“Meditation for skeptics” – a review of two books, and some thoughts

by Sherrinford17 min read20th Mar 20214 comments

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I.

There are two books on the German book market whose cover contains the words “Meditation für Skeptiker” (meditation for skeptics). In 2010, Ulrich Ott, a psychologist specialized in meditation research publish a book with exactly this title. In february of 2016, the German translation of “10 % Happier” by Dan Harris was published, where the original title was extended to “Wie ich die entscheidenden 10 % glücklicher wurde” (“How I got that crucial 10 % happier”) and the American subtitle “How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works - a True Story” was replaced by “Meditation für Skeptiker”. The “skeptics” target readership raised my interest.

Both books aim at making meditation accessible to an audience that would not have touched meditation books some years ago – for example, people who are put off by religious vocabulary. Both books represent something like manuals on the one hand and low-threshold introductions to the topic on the other hand, for which it is not necessary to accept spiritual accessories. It is important to both authors that the positive effects of meditation can be scientifically proven, and they give an overview to the state of knowledge about the topic (of course at the moment you read this, both books are some years old, so you should consider them as ancient wisdom; also, meditation books aimed at a non-esoteric readership are not so spectacular anymore). So the books have common ground, although the authors' backgrounds and the approach of the books are very different. In the following, I briefly review these books, and afterwards, I will discuss some questions inspired by them.

 

II.

Let us start with Ott’s book, which will be the lesser-known of the two, both globally but also in this forum. As far as I know, there is no English translation of the book. Ulrich Ott is a psychologist who has been researching meditation and its effects visible in a brain scan for years. He has been meditating since his youth (M. Hubert, 2008: Neuronen und Nirwana. Deutschlandfunk), so of course it wasn't science that convinced him to meditate. However, he not only contributes to research on the topic, but also places great emphasis on portraying it in the book. His book is based “on scientific findings, rational considerations and an open spirit of research”. In addition to the MRI and the current state of research, Ott's knowledge is also based on what has been written by mystics and monks or about their findings. Ott describes meditation as an expansion of consciousness that includes “the expanded perception of physical and mental processes as well as the expanded ability to change these processes”. He starts talking about what can be achieved with meditation -- such as concentration or feelings of clarity and alertness. Meditation helps to interrupt the automatism of stimulus and reaction (this is why it is now also used therapeutically). He also points out, however, that “in the course of meditation practice, extraordinary states of consciousness [can] arise that open up a new view of reality and one's own identity”, which is less easy to understand, and hardly provable.

Since the book is formulated not only as an introductory overview, but also as a guide, Ott explains, for example, which external factors promote or inhibit success in meditation and he describes the techniques of meditation comprehensively. These descriptions are detailed, and the include the presentation of many alternatives to the techniques, which begins with the discussion of the question of whether one prefers to meditate sitting, kneeling or lying down. The book maintains the connection between presenting the state of research and explaining the techniques.

As an introduction to the topic and a manual, the book is clearly a non-fiction book and you can tell from the writing style. It is well readable, but certainly not a classic “page turner”. Meditation is a type of brain training; a book about cross-country skiing training would not necessarily be something that one would primarily expect to be entertaining or even captivating.

A seemingly simple exercise is when Ott explains the principles of mindfulness meditation. Roughly speaking, it's about sitting and focusing only on your own breath with your eyes closed. Then the author explains that these “basic skills” are necessary, “for example, to systematically direct your attention through your entire body”. Therefore, before reading the rest of the book, the reader should put it aside and practice until he manages “to sit for at least ten minutes and breathe mindfully”. This seems very easy when reading of it – that is, in theory. If you try it as an inexperienced reader without meditation experience, it can be incredibly difficult (depending on what you actually mean by breathing “mindfully”). That is the point where I actually stopped reading the book, as requested - but then the motivation to continue to pursue the motivational exercises is quickly lost. 

 

III.

Dan Harris's book, "10% Happier" seems a lower-threshold book not only because the author came to meditation as a rather skeptic himself, but also because he has an avowedly restless mind and describes himself as someone who also has (or had) trouble concentrating for ten breaths. Although Harris' book is primarily intended to make meditation more popular, it is already worth reading and entertaining as an autobiography of a workaholic television journalist. You can tell that the author learned to tell stories as a journalist. (On the other hand, not every topic in Harris's life story is relevant or interesting for someone who's just interested in learning about meditation, and the autobiographical focus - including a report on a television interview with Paris Hilton - may not be for everyone.)

While Ott was professionally involved in meditation, but had previously meditated, Harris' profession brought him to meditation in two ways. As a young, self-confident and assertive journalist, Harris quickly made a career for the US news broadcaster ABC News; he often reports from crisis areas. It's exciting, brings fame, but also leads to frightening situations. He gets involved in the grueling career race, in the internal battle for airtime, and neglects his private life, takes cocaine and ecstasy. Worries, uncertainty and doubts gnaw at him again and again. There are also psychosomatic symptoms.

Harris portrays a panic attack in front of the camera - the "direct result of an extended run of mindlessness, a period of time during which I was focused on advancement and adventure, to the detriment of pretty much everything else in my life“ - as the trigger for his meditation career. In a film this would probably be a kind of awakening experience, after which he converts to a staunch meditator. In fact, this abbreviated presentation would be misleading. The panic attack is first followed by a depression diagnosis, an anxiety-relieving drug, another, smaller panic attack and finally regular psychotherapy. However, there is also the realization that something has to change. Harris begins to look for some kind of recipe for self-awareness.

While Harris 'professional life created the need for a change in life on the one hand, the second connection between his profession and the topic of meditation is that he was responsible for covering domestic religious topics even before his reports from crisis areas - for example with reports on church youth groups. He now uses the reporting for the search for self-knowledge, for example through reports about gurus, stars of the spiritual scene, general life guides or representatives of the fairly large American self-help and motivation scene. He doesn't find the all-encompassing insights he hoped for so quickly, but at least he learns from the reports that people who tell esoteric or pseudoscientific nonsense can also have clever insights. He breaks down his prejudices and becomes more relaxed about people he originally thinks are nuts. At the same time, no matter how many enthusiastic followers, the gurus are apparently unable to transform their insights into applicable advice.

Eventually Harris meets Mark Epstein. He is a psychotherapist and the author of books on Buddhism for the West. Conveniently, Epstein thinks that belief in “karma, rebirth and enlightenment” is not necessary to use Buddhism as a philosophy and the methods practiced in Buddhism. He describes Buddha as the first psychoanalyst. (Harris also learns from Epstein's explanations that many thoughts that he considers useful in other life guides come from Buddhism or at least are already to be found there.) Harris takes advice from Buddhism such as not to cling to perishable things. Above all, however, he is enthusiastic about Buddhism's insight into the “restless activity of the ego” (probably, some phrases that I quote from the book will not be found there, as I sometimes quote from the German version and then translate back), described by the term “monkey mind”: “Our mind is like a small, hairy gibbon: always on the move, never at rest.” Epstein's Western Buddhism is not only attractive to Harris because it offers a way out for problems as diverse as this restlessness, Harris' stress, depression, narcissism, but also Epstein's own original distress (feelings of “meaninglessness”, “unreality” and “insignificance”), but above all because it offers a clear, self-applicable program: meditation.

After Harris overcomes his reluctance, he tries breathing-meditation and realizes how difficult it is to keep one's own jumping thoughts under control. He builds ten-minute meditation and targeted mindfulness into his daily routine. (He explains that mindfulness is a way of dealing with feelings and thoughts: noticing (or “naming”) them without judging them; this makes it possible not to be automatically controlled by them).

To intensify the meditation training, Harris spends ten days in a “retreat”: A stay in a meditation center with other meditators, consisting of ten days of meditation in silence without speaking. The strictly regulated daily routine is filled with breathing meditation, walking meditation, question and answer sessions and discussions with teachers. In addition, there is a “metta” meditation in which you send positive feelings to other people (or just think positively of them). The intensive exercise in isolation not only leads to the realization that the ability to concentrate on one's own breath for ten minutes is no guarantee that one can do this immediately for a longer period of time in the retreat; but after a while it actually leads to a breakthrough: Harris reaches a state that he calls “attentive awareness”. He describes it as a state of trance, something like a state of intoxication - “the best high of my life”. Unfortunately, this description is not necessarily understandable; it sounds as if someone on LSD is describing the condition to others who have never used LSD. Even if Haris says it is different from drugs, for a reader it is difficult to understand to what extent. On the sixth day, the high is over for the time being and he feels thrown back into reality.

What convinces Harris about meditation are, on the one hand, his own experiences. He particularly emphasizes the mindfulness-based stress reduction training program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which teaches worldly meditation in eight weeks. On the other hand, Harris lists the proven positive effects. In both respects, his and Ott's book go well together. Harris explains that meditation can help silence the constant chattering voice in your head, i.e. reduce the constant wandering of thoughts. Meditation, on the other hand, is not a miracle cure and does not lead to "immediate enlightenment". He emphasizes the malleability - or rather trainability - of one's own person, of "happiness, resilience and goodness". Meditation promises a way to become more aware of yourself and thereby gain control over yourself. It is pleasant that Harris only promises the "10% happier" announced in the title; that sounds ironic, but it is meant rather modestly. In addition to learnability and scientific research, Harris also cites other sources of credibility, such as the fact that more and more “managers, athletes and elite soldiers” are using meditation “to improve their concentration or to get a better grip on their technology addiction or their emotions”.

Another topic of the book is the connection between empathy and meditation. Harris’ Buddhist friends criticize the use of meditation as a kind of self-optimization for managers, and he incorporates the “metta” aspect of Buddhism into his life: targeted training in empathy through compassion meditation. Here, too, the scientifically proven effects play a major role: People who consciously practice empathy have less stress or process it better, experience feelings of happiness ("warm glow"), are more popular and more successful. Through the training you gain a more relaxed attitude towards other people. Harris offers at least some spiritual historical background: The "western" order of adding ethics to meditation at best reverses Buddha's teaching. The training seems to be effective: Harris has the impression that his new compassion makes him passive and that this throws him back professionally, he feels "softened". He then receives the advice of Mark Epstein to 'hide' the Zen so that it would not be exploited. Eventually, he relies on a balance between Buddhist principles and ambition.

Dan Harris has succeeded in creating an entertaining book that offers an easy introduction to the topic of meditation and whose short explanations on breathing and metta meditation at the end of the book should be sufficient instructions to get started. His instructions on breathing meditation mainly consist of the two steps of focusing on your own breath and, once you wander, focusing on your own breath again - which is amazingly calming. In good Buddhist tradition, Harris also offers his own list of ten more or less insightful instructions.

 

IV.

Ulrich Ott and Dan Harris offer two well-suited introductions to the topic of meditation - Ott may offer the more focused version, Harris the more personal and more entertaining one. However, from such introductions and the glimpses at potentially advanced topics, some questions may arise.

The first question is: How much meditation training do you need? The actual benefit of a ten-minute meditation routine is not easy for a layperson to assess, even after reading the two books. As Harris emphasizes, meditation is training for the brain and therefore practice and exertion are necessary (which is also emphasized by more traditional Buddhist texts like Suzuki’s 1970 book “Zen mind, beginner’s mind”). But how much training is necessary to achieve effects? This remains unclear.

Moreover, it is unclear how much the "low-threshold" form of meditation is worthwhile in the sense that it leads to noticeable effects. As mentioned, shortly after his first meditation experience, Harris soon built a ten-minute meditation into his daily routine. The big breakthrough comes in the "retreat" with its isolation and intensive, long meditation sessions. He is completely enthusiastic about this experience, he experiences the greatest high of his life. The low level of enthusiasm before the chapter on the retreat calls Harris' promotion of meditation into question. Ott also had similar experiences in a retreat, as can be read in an article in “Die Zeit” (Hein 2008: http://www.zeit.de/2008/06/P-Ulrich-Ott/). The process is similar to that of Harris: At first constant distraction, later feelings of happiness; In between, however, Ott had experienced emotional conflicts, “grimaces, spiders and Madonnas appeared in his mind's eye”.

The question of whether a simple meditation routine of observing your breath is worthwhile also arises because - unlike in a retreat - you don't get any feedback when you practice at home. Learning-by-doing without any feedback is generally not a recommended approach to learning a skill (see e.g. Goleman, 2013: “Focus. The Hidden Driver of Excellence”). The introductory books are of course based precisely on quoting many scientific sources on the proven effects of meditation. However, the studies of monks who have meditated for decades may not be of interest to someone who is considering investing a little time in small exercises. And even the studies on people who systematically learn a mindfulness program, for example, are not very informative for the question of whether someone can maintain enough interest to meditate at home alone, over and over again, for a long time.

Next, consider the question of whether there is a talent for meditation. Harris mentions in Chapter 9 that his mother tried meditation after reading a study on its beneficial properties. She immediately manages to focus during an entire taxi ride. This suggests that there may simply be people who have less trouble focusing. Ott could also be a person with a talent for meditation. In the aforementioned article in "Die Zeit", he explains that just a few days after he started meditating in the Vipassana meditation style, his "attention was focused like a laser beam". Perhaps this shaped his book to a certain extent. Referring to scientific studies to convince people who think meditation is hocus-pocus is an understandable concern of a regular meditator. But does it take a different approach to convince less talented, unfocused people?

Similarly, it is unclear how important spirituality is for meditation – does it actually help? With Ott, the descriptions of the meditation effects sound mystical, he seemingly wants to prove that the "old masters" were right. He misses the "spiritual dimension in everyday life", as he is quoted by stern.de. Nonetheless, the higher states of consciousness, spirituality, remain diffuse when reading. Or does spirituality or conviction lead to a motivated, selective reading of the evidence?

This relates to the evidence-based approach to meditation. Ott specializes in the science of meditation, though it probably would not need scientific evidence to meditate. Harris approaches meditation from the perspective of a skeptic, which raises the hurdle to convince him. So he is not looking for enlightenment and he thinks that what convinces him is good, but reacts allergic when he hears talk about rebirth and karma. That's a plus for the book, at least if readers share a similar mindset. It is an exaggeration to call this a proof of an evidence-based approach, but it seems to be compatible with that. At the same time, Harris’ approach sometimes seems a bit clueless. For example, when Harris listens to Goldstein in the retreat, it is noticeable that although he writes beforehand that he had read many books about Buddhism before the retreat, he does not provide any contextualization of the history of Buddhist ideas in the book. Harris first mentions the difference between Buddhist and Hindu traditions in a kind of FAQ at the end of the book; there is practically no classification of Buddhism before that. 

So does Buddhism, does the philosophical tradition matter? A question that remains a bit unclear in both books is what is actually essential for meditation. Assuming that Harris and Ott's introductions can actually be successful in promoting meditation as a technique, it is still not entirely clear what that actually entails. Breathing and sitting? Learning to focus and to listen carefully to oneself is clearly part of it. But how central is the additional empathy component? Or is that a matter of taste?

Experienced yogis among Harris' acquaintances – who see empathy and compassion as essential for meditation – criticize the fact that decontextualization can create problems of its own. For example, they fear that "mindfulness will only make better child killers and financial jugglers" if one alienates them from the Buddhist teaching of compassion. It is, however, not clear whether that is specific for mindfulness and so it is not clear whether that should be seen as problem. Arguably, something similar could be said about recommendations for strength training, which can also yield healthy killers.

Harris also reports that large firms are becoming interested in meditation. In Silicon Valley, more people meditate and it is becoming a productivity tool. (Again, Harris’ book is from 2016, so probably by now either everyone in Silicon Valley meditates, or the fad is over.) Note that even the most relaxing or calming practices can be discussed as productivity enhancements. For example, reviewing productivity effects of relaxing, Tony Schwartz (Relax! You'll Be More Productive, The New York Times, February 9, 2013) not only lists the benefits of sleeping (including naps), but also of vacations; sleep is of course optimized by many people (by some in fine ways, by others in weird ones). And I am sure that people will also find a way in which, e.g., giving half of your income to poor people not only makes you happier but also more productive. But the question is whether empathy meditation is actually essential for meditation, or whether meditation experts just say this because they like the idea. (According to the aforementioned Suzuki, “the way of [Zen] practice is just to be concentrated on your breathing with the right posture and with great pure effort”; purification of thought and calmness of mind follow successively and without conscious effort. But is that all? Really? Then empathy meditation is not essential.)

Bringing together the questions of how much meditation is needed, what is essential, whether spirituality is a good thing and how much the introductions are based on evidence, we may ask what about enlightenment? In the afterword, Harris tells of further developments such as the growing belief that something like "enlightenment" is possible in a certain sense. With rules and instructions at the end, the book becomes a manual. Whether it is a manual for becoming enlightened is a different matter. It is at this point that the skeptic approach – the idea that you can either check the scientific evidence or check claims by low-threshold self-experience – seems to be reaching an endpoint.

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It may be of note that Dan Harris is currently working on a book about metta. Has been for some time now, actually, but he seems to hate whatever book-writing process he's using, so we may or may not never actually see this one come to print.

I've been listening to his 10% Happier podcast for a while now, and I've noticed that he's undergone a massive and obvious change regarding his expressed attitudes toward compassion meditation and his apparent opinion of its importance. In earlier episodes when he says that words like "heart" and "loving-kindness" bother him, it seems like he's being fully genuine. Later, those claims seem to become more about his interview style and connecting with his audience than reality. Recently, he's fully admitted that talk of being "allergic" to the sappy-sounding words is an old schtick that he's trying to stop because it's no longer consistent with how he's thinking about the topic. It seems like he's been convinced that compassion practice is pretty important.

(It's a good podcast, BTW. Harris interviews plenty of really interesting people!)

Harris currently has two books titled "10% Happier: [excessive subtitle]" and "Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics" in the US. Maybe there were some translation shenanigans with the German publisher?

Thanks for the observations.

Regarding the metta stuff, I wonder whether it is a nice-to-have but basically separate from meditation essentials. After all, Zen guys seem to say that zen is just the posture.

Thanks for the observations.

Glad they were interesting!

I wonder whether it is a nice-to-have but basically separate from meditation essentials.

I've heard teachers with a Theravada background talk about two "wings to awakening": wisdom (or insight) and compassion. The claim is that without developing both in a relatively even way, you can end up badly unbalanced and unable to achieve full realization of the practice. I've heard that non-westernized versions tend to teach metta before insight meditation, though I don't recall the exact justification off the top of my head.

It seems to me that without at least some of the discipline that comes from doing a sit-and-be-aware meditation for a while, it could be substantially more difficult to really dig in on the wishing-people-well stuff. On the other hand, I've heard several teachers say that we have a self-compassion problem in the west that makes insight meditation harder to do effectively/*. Maybe there's something to the wings thing after all?

/* Apparently westerners (and particularly Americans) tend to have a nasty habit of berating ourselves for being bad at meditation instead of just starting again when we get distracted.

I have very little practical experience with meditation, so please discount my opinion accordingly, but I believe that focusing exclusively on the technique and productivity, while ignoring the ethics and loving-kindness as unnecessary, may actually make the progress harder.

I believe this because meditation is essentially conditioning yourself to change your thought and reaction patterns, into more reflective and peaceful ones. Peaceful, because it is difficult to relax and reflect when you are stressed. But behaving ethically and practicing loving emotions is exactly what brings the inner peace.

(Maybe unless you are a clinical psychopath, in which case killing others does not cause you any stress. Dunno. This advice is aimed for average folks. I have no idea how psychopaths meditate or achieve enlightenment. Zen Buddhism might have some useful advice here.)