions you might have the subreddit r/themindilluminated is very active and you can quickly get answers if you post there. The subreddit r/streamentry is also a place for "serious meditators", in the sense of people who don't just meditate for stress relief, like people on r/meditation might do, you'll also likely get your questions answered if you post there, there are some very good meditation teachers who frequent that subreddit, but there's also lots of very dogmatic people with less-than-stellar epistemic habits. Though that goes with the terrain here, It took me a while to stop being annoyed every time I heard a pali word like "dharma", that's just kind of the style of the hardcore meditation subculture, and it's the price to pay for getting information that would otherwise be restricted to buddhist temples.

There is a "pragmatic dharma" movement consisting of people who mostly care about how to actually achieve results in the real world, largely without imposing unnecessary beliefs. In this vein, check out:

  • Daniel Ingram and his book Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha, which Slatestarcodex reviewed here. This is the book to read for warnings about what negative effects can arise in meditation, though keep in mind that Daniel describes extremes more than modal effects, and he has a very irreverent style. You can also literally email him with any questions, and he'll respond, Daniel also goes on lots of podcasts as a guest, which you can find on Youtube.
  • Shinzen Young has lots of videos on youtube which are helpful, he tries to be scientific, though I think he only partly succeeds. He has a book called "The Science of Enlightenment", but the title is misleading, and it's mostly useless for beginners and contains no practical instructions.
  • Kenneth Folk has a book-in-progress called Contemplative Fitness, which is very good and ties together a bunch of concepts you might have to kind of pick up through osmosis otherwise.
  • Michael Taft has a very good podcast called Deconstructing Yourself and lots of guided hour-long meditations on Youtube that are very good at introducing new techniques to you.
  • For specifics about those on-demand states of high pleasure and happiness that I mentioned, Leigh Brasington's book "Right Concentration" is very lucid.
  • Sam Harris' app Waking Up is ok, though be very wary of depending too much on guided meditations. They tend to give you a sense that you're better than you really are 

There is of course a large literature on meditation with a more religious style that is still very useful, and you'll find plenty of references to many of these books in all of the above. Again, I highly recommend you start with The Mind Illuminated and only check out those other ones if you feel like you want to learn more. 

There is also one unfortunate reality: 15 minutes a day won't cut it. At the beginning 30 minutes a day is a good place to start, and you will see week-to-week improvements with that amount, but eventually you really do need at least 45min or 1h/day in order to see reasonable improvements in the first year. More time spent meditating makes you progress faster, and I settled at a 2h/day comfortable pace. Occasional retreats are also very useful.

I sincerely wish you luck on your journey, it almost certainly won't be easy, but it is worth it.

You can go unbelievably far with the book The Mind Illuminated, that was my primary ressource and generally considered the best way to start, the book describes a 10-stage journey from complete noob to meditative virtuosity, with detailed instructions about the pitfalls and goals of each stage. 

I also like The Mind Illuminated, but would like to add the caveat that I suspect its higher stages (6 and up) to be potentially psychologically risky; see the discussion under the "If introspective awareness is so great..." subheading of this post.

The Mind Illuminated is referred to quite a few times on LW. Note, though, that Culadasa John Yates is not uncontroversial.

Note, though, that Culadasa John Yates is not uncontroversial.

Yeah, the worst thing about the book is the controversy about the author towards the end of his life, there's some fraction of people who only want to learn meditation from a seemingly perfect being, and any perceived moral flaw in the author is enough to throw out the whole book, even if the book is merely a very good restatement of very old techniques. 

For those who don't know, Culadasa had an affair and divorce towards the end of his life, as he was dying of cancer, the board of his foundation then voted to remove him from his position as director, then the board quit themselves. Culadasa lost his house, his money, and a large portion of his close students. When these events happened, I was very curious to see how he would respond, what would an expert meditator be like when dying of brain cancer, in immense pain everyday, losing his marriage and disgraced from his esteemed position? So I subscribed to him on patreon, where he was getting a small amount of money for doing a weekly video Q&A with the few patrons that remained, and watched him every week for 2 hours. At no point did he give any sign that he was in any way unhappy (though he certainly seemed to acknowledge that he had made mistakes), he was very tired from chemotherapy, but he never got angry, resentful, or even sad. To the very end he diligently responded to student questions, and seemed to only care about teaching meditation.

I saw an interview with him about the the whole thing. It didn't stop me from reading the book - and shouldn't - it provides context. I am impressed that you followed up on Patreon and thank you for the summary.

Daniel Ingram got also interviewed on the clearerthinking Podcast (reccomended if you have only heard about the mindfullness stuff like I had).

Some miscellaneous maybe useful things:

The question of whether meditation works for everyone is a contention between schools spanning thousands of years. The strong version of the claim 'it works if you do it right' is obviously unfalsifiable for no true Scotsman fallacy reasons. There are heavy selection effects on what you hear about meditation, so backing good data out of that shouldn't be assumed. I don't think people who aren't getting anything out of it should force themselves to do it 'virtuously', insight meditation is not a case of grinding it out ime. No regular insights, try something else, maybe something that looks a lot more like western psychotherapy if that's getting you better results per unit of investment.

Buddhism doesn't engage directly much with a bunch of epistemic and ontological questions that are raised if we assume that it works the way the people it works for say it does (disclaimer: for those unfamiliar I am such a person). This includes things like whether the mental events in question are created vs discovered. Buddhism generally presents these things as discovery of pre existing patterns, but it's not clear how one would occupy an epistemic position to distinguish that. There are also correlations that are concerning whereby it's difficult to tell if on average such practices actually make people's epistemics worse as it seems to have the 'excessive openness' side effect hallmarks that we also see with a substantial number of psychedelic users. At the very least it doesn't seem to make people's epistemics notably better, which I consider a direct problem for some common claims about insights leading one to a 'more true understanding of reality.'

Meditation is not a panacea in the same way that unsupported psychedelic use is not, despite similar claims by users of each that it is. I generally support treating them similarly, ie this is something that will create some plasticity along some surprising dimensions, this is not an unalloyed/fully asymmetric or monotonic good. You should, again similarly to psychedelics, expect people pushing it as such to have agendas ranging from the deluded but mostly harmless to active cult recruitment.

All that said, I would be incredibly happy to see more epistemically grounded discussion of such practices occurring. I'm looking to record more conversations and am especially interested in what sorts of discussion topics and questions people would most like to see. I think critical takes are often much more interesting and generative to think about.

Meditation and Buddhism are of low interest to most rationalists who have not interacted with any of the in-person rationalist communities. My preference for how to approach these topics in the rationalist community would be: don’t, or do it in a place other than LessWrong frontpage, or do it much less than this. These hypotheses are being unreasonably privileged and overdiscussed on LessWrong relative to the ~nil amount of real knowledge that has been generated by the discussion and investigation so far.

How do you calculate that writing like https://www.lesswrong.com/s/ZbmRyDN8TCpBTZSip contains "~nil amount of real knowledge"?

I don’t, but… I’d like to see some indication that the real knowledge is generated by discussion or investigation of meditation or Buddhism here. For example: global workspace theory, predictive processing, cognitive psychology, EEG, neuroscience, these weren’t motivated by meditation and Buddhism, I don’t think? Yes, there are neuroscientists who will write books about meditation and talk about interesting things in these books and also about less interesting things like their profound spiritual insights and I’m afraid the latter part of these books is the one motivated by meditation and Buddhism. Sometimes these books will contain very good presentations of their subjects and rationalists will write good reviews of them and that will have value. This indicates that there’s a market for such books, not really that meditation and Buddhism generate useful knowledge. It’s not a justification for investigating meditation and Buddhism to a particularly greater degree.

these weren’t motivated by meditation and Buddhism, I don’t think?

The particular sequence that Christian linked was motivated by me starting to notice that neuroscience, therapy and meditation seemed to all be describing similar phenomena. If I hadn't done meditation, it's very likely that I wouldn't have e.g. read and reviewed the book on global workspace theory and written all the subsequent posts. Since it was my experience with meditation and IFS that made GWT seem like a useful explanatory framework for both.

Kaj Sotala who wrote those posts meditates a lot. What Kaj believes about predictive processing is a combination of reading things and investigating his own mind in meditation to see how what he reads fits with what actually goes on in his head.

I'm curious about the framing here, as it seems to imply that there exists some group of people trying to analyze "buddhism" or "meditation" as if they were single things. Given that there's what, a dozen divergent schools of Buddhism alone (including various flavors and spinoffs of Zen), each containing a multitude of meditation techniques, lore, practices, etc., this seems like a really odd thing to do, compared to e.g. "this particular meditation practice X can be expected to produce/not produce result Y".

Looking at the highest upvoted comment in this debate:

I started meditation with great skepticism in order to calm myself down, which is what the studies showed that it was good for... and then weird shit started happening exactly like the books said it would. Vibrating sensations started happening exactly like the books said they would, I started gaining on-demand access to states of immense happiness, joy and contentment (jhanas), and I started having the exact insights that were predicted. 

Seems to describe "meditation" as a single thing with exact predictions in the books.

A list of specific techniques and claims of specific Buddhist schools, together with notes like "this seems correct" and "this seems wrong", would be a huge step towards skepticism. I don't remember seeing anything like that on LW. Also, maybe it's just my memory, but I don't remember any negative statement like "meditation cannot produce result X".

Seems to describe "meditation" as a single thing with exact predictions in the books.

This is precisely what I find weird about this. When I first studied Zen, the book I read listed four different basic techniques, and that's just Zen! (A lot of early meditation studies were also on TM, which is mantra-based. I think modern studies of meditation, however, are now more focused on "mindfulness" rather than meditation per se, and that mindfulness may in fact be more precisely defined than "meditation" in its full generality, since there are meditation practices aimed at other things -- such as compassion, for example.)

A long time ago I read about an EEG study of the effects of different meditation on the meditator's response to unexpected stimuli, and remember how one type of meditation made people's EEG not show any response, and another had them appear to briefly notice the sound and then return to the meditative state, vs. how an non-experienced meditator's brain would stay active and have difficulty settling back down after an interrupting sound.

That seems to suggest that different meditative practices have differing long-term effects, but since I don't recall any details of the study I can't really say more on that point. (In particular I'm wondering about sample sizes - I don't think they were large.)

FWIW, Zen masters also generally suggest different meditation techniques depending on whether you just want to improve your concentration (or other secular/individual benefits) vs. doing it for religious reasons or to attain enlightenment.

That being said, I did the secular-recommended kind (counting breaths) for a while when I was younger and nonetheless experienced some altered states, as well as some increased confidence or centeredness or... not really sure how to describe it. One of the altered states was a weird sense of compassion for everything in my apartment, such that I felt sorry for the dirty dishes and so I cleaned them. That only happened once, though. The other kind of altered state was the sense that everything was alright in the world and that I was a part of it. That happened a couple of times.

Anyway, I think it's hard to argue that meditation of almost any sort can't induce altered states. The question is more which states and whether they're good or bad for you. Zen literature basically says to ignore them either way, even if they make you feel like you could fly or have psychic superpowers, or conversely if they make you think you're being attacked by demons. This seems to imply there's a pretty good chance of unpleasant altered states if you stick with it long enough, and it's also implied in a lot of meditation literature that if you keep going then the positive and negative hallucinations will stop and things get better generally, but I never meditated long enough to get either kind of hallucination, unless you count feeling part of everything or compassionate for everything as a hallucination rather than an attitude adjustment. ;-)

I tried Silva method when I was a teenager. I learned to relax, in a way that is somehow different on EEG from normal relaxation (not sure how, I was not the one looking at the display). Sadly, the promised supernatural abilities did not manifest.

Then I tried the kind of meditation when you count the breath and try to not-do the internal monologue. And I learned how to turn off the internal monologue. An interesting thing, to learn a new mental move, but that's it.

So, I believe that if you keep doing any kind of meditation long enough, you will have some kind of experience. Yes, probably different kinds for different types of meditation. My question is, whether it is worth the time spent, compared to other things you could be doing instead, which would also give you some kind of experience. (In other words, why are we privileging meditation as the thing to do, other than mere personal preference.) Also, there seems to be an assumption that huge amounts of time spent meditating will bring some huge effects, while I would expect diminishing returns. (So if you already can relax, stop your internal monologue, and generate some pleasant feelings, does it make sense to stop because you already got most of what you can get, or does it make sense to continue because it shows that you are already on 10% of the way towards the actually awesome things.)

I assume that playing chess a lot rewires some parts of your brain. Driving a car a lot probably does the same, or playing a musical instrument a lot. In this context, the statement that meditating a lot rewires some parts of your brain doesn't feel particularly shocking. Yes, lots of meditation practice makes you better at meditation. So what? Some people say it makes you feel less pain. Nice if true.

So it's kinda like a hobby, from my perspective.

So it's kinda like a hobby, from my perspective.

Sure. I have not seriously taken up meditation again since that time, because although the centered-and-confident stuff was really nice, it took a long time to get to that point, and it wasn't a superpower level of centered or confident.

So if you already can relax, stop your internal monologue, and generate some pleasant feelings, does it make sense to stop because you already got most of what you can get, or does it make sense to continue because it shows that you are already on 10% of the way towards the actually awesome things

Actually, my experience has been that dropping meditation is like dropping exercise: the benefits go away after a while. (It might not be 100% true as I think there might be some lasting benefit to having learned how much nonsense my brain generates from an experience perspective vs. just knowing it in the abstract. But I'd be hard-pressed to tell if that's true, as I don't have a control group for myself. ;-) )

Then I tried the kind of meditation when you count the breath and try to not-do the internal monologue. And I learned how to turn off the internal monologue. An interesting thing, to learn a new mental move, but that's it.

How odd. I never learned to reliably turn off internal monologue during meditation, let alone everyday life. How long did that take you?

To be clear, I often experienced cessation of internal speech during meditation, but not because of any ability to do so on purpose. It just happened sometimes, in the same way my centeredness just started happening and hung around until a while after I stopped meditating regularly.

My own metaphor for meditation is that it's like the mental equivalent of physical exercise: I get general mental health benefits from a regular practice, but motivation for it is often difficult because the benefits take time to show up and are subtle at first. And dropping out of the habit is easy because the benefits linger a while after you stop.

if you already can relax, stop your internal monologue, and generate some pleasant feelings, does it make sense to stop because you already got most of what you can get

Yeah, that's the part that doesn't make sense to me since I didn't get any of those things as independent skills from meditating. Rather, I got them in the same way that physical exercise helps people relax or have pleasant feelings if they do enough of it. Nowadays I mix my meditation and physical exercise by doing Tai Chi so I can be more time-efficient. ;-)

(Well, not really, tai chi moves are often meditative in feel, but I haven't been doing actual on-purpose meditation during it. But that might actually be an effect booster, so now I'm tempted to actually try it.)

How odd. I never learned to reliably turn off internal monologue during meditation, let alone everyday life. How long did that take you?

Hard to say, because before that I didn't meditate systematically. I gave it a few tries, then forgot about the entire thing for years, then tried again. (Also, not sure whether I should include the time spent doing Silva method as not the same thing, but still about mind control.) Something between a month and a year since I started seriously trying to achieve this specific outcome.

The technique was counting your breath until you notice that you are distracted by internal monologue, then start again from 1. (My rule of thumb was that "distracted" means either that I am not 100% sure which number follows, or that I keep a certain topic of internal monologue longer than during one breath.) The first few attempts felt insanely impossible, like: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, "oh my god I am so awesome I am finally doing this correctly... oh shit", 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, "great, doing this again, this time I shouldn't start talking to myself... fuck, I just did", 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, "yes, just don't ruin it again by... eh, doing exactly this, again", 1, 1, 1,... It felt impossible to not make a meta comment on either my recent progress or the lack thereof. Plus the frequent unrelated thoughts, of course.

Then at some moment, I was travelling by a bus somewhere, and I was like: "I will keep doing this until the bus gets to my destination, regardless of whether it works or not." I guess that achieved the paradoxical conditions of trying hard to do something while kinda being outcome independent. It started getting better, then I made a mistake, but I didn't care and just started again without a strong emotional reaction, and the time intervals between mistakes became longer and longer. And it didn't even feel like I was trying hard. Just, doing it, with greater or lesser success. And then, in addition to short internal monologues shorter than one breath, there were also moments with no monologue.

Afterwards, I already had the experience of what it feels like to be internally silent, so I can just try to go directly to that state. It kinda feels like holding my breath, except I am not, but it feels like a muscle tension at the back of my palate. It only lasts as long as I am aware that I am doing this. From certain perspective, it's like I have replaced the verbal monologue by a non-verbal stop signal. (So I guess the next level of meditation would be to notice all these non-verbal self-signals and somehow stop doing them, too.) This was also more difficult and felt more forceful at the beginning, then got easier.

You probably know the book Don't Shoot the Dog. I found it helpful at understanding what is happening; specifically that you are not supposed to punish yourself for failing... but also not supposed to meta-punish yourself for accidentally punishing yourself, etc. I suspect that before doing any awareness meditation, one is supposed to do lots of loving-kindness meditation, exactly for the purpose of getting the self-reinforcement mechanism right. No punishment whatsoever on any level at any step of meditation. Because ultimately, punishing yourself for doing X is inevitably connected with punishing yourself for noticing that you did X, which goes against the goal of noticing it all.

I think I could stop the internal monologue at any moment I want, but without it I am unable to do some things, for example to write text. My ability to read text is also impaired; I can read individual words, but I do not understand the meaning of the sentence. But I can e.g. walk.

  • If you find scientific support for some Buddhist dogma, consider the possibility that you could also find scientific support for its opposite, if you approached it with the same degree of charity. For example, if the teaching of "no self" makes you say "yes, mind is composed of agents which are not themselves minds", maybe a teaching of "all self" would make you say "yes, neurons are all over the human body, not just in brain; also our mood is influenced by gut bacteria and sunshine and talking to other humans". Similarly, if the teaching of "impermanence" reminds you of changing moods, growing up, effects of sickness, etc., maybe a teaching of "permanence" would remind you of the stability and heredity of the OCEAN traits. So maybe the actual lesson is not "Buddhism is correct about so many things" but "for a sufficiently general statement one can always find a charitable interpretation".

Also, non-self and impermanence are method frames as much as they are ultimate truths. (Which is not to say that I'd think they had no truth.) That is, they highlight some aspects of experience that are compatible with them. You adopt one of them to help explain some of your experiences and to guide your attention in a particular direction when practicing and see where that gets you. But then in other situations, you might adopt the exactly opposite frame, if that's more useful for your purpose.

E.g. when I do insight meditation, I often adopt the frame that there is no self. When I do Internal Family Systems practice, I adopt the frame that I do have an essential core self. Both are useful ways of looking at things, but they achieve different results.

The analog worry then would be how would one know if one was using a counterproductive frame for the issue. It easy to imagine selecting a frame based on how much of a "fanboy" one is about it but comparing counterfactual fruits of different subtle patterns of attention seems really hard to evaluate.

In other words, is there a meta-review on meditation research? (Then we should ask Scott Alexander to review it.)

Not sure whether that's what you're looking for, but I like the Wikipedia pages on effects of meditation, brain activity and meditation, meditation and pain and mechanisms of mindfulness meditation (clearly just a starting point, but asking for a literature review for research on meditation sounds like asking for a literature review on the research on foreign aid—nearly impossible to do both exhaustive and in-depth, just because of the sheer scope of the field).

For an adjacent discussion on one of these points, see Scott Alexander's “Is Enlightenment Compatible With Sex Scandals?”.

I have seen takes where "no self" and "all self" are more alike than apart. They are both indiscriminate. What is usually sought is contrast against views where there is a stark discrimination such as "I am a conciousfull non-machine and you are conciousless machine".

Often it is not even so much about whether the claims ared true of false but whether the parties involved can even understand the approaches. So the crux question isn't even whether it is so or not but can the material be made sense of or not.