Beginner's Meditation for the No Bullshit Individual

[Expanded from a comment on Zvi's Beginners' Meditation post, and crossposted to my personal blog. Don't listen to me. Or anyone else. What does anyone even know about this subject? Just do it yourself.]

Zvi joined a beginners' meditation class and was frustrated to find it was an asinine social group. (Note that his title is plural and mine is singular.)

I feel for him. Meditation is an easy daily habit that's made hard by a bunch of superfluous stuff.

You don't need a class. Or a space. Or people. You really don't need people.  Or quiet. You don't need to sit down. All those things are fine but you don't need them.

Meditation can be practiced while walking, and if you’re the walking type, you’ll probably prefer it.

So take walks. It doesn't matter if the walk is peaceful. You can walk in a forest or a city. Personally, forests give me more inner distractions, cities more outer distractions, which lead to inner distractions, so ultimately it's the same exercise. It's the exercise of patiently pushing away distraction.

Do not focus on the breath. Focus on what’s right in front of you, what’s coming through your eyes. If you find yourself glazing over, or retreating to the inside of your head, or not paying attention to what’s in front of you, call that a distraction, and go back to paying attention to what’s in front of you. If you get tired of focusing on what’s coming through your eyes, focus on what’s coming through your ears, or sure, on your breath.

After a few weeks of this exercise, it will feel like you’ve built a new muscle in your head, one which allows you to turn away from your inner thoughts at will. Let's call it focus.

The mental focus muscle works much like a physical muscle, in the following ways:

  1. Barely noticeable until you start using it.
  2. Feels weird to exercise it for the first few weeks.
  3. Atrophies slowly.
  4. Retrains quickly.
  5. Can be over exercised.

All other results of meditation are either someone's personal growth that they got from having focus, or bullshit. Read about them if you want examples to guide your personal growth, or ignore them if you don't. Guides are nice, but they are not necessary.

The end.

40 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:52 AM
Select new highlight date
Moderation Guidelinesexpand_more

I don't think this guide goes into enough detail. I had read instructions many times that were essentially the same as this and attempted them consistently every day for weeks or months and made very little progress in terms of improving my attention. There was very little difference from if I had been following the instructions "just sit and relax for 15 minutes."

In my experience, the problem isn't that meditation is often treated as something that's too complex when actually it's very simple, it's that it's treated as something very simple when actually it's pretty complex.

What did help was reading "The Mind Illuminated," which breaks things down into much more detail. Attempting meditation with the instructions in that book was a very different experience from my earlier attempts. There was a very noticeable improvement in my ability to intentionally maintain my attention within the first few sessions. In fact I made such rapid progress that I stopped after a week because I wanted to take some time to reassess whether this was really a path I wanted to go down (the book provides instructions all the way to "awakening" or "enlightenment"). I'm currently still assessing.

Forgive my asking a somewhat rude question. I wouldn't ask it except in the context of this sort of "how you learn" discussion. Was "The Mind Illuminated" valuable to you because the scientific material helped break down some kind of pre-existing emotional resistance to a subject which seemed hokey? Is it possible that you previously had trouble meditating because the whole thing seemed made up or poorly justified and a piece of you wasn't willing to try until someone attached it to a science?

Also, how long have you been assessing (weeks, years, etc), and during your assessment phase, have you continued the practice you learned in that first week, or did you fully stop to assess?

Your questions aren't addressed to me but they might as well have been because I went through the same process as wunan.

I started out using vague online instructions and then the app Headspace. There was no real sense of progress with either approach. Headspace makes no real effort to teach you the theory of what it's trying to accomplish, and the session lengths are probably not long enough to make progress anyway.

In retrospect, Headspace is in some sense the exact wrong approach if your goal is meaningful progress in training your attention and coming to better understand your mind. It's analogous to a music teacher instructing you to just sit down and play some notes, any notes, for twenty minutes. It would be amazing if you made progress that way.

Like wunan, I read TMI and started actually making progress. Changes could be observed in and out of meditation. I backed away from meditating for a period of time because I became uncomfortable with some of the changes to my cognition. Eventually I re-read The Mind Illuminated and understood that I had been doing some things wrong, fixed that problem and resumed meditating, and the practice has been nothing but positive since then.

I also took the step of consciously choosing, from the outset, not to advance beyond Stage 8 of the progression outlined in the book, unless I reach that stage and then it seems really compelling that I ought to proceed. Everything up to Stage 8 seems desirable, while the stages after 8 seem to include some self-modifications that I wouldn't willingly choose, at least from where I'm sitting now.

It's analogous to a music teacher instructing you to just sit down and play some notes, any notes, for twenty minutes. It would be amazing if you made progress that way.

This is exactly how it felt for me -- I even remember thinking this exact same metaphor after practicing TMI and reflecting on the difference between it and my previous attempts.

Not identifying and properly responding to dullness. So, just meditating in persistent dullness. Also, not sleeping enough, thus the dullness. Fixed the sleep and then started addressing dullness properly when it came up.

Here's one more person whose meditation practice was really helped by The Mind Illuminated. For me, what you describe was definitely not the case. Rather my problem was that previous meditation instructions had taken me to a stage whose challenge (subtle dullness, in TMI's terms) I didn't know how to overcome, and then I ended up doing the wrong things over and over, blocking my progress. TMI gave me concrete instructions for what I should be doing to overcome that challenge, I followed them, and have been getting much farther since.

No problem, I don't think the question is rude. No, I didn't view it as hokey. I was actually very enthusiastic about it right from the start, but never made any progress. TMI was valuable to me because it provided much more granular instructions.

I stopped to reassess about 2 months ago and have not been meditating in that time.

Thanks, this was useful to learn. I'll try to keep in mind different learning styles in the future.

Related to my other comment:

I regularly take walks. To me, doing what this post describes seems like it would be actively detrimental, and would remove much of the value I get from taking walks—namely, that ideas come to me while I’m walking, creative solutions to problems reveal themselves, understanding is synthesized, insights generated; entire stories sometimes write themselves in my mind, while I’m taking a walk!

And you’re suggesting that I turn away from all of that, that I call all of that a distraction, and instead focus on what I’m seeing in front of me?! For the love of god, man, why?? The benefits from what you’re suggesting I do had better be truly, superhumanly enormous, to justify so great a sacrifice!

To your and habryka's comments:

I should probably not steal the pre-existing word "focus". I figured my meaning fell somewhere within the smear of existing meanings, but it sounds like it didn't, and we should use a different word.

The post neither pre-supposes an interest in meditation, nor supplies a convincing argument for its benefits. To me the tone of the piece indicates a sort of subtext: "if you feel like reading or trying, then read or try. If not, then don't." In my mind it's meant to offer the interested but skeptical a method with low activation energy that doesn't fail the outside view (ie look asinine or cultish).

With you, I failed to sell low activation energy, because your walks already have something that's not worth frittering away. So do mine, so it's worth being more explicit here in the comments: I spend maybe 5% of my total walk time meditating. The cost is not nothing, but it's small. The gain is an ability to capitalize on the ideas I have during the other 95%, by more effectively fixing on them during non-walk time.

I don't think I can demonstrate that value, can't provide evidence. What I can offer is another outside view argument: I'm one of the walking tribe (eg,, I walk for hours every week, I did not choose this lightly, and I still found it to be beneficial.

To paraphrase your third paragraph: Try or try not. There is no "do!". (Sorry.)

Nerdy people who are interested in meditation have a pre-existing advantage in their ability to concentrate, but can also struggle with the no-thought principle. However there is a lot of nuance to "no thought".

Creative and insightful thought is the last kind you would want to get rid of, and the last kind you are advised to get rid of. Honestly , how much of your thought is of that quality? And who wouldn't want to get rid of negative thoughts and mental static?

However there is a lot of nuance to “no thought”.

Sounds good. Let’s have it!

Honestly , how much of your thought is of that quality?

Most of it, I’d say.

And who wouldn’t want to get rid of negative thoughts and mental static?

That’s not what the post is describing, though.

Most of it, I’d say.

Then you are very unusual.

And who wouldn’t want to get rid of negative thoughts and mental static?

That’s not what the post is describing, though.

Are you sure?

And who wouldn’t want to get rid of negative thoughts and mental static?

That’s not what the post is describing, though.

Are you sure?

Yes, quite sure, because I can read.

Now, if you want to make the claim that doing what the post describes will result in, as a consequence / side effect / whatever, get rid of “negative thoughts and mental static”, fair enough. Is that the claim you’re making?

Let’s be clear: this would be an additional claim, one which was not contained in the post itself. In fact, the only thing that bugsbycarlin explicitly claimed (in a follow-up comment) as a benefit, was this:

The gain is an ability to capitalize on the ideas I have during the other 95%, by more effectively fixing on them during non-walk time.

Is that the same thing as “getting rid of negative thoughts and mental static”? Doesn’t sound like it to me. If this is meant to be the same thing, I’d like to hear an explanation of how they are the same.

What the post described, in any case, was getting rid, not of “negative thoughts and mental static”, but of creative thoughts, idea generation, etc.—just about the diametric opposite of “mental static”.

Meta: I am getting rather tired of the following style of discourse:

Person A: [says something inscrutable or bizarre]

Person B: You seem to be saying [inscrutable or bizarre thing], which seems inscrutable, and/or bizarre! What gives?!

Person A: Are you sure that’s what I’m saying? [raises eyebrows suggestively, doesn’t actually elaborate or explain further]

Now, there are some people who have such a long, excellent, and public track record of being insightful, intelligent, and clear-headed that when they say something seemingly inscrutable or bizarre, I think twice before I conclude that the fault is with the idea or the explanation of it, rather than with my ability to comprehend it. There are very, very few such people. If you’re wondering whether you are one of them—you’re not.

So please, folks, drop the mysterious inscrutability act. If you write something and people on Less Wrong—people who are clearly not dumb, who’ve been exposed to the ideas of the rationality meme-sphere (have read the Sequences, etc.), and are generally not “Joe off the street”—don’t get what the heck you’re talking about, then the fault is with you. Write more clearly. If someone asks for an explanation, explain. Otherwise, what was the point of writing the thing in the first place? Are you trying to communicate, or aren’t you?

Otherwise, what was the point of writing the thing in the first place? Are you trying to communicate, or aren’t you?

What if they don't have the skill necessary to explain it more clearly, but suspect that some percentage of the reading audience is willing to do enough interpretive work to understand what they're communicating anyway? In that case, their options are:

1) Don't post until they've developed enough skill to explain themselves to 100% of the audience. (Which in practice means: don't post ever, since the way you get the skill is by trying.)

2) Post anyway, and hope that some people get it.

#1 communicates with no one, and #2 communicates with at least some people, so if the goal is communication, #2 is the dominant strategy.

(For the record, I do think it's possible to explain this stuff better than most people do, and that it's annoying that this is done fairly rarely. But I also notice that it's a relatively small subset of readers here who are consistently the ones who don't understand.)

Is it a small subset who are the ones who don't understand, or is it a small subset who are the ones who complain out loud that they don't understand? I ask because I suspect the latter may be nearer the truth.

1) Don’t post until they’ve developed enough skill to explain themselves to 100% of the audience. (Which in practice means: don’t post ever, since the way you get the skill is by trying.)

Sounds good to me. It would be better if many people who do post such things, instead didn’t. (Here in particular, but also everywhere else.) Leave the explaining to people who know how to explain things—or who at least have the decency to respond to requests for clarifications with actual attempts to clarify rather than with smirking insinuations!

(By the way, you present the choice as binary, when in fact it’s anything but; you can, and should, not post until you’ve developed enough skill to explain yourself to most of the audience—not 100%, but much more than a mere handful!)

#1 communicates with no one, and #2 communicates with at least some people, so if the goal is communication, #2 is the dominant strategy.

No, no it is not. #2 adds noise. It impairs all other communication in a space / context. It muddies the waters, by confusing people, by giving them incorrect ideas about the topic in question, by inoculating them against the strongest version of the claim/argument/idea. It normalizes bad writing and muddled thinking. It ensures that double illusions of transparency become commonplace. It contributes to a degradation of norms of discussion and norms of evidence. It discourages questioning and critical inquiry as a practice and as a norm of how to respond to failures of understanding. It drives away clear thinkers and good writers, and reduces a forum’s ability to attract new such people. It is, in fact, a vastly inferior strategy to saying nothing at all.

We've had this discussion before, and I am not super interested in having it again right now, but on this point most of the people whose content contributions to this site I respect most, disagree with the approach you describe here, as does the current LW 2.0 team.

Allowing authors to post rough drafts and discuss initial ideas, before knowing whether they are comprehensible to others, is really important and a major goal of LessWrong 2.0. Applying the standard that you seem to be communicating here would have prevented the vast majority of good content being posted on this site, because from the inside it is very hard to know whether your perspective will make sense to others or not, and most of our top writers would respond to your comment with "sure, I guess I will just not post here then" (which most of them did).

Eliezer, Scott G., Nate and a lot of the other top writers we’ve talked to (or who commented about the LessWrong culture somewhere publicly) have reported that LessWrong is a place that feels too hostile to post to, because of attitudes like the one you describe in this comment. Almost every major author we've interviewed has explicitly asked for some way to create content on LessWrong that is lower stakes and that allows for an explorative discussion instead of everyone just focusing on tearing apart their ideas. There has to be a place and a stage for exposing your idea to intense scrutiny, but we also need a place for explorative discussion and I am not happy about you trying to enforce a frame of intense scrutiny on every single post.

Said, I appreciate your contributions and think you often make good points, and I was particularly happy about your contributions and concerns in the recent moderation discussion. But both the fact that you never created any top-level posts and are not actively contributing to the idea-generation of this community, lead me to think that you vastly underestimate the stress and cost associated with having every idea of yours exposed to intense scrutiny from the very beginning. You are welcome to enforce your norms of constant intense scrutiny on your own personal blog, but right now, I am not happy with you enforcing this in every single nook and cranny of this page. I think you yourself are driving away many clear thinkers and good writers, and that this is making the site worse overall.

If a post is in curated, or the author explicitly asks for detailed scrutiny, then I think your scrutiny is well-placed and should continue (and I do soon want to have a better structure that communicates more clearly in what parts of the site authors should expect their ideas to come under intense scrutiny).

If the post is just on the frontpage or on someone's personal page, I think it would be better for the site overall if you would change the way you comment to be significantly less harsh, more welcoming to new users, and to generally include more effort on your side to try to understand the point the author is making (and otherwise to abstain from commenting).

I would like to discuss this more, but it is definitely the case that I’ve spent a really massive amount of time over the last month being involved in meta-discussion, and that this has been delaying a lot of important engineering work on the site. I hope I can get around to giving this whole topic a more thorough treatment at some later point in time, but for the sake of us finally launching the meetup system, I will have to keep it at this comment and won’t be available to discuss further. I do really apologize for that, and it sucks, and I wish I had more time to do all the things that need to get done.

I very much agree in principle with your last section, but I disagree with you that this was an instance of the OP saying something inscrutable or bizarre. My intuitive reaction is that you are being willfully obtuse/uncharitable/hostile - though I realize this is very possibly false, and that it is simply the case that different things are more or less clear/helpful to different people. But that should be a reason for you not to insist that if you personally don't understand or benefit from something, then nobody else does and the post is Objectively Bad!

The complaint in the grandparent was aimed at TAG, not at the OP.

There is such a thing as assumed common knowledge. When two psychiatrists discuss Xanax, they are probably not going to say "Xanax, which by the way is a tranquilizer, ...."

Have I missed something, or does this guide not address the question of why you would want to do this?

He does give a paragraph to the benefits, though I am not sure whether the goal of this post is to convince the reader of the benefits of meditation, or whether it's for people who do think that meditation is valuable and are interested in getting into it. The single paragraph is:

After a few weeks of this exercise, it will feel like you’ve built a new muscle in your head, one which allows you to turn away from your inner thoughts at will. Let's call it focus.

If the goal is not to convince the reader of the benefits, then sure, fair enough; but as far as the bit you quoted goes—that’s not a benefit. It’s a result, but what is not clear to me is what good that result does. (Analogy: “What is the purpose of what you’re doing right now?” “I’m making a widget.” “What for?” “To have a widget.” This is obviously an unhelpful response, right? We’d like to know what the widget is good for—what would motivate someone to make one. And just so, in this case.)

While I think the benefits of meditation are a fine topic to discuss, I don’t think this post not covering that is a problem with this post, and forcing the author to justify themselves on this dimension seems like a weirdly strong requirement to me.

Oh, no, that’s totally fair. However if that’s the case then I would prefer a disclaimer to that effect be added to the post (like, “I assume here that meditating is beneficial; discussing whether that’s true is beyond the scope of this post”). (And, if in addition to that, there was at least, like, a link to something explaining what the benefits are, or a sentence alluding to what sort of benefits are being assumed, then that would be super helpful!)

I'm still confused about how "the ability to focus" doesn't count as a benefit, or is a particularly confusing one.

Quite simply, because it seems to me very much like an equivocation is taking place, on the meaning of ‘focus’.


After a few weeks of this exercise, it will feel like you’ve built a new muscle in your head, one which allows you to turn away from your inner thoughts at will. Let’s call it focus.

Isn’t this a strange thing to say? Why would we call this thing ‘focus’? The word ‘focus’ already has a common usage, one with which we’re all familiar. And now we’re being asked to refer to a brand-new concept by the term?

So, at best, this is an unfortunate word usage. In such a case, what we have is one word, ‘focus’, that has gained an additional referent (if we were writing a dictionary, we’d need to include one more entry for the meaning of ‘focus’ than before). This new ‘focus’ has basically nothing to do with the thing that most people refer to by the commonplace word ‘focus’ (much like a point of a conic at which rays reflected from a curve or surface converge is one thing, and the concentration of attention is another thing, and the indicator of the currently active element in a user interface is a third thing [wiktionary]).

In this case, “the ability to focus” has no obvious value. The claim that it has some value has to be made explicitly, and defended on its own merits. Since this ‘focus’ is a totally new phenomenon, which we’re encountering for the first time, and which is not identical to any of the things which we have previously referred to by the word ‘focus’, we have no particular reason to expect that being able to do this new ‘focusing’ thing is good, or bad, or anything.

But there’s another possibility: that the choice of the word ‘focus’ is deliberate, and is meant, essentially, to serve as a motte-and-bailey. The motte, of course, is just the quoted part of the OP—the claim that “here is a new thing; we’ll call it, oh, let’s say ‘focus’, why not”. The bailey—unstated, but implied (and implied clearly enough that you, for instance, got exactly this meaning from the post)—is that this new thing that we’ve decided to call ‘focus’ is actually the same thing as one of the other things that we have previously called ‘focus’ (and it’s obvious which referent of the word we’re meant to identify this new phenomenon with—it’s not the one about the conic sections, that’s for sure!).

And if that is the implied meaning… then I call shenanigans. If the OP wishes to make the claim that this “new muscle in your head, one which allows you to turn away from your inner thoughts at will” is in fact the same sort of ‘focus’ as the one that lets me (for instance) write a term paper for 6 hours straight without getting distracted by Reddit, or play certain sorts of concentration-requiring games more effectively, or more easily spot mistakes when editing a short story, or do any of the other things that are improved by that which we commonly refer to as ‘focus’—then let him make that claim explicitly. (And it would be one heck of a claim! Huge, as they say, if true.)

Alas, looks like I didn't edit my comment fast enough. After rereading I wasn't actually sure anymore whether the post was trying to argue for the benefits of meditation, so I think in this case your comment seems justified.

Yet another bad description of what meditation and why meditation. I haven't read tmi but I did read Sam Harris waking up and get some clues in the right direction. Tmi on my reading list soon.

Also generally a warning that you might not like enlightenment if you find it.

There are many non ordinary states of mind, and not all of them are good. Do not call the first one you encounter enlightenment.

Also generally a warning that you might not like enlightenment if you find it.

I'm don't necessarily disagree (I'm still looking into this topic), but what are you basing this on?

Personal experience -

Several links in there including the pnse paper. I didn't get all the way there but I saw enough to know its not for me. I still carry around some of the state of mind.

See also my dojo on Zen koans.

It sounds to me like most of the negative experiences you described were a result of the pills and are not associated with enlightenment:

I go off citrulline malate for 48 hours.  And it hits me.  Lethargy gone.  Cloudy headed thinking gone.  Ability to be productive returns.  I spend 10 hours at my desk in a row.  I write several thousand words.  I send off 10 emails and clear my inbox.  I power through my to-do list.  I stick to my diet for the first time in months.  I send emails, I round up outstanding notes, reorganise myself.  Reset my GTD system and power through for a day.

I've never heard of lethargy, cloudy headed thinking, and an inability to be productive as side effects of enlightenment.

The other symptoms you described later in the post, like calmness even in the face of stressors, don't seem negative to me as long as you don't abuse this ability in order to ignore problems. Also, I think the calmness associated with enlightenment might feel significantly different than what you experienced. A lot of people talk about the importance of "responding skillfully" to different situations, meaning feeling anger when you should feel anger, sadness when you should feel sadness, etc, and then being able to let go of those states once they're no longer helpful. This seems different than the vasodilator-induced state of calm you described.

not associated with enlightenment Enlightenment states are tricky to communicate about. mainly because they don't come from using words to point at them. I can't "prove" I was there. All I have is my confidence.

You can try to interpret my experience to fit your narrative or you could take what I say at face value.

You may not like calmness in the face of stresses and calmness in the face of everything - once you have it. It would be a shame to have spent so long "getting there" (depending on your method) only to be disappointed. (There's a joke here about Taoism too, if you successfully get the joke you might already be enlightened)

or you could take what I say at face value

ie, your narrative.