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.

Epistemic status

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.

Summary

Med­i­ta­tion helps me:

  1. Feel more calm and less stressed, giv­ing me more energy

  2. Fo­cus and pri­ori­tize

  3. Challenge es­tab­lished ways of thinking

  4. 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.

Conclusions

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.

My practice

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.

Get­ting started

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.

Next steps

  • There’s a more de­tailed guide here

  • I used this app, which I would highly recom­mend. I loved most of the les­sons (though the cross-sel­l­ing of his book is get­ting an­noy­ing)

  • I’ve done full day ses­sions here

  • The Bound­less Heart by Christina Feldman