The following is a reprint of an interview with the Reddit community that occurred on Sunday, Feb 15, 2015. You can find the original here. I’ve corrected some typos, added some links, and so on, for your reading pleasure.
My name is Michael Taft and for over 30 years, I have studied, written about, and taught mindfulness meditation. While I’ve traveled to the east, meditated in Zen temples in Japan, yogi caves in India, logged thousands of hours at meditation retreats, and am personally interested in the religious aspects of mediation practices, I am also a lifelong science geek. As such, I have spent an equal amount of time studying the science and psychology of mindfulness. And I frequently teach mindfulness meditation to skeptical, secular practitioners at places like Google.
I firmly believe that one does not have to have any interest or investment in spiritual trappings to get significant benefits from mindfulness meditation. In fact, I’m currently writing about about this approach in a book, called The Mindful Geek: Secular Mindfulness for Smart Skeptics.
I have also been a producer for a meditation publishing company. While there, I was the producer and interviewer behind Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything,one of Wilson’s last interviews before he died. I also co-authored a book with Peter Baumann (former member of the seminal electronica band Tangerine Dream) called Ego: The Fall of the Twin Towers and the Rise of an Enlightened Humanity, and wrote and published a book entitled, Nondualism: A Brief History of a Timeless Concept.
I love talking about all aspects of meditation in general, mindfulness meditation in specific, spirituality, religious skepticism, what it was like to interview Robert Anton Wilson, and more… ASK ME ANYTHING!
garethbranwyn: Can you describe what “mindfulness” meditation is, as opposed to just meditation? Is it a particular school? Technique?
Michael W. Taft: The answer to this question is long and complicated. But the short answer is that meditation in general can involve anything from pure concentration practices, to visualizations, to mantras, etc. Mindfulness practice, on the other hand, is a subset of meditation (i.e. it’s a kind of meditation) that involves paying a lot of attention to moment by moment sensory experience. I would say it’s more of a suite or group of related techniques, rather than a school.
mishach: What is the duration of the moment?
MWT: Good question. As a rough guide, I’d say something like 3 seconds. However, it can vary a lot.
mishach: So in other words every 3 sec or so you make an attempt to be aware of the sense stimuli, or sense information, whether it is eye/sound/smell/touch/tastes or perceptions feelings.
MWT: Not exactly. Every 3 seconds or so you become aware of a sensory experience, and then spend the next 3 seconds or so deeply contacting that experience. Repeat.
mishach: “seconds or so deeply contacting that experience” can you paraphrase the last part?
MWT: It’s not enough to be aware that an experience is happening. That’s only half the story. It’s necessary but not sufficient.
It’s equally important to focus awareness on the experience long enough to really investigate its qualities.
To make an everyday example (not during meditation), you might notice a tree. In your mind, you think, “tree.” And then you drop it. This is awareness, but it is a kind of dismissal of the experience.
Instead, it’s important not only to notice the tree, but to investigate its qualities. The color of its leaves. The subtle shadings of those colors. The shape of the leaves. The textural qualities of the bark. The smell of the bark and how it’s different than the smell of the leaves. And on and on. This is what I mean by “deeply contacting” the experience.
It’s a vital component of mindfulness meditation, that Shinzen Young calls “sensory clarity.”
This is what you’re doing during the 3 seconds of “being with” and experience.
anonymizeme: Do you believe in enlightenment?
MWT: I don’t believe in anything.
However, if you’re asking whether I use the model of enlightenment in my teaching, the answer is “it depends.”
It depends on what you mean by the word enlightenment.
If you mean some sort of end state in which the person is perfect, and totally like God, and has magick powers, and towards whom all other humans should have a special reverence and maybe even give them a shitton of money, then, No, I don’t use that model of enlightenment in my teaching.
If you mean a condition in which you have seen the constructed-quality of your own sense of self (i.e. the ego construct), then Yes, I use that model of enlightenment in my teaching. It is the case that humans can go to deeper and deeper levels of seeing through their own egoic projections. And that is a good thing for everyone.
angrycommie: How do you not believe in anything? Can you elaborate on this epistemic view? Are you denying you can know anything?
MWT: I’m not being that technical/philosophical about it. To be more precise, I would say that I “try not to believe anything.”
It’s more of a subjective experience than a philosophical statement. In meditation it’s very obvious when you have got a large amount of emotional material wrapped up around a concept. Letting that relax and release allows concepts to simply do their job, rather than get you all in a tizzy.
klazar81: What are some benefits of mindfulness meditation?
MWT: The most common benefits are increased concentration, decreased stress, improved health, more emotional availability, and capacity to cope with difficult situations. Most of these benefits have a large number of research studies backing them up, to some degree. It’s actually a pretty helpful practice, and it’s not that hard to do. Here is a link to a lot more benefits. link
House_of_Ballloons: How effective is long term meditation for depression in your opinion? would it be of any noticeable benefit?
MWT: It depends on what kind of meditation you’re doing. For depression, the meditation technique known as “lovingkindness” is the first thing I would recommend. The other mindfulness techniques can be too much like “rumination,” which is a big problem in depression.
graciejiujitsu: Hi Michael!
I have incredibly bad ADHD, I’ve just started mindfulness and in a ten minute sit I find I have about 20 seconds of actual mindfulness.
I’ve written up a routine that involves easing from daily guided meditation into a total of 20 minutes twice daily unguided meditation. What is your opinion on this approach to beginning meditation, and what are your thoughts on guided meditation?
Ive read a lot of criticism of guided meditation, but I really can’t sit without it as after just 5 minutes into an unguided sit I get too frustrated to continue.
MWT: Congratulations on your commitment to meditating. Over time, I think you’ll experience a lot of improvement in your ADHD.
In short, I think guided meditations are awesome. I’m a big proponent and offer a lot of them. Rock on.
garethbranwyn: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in mindfulness meditation? Are there key texts to read? Beginner practices?
MWT: There is a lot of advice I’d like to give. But if I had to boil it down, I’d say to take it easy. People tend to get really excited about the practice, and dive into it, and maybe experience some big benefits right away.
But this way of practicing (which is what I did, for sure) can have some down sides. These days, I’d say that approaching practice more like going to the gym: something you do every day or very often, over a long period of time—even your whole life. And to expect that you’ll be getting the benefit of that in a much longer-term sense. It just works better that way.
That being said, it’s quite possible to experience some big gains early on in practice.
There are a number of great books I’d recommend. Here are three:
Meditation for Beginners, by Jack Kornfield
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, by Joseph Goldstein
And, of course, The Mindful Geek, which is the book I’m coming out with soon. 😉
The other piece of advice that I’d give is to join a local group. Sitting (i.e. meditating) with other people is probably the most helpful thing to keep your practice on track when you’re starting out.
italianchipmunk: I’ve tried to meditate while sitting but I tend to get restless and my back starts to ache. Is it ok for me to lie down and meditate or should I find a way for me to be able to sit?
MWT: If you’re sitting in a chair, use one with a back. If you’re sitting on the floor, get some back support (such as a “backjack“).
If you’re experiencing an uncomfortable amount of back pain, even with support, you can try lying down. It’s something to be careful about, however, because it’s so easy to get sleepy.
GammonBlaze: Who inspired you?
MWT: There are a number of Hindu and Buddhist yogis & teachers who I found/find very inspirational. One of the best is Ramana Maharshi, of course. A yogi that nobody has ever hear of, who I really like (and met) is named Dhyanyogi Madhusudandasji.
Chic78: How can one make a living teaching this to others? How did you begin?
MWT: I began by teaching for free, or for donations, while having a job. I didn’t start teaching of my own accord, but because people who knew me and my practice asked me to teach them. That just sort of grew over time. Over the years, I’ve begun to get hired for corporate gigs and so forth. So it had to be built up over a long period of time.
chrisKarma: Since you’ve delved into the science side of mindfulness, could you point me towards any peer-reviewed publications on mindfulness?
MWT: This is a good place to start.
SuddenlyILOVEBEARDS: What are your thoughts on secular Buddhism?
albill: You teach to secular practitioners outside of a Buddhist setting but the practices are largely derived from Buddhism. What is the relationship between mindfulness meditation and Buddhism as you teach it? How secular is it?
MWT: Buddhism is famous for its mindfulness practices, and almost all of the mindfulness teachers in the West come from the Buddhist tradition and are actively Buddhist. As I’ve experienced it, much of the supposedly “secular” mindfulness practices out there are essentially Buddhism with a veneer of science-y material on it.
I don’t tend to teach it in that way. I’m coming from the tradition of Shinzen Young who, while nominally Buddhist, is highly focused on science and secular practice. I’ve taken things a step further, even, and spent the last decade reformulating my teaching to be as science-based and skeptic-friendly as possible. I have worked a bit with several prominent neuroscientists, and spent a lot of time trying to essentialize the practice for people in the West, while maintaining a focus on getting real results.
So I would say it’s pretty darn secular.
albill: Are there risks in separating this from Buddhism?
Conversely, are there benefits? Are you pulling in things from non-Buddhist meditative traditions?
MWT: As I see it, there are two main “risks” associated with separating it from Buddhism.
- The first risk is that mindfulness will lose the ethical context in which it was traditionally embedded. That is, in Buddhism it would never be taught without a number of rules associated with it. People seem to be very worried that mindfulness will be taught to unethical humans, who will then use it to get better at doing bad things. This concern is usually condensed into the “Sniper Problem” (i.e. What if non-Buddhist teachers teach secular mindfulness to a sniper who then gets very, very good at killing people?), which seems to be a big concern for some practitioners.
My answer to this concern is two-fold: a. I trust the process of meditation. That is, I think it really works to make people better towards their fellow humans. (There is a lot of research to back up this claim, if not prove it.) So I would be all for teaching the sniper mindfulness, because I think that over time, the practice would make him/her too sensitive to the suffering of other humans to be able to kill them.
b. The essential quality of all ethics taught in all world religions can be condensed to this simple commandment:Don’t be an asshole. It’s not that hard to include, even in secular teachings. Don’t be an asshole, OK?
2. The second risk is that we will loose a lot of institutional knowledge about how to work with mindfulness. Buddhism has been using this technique for 2500 years, and has a solid idea of how to teach it, its failure modes, and so forth.
My answer to this concern is pretty straightforward: We can keep the institutional knowledge and ADD a lot to it. (This begins to answer your other question.) By adding in knowledge derived from science (neuroscience, psychology, etc.) we can make mindfulness MUCH more effective, IMO.
Furthermore, we can SUBTRACT some stuff that I have not found to be that helpful. For example, talking about the structure of reality, the Ultimate Truth, the nature of reincarnation, what happens after death, and other such issues can take up a lot of valuable time in typical learning situations. I refuse to discuss any of these matters (in class, anyway), simply because nobody knows. It’s just a waste of time to talk about it. It’s much more useful, in my opinion, to get on with the business of learning to meditate, and getting the benefits of that, then spending time talking metaphysics.
(I love talking metaphysics, btw.)
me_am_javert: How do I clear my mind to focus perfectly on my mental image, in other words, how do I stop images from coming into my mind during meditation?
MWT: In this way of working, there is no rule that you’re supposed to clear your mind of thoughts. Thoughts occur, and that’s totally fine. In mindfulness meditation, there would be two possibilities:
- Ignore the thoughts. Don’t resist them. Just let them come and go, as you meditate on your body sensations, or whatever else.
- Meditate on the thoughts. In this case you are describing mental images (which are one component of thinking), so I would recommend meditating on the images themselves. Observe them arising, don’t resist them or control them in any way.
I really like the 2nd method.
Pengy945: How do you integrate your religious experiences and skepticism?
MWT: That’s a really interesting question, and—again—the answer is long and complicated. The short version is that meditation has taught me to never believe anything. I mean this in a couple of different ways:
- Concepts are mental constructs that only approximate reality. They can be really useful, and I’m happy to use them. But it’s important to always remember that they are not the real thing. The menu is not the meal.
- Concepts themselves are composed of sensory events. That is, thinking is made up of words and pictures in your head, In the same way that every book you’ve ever read was made up of letters (or pictographs) on a page, every thought you’ve ever had was made up of words and pictures in a moment-by-moment sensory way. When you meditate on thinking like this, you quickly learn that all concepts are simply constructions, with no essential core of reality to them.
Seen this way, even science is just another belief — albeit a really useful one.
Usually when people ask the question you are asking, they are asking about #1. That is, the conceptual frameworks around science and spiritual experience seem to be in conflict, so how do you resolve that conflict?
My answer is that both conceptual frameworks are nothing but that—mental constructions which can be useful for some things but not useful for others. The science framework is exceptionally powerful for doing things like building aircraft or curing disease. It’s really really effective for that sort of thing, so I would use it when doing something like that.
The spiritual framework, on the other hand, can be really useful for creating meaning in life—something which science is notoriously bad at.
So I use the right mental framework for the right job. I wouldn’t recommend building aircraft based on spiritual principles, or using science to discover meaning in life. But above all, BOTH are just mental constructions to be used when convenient and to be dropped when not in use.
Believing either to be some kind of Ultimate Truth will get you into trouble.
(That’s the SHORT answer.)
sugnaz: Hi, thanks for the AMA! What’s the most profound thing you’ve realised from meditation?
MWT: Probably the most profound thing I’ve realized from meditation is that the person/thing who I always believed myself to be is nothing other than a mental construction—a sort of “user interface” or avatar that helps me (and presumably other people) deal with the world.
Traditionally this construction is called an “ego,” but I don’t like to use that word. Everyone thinks that (in meditation practice) we’re supposed to get rid of or somehow destroy the big, bad ego. To me, this is nonsense. The ego is a very effective mental construction for getting things done. It’s supremely useful. Without one, you’d be instantly psychotic.
So the ego is an important and highly useful mental construct.
But, and this is a big but, it’s important to never believe that you ARE the ego.
In that little statement lies the essence of the whole endeavor.
Sam Harris talks about this idea a lot in his book Waking Up and I think he handles it well.
unknowngenius10: How long did it take you to realize that you are not the ego? how was it? where? did that feeling ever go away?
MWT: It took me years, and it still continues. It’s a realization that just gets deeper and more complete. I don’t think that there is ever an end to it.
Sage_McBrush: Hi. I’ve been practicing mindfulness fairly seriously for about 20 months now. My experience has become much more vivid and it’s fairly easy for me to to remain mindful without being absentmindedly lost in thoughts. I get the impression that I’m capable of seeing that there’s no “I” in the space of awareness, but for whatever reason that insight hasn’t occurred yet. Is there anything you can tell me or any source you can direct me to that might help precipitate that insight?
MWT: Yes. Excellent work. The answer to your question lies in the (probable) fact that you’re treating the “I” as some kind of concept or abstraction. It is not that. In fact, the “I” or ego is a concrete, tangible experience. Once you start treating it as an object of concentration, you’re well on your way towards seeing its contingency. So how do you do that?
In short, the ego or “I” is composed of three things: 1. Mental talk 2. Mental images 3. Body sensations
Each of these three things can be meditated upon in mindfulness meditation. Over time it’s possible to experience the sense of an “I” or ego actually coming together or forming from these three components over and over again.
So I would recommend working directly with these concrete sensory experiences to have the realization you are looking for.
(There’s a LOT more to say about that, but this is the core of it.)
Sage_McBrush: So I would be aware of thoughts and bodily sensations and notice that they are being mistaken as constituting an ego?
MWT: Not exactly. The act of tracking each of these sensory experiences (whether individually, in pairs, or as a triad) will, over time, give rise to this insight about the ego.
So you are just simply observing them, over and over, and you will notice this mistaken identity as a matter of course. It’s an unavoidable realization, when you look at them in this way.
daster714: What’s a good program to start meditating? How often for how long? I’ve started a few times by meditating for 15-30 minutes, felt great, and then didn’t go back for weeks or months… Is it just self-discipline?
MWT: Yes. 15-30 minutes per day is a good program. The rest is just behavior modification.
To really get the benefits of meditation, it’s best to do it seven days a week. Here’s an article I wrote about some of the ways to do that more effectively.
alejandra89322: Hello Michael, thank you for doing this. Is it possible to find a meditative state into activities such as music.. Or painting?
MWT: You’re welcome.
Yes, it’s very possible to find meditative states while playing or listening to music, painting, working out, etc. This is usually referred to as a “flow state” in psychology and there is a large body of work to support it. (See the work of author/scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
So that is a real thing. I would say, however, that I would also recommend an actual practice of sitting meditation to make these flow states much more accessible. Sitting meditation is like a generic practice of flow, and so you get much better at “finding” a flow state. Otherwise, it can be sort of hit and miss. With practice, you can find a flow state on demand.