Quit meditating, already

It’s been a while since the New York Times published something seemingly intent on irritating yogis, meditators and other alternatively bent thinkers.

If you’ve missed those NYT pieces, fear not! It’s got one in the paper this weekend:

I AM being stalked by meditation evangelists.

They approach with the fervor of a football fan attacking a keg at a tailgate party. “Which method of meditation do you use?”

I admit that I don’t meditate, and they are incredulous. It’s as if I’ve just announced that the Earth is flat. “How could you not meditate?!”

I have nothing against it. I just happen to find it dreadfully boring.

“But Steve Jobs meditated!”

Yeah, and he also did L.S.D. — do you want me to try that, too?

“L.S.D. is dangerous. Science shows that meditation is good for you. It will change your life.”

Will it?

You can get a pretty good sense where it goes from that. It is by a contributing opinion writer for the paper, Adam Grant, who is a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

My main problem with the piece is that it doesn’t really feel like he provides much support for his argument that other activities can do as much good as meditating. And he makes some thinly veiled references to what I assume are the occasional lost soul who tries some Eastern or alternative path and dies (for any number of reasons). But he doesn’t provide any actual examples.

It also seems the whole point of the piece is he’s annoyed by those evangelists he addresses in the first line. But, as with so many piece in the Times, there’s no evidence to support a claim the writer makes.

Really? You’re being stalked? Maybe rather than writing an Op-Ed you should either call the police or find out what it is about meditating that turns people into sociopaths.

Posted by Steve

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Getting your Headspace right

Another in the growing line of stories covering meditation’s migration into mindfulness pops up this month in the New Yorker. I’m trying to decide if meditation’s becoming mindfulness is akin to asana’s becoming (all of) yoga. I don’t think that quite works, but surely there are parallels between how both are being embraced anew in the 2000s. From the New Yorker piece, which seems worth your time, unless you’ve had enough with Headspace, which is what much of the story is yoked to:

This changed in the late nineteenth century, when the British invaded Burma, and Christian missionaries set about converting the populace. Fearing that their religion was being destroyed, Buddhist monks began to teach laypeople the practices of the monasteries, in order to preserve them. One monk, the Ledi Sayadaw, travelled the country, encouraging people to study complicated philosophical texts, and to try meditation for themselves. Traditionally, meditation followed a rigorous curriculum, but the Sayadaw created a pared-down version for the masses. He argued that laypeople might not be ready for enlightenment, but they could still cultivate “insight,” by practicing moment-to-moment awareness.

Along with his successors—including S. N. Goenka, the creator of Vipassana, or “insight” meditation—the Sayadaw and other Burmese teachers transformed Buddhism. “They rebranded it, in essence,” David McMahan, the author of “The Making of Buddhist Modernism,” told me. (This transformation is sometimes referred to as Buddhist Protestantism.) Lay-Buddhist meditation began to spread across Asia in the nineteen-twenties. By the sixties, it had made its way to the West, where it became embedded in the era’s counterculture.

[snip]

Headspace recently set up its headquarters in Venice Beach, Los Angeles—around the corner from Google’s offices and the wellness mecca Moon Juice. When I visited, on a seventy-degree day this winter, I wondered briefly if I’d arrived in Nirvana. Puddicombe walks to work, at an indoor-outdoor space that’s filled with relaxed Millennials, typing on laptops. He is married to a British woman named Lucinda, who is an exercise physiologist, and they recently had a baby. His days are spent writing a book about mindful pregnancy—users requested it—and teaching meditation, alone in a recording booth.

[snip]

The next morning, at eight-thirty, Puddicombe picked me up, along with Rich Pierson, his business partner, a thirty-four-year-old British man, who wore sneakers and shorts. They’d wanted to take me surfing; according to Puddicombe, the sport is one reason that Headspace is based in California. After years of sitting, he was eager to move around again. The partners now discuss company issues during surf sessions every morning, off Santa Monica Beach. (After meditating, of course. Puddicombe meditates for about an hour, using a combination of “visualization and awareness techniques” that he learned at the monastery, and vowed to practice every day for the rest of his life.)

I had to include those last two paragraphs, to bring it home to us here, a few miles inland from Headspace’s HQ. (As bad as I’ve found the surf in Venice, I believe it is only worse in Santa Monica, for those who care. Neither is Encinitas.) And I pass it on because of the large subset — from my experience — of Ashtanga practitioners who also have a meditation, often Vipassana, practice. I’m still uncertain why that is; is it something lacking in Ashtanga or does Ashtanga crack open that door for lots of people. Is it a limit of the practice or evidence of its success?

I’d probably have better insight if I could maintain anything close to a meditation practice myself. (Another shout-out to Bobbie for setting up the little corner in our yard for that, which I woefully and apologetically underuse.) But I already am devoting 60 to 90 minutes most days to Ashtanga; that’s hard enough. Adding in another piece to my already busy day, that’s another level of pure dedication. (I now sound some version of whiny or excuse-making; in my defense, a separate subset of Ashtanga practitioners do seem surprised at how long my work days are, and, yes, mostly at a desk and computer.) Ashtanga certainly has shown me that I’d benefit — that cracked door. But I can’t imagine meditating with an app, of all things. Or, again, just finding the time to do so.

Posted by Steve

Yoga news: TV show to ‘demystify’ practice, folks worry about yogafication of meditation

A trio of stories to start your week in the know.

First up, the Discovery Channel, tied to the International Day of Yoga, is going to air a program that seeks to demystify yoga and its spread across the world. From the Economic Times:

The hour-long-special programme titled ‘The story of Yoga’ aims to celebrate the first International Day of Yoga and takes viewers through a journey to rediscover the age old practice. The show would be telecast in five languages including Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu and Bangla and explores the evolution, mysticism, spiritualism and cultural ethos of yoga.

“‘The Story of Yoga’ is one of the most comprehensive narratives that provide an in-depth view on the evolution of yoga from an ancient practice to a lifestyle choice that’s making tremendous impact on people lives around the world,” says Rahul Johri, EVP and GM – South Asia, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific.

No mention of Ashtanga and Pattabhi Jois, but there is mention of Iyengar and Sivananda. Watch for it.

Secondly, still tied to June 21 (International Yoga Day) is news of how it’ll affect the railroads in India:

Indian Railways has issued orders to its over 13 lakh employees across the country to turn up at office at 9 a.m. on the International Yoga Day on June 21 and perform Yoga as all railway offices will remain open on forenoon on the day despite being a Sunday.

In a letter to all 16 zonal heads, PSUs and others, R R Prasad, executive director (Training & Manpower Planning) Railway Board has said that since it would be the first occasion for the celebration, it has been decided that lndian Railways may celebrate June 21, 2014 as the lnternational Yoga in a big way befitting the occasion and to spread awareness.

To observe the day, the railway has ordered that all offices will open on June 21 in the forenoon and officials may be directed to report at 9 a.m. and even there will be prize distribution to best practitioners of yoga.

And finally, folks are worried that as meditation spreads (in part, I suspect, under the whole mindfulness trend), it will lose its religious roots — like yoga has (according to them, at least). From the Washington Post:

Yet in gyms, businesses and public schools in every direction from the museum — which sits on busy Georgia Avenue — meditation is often presented as something akin to mental weight-lifting: a secular practice that keeps your brain and emotions in shape. Gyms list it alongside Zumba classes, and public schools say it can help students chill out before tests by calming the mind and training it to look upon disruptive thoughts from a non-judgmental distance.

This rough juxtaposition between the religious and secular versions of meditation epitomizes a key debate about the ancient practice as it explodes in the United States: What is the purpose of meditation? And who decides?

To Mahraj and her community, called the Brahma Kumaris, promoting the religious component is part of the purpose of the Silver Spring center, which is more about spiritual advocacy than a museum in the classic sense.

It does sound familiar.

Posted by Steve

‘A different sort of CEO’

The creep, creep, creep of meditation, mindfulness et al continues. The latest sign? Aetna. Specifically its CEO. From the New York Times:

In case there was any doubt, Mr. Bertolini, who runs one of America’s 100 largest companies by revenue, wants to make it clear he is a different sort of C.E.O.

In recent years, following a near-death experience, Mr. Bertolini set about overhauling his own health regimen, as well reshaping the culture of Aetna with a series of eyebrow-raising moves. He has offered free yoga and meditation classes to Aetna employees; more than 13,000 workers have participated. He began selling the same classes to the businesses that contract with Aetna for their health insurance. And in January, after reading “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the treatise on inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty, Mr. Bertolini gave his lowest-paid employees a 33 percent raise.

Taken together, these moves have transformed a stodgy insurance company into one of the most progressive actors in corporate America. Most health insurance companies are thriving, largely because of increased enrollment. Aetna’s stock has increased threefold since Mr. Bertolini took over as chief executive in 2010, and recently hit a record high. It’s a decidedly groovy moment for the company, and Mr. Bertolini is reveling in his role as an idealistic, unconventional corporate chieftain.

“We program C.E.O.s to be certain kinds of people. We expect C.E.O.s to be on message all the time,” he said. “The grand experiment here has been how much of that do you really need to do?”

On a February day in Aetna’s Hartford headquarters, there were experiments all around. In a conference room downstairs, a meditation class had just concluded, and employees were returning to their desks. Nearby, preparations were underway for a new yoga class, starting in a week. And in his corner office — where a golden statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha was arranged next to an antique grandfather clock — Mr. Bertolini eagerly shared the most recent data from Aetna’s meditation and yoga programs.

There is the requisite “hang on a second”:

But not everyone believes that meditation and yoga are appropriate in the workplace. A recent article in The Harvard Business Review cautioned that “mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world,” and it enumerated ways that a meditative disposition could backfire in the office. Stress can be a useful prompt to engage in critical thinking, noted the author, David Brendel, and is not something to retreat from through meditation. And even as Aetna and others chart what they say are the health benefits of mindfulness and yoga, not all researchers are convinced.

The piece in the Times is adapted from an upcoming book, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business From the Inside Out, by David Gelles.

Posted by Steve

Sleep tight — with a little help from meditation

In what’s being called a “rigorous study,” researchers have determined that mindfulness meditation helped older adults sleep better and, as a result, have fewer problems related to sleeping problems — aka a better quality of life.

Link to the JAMA study is here. And here’s an online New York Times story:

In one group, the adults learned behaviors that could help them develop good sleep hygiene, like establishing a regular bedtime routine and avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed. The other group underwent a six-week program on mindfulness meditation — the nonjudgmental awareness of the thoughts and feelings drifting through one’s mind — led by a certified teacher.

At the end of the yearlong study, the people who learned the mindfulness approach had greater improvements in sleep quality and fewer symptoms of insomnia, depression and fatigue than those who received standard care.

The lead author of the study, David S. Black, said mindfulness meditation probably helped settle the brain’s arousal systems. And unlike widely used sleep drugs, it does not have potentially severe side effects, said Dr. Black, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.

Our important disclaimer, of course: Ignore that stuff about “avoiding caffeine.”

I also think the final quote in the Times story is relevant to an Ashtanga practice: “As compared to attempting mindfulness practice for the first time on your own,” he said, “you are likely to gain the most benefit from a standardized course with an experienced teacher.”

Posted by Steve

Meditation ‘goes viral’

You’d be forgiven for thinking this newspaper story is from the New York Times.

It’s not, but it’s a close approximation via its Left Coast would-be competitor, the LA Times:

Meditation, primarily a 2,500-year-old form called mindfulness meditation that emphasizes paying attention to the present moment, has gone viral.

The unrelenting siege on our attention can take a good share of the credit; stress has bombarded people from executives on 24/7 schedules to kids who feel the pressure to succeed even before puberty. Meditation has been lauded as a way to reduce stress, ease physical ailments like headaches and increase compassion and productivity.

[snip]

When Suze Yalof Schwartz opened her pristine, white-walled West L.A. meditation studio nearly a year ago, she kept in mind just the sort of people Marturano knows well.

Unplug aims to be a place where “my husband, who’s a venture capitalist and has zero tolerance for woo-woo things, won’t walk out.” There are no zafu cushions or incense sticks. Instead, meditators come into the studio and take a sleek black folding floor chair — no sitting cross-legged required. The lighting is a pink-violet, inspired by the artist James Turrell.

Unplug appeals to the meditation skeptics, to “the people who don’t want to meditate but their shrinks told them they should,” said Schwartz, who calls herself a spiritual entrepreneur. The formula for classes is simple, she said: Tell people what the point is, show them how to do it.

Meditation, said Schwartz, who spent years as a makeover maven and fashion editor in New York, speaks to our moment.

“We’re all over-stimulated. It doesn’t matter whether you are 3 or 93. People are not going to the bathroom without their iPhones, and if they tell you they are, they’re lying,” she said. “We need a place to take a time out.”

I’m trying to decide if the always present “yoga/meditation/mindfulness for skeptics” theme really exists, exists to an extent or is largely at this point a creation of the storytellers — or of their subjects. And when we’ll move past it — and to what we’ll have moved.

Posted by Steve

Your brain on psychedelics and meditation

This one’s from a couple issues ago in The New Yorker, which mainly goes to show how far behind on my reading.

Journalist Michael Pollan explores the resurgence of medical/psychological investigation into psychedelic drugs — for decades now a difficult, if not verboten, area of research. In particular, researchers are looking at how carefully guided trips can help terminally ill patients better cope with death. We’ve mentioned Pollan before, mainly related to his investigations into food and diets.

One section in particular caught my attention:

He discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.) Just before Carhart-Harris published his results, in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher at Yale named Judson Brewer, who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.

If the default-mode network functions as the conductor of the symphony of brain activity, we might expect its temporary disappearance from the stage to lead to an increase in dissonance and mental disorder—as appears to happen during the psychedelic journey. Carhart-Harris has found evidence in scans of brain waves that, when the default-mode network shuts down, other brain regions “are let off the leash.”

What that says is that both psychedelics and meditation act on the same part of the brain, the area that scientists closely identify with our ego — our “I” that is doing all our looking and categorizing of our world. Also the one that has those fluctuations of the mind we are trying to slow via yoga.

It’s not a perfect fit, as obviously with the ego put on a brief holiday, other parts of the mind spin of their own accord. But … well, it was something. And the whole article is worth a look.

Posted by Steve