It's interesting how complicated it can be to sit and think. In a fascinating meta-study1 researchers from University of Virginia and Harvard found that people would rather perform mundane tasks or even electrocute themselves than sit alone in silence and think. On average, participants in the study chose to self-administer a small electrical shock about 1.47 times per 15-minute interval.

Researchers are not sure why we have such an aversion to sitting in the moment with our thoughts, but I'm sure that you can come up with a laundry list of things you would rather not think about.

Meditation then might feel like taking a boat straight into the eye of the storm. After all, the essence of the practices is to sit and think. The practice however is more complicated than it appears. Even the word meditation encompasses a wide variety of techniques and schools of thought.

Meditation can conjure up images of mystical figures in robes sitting atop the Himalayas chanting magical sounding phrases with the hope of achieving enlightment or nirvana.

However, when you peel back all the mysticism, you find something different. Scientific studies have shown that a meditation habit can have some great benefits.

The Mindful Geek is Michael Taft's attempt at de-mystifying mindfulness meditation with a field-guide to the practice; a kind of invitation to scientifically minded people to join in. As he describes it, "this is a practical book, almost a manual or a handbook of mindfulness meditation".

The why

The first feature of The Mindful Geek is that it is filled to the brim with references to scientific studies. Taft continually highlights the tangible benefits of maintaining a meditation habit, quoting dozens of studies performed on long-term meditators and beginning practitioners. The goal is clear: to convince the skeptical, secular reader of the real-world benefits of meditation without resorting to mystical and spiritual arguments that might alienate the titular geek.

When a claim is made it is backed by some kind of scientific study; when he makes connections between ideas that have yet no scientific support, he is forthcoming about it. Making that distinction is important and Taft makes it fairly well through-out.

Taft also is equally clear about what meditation will not do for you. If you were hoping for super powers or to transcend into a higher plane of being (a la Stargate), I'm afraid you're out of luck.

Important: As of the writing of this article, I've not reviewed the studies in question. Take my, and anyone elses, words with a pinch of salt. As always, do your due dilligence and question what you read. Science is never simple and there's probably a mountain of caveats and details behind any scientific claim.

The how

Taft takes an engineering-like approach to introducing meditation. The practice is broken down into three individual components:

  • Concentration: the ability to train your attention on an object
  • Sensory clarity: the ability to explore the object of meditation in detail
  • Acceptance: being alright with whatever feeling or emotion arises during meditation

These components are employed together in various ratios to build what he calls the meditation algorithm, a series of steps which are repeated again and again through-out your sitting session. This repeating algorithm then becomes the basis of the five meditation techniques detailed in the book.

I loved this precise approach to the practice. Like in chemistry, the basic building blocks of meditation come together in various forms to create a large variety of different meditation techniques. The process becomes less intimidating for new practitioners by having a clear set of steps to follow.

Taft also provides, free of charge, a bunch of guided meditation audio to supplement the written instructions in the book. This are useful when starting out the practice, as sitting in complete silence can be difficult for beginners.

Sitting is hard

Taft also discusses at length the kind of obstacles one might encounter when sitting, such as how to deal with strong negative emotions, physical and emotional pain, and distractions.

He's thorough and tries to cover as much ground as possible to appeal to a range of practitioners, including those suffering from anxiety or depression. Taft gives you some of the necessary tools to decide how to approach pain points in a safe and comfortable way.

This highlights an important point: meditation is for everyone. It isn't only the realm of mentally healthy people.

Of course, you will encounter many different obstacles over years of practicing that Taft cannot hope to cover in the book. The book does a good job of getting you going.

The mindfulness part of mindfulness meditation

Taft describes the mindfulness meditation practice as an attempt to "make the unconscious conscious"; like taking a peek "under the hood" of your awareness. So while there is plenty of detail on the mechanical aspects of meditation, Taft spends an equally long part of the book on the mindfulness part of mindfulness meditation, because as he puts it "if you are meditating every day...these are the kinds of minutia that become of functional interest to you."

Taft highlights the benefits of focused deliberate attention over pure mind-wandering, using studies to support his argument. Here you'll note traces of Cal Newport's Deep Work as Taft shares Newport's dislike for our increasing addiction to the always on, always multitasking culture.

Part of the mindfulness meditation practice is about fostering a better relationship with our own emotions. Taft discusses the evolution of our emotions as a kind of unconscious guidance system that leads us away from danger and towards safety and food. This section was particularly interesting for me. I've written about this topic in the past, discussing how we sometimes misunderstand what our emotions are trying to tell us. If you're anxious it means you need to keep your eyes open, it doesn't mean you're not ready for the interview.

While these chapters are interesting it's important to remember that this is a deeply functional book and "[it's] all for the sake of doing the practice."

Conclusion and some negatives

In general I think the book is great however I have a few bits of criticism.

First, the structure of the book can be a little confusing. The first 7 chapters flow nicely from one to the next, from what is mindfulness meditation in chapters 1 and 2, your first practice in chapter 3, and the introduction of the components of meditation in chapters 4 through 7.

The chapters that follow feel more like a series of essays on mindfulness, the benefits of meditation, cognitive science, meditation in every day life, and psychology.

This structure is not necessarily bad, nor does it detract from the quality of the book but as a person who likes connecting threads, I felt a little uncomfortable. The reader is not lead towards a single conclusion, but rather the author attempts to discuss different but interconnected ideas that run in parallel.

I also think some of these chapters could have been condensed and combined. I often felt like Taft made a good case for his main points and I was ready to move on, but the chapter would go on for a few more pages. As I mentioned earlier, many of the concepts in those chapters will be familiar to readers of books such as Deep Work or even Thinking, Fast and Slow. So perhaps to those unfamiliar with those topics the repetition is beneficial.

Another small gripe is with the ebook itself. The book is available for free if you sign up to Michael Taft's mailing list, or in paperback and Kindle from Amazon. The paid-for Kindle version of the book is unfortunately badly organized with a broken table of contents which points to various endnotes and not the individual chapters. In addition, each endnote gets its own page rather than being nicely formatted. Not a major issue but for a paid-for version it's unfortunate. Note that the free ebook, which comes as a Kindle-friendly Mobi file, is perfectly well formatted and has a useful table of contents.

In the end however, Michael Taft has created a great field guide to the practice of mindfulness meditation squarely aimed at the secular/skeptical/geek crowd. Taft leverages ample scientific evidence to make his case, the techniques are clearly described making it easy to get going, and the numerous discussions of mindfulness habits are crucial in helping the reader take their habit to the next level.

Did I mention that he uses Star Trek, Star Wars and Dune references through-out the book? And yes, he does quote Yoda.

You can get the book on paperback and Amazon Kindle or for free by signing up for Michael's mailing list.

Michael Taft has given a talk at Google and he's been interviewed on the You Are Not So Smart podcast on the same topic.

Have a good one. Until next time

-- Jay Blanco

  1. A study of studies.

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