Friday, August 27, 2010

Internal Consistency - Part 1: Meditation

I haven't always been an atheist, you know. I was baptized Presbyterian. I went to an Episcopalian church with my grandmother every Sunday, where I served as an altar girl and helped out in the Sunday School. I never made it through confirmation classes, though. (Apparently they don't like it when you start quoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a seriously religious setting. Go figure, right?) I was baptized a second time as a Baptist when I went to church with a friend for a brief time. Through most of High School I was Wiccan. Heck, I was an ordained High Priestess. Once I got to college I floated around in limbo for a while, drifting between Paganism and Agnosticism. Eventually I realized that Science made the most sense to me, and chose to believe in reality. Reality is awesome.

'That's odd, BW.' You may be thinking. 'You don't usually talk about yourself in this blog.' Which is true, I actually try to avoid that. I'm exploring something relatively personal here though, and I think it needs some context. You see, during my Wiccan phase I learned a lot about meditation, herbal medicine, astrology and tarot cards. A lot of that knowledge stuck with me. I still meditate on occasion if I'm feeling wound a bit too tightly. I own several books on herbal remedies and can recommend a good tea to assist most minor discomforts. I know a 'How many X does it take to change a light bulb?' joke for each astrological sign. I've been doing tarot cards readings for 11 years now and am a member of the Hoggetowne Tarot Guild. We do readings at our local Renaissance Fair every year.

'Whoa, hold on BW...' you may be saying. 'You're an Atheist. A nonbeliever. A skeptic! How can you still believe in all of that New Age stuff?'

It's a tricky question. Are my thoughts on things like tarot cards and astrology consistent with a logical and scientific worldview? Am I rationalizing and compartmentalizing in order to hold on to my silly, harmless beliefs? Does it even matter one way or the other?

Obviously I think it does matter or I wouldn't be writing about it. Skepticism is important, and it isn't easy. (Read that article! Greta Christina is awesome.) Questioning things we are told, being wary of bias, investigating the source of the information...these things do not come naturally. You have to work at it. It is even more difficult to apply those principles to yourself and look critically at the things you believe. Why do I think the things I do? Do they really make sense, or am I just thinking that way because it's easy and makes me feel better? Well, time to practice what I preach.

Let's start with an easy one: meditation. I think my first experience with meditation was when I was a kid. My grandmother used to read us these bedtime 'stories' that were very much like meditative exercises. Basically, she would tell us to close our eyes and imagine floating outside of our bodies and experiencing the things described in the story, like flying above the world or wriggling through the roots of a plant. It was neat. When I was Wiccan, meditation was a big part of the rituals. We believed that by focusing our energy and visualizing certain things (deities, the sun and moon, forces of nature, etc.) we could affect them and be affected by them.

I haven't really thought seriously about meditation in a long time. Nowadays I mostly do it when I'm bored or can't sleep. I started doing a bit of research on it and even the general descriptions of meditation are pretty varied. It is practiced by at least a dozen spiritual faiths with different reasons and goals, but the general idea seems to be to focus or direct your mind for some benefit. The claims vary, from the ability to reach other planes or transcendental states to controlling your heartbeat and metabolism. The published research on meditation is plagued with poor methodology and conflicting results; sometimes they conclude that there is an observable change in a meditating person, sometimes they don't. Dang, I thought this one was going to be easy.

Ok. No matter how hard you concentrate on something, you cannot affect other people or the world around you just by thinking about it. So the real question here is whether or not meditation actually has an affect on the person doing it. I can cite my own experiences of meditation helping me get to sleep, but that is purely anecdotal evidence and I may be biased anyway. Scientifically, if the effect is not measurable and repeatable then it has very little credibility. Currently, there is insufficient evidence for me to accept the power of meditation to calm or control the body, at least beyond what just sitting still would do on it's own. It's possible that a well-designed study will come along and change my mind, though. For now, I think of meditation as a mental game, or a way to distract my mind so my body can relax. It would be pretty cool if there was more to it than that. I certainly used to think there was, but when evidence contradicts beliefs it's time to let them go.


  1. You said "No matter how hard you concentrate on something, you cannot affect other people or the world around you". Given your scientist status, I'm surprised to see you say that. Just because it hasn't been done yet under scientific scrutiny, certainly doesn't mean it can't be done. The brain is the least understood part of human anatomy. To say that it can't do something because we haven't figured out how to...that's calling the game before it's over.

  2. ...just by thinking about it." Forget scientific scrutiny, has this been done at all? What game am I calling, here? If there was some observable, unexplained phenomenon I would be confident that science would eventually find an explanation. Just because we don't currently understand something doesn't mean it's caused by something supernatural.