Meditation for Practical Skeptics

I have been meditating on and off since I was a teenager. When I mention it to others, though, they’re often somewhat surprised since I don’t really seem like “the type”. I’m not into eastern religions, energy fields, chakras, or any other form of mysticism. In fact, I’m a very practical, secular, engineer. To me, meditation is a purely practical, secular activity which helps me gain more control over my body and mind.

It’s worth saying what I actually mean by meditation, as there are a lot of different things which fit under that heading. I specifically mean the activity of sitting quietly while keeping one’s thoughts focused on a single idea. Most often, this is just following the rhythm of one’s own breathing, but lots of things could be a good focus.

This is a lot harder than it sounds, though, as you will find a constant stream of distractions trying to draw your attention away. This could be an itch, being a bit hungry, thinking about what you’re going to do next, or worrying about something on your mind. It might even be just some weird random thoughts which keep popping into your head. Whatever it is, it’s surprisingly difficult to sit for any length of time without thinking about anything in particular.

In fact, the distractions are an expected (and even essential) part of meditation. The essential skill is to be able to retain some part of your mind which isn’t distracted, and use that to notice that you’ve become distracted. Then, stop briefly to merely notice the distraction, and allow your attention to glide back to the focus of your meditation. With practice, this gentle re-direction of thought becomes very fast and natural. Once you get really proficient at it, it becomes possible to keep your focus for longer and longer between distractions.

This ability to focus is, for me, one of the two primary benefits of meditating. The more I practice this skill, the more I can quickly and gently turn my attention away from something I don’t want to think about at that moment, and back to something I do want to think about.

The most common time this comes up is when I’m trying to get some work done. This skill allows me to redirect my attention back to my task at hand whenever I get distracted. This allows me to more readily slip into that “flow” state where complex work becomes easy (e.g., writing some difficult bit of code, or a blog post). Or, if its a day where my brain seems all over the place, it at least gives me a tool to try to corral it back where it belongs.

The second time this ability to redirect my thoughts becomes most useful, though, is when I’m feeling stressed about something. My stress often takes the form of endlessly circling around a difficult issue which is outside of my control. I will keep coming back to the issue and imagining worse and worse outcomes until I’m at the breaking point of anxiety and tension. I find that the skills built by meditation allow me to acknowledge the stressful thought, and dismiss it by replacing it with a more productive one.

The second primary benefit I get from meditating is the mental reset it offers. Each morning, just after I’ve finished washing up and getting dressed for the day, I sit down for ten minutes and meditate. For me, this creates a sense of absolute calm: mentally and emotionally. In fact, I’d say it goes further than that: it creates an anchor. No matter how much my day gets stormy and tries to toss me about, meditating helps me carry over some of that sense of calm, cheerfulness, and rationality underneath.

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If you’re interested in trying meditation (and I highly recommend it), I recommend downloading the Headspace app. It comes with a free set of guided, 10-minute, meditations lead by an expert. The meditations are completely free of any mystical elements, woozy music, or gimmicks. Just a gentle voice walking you through the exercise. You can stick with the free material as long as you want, or sign up for a subscription (I have) to get access to other exercises. I’ve enjoyed it quite a lot, and I’ve gotten a lot of benefit from it.

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