I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Humboldt Skeptics for many years (actually we have no cards or even a formal organization). I even attended a national skeptics conference in Las Vegas back in 2013. So, I pride myself in questioning things that smack of “woo”, nonsense, accepted wisdom with no evidence. But years earlier, before I converted, I dabbled in enough spiritual pursuits to earn my bonafides as a hippie-dippie Northern California boomer. Most of my non-Western dabbling was grounded in the body: Yoga, Tai Chi, Aikido. I loved them all, but finally, abandoned them at some point.
And now, in spite of my hard-earned skepticism, I’m back at it. But this time, with a decidedly non-physical approach: Sitting. I am giving mindfulness meditation a try, and I am looking for evidence of its efficacy, not necessarily in scientific evidence (there’s not much), but in personal experience. Is meditation changing me for the better? Am I less anxious? Can I concentrate on one thing for longer? Can I notice and separate myself from moments of anger? Am I as Dan Harris says “…less of an asshole?” These are the kind of changes I would hope to see from regular practice over time. These are some of the promises it holds.
After several months of practice and study, I can say that small changes are beginning to happen. Am I imagining them? Perhaps. Is it a placebo affect? That’s a distinct possibility. However, placebos are used in medicine because they work.
I’m not really looking for enlightenment. Yet. I’m not following a particular spiritual path. As an atheist that holds no interest. But mind and consciousness are certainly mysteries to be explored, and my own mind is just as good a lab as another. Still, I remain skeptical. I don’t want to delude myself. One of my skeptical heroes, Steven Novella wrote a good blog post about the lack of solid scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation has any special qualities that support some of the outlandish claims made by some proponents:
But I am not convinced by the existing research that there is any other phenomenon at work here, that there is something specific to mindfulness, or that it has benefits beyond other similar behaviors. There may be – perhaps there is something specific about certain mindfulness practices that we can isolate and study. We are simply not there yet.
Further, public hype supporting a billion dollar industry has gone way passed the existing evidence.
On the other hand, one of my other skeptic/atheist heroes, Sam Harris, wrote a whole book about the topic (Waking Up) which convinced me to give it a try. If you’re curious and you’re a skeptic, this might be a place to start. I’m about to read Dan Harris’ new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. That pretty much describes me.
What do you think? Is it all a bunch of new age baloney? Is there something there? Is it just the latest trend that will pass when a new one comes along?
When I was living in the Sierras in the early 70s, one of my housemates was entranced reading “Be Here Now”, the new age classic by Baba Ram Das. He was so entranced he didn’t notice that the lighted coal from his cigarette had fallen onto the sofa and was quietly burning a hole into the interior. Only when the entire living area was engulfed in smoke, did he call out in panic for help dragging the thing out on the deck and soaking it with with a hose.