Here’s a confession: To me, meditation seems great in principle, but it appeals to me not at all. I don’t actually want my mind to be still. I love the feeling of constant mental engagement.
This is heresy, I know, but here’s the truth: meditation seems boring, and boredom is stressful. The picture above appears to be very peaceful, but I’d rather be the guy in this picture:
I would even say that thinking= relaxation. My (decidedly unscientific) evidence? The surest way for me to fall asleep at night is to read a very absorbing book.
Of course, a constantly running mind is a problem if you spend your time ruminating on your troubles. But what if you’re just plain thinking? What’s so bad about that?
Committed meditators, please feel free to show me the error of my ways. I’m genuinely curious about this.
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I’d venture a guess that meditation is best for people who *are* constantly ruminating on their troubles, or who spend so much time thinking that they’re never just living in the moment.
I would not call myself a committed meditator, but I’ve done it occasionally and do find it relaxing. I also find reading a good book relaxing, and I do find deep thinking relaxing as long as I’m not doing either of the things I described in the previous paragraph. So for me I guess it’s about balance.
I suspect some committed meditators would say meditation is *not* about not thinking, but rather about letting your thoughts go by, observing them rather than judging them or obsessing on them.
No, if you’re happy with the way your mind works, then I don’t think there’s any reason to meditate, unless out of curiosity.
I guess I value meditation for three reasons. First, I just had no idea what was actually going on it there — what I thought I was thinking and what I was really thinking were very, very different things — and so it’s been a series of really startling discoveries.
Second, my habitual patterns of thought were obsessive and unserviceable. I was unhappy a lot and couldn’t get myself to do the things I thought I ought to do. A lot of procrastinating and compulsive eating & things like that. Meditation helped a lot with that (trying to exert my will-power, on the other hand, was utterly unhelpful.)
Third, there are, very occasionally and unpredictably, breakthroughs into an ecstatic luminosity which are like — oh, like being in love at its best. Quite wonderful.
But it’s definitely boring and stressful and just plain hard work. I can’t imagine why anyone who felt at ease in their mind would go to all that trouble! And don’t see why they should.
I adore both and it has taken some work to reconcile that. By nature, I’m a thinker and also a worrier. Unlike you, thinking isn’t always calming for me. Teaching myself to quiet those thoughts was necessary and took effort. When I’m in a typical cerebral mode, it also feels good to turn it off and seek quiet. When I’m locked in a problem solving mode, I need motion. I view my physical and mental exercise similarly. There are times when my mind and body need relative stillness (walking, yoga, quiet meditation). Other times, my mind and body seek motion (mental and physical cardio). For me, it is calming to to switch gears and not think, but the key is being able to efficiently get into that space. Otherwise, it is a stressful exercise. For help with that, I suggest guided imagery because it engages brain into stillness. It takes the “boring, and boredom is stressful” out of the project.
I agree with Julie and Dale. I tend to ruminate. When I’m in that anxious state, thinking is painful. Everything I turn my attention to takes on a negative tone. I feel like King Midas, except everything I touch turns to ash, not gold. Meditation helps slow my mind down and lets me see the rumination for what it is- negative tapes endlessly playing in my mind. I have to say loosing though, myself in a book is another antidote.
When I’m not in that ruminating state there is nothing better, or more human, than following a line of thought. Standing on the sidelines of an event, feeling comfortable and just absorbing the atmosphere and observing the scene is delicious too. Maybe that’s contemplation rather than thinking. I think introverts can be experts at both.
I actually enjoy either one. I would say that I lean a bit towards deep thinking over meditation, but the ration might be 60/40, respectively.
I don’t think it is necessary to divide “thinking” and “meditating” into two distinct activities. We think better and we quiet our minds by not multitasking. Every day should have some time for non-multitasking. Ideally, that time should be about 24 hours.
Thought provoking post! I agree with Dale, the point if meditation is to observe thoughts I an unattached manner, not to stop thinking. It’s like having a different relationship with your thoughts. Meditation also helps you become aware of your thoughts as they arise, so you aren’t necessarily unconsciously
Driven by them. In this way, you can actually evaluate your thinking better!
Oh dear me, no, meditation is not better or worse than deep thinking, it is something completely different.
The thing about thinking is that one thinks with one’s body. So when thinking, one can frown, tap a finger, or scratch one’s head. The purpose of this is to distract intruding thoughts. When I meditate, the body keeps still, so that the intruding thoughts has time to surface and be allowed to dissipate. This means that the body rests, too.
It depends on your definition of meditation. Biblical meditation is filling your mind with thoughts…focusing on the right things…not emptying your mind. I meditate by filling my mind, not emptying it.
I’ve had a lot of trouble getting into traditional meditation, too. I seem to do better with less traditional forms of meditation, like running for instance. I did hot yoga for a while, which was probably the closest to regular meditation I’ve ever gotten. Neither running nor yoga come naturally to me (though I totally fell in love with hot yoga), so they require a single-minded focus on what I’m doing rather than the constant bouncing around the rest of my day entails.
I also try to unplug completely (no internet, no e-mail, no IM, no twitter, no phone) for at least an hour every Friday to read a book. I read a little every day, but it’s usually in 5- to 20-minute bursts. Taking an extended period of time accomplishes the same sort of thing as running/yoga, except it goes one further by letting my brain escape from my own thought-streams and into someone else’s for a while.
(By the way, I’m absolutely loving your blog. Always thought-provoking and interesting. I’ve been recommending it to all my introvert friends. Keep up the good work!)
Susan, I have dedicated my latest post to you.
I think I remember from my reading, that Joseph Campbell could not *do* meditation. And he was one of the most brilliant of minds, I’ve ever read or heard of. So that makes me *feel better,* that I never mastered meditation either.
Perhaps I can’t get my Western mind *around* such an Eastern thing, as meditation, etc.
What’s the very old saying? “It takes all kinds…” Or something like that.
There are different types of mediation - Zen is more the still/empty your mind. But there are others that sound like your idea of deep thinking. Some focus on thinking on a specific topic. Others focus on observing what is happening at that time - which can include letting your mind wander to what is that, more thinking on that.
So, it could just be that you have not found the form of meditation that appeals to you.
There are so many types of meditation. I had a book that listed lots and lots of them, and the character of some of them was so vastly different from some of the others. There is a reflective meditation where you ARE doing some serious power thinking. The definition of the word meditation is pretty wide open I guess. I remember seeing that word used in literature and philosophy classes, in the readings, ‘Meditations on ___’ this and that. Maybe it’s best not to get stuck on a limited definition of meditation. But I agree that if you have found a mental melody that you are happy with, you are waaaay ahead of the game. Keep going with what works for you.
You have now meditated on meditation. Hahalol.
I’ve done both meditation and deep thinking; I gave up the first and continue the latter. I’ll quote John Horgan:
“The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation’s effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does. Meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.”
My intuition is that the more introverted you are, the less useful meditation is. So my answer to the post’s title is definitely, yes.
Funny, since I read The Happiness Hypothesis, I’ve wanted to badly to be able to meditate, but I’ve never been successful in clearing my mind. I appreciate the insights from all the commenters here, as I always thought the empty-your-mind meditation was the only kind. I learn so much from this blog!
I find it curious that your upcoming book is entitled, “QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” yet you are not a believer in STILLNESS: The power of meditation for a brain that can’t stop thinking.
Both quiet and stillness ask that we listen. Quiet allows us to listen to others; stillness allows us to listen to ourselves. Stillness requires that we slow down and focus inward - noticing our internal thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without analysis, attachment or judgement.
Deep thinking is neither better than or worse than meditation - just as the color blue is neither better than or worse than the color red. They are just different. Deep thinking is more analytical (left brain) and meditation is more intuitive (right brain). Both are necessary for balance.
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Last year I received a bit of meditation instruction and was shocked to discover meditation (or at least this type) was not at all what I thought it was. This meditation was entirely about learning to be in the present moment and had nothing to do with the mind being some kind of blank slate. In the moment is where I have learned the most about myself. I have learned to use this wherever I am- while walking the dog, on the bus, doing the dishes, and have experienced incredible sensations of happiness and graditude.
Kim, your words, “Quiet allows us to listen to others; stillness allows us to listen to ourselves” describe exactly my experience.
“There is general concern about what the fast pace of society is doing to our mental well-being. Books and magazines are full of advice on how we can learn to be less stressed, lower the demands on ourselves, and take life easier: slow cities, slow food, time for reflection, and so forth. But this book sends an opposing and far more optimistic message. It proposes that we must also acknowledge our thirst for information, stimulation, and mental challenges. It is arguably when we determine our limits and find an optimal balance between cognitive demand and ability that we not only achieve deep satisfaction but also develop our brain’s capacity the most.”
From the introduction to “The Overflowing Brain” – Torkel Klingberg, MD, PhD, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Stockholm Brain Institute (0xford University Press, 2009)
[...] A thoughtful reader just sent this in, in response to the post and discussion on meditation vs. deep thinking: [...]
I’d like to add one thing to what has been said so far.
Some people—or should I say: most of us introverts—are way too much ‘in our heads’ all the time. This means being too rational, too detached from our feelings, emotions, intuition, from our body, from all things physical. In this unbalanced state, we tend to neglect the physical and emotional side of our thoughts, because we simply don’t perceive them (anymore.) The consequence is physical and emotional stress—from jaw-clenching to depression—that we fail to account as flip sides of our ‘deep thoughts.’
The purpose of a practice such as meditation, or mindfulness, is to switch gears in the mind, to have our analytical side consciously give up the reins for a little while. For some of us, this has all sorts of benefits, because it’s a move towards balance. By the same token, I suppose there could be some people for whom it may be an unbalancing act. I’d like to meet such a person, I’m sure I’d find her fascinating!
There is no “error of my ways.” I meditate one hour each day in the Vipassana tradition. There are many different forms of meditation and mindfulness. There is no right way. Stay with your reading an absorbing book. Your “technique” leads to a quiet night. Mine leads me to a quiet day.
The ability to navigte our own experiential states is probably a learned expertise which builds on particular dispositions and preferences, in the way that other activities do. There seems to be good evidence that different states do benefit different kinds of activity. The difficulty is that we lack a refined taxonomy or model of experiential states, so we tend to either use very crude stand-ins, like the generic term “meditation’, or else we are left to try to learn the byzantine systems of cultures that have seriously studied consciousness but without the benefit of sciences that might help bring biological order to their findings. A few folks have ventured into this gap, folks like Tart and Austin and Csikszentmihalyi, and their efforts are worth reading about. Introversion probably steers us toward some states rather than others for particular classes of activity, but I think it would be a gross mischaracterization to say that introverts can’t or shouldnt “meditate”. Think of mindfulness for example as a kind of juice you can learn to turn on in almost any sctivity by changing the way you are using your attention. It might help, or it might detract, it might be satisfying or it might lead to frustration. Learning to operate your own brain in a more refined way is a skill and an expertise, and methods of “meditation” are jst specific tools to aid in aquiring those self-regulation abilities. Your personality will of course guide you to soe methods more than others.
“I don’t actually want my mind to be still.” It is just the opposite for me. I try very hard to get out of my head sometimes. When my thoughts go on and on endlessly in a cycle, without ever reaching a conclusion (rather solution), I do wish dearly that there were some way to stop thinking…to quieten my mind.
However this is not always the case. I do like to think deeply about things I like for a long time. But if we start thinking about something all the time we tend to become obsessed about it and may get frustrated and angry.
Meditation is not at all boring. It is, in fact, just the opposite. I could say it is an ecstatic feeling. It is total bliss and very relaxing too.
Thinking is not always equal to relaxation. I do enjoy reading books and thinking. In fact thinking and getting a person to discuss about those things which matter very much to me is one of my favorite things to do. But the deep calm, peace and serenity I feel after meditating is simply great, indescribable. One has to experience it in order to truly understand it. However if some wonderful thinking is going on in our mind, it would be better to continue thinking those thoughts than to force our mind to be quiet in order to meditate. That will be frustrating too. I suggest we meditate when our thoughts start slowing down naturally. And meditation is not always stopping our thoughts, but learning to view them impersonally.
In Hinduism, it said that we can reach God through any of the following three ways - Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge), Karma Yoga (discipline of action) and Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion). I would like to associate Jnana Yoga with deep thinking and Bhakti Yoga with meditation, not fully, but to an extent. And it is said that Jnana Yoga is the hardest and Bhakti Yoga the easiest among the three ways. Please note that I was not trying to propagate any religion or anything through this paragraph. In fact I think any activity, not only thinking, if done with sincerity and full concentration, becomes equivalent to meditation. But it is rather difficult for us to give our full concentration to one thing. We are constantly interrupted by other people or things or even our own unwanted thoughts. I am not saying it is impossible to concentrate fully but that most of us do find it rather difficult. I also think that introverts have some advantage in this aspect. Maybe we are able to concentrate 99% most of the time if we are left alone or uninterrupted by others. So I would like to conclude by saying that deepest thinking = true meditation.
I would like to add some more to my previous comment. I am not very good at meditation and I have meditated only a few times. It is hard work for me. But once I have experienced a special feeling during meditation. It was a very happy, grateful, serene and lovely feeling. No. It was so much more than that. It was almost like feeling that everything is perfect, it always was and always will be. What I have described is inaccurate because it is not exactly a describable feeling. There is simply no name for it. The best I could say is that it is the best feeling I have known. I have felt the same thing two more times when I saw my most beloved person too.