How meditation helps me be a more effective altruist
Thanks to Aaron Gertler for his wise edits. Any remaining errors are my own.
In 2018, I started meditating 10 minutes per day. Since then, I’ve kept a daily practice, and read a little around the area. Here are some of the things I’ve found.
I have some sense of what worked for me, and this may or may not help you. Some claims about meditation are overblown, but I won’t critique any specific claims here, and my approach is secular and broadly rationalist.
Meditation helps me:
Feel more calm and less stressed, giving me more energy
Focus and prioritize
Challenge established ways of thinking
Be more empathetic and resilient
I will talk about these areas, then wrap up with some closing comments and with some resources I’ve found helpful.
1. Feeling more calm
The most important thing I realised was that the deepest source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind.
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
In the first few months of 2018, I felt stressed and drained. While my life was comfortable, I went through an online rabbit hole learning about plastic pollution, the absolute horrors of factory farming, and the severity of climate change.
I was irritable and distant, and probably experiencing secondary traumatic stress from having watched videos of animal cruelty, and from poring over IPCC predictions. When I started having deliberate time away from my computer, I could avoid being sucked into a black hole. But I find that I can easily ruminate during a walk for example. Because I become aware of my rumination and distraction itself during meditation, it gives me a unique ability to stand back from the swirl.
I realised how curled-up my body was, and sitting upright on a mat, I pulled in deeper breaths and felt more settled. I sat up straighter and felt better immediately after each session. Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent recurrence of depression, and it can function as a good mood booster.
Being more calm and less stressed just straight-up improved my own life one heck of a heap, and also gave me more energy and strength as an effective altruist.
2. Focusing and prioritising
As humans I think we are evolved to deal with small and local problems, and results from psychology show that we struggle to grapple with a sprawling world. Many of the world’s most pressing problems, such as climate change, are complicated, global in nature, and open hard problems. The tasks of EA, like bio-risk, and AI safety, can seem herculean.
This means that if I spend unfocused time thinking about how to solve them, then much like a computer running through a loop and overheating, I’ll burn out my CPU. There are too many problems and we need to focus and prioritise in order to make progress. Meditation helps me open up my own internal task manager and identify the programs making everything else stutter and lag.
Part of how I try to help is through my donations, and also through my work in the EA community. But there’s always more to do — the thoughts recur. If I can close them down at the end of the day, everything else runs smoother.
3. Challenging pre-existing ways of thinking
…to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what are just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Most people… just get overwhelmed by the religious stories, by the nationalist stories… [and] they take these stories to be the reality.
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
When I spent a month not drinking alcohol, I was struck by how seductive and poisonous heavy-drinking culture is. Just because some things are traditional, historical, normal, does not mean they’re right. Some repeated shared stories can bring us together, but often cultural myths push us further apart.
For example, in my early days as an animal welfare activist, I felt that I’d make progress by making lots of moral and emotional arguments to other people myself. It played into a story of one moral person against an immoral world, but this story was out of kilter with reality. But as I came across people like Tobias Leeanert, and thought about how fickle our own psychology can be, and how institutional change offers huge opportunities.
On an individual level, I find myself brooding on particular thoughts, and replaying old conversations over and over. I think of past or future arguments and replay my own position, digging myself in further and further. And so it swirls.
What we contact we feel
What we feel we perceive
What we perceive we think about
What we think about we proliferate about
What we proliferate about we dwell upon
What we dwell upon becomes the shape of our mind
The shape of our mind becomes the shape of our world
Christina Feldman, Breaking the Chain of Reactivity (Reflections 2)
But this doesn’t help me as an activist. And in order to have a high social impact, it might mean thinking carefully about counter-intuitive ideas. For example, the double-crux method for resolving disagreement requires identifying your thought processes and belief structures.
And, the more complicated the system you’re trying to influence is, the more important it is to appreciate the complexity. For example, making progress on climate change requires navigating a highly complex interaction between emissions, weather, the global food and energy system, and our geopolitical institutions.
In complex systems there’s so much going on that you can’t expect to know it all yourself. As a rule of thumb, the more complex the system the more useful networks and connections with others are.
AdamB, EA Forum post
I find that meditation offers me the ability to stand back from my own thinking, challenging my own narratives and ruminations. Looking not only at the world through my lens, but looking at the lens itself.
It helps me try to appreciate the wider context of my actions, and play using the whole board. I stopped fruitlessly replaying conversations and arguments I’d had in my own head, and instead considered more deeply the other person’s point of view, which led me to change my mind on the importance and neglectedness of AI alignment, biorisk, and wild animal welfare.
4. Being more empathetic and resilient
But I think there’s a type of sensitivity — a kind of emotional responsiveness — that is totally compatible with a certain kind of resilience — the ability to feel things but not be overwhelmed or controlled by them.
I realised this is probably part of why I like meditation so much, because it’s essentially teaching you to be both more sensitive (to be more mindful of your experiences) and more resilient (to not get caught up in or resist what you’re feeling.)
Jess Whittlestone, Sensitivity and Resilience
When I’m lost in thought, then I don’t taste my food, and I’m not aware of my posture. We spend so many hours a day looking at screens. How are you sitting while reading this? I’ve been slouching and now I’m moving to sit up.
When I directly focus on experience, I really savour them: dark roast coffee, a simple bowl of pasta, cold water in a swimming pool.
I pay close attention to people’s faces, and I think about their joy and sorrow. I gaze at pets on the street, and wonder what life is like for them.
What is it like to be a chihuahua on the tube? I too have suffered thirst and fear. I wince when I see a dog being harshly yanked on a leash. Is their pain not the same as our pain? And at the end of the day, when I am joyfully wrapped up in a duvet, I wonder how cats feel, nestled in their own furry blanket.
When I meditate regularly, I feel more connected and grounded to both suffering and joy. And energised by the experience. Part of the game.
My practice is not a middle class stress reduction technique. Our world urgently needs social and political reform. The indignity of the status quo in our contemporary lives and politics is unacceptable. We must make a better world.
Meditation helps me keep my head above water. It helps me develop a clearer picture of the world, and in contemplation, I clasp hands with the things and beings that matter.
I am happier and healthier as a result. But meditation is not a panacea—and the other big part of my life that’s changed over this period has been with the wonderful people who call themselves effective altruists. Exercise, my family, community, purpose, and fun are cornerstones in my own well-being.
I find meditation extremely hard. It is easier to watch television. Like an athlete stepping into the weights room — I sit on the mat with the clear purpose of making myself stronger, and working towards a better future.
I’ve tried a few routines, and what works for me is to try to meditate for an average of 10 minutes each day. If I can’t do one day, I’ll do 20 or 30 minutes when I do get a chance.
I general, I try to do the mornings. That can be a good way to set up for the day. But often, especially if I’ve had a busy day or week, it’s nice to do a longer evening session to process and unpack everything that’s been going on. If I’ve got a quiet weekend, I might do a 45 minute session.
My favourite meditation is this: sit comfortably, breathing in and out, and quietly counting one to mark each breath. When I get to ten (if I haven’t drifted off already), I restart at one. You can set a timer for ten minutes, or however long you like.
Often I drift off into all sorts of channels of thought. If I’m particularly distracted, and have missed a few days, then I’m drifting off maybe 60% of the time during a practice. By the end I’m converging more on being focused.
And if I keep it up the next day, then it’s more like 50% distraction/focus, and 40% distraction/60% focus the following day. The most I’ve had over about two years is about 80% focus. It’s the iterative practice that steadily builds. My longest session has been an hour.