How to Meditate: Sam Harris Edition

From time to time, I like to pass on any interesting articles on the topic of meditation. As I’ve written many times before, meditation is a very useful adjunct to psychotherapy – and like psychotherapy is a practice that has the potential to improve quality of life. (I would not recommend it as replacement for psychotherapy – that would be just as silly as recommending psychotherapy to someone interested in meditation.)

I’m not that familiar with Mr. Harris, but he’s written a number of books with intriguing titles and I was immediately struck by his clear, straightforward, pragmatic and informed meditation instructions. He strikes a very nice balance of both committed and skeptical, one many writers on the topic should be envious of.

Here’s the link to his article, How to Meditate. Definitely worth a click.

And here’s a brief excerpt in which he compares learning to meditate with learning to walk a tightrope:

As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us fall from the wire every second, toppling headlong—whether gliding happily in reverie, or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for breaking this spell, if only for a few moments. The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.




Recently on the Mindfulness Blog

At the meditation blog I’ve gathered a grab bag of mindfulness related links, reflections, resources. There’s a real attempt to forward material that I’ve found to be practically useful or at least intellectually stimulating.

Your Brain on Meditation: Role of the Posterior Cingulate

If this topic interests you, I recommend you click on the “mindfulness” tag at the end of the article to bring up other posts on this and related topics.

What if you could enhance your well being? Just published by Judson Brewer, PhD, MD, medical director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, a solid piece of exploratory (and confirmatory) research on the role of a part of the brain called the posterior cingulate in meditation.

Meditators have been speculating about the states of mind evoked by meditative states and various relationships between meditating and well being. Turns out, the posterior cingulate is implicated, mostly negatively, in the subjective well being of meditators. What makes this interesting, is that the meditators could control the activity of this part of the brain, through real-time feedback.

There have been a number of studies that have shown that meditation lights up certain brain regions, that it’s associated with changes in brain thickness, and that it alters the way our brains respond to stressful stimuli. But meditation is complex, and it involves processes like attention, working memory, and self-monitoring. So, which components of meditation actually line up with specific brain regions?

Researchers found that the posterior cingulate increases activity during states of distraction, discontentment, and a particular kind of mental effort — all states implicated in unhappiness. A decrease in posterior cingulate activity was associated with states of effortlessness and contentment.

The implications of this are great. Not only does it mean that meditation can be used to enhance well-being, but eventually the technology could be used to help people to learn to meditate more quickly. Learning to meditate more efficiently also potentially means strengthening the “wiring” in those parts of the brain that bring about well being.

If you’re curious about Judson Brewer’s work, here’s his TEDx talk on meditation: You’re Already Awesome. Just Get Out of Your Own Way! which touches on the effects of tracking and training flow states, turning off the blah blah blah part of the brain.

Or an interview at Buddhist Geeks, Mapping the Mindful Brain.

Mindfulness Meditation and Psychotherapy: 7 Posts and Helpful Links

1.  11 Misconceptions About Mindfulness Meditation.  Touches upon some of the common misconceptions about mindfulness practices. Also includes a link to a recommended (and free) book about mindfulness.

2.  Mindfulness: How is it Relevant to Psychotherapy.  Why mindfulness can be relevant in psychotherapy — and what sorts of problems is it helpful with?

3.  Am I Meditating Correctly?  A nice quote from Norman Fischer, and a recommended link for beginners and the curious at

4.  11 Definitions of Mindfulness.  A collection of definitions, many from scholarly and research literature. Also a couple of resources, including a link to a New York Times article: How Meditation May Change the Brain.

5.  Using Mindfulness Meditation for ADHD.  Touches upon some interesting points, including the one that “not all adults with ADHD benefit from medication.”

6.  Mapping the Mindful Brain.  For those that like a science mixed in with their meditation. Judson Brewer has done some fascinating research using fMRI scans that looks into the relationship between preoccupied thinking about oneself and happiness. Very interesting.

7.  Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together.  Video presentation by Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, includes some well laid out and interesting information on the negativity bias of the brain and how it contributes to stress. Well worth the view.

Informative New York Times Piece on Trauma

This clip, from yesterday’s New York Times. The piece was sent my way, and I wanted to pass it on: “For Veterans, a Surge of New Treatments for Trauma.” It’s a rich article that covers a lot of ground in a short space. It might serve either as a primer on trauma or an update on recent treatments for the otherwise informed. It roams from the causes of trauma, to the rash of suicides the army is currently experiencing and their campaign to end the stigma of traumatic stress, to a recent wave of mind-body treatments now being successfully employed, and touches upon the prevalence of traumatic brain injury among those with traumatic stress, mentions the Center for Mind-Body Medicine — in other words, it’s a cornucopia of useful and interesting information.

Here’s a quote:

You name it, and it’s being used somewhere in the veterans’ health system: The National Intrepid Center in Washington is one of many places using acupuncture to treat stress-related anxiety and sleep disorders; it has been shown to be effective against PTSD. At the New Orleans V.A., the same clinicians who ran Trin’s group also did a small study using yoga. They found vets liked it and attendance was excellent. The yoga reduced the veterans’ hyperarousal and helped them sleep. There is even a group in the Puget Sound V.A. Hospital in Seattle that treats PTSD — including among Navy Seals — using the Buddhist practice of “loving kindness meditation.” (“We had a little bit of debate about changing the name,” said Dr. David Kearney, who led the group. “But we decided to keep it, and it worked out just fine.”)

11 Misconceptions About Mindfulness Meditation

photo by mindfulness

If you’re interested in how we might apply mindfulness concepts in your own psychotherapy — and you live in the Los Angeles/Pasadena area — why not call for a free consult? I’d be glad to talk with you about mindfulness and psychotherapy. Mindfulness interventions are especially effective in dealing with depression, anxiety, problems with impulse control and distractedness, to name just a few.

Found a classic meditation text, Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henapola Gunaratana online for free. Shambhala publications re-released the book last year in a new, improved version, which you can find here, amongst other places. Again, these are common misconceptions:

1. meditation is just a relaxation method
2. meditation means going into a trance
3. meditation is a mysterious practice which cannot be understood
4. The purpose of meditation is to become a psychic superman
5. meditation is dangerous and a prudent person should avoid it
6. meditation is for saints and holy men, not for regular people
7. meditation is running away from reality
8. meditation is a great way to get high
9. meditation is selfish
10. when you meditate, you sit around thinking lofty thoughts
11. A couple of weeks of meditation and all my problems will go away

If you’re curious how they are misconceptions you should read the book. It covers the important points quite clearly. Chapter 2. “What Mindfulness Isn’t.” As I said you can find it for free, as a PDF file here. But if you are really curious about this mindfulness stuff, this is a book I can recommend. Even if you put down the ten dollars it will be worth your while.

From 2012. Same stuff applies.

Am I Meditating Correctly?

I’m gradually working on a selected list of mindfulness links, some favorites. You could certainly do a lot worse than taking a look at, which has a large selection of information on the possibly overly sexy topic of mindfulness. In particular, their selection of articles for beginning practitioners is very nice.

Here’s an excerpt from one of those, a piece by Norman Fischer titled “Getting Started”, which addresses the concern that “I must be doing this wrong…”

There are many approaches to meditation. In my tradition, the Soto Zen tradition, meditation is not considered a skill that we are supposed to master. It is a practice that we devote ourselves to. So if you are meditating in the morning feeling half asleep, with dream-snatches passing by, and your mind not crisply focused precisely on the breath, the way you think it is supposed to be… this is perfectly all right. It is considered normal and possibly even beneficial. The biggest obstacle to establishing a meditation practice is the erroneous idea (firmly held by most people who want to establish a meditation practice) that meditation should calm and focus the mind. Therefore, if your mind is not calm and focused, you are certainly doing it wrong. Struggling with something that you are consistently doing wrong, and in your frustration can’t seem to get right, does not inspire you to continue (unless you are a masochist, and there are more than a few meditating masochists).

Better to assume the Soto Zen attitude that meditation is what you do when you meditate. There is no doing it wrong or right. That is not to say that there is no effort, no calm, no focus. Of course there is. The point is to avoid falling into the trap of defining meditation too narrowly, and then judging yourself based on that definition, and so sabotaging yourself. You evaluate your practice on a much wider and more generous calculus. Not: Is my mind concentrated while I am sitting? But: After meditating in the morning, how is my attention during the day? Not: Am I peaceful and still as I sit? But: Is my habit of flying off the handle reducing somewhat? In other words, the test of meditation isn’t meditation. It’s your life.