Mindful of mindfulness

Sep 25 JDN 2459848

I have always had trouble with mindfulness meditation.

On the one hand, I find it extremely difficult to do: if there is one thing my mind is good at, it’s wandering. (I think in addition to my autism spectrum disorder, I may also have a smidgen of ADHD. I meet some of the criteria at least.) And it feels a little too close to a lot of practices that are obviously mumbo-jumbo nonsense, like reiki, qigong, and reflexology.

On the other hand, mindfulness meditation has been empirically shown to have large beneficial effects in study after study after study. It helps with not only depression, but also chronic pain. It even seems to improve immune function. The empirical data is really quite clear at this point. The real question is how it does all this.

And I am, above all, an empiricist. I bow before the data. So, when my new therapist directed me to an app that’s supposed to train me to do mindfulness meditation, I resolved that I would in fact give it a try.

Honestly, as of writing this, I’ve been using it less than a week; it’s probably too soon to make a good evaluation. But I did have some prior experience with mindfulness, so this was more like getting back into it rather than starting from scratch. And, well, I think it might actually be working. I feel a bit better than I did when I started.

If it is working, it doesn’t seem to me that the mechanism is greater focus or mental control. I don’t think I’ve really had time to meaningfully improve those skills, and to be honest, I have a long way to go there. The pre-recorded voice samples keep telling me it’s okay if my mind wanders, but I doubt the app developers planned for how much my mind can wander. When they suggest I try to notice each wandering thought, I feel like saying, “Do you want the complete stack trace, or just the final output? Because if I wrote down each terminal branch alone, my list would say something like ‘fusion reactors, ice skating, Napoleon’.”

I think some of the benefit is simply parasympathetic activation, that is, being more relaxed. I am, and have always been, astonishingly bad at relaxing. It’s not that I lack positive emotions: I can enjoy, I can be excited. Nor am I incapable of low-arousal emotions: I can get bored, I can be lethargic. I can also experience emotions that are negative and high-arousal: I can be despondent or outraged. But I have great difficulty reaching emotional states which are simultaneously positive and low-arousal, i.e. states of calm and relaxation. (See here for more on the valence/arousal model of emotional states.) To some extent I think this is due to innate personality: I am high in both Conscientiousness and Neuroticism, which basically amounts to being “high-strung“. But mindfulness has taught me that it’s also trainable, to some extent; I can get better at relaxing, and I already have.

And even more than that, I think the most important effect has been reminding and encouraging me to practice self-compassion. I am an intensely compassionate person, toward other people; but toward myself, I am brutal, demanding, unforgiving, even cruel. My internal monologue says terrible things to me that I wouldnever say to anyone else. (Or at least, not to anyone else who wasn’t a mass murderer or something. I wouldn’t feel particularly bad about saying “You are a failure, you are broken, you are worthless, you are unworthy of love” to, say, Josef Stalin. And yes, these are in fact things my internal monologue has said to me.) Whenever I am unable to master a task I consider important, my automatic reaction is to denigrate myself for failing; I think the greatest benefit I am getting from practicing meditation is being encouraged to fight that impulse. That is, the most important value added by the meditation app has not been in telling me how to focus on my own breathing, but in reminding me to forgive myself when I do it poorly.

If this is right (as I said, it’s probably too soon to say), then we may at last be able to explain why meditation is simultaneously so weird and tied to obvious mumbo-jumbo on the one hand, and also so effective on the other. The actual function of meditation is to be a difficult cognitive task which doesn’t require outside support.

And then the benefit actually comes from doing this task, getting slowly better at it—feeling that sense of progress—and also from learning to forgive yourself when you do it badly. The task probably could have been anything: Find paths through mazes. Fill out Sudoku grids. Solve integrals. But these things are hard to do without outside resources: It’s basically impossible to draw a maze without solving it in the process. Generating a Sudoku grid with a unique solution is at least as hard as solving one (which is NP-complete). By the time you know a given function is even integrable over elementary functions, you’ve basically integrated it. But focusing on your breath? That you can do anywhere, anytime. And the difficulty of controlling all your wandering thoughts may be less a bug than a feature: It’s precisely because the task is so difficult that you will have reason to practice forgiving yourself for failure.

The arbitrariness of the task itself is how you can get a proliferation of different meditation techniques, and a wide variety of mythologies and superstitions surrounding them all, but still have them all be about equally effective in the end. Because it was never really about the task at all. It’s about getting better and failing gracefully.

It probably also helps that meditation is relaxing. Solving integrals might not actually work as well as focusing on your breath, even if you had a textbook handy full of integrals to solve. Breathing deeply is calming; integration by parts isn’t. But lots of things are calming, and some things may be calming to one person but not to another.

It is possible that there is yet some other benefit to be had directly via mindfulness itself. If there is, it will surely have more to do with anterior cingulate activation than realignment of qi. But such a particular benefit isn’t necessary to explain the effectiveness of meditation, and indeed would be hard-pressed to explain why so many different kinds of meditation all seem to work about as well.

Because it was never about what you’re doing—it was always about how.