Home > Blog > Meditation for materialists

Meditation for materialists

7 Apr 2024

This was originally posted on reddit.

As a former hyper-rational materialist who meditated only for the well researched beneficial effects, I know how woo woo some of the spiritual talk surrounding meditation can sound.

So this post is dedicated to my former self who could have done with a materialist perspective on why meditation is about more than just making oneself “better”.

To say meditation has changed my life is an understatement. I’ve gone from being persistently depressed and anxious throughout my teens & twenties to a place where those words no longer make much sense experientially. More than that, it’s changed my very sense of identity, in a way that’s very difficult to explain in words.

There’s a common myth that we only really use 10% of our brains. Of course, our whole brain is operating all the time, but different neural pathways are strengthened when they’re used more frequently. That might mean that if we’ve learned to be afraid a lot, we’ll likely end up strengthening our fear pathways by being afraid all the time. If we’ve learned to suppress rage and let it build and build until it bursts out in a harmful way, that’s the pathway that is reinforced.

That might make it seem like we’re doomed to repeat and even strengthen our conditioned patterns, but that’s exactly what meditation can interrupt.

Meditation in my experience is not about feeling good or being peaceful, it’s the practice of unwinding these very patterns (and many more that will surprise you).

Let me explain how I think it works. I’m not claiming any of this is scientifically proven, it’s just what seems to make sense in my own experience, and how it could be explained from a materialist perspective (although I no longer call myself a materialist).

We have a region of the brain that deals with language - planning sentences and recalling words that we’ve heard in the past. It’s very good at what it does… too good in fact. So good that we believe that that tiny part of the brain is the entirety of what we are.

It narrates our whole experience, says what we should and shouldn’t do, and judges us and others in the same way we’ve heard others judge. But if you watch closely, you’ll see very clearly that it’s just repeating echoes from the past. It’s simply learned behaviour. The problem comes when we act as though it is us, as if it is the authority. It seems to speak in first person after all. The reality is there is so much more of the brain that operates our body. Think about it - do you need a narrative thought in order to make your heart beat, or to breathe, or to catch yourself when you trip?

When we first start to meditate, we’re so used to operating from that language centre such that it tends to “do” the meditating. Narrating the process and judging our progress.

Simply watching thoughts can reveal a lot, but initially can be tough because those thoughts are so tempting and juicy and we just want to follow them.

But there’s a trick to get beneath the thoughts. It’s to go where they can’t access. Where there are no words. This is not exactly anything esoteric, it’s something very simple.

Find any neutral sensation in your body. Perhaps your body against the chair, or your feet on the floor. Now imagine that you had to explain that sensation to somebody who has never felt it before. Difficult right? You can use words that sort of get at it, but it’s like trying to explain the colour blue to someone with no sight.

If you cannot come up with the words to describe it, you’re in the right place. Stay there.

In noticing that sensation in its raw form, you’re engaging a different part of the brain than the language centre. Importantly, notice that the raw experience of a sensation feels more “real” than any thought that attempts to describe it.

This practice can lead to some very surprising discoveries. It can unwind long held patterns, and it can begin to feel as though the mind acts more holistically and harmoniously. More regions of the brain are getting attention, not just language and visualisation where the majority of us operate from. There’s something about this whole brain approach that feels, very subtly, like it reorganises itself and self-repairs.

A word of warning though. Because our learned habit is to go into the language centre (thoughts) to avoid uncomfortable emotions or sensations, unwinding this habit can make it seem like we’re becoming more emotional or in pain as those sensation and emotion pathways are reconnected. Meditation can feel initially good and then like we’re regressing. This is to be expected. If you have a lot of trauma or repressed emotion, although not strictly necessary it can be helpful to work with a professional or somebody who has been down this road before. Just know that it’s not always a linear path of always feeling good and peaceful, and the more willing you are to let go into the painful stuff the smoother it will be.

Slowly it becomes clear that even the so called painful emotions and sensations are not as painful as the thoughts make them out to be, and that they don’t need to be avoided.

As for all the woo woo stuff and no longer being a materialist, don’t believe me, anybody or any religion about any of that. In fact everything that I’ve written means nothing compared to your actual direct experience. Far better to make up your own mind when you experience it for yourself 😉

I don't email very often

Powered by Buttondown

Profile picture

Jordan West

Sydney, Australia

jordan [at] west.io | twitter | github | youtube | instagram