How meditation has helped my EA mindset
I have been casually practising meditation for the past two years. Specifically, mindfulness, non-dual mindfulness, loving-kindness meditation, and gratitude meditation. All four of these practices have benefited my EA mindset in different ways, so I would like to share this experience on the Forum.
By ‘EA mindset’, I mean any emotional states or thought processes that increase my alignment with EA principles or aid my EA-related goals.
The benefits I describe are very general and have improved many aspects of my life. For the purposes of this post, however, I will focus on how they specifically apply to my life as an EA.
It is about carefully paying attention and being open to the nature and contents of experience.
It has made me more aware of my emotions and thought processes which has increased my rationality and productivity.
It has increased my self-knowledge which has allowed me to be more strategic about my personal EA projects.
It has increased my appreciation of the present moment, which is a nice counterbalance to many of my thoughts being focused on the far-future or abstract ideas.
It is about ‘becoming one’ with experience to such an extent that the notion of a subjective ‘self’ disappears.
It has helped me realise that happiness and suffering are equally morally important, regardless of the being experiencing it, which has made me more aligned with an ethic of impartiality.
It is about fostering a feeling of deep compassion; firstly towards yourself and then gradually expanding to every being in the world.
It has made the importance of a wider moral circle more emotionally salient to me.
It might have reduced my scope insensitivity (though only very slightly).
It is about fostering a feeling of gratitude for the good things in your life.
It had made me more aware of my many privileges, which has increased my desire to be altruistic.
Purpose and Epistemic Status
My main purpose is to share my personal experience. I am not trying to tell other people to meditate or providing authoritative instructions. Additionally, I am interested to hear about others’ experiences.
I have been practicing meditation since the start of 2020 (almost every day, between 5 and 30 minutes per day). I have not read any books or studies on meditation; I have only used meditation apps. As such, all of my claims are personal anecdotes. Additionally, I still feel like a beginner in every type of meditation that I describe. Therefore, I am by no means an expert on the theory or the practice.
There are already a few Forum posts on the benefit of meditation for EAs, which I will reference accordingly. Some of the claims I make are reflected in those posts, which slightly increases my confidence that my experience might generalise to others. For those claims that are not reflected in another post, my confidence is lower.
I do not mention many types and sub-types of meditation. There is a good chance that I will poorly explain some concepts and neglect some nuances. Similarly, I am not very familiar with the many different Pali and Sanskrit terms associated with meditation so I will only use such terms when I am reasonably sure of their meaning. My main focus is describing the general concepts and discussing my EA-relevant experience, rather than the exact terminology. However, if anyone wants to correct mistakes and mention any missed nuances or terms in the comments, I will update this post accordingly.
Mindfulness is a very difficult concept to describe. Some rather ambiguous definitions include: ‘paying attention to whatever is happening’, ‘being aware of what is’, ‘accepting what is’, or ‘awareness of awareness’.
To me, mindfulness is about fostering a relaxed awareness and clear perception of your experience in the present moment. This involves calmly accepting and being curious about what is arising in consciousness rather than trying to hold onto ‘good’ experiences and push away ‘bad’ experiences.
Mindfulness practice usually begins by focusing on a single ‘object’ of experience. A common starting object is the sensations of the breath. I find that areas of the body or sounds are just as effective. A common practice is ‘scanning’ through the body e.g. starting with sensations in the toes and moving slowly to the head. Some objects of awareness that are more difficult to focus on include sights, thoughts, and emotions. More advanced mindfulness practices allow the mind to flow freely from one object of experience to another (often called ‘open awareness’).
Shinzen Young describes three foundational aspects of mindfulness:
Concentration—staying with the intended focus of attention without being pulled away by other sensations, thoughts, or emotions.
Sensory Clarity—feeling the ‘raw sensations’ behind the concepts that we construct. For example, the raw sensations of sadness might be an acidic burning in the stomach or a tightening of the throat.
Equanimity—a balanced and non-reactive ease of mind which peacefully accepts any experience that arises. In this state, you don’t shy away from negative states of consciousness or try to extend positive states of consciousness, you simply let different states arise and then pass away. It is important to note that equanimity is not the same as indifference (indifference is about pulling back from experience whereas equanimity is an openness to all experience).
While a lot of mindfulness practice involves sitting in a calm environment, the ultimate goal is to be mindful in any environment while doing any action. Sam Harris illustrates this goal in a talk on his app Waking Up when he describes three steps that constitute progress in meditation:
Having a regular meditation habit e.g. sitting for ten minutes per day.
Being able to use mindfulness in response to everyday suffering (though maybe not all the time).
The ability to be mindful in any situation as opposed to only achieving it when you conjure a certain state for a fixed time.
Personally, I have found that walking meditation is a particularly useful in-between step for evolving mindfulness from a fixed practice to an everyday state of mind.
The Pali term for mindfulness is ‘Sati’, which is also associated with remembering. This association seems appropriate because, in my experience, a large part of mindfulness practice is simply remembering to be aware of what is going on in the body and mind.
Benefits I have found
Awareness of emotions and thought processes
I have found that feeling the raw sensations of an experience instead of attaching a concept to it means it does not have as much power over me. For example, recognising anger as a burning in the throat or prickling in the skin rather than replaying the scene that made me angry means I am less likely to stay angry. Similarly, I can identify less with negative emotions e.g. ‘this is sadness’ rather than ‘I am a sad person.’ This process helps me be less consumed by my emotions which gives me more freedom to choose whether or not to act on them. Along with emotions, I have also started to recognise the common thought patterns and internal narratives that repeatedly pop up in my mind. This post goes into detail about the evidence for the benefits of mindfulness practice.
From an EA perspective, mindfulness helps me see my own biases that are driven by fleeting emotions and habitual thoughts, which allows me to make more rational decisions. For example, last year I realised that my aversion to changing my degree was a mix of the sunk cost fallacy and status quo bias. As a result, I have become better at critically choosing what to spend my time and mental energy on (both of which are very important resources to prioritise). As opposed to going through life on autopilot, I can stop and ask myself what exactly I’m doing and why.
Additionally, I think my productivity has improved (which aids EA-related study and projects). When I feel myself being pulled toward an unproductive habit I can often catch my mind in the act and pause to feel the raw sensations of the urge. Then I can identify the forces behind the urge (stress, aversion to effort, desire for quick satisfaction, force of habit, etc.) and consciously decide what I actually want to do based on my values.
By the same token, being mindful often prevents me from getting overwhelmed when considering big ideas, which allows me to think through things in a more systematic manner.
This post also mentions that meditation helps with focus/prioritisation (part 2) and challenging established ways of thinking (part 3). This post provides evidence of how meditation increases productivity.
Mindfulness has helped me step back from my common habits and thought processes, allowing me to become more aware of them. This increased self-awareness has been extremely useful in nearly all of my EA projects. One example is sending my donations to EA Funds via an automatic payment because I know that condensing my donation into one big decision at the end of the year would make me overthink and put it off. Another example is being able to accurately assess what is important for the personal fit aspect of a job when writing my 80,000 Hours career plan. For reading and writing-related EA projects, I have been able to reflect on why my brain makes me procrastinate and change my behaviour accordingly. For example, I realised that I feel significantly more content pursuing impactful (albeit difficult) projects, even though I experience a strong aversion to doing them. This made me a lot more cognisant of the distinction between wanting and liking, which has been an extremely motivating factor in writing this post.
Appreciation of the present moment
Fostering a state of equanimity often helps me be content with the present moment, regardless of the external environment. I can often find simple joy in the feeling of the breath moving in and out, or the sound of the city through my window, or the sensation of my feet on the floor. This is especially the case during walking meditation, where I can appreciate the feeling of air moving across my face and forearms, the feeling of the body moving, and the patterns of light and colour in the scenes around me. Paradoxically, I have found that simply being aware of these experiences leads to much more enjoyment compared to ‘trying’ to enjoy them. This post mentions how meditation helps with becoming more connected to one’s environment and experience (part 4).
Often when my mind is on EA ideas or projects, I can become caught up in thinking about the future and abstract concepts while missing the beauty of the present. I am not sure if other EAs experience this problem, but mindfulness helps me stay contently aware of the present while still pursuing my long-term goals. For example, I might be writing an essay on an EA-related topic while finding joy in the sound and sensations of my fingers tapping the computer keys. I think this state is similar to the idea of resting in motion mentioned in the replacing guilt series.
Non-Dual Mindfulness Meditation
Non-dual mindfulness is the recognition that there is no dichotomy between you and the rest of the world as you experience it. In other words, the concept of the ‘self’ is an illusion. This is a very difficult idea to explain without experiencing the feeling yourself. I still don’t understand the idea very well and have only had brief glimpses of it during meditation practice. Therefore, I am certainly not an authority on the subject, but I will do my best to discuss it.
To me, non-dual awareness seems like a logical extension of normal mindfulness which you can reach with practice. The idea is that once you become acutely aware of objects of experience, you find that they are the only things that exist. There is no ‘feeler’ of feelings. There is no ‘thinker’ of thoughts. There are only the feelings and thoughts themselves, which simply appear out of nothing and then disappear back into nothing. This leads to the conclusion that the only reality is the open space of consciousness. Consequently, the sense that there is a subject in the centre of consciousness falls away.
It is important to note that non-dualism is a phenomenological concept rather than a metaphysical concept. It doesn’t claim that people aren’t real or imply panpsychism. It only claims that you do not experience a separate self; you only experience consciousness and its contents.
Benefits I have found
Although I do not understand non-dualism very well, it has helped me embrace the concept of moral impartiality, which is very important for EA. It has helped me realise that all that exists is experience, which can be positive or negative regardless of the identity of the being having the experience. Because the self is an illusory concept, the distinction between persons is morally irrelevant. Therefore, I care more about simply increasing positive experience rather than focusing on the identity of the experiencer.
This type of meditation (also known as metta) is quite different from mindfulness and non-dual mindfulness. It involves purposely creating a specific mental state rather than simply paying attention to experience. It is about cultivating a strong feeling of compassion and actively ‘wishing well.’ The practice usually begins by directing compassion toward yourself. This is done by mentally stating certain phrases like ‘may I be happy’/‘may I be free from suffering’/‘may I be safe’/‘may I find peace and contentment’ etc. The next step is usually directing this feeling towards someone that you love. You use phrases like ‘may you be happy’/‘may you be free from suffering.’ During this process, you try to ‘give’ that person your feelings of loving-kindness. As the practice builds, you expand this attitude to acquaintances, strangers, enemies, all people, and all animals. This post also describes the practice.
Sam Harris (in the metta courses on his app) describes two very important concepts regarding the desired mental state:
Karuna (the Pali term for compassion)- this is what the state of metta becomes when imagining the suffering of others. It is the desire to alleviate that suffering. Importantly, this is not the same as feeling the negative emotions of others and becoming consumed by them. Rather, it is a recognition of the negative and the desire to make it better.
Mudita (the Pali term for sympathetic joy) - this is what the state of metta becomes when imagining the happiness of others. It is wanting others to be happy and taking joy in their happiness. Importantly, it is the opposite of envying others’ happiness.
Benefits I have found
Expanding the moral circle
Practising metta has helped me expand my moral circle in an emotionally salient way, rather than just having the intellectual understanding that all beings are worthy of moral concern regardless of time and space. This motivates me to act more impartially and with wider moral consideration as my actions are backed by strong feelings rather than just abstract philosophical concepts.
This post describes similar benefits regarding compassion. This post proposes some more EA-like mantras such as ‘may I realise my capability of reducing suffering’/‘may I work with others to make the world a better place’/‘may all beings be well, no matter where and when they live.’ I have not experimented with these phrases yet but am excited to try. I particularly like the idea of directing compassion towards beings who do not exist yet.
Mitigating scope insensitivity
Similar to expanding the moral circle, I think (very tentatively) that metta can help overcome the bias of scope insensitivity. The practice of proportionally increasing feelings of compassion for larger and larger groups might help when visualising large scales of pleasure and pain. I certainly cannot magically scale my compassion proportionately to the number of beings I am thinking about. However, I can conjure a stronger feeling when transferring my thoughts of loving-kindness from a loved one to the whole world (which is a start).
This type of meditation is about conjuring the specific mental state of gratitude. My practice consists of listing all the things that happened during the day that made me grateful. I then try to re-experience and be mindful of those sources of gratitude. For example, I might re-imagine the taste of a meal I had, the colours and shapes of something pleasant I saw, or the feeling of laughing with a friend. If I am struggling with this, a useful thought experiment is imagining everything I have being taken away from me and then thinking of how grateful I would be if I got it back.
Benefits I have found
I almost always end up thinking of more things than I expected (things I would have completely forgotten if I had not done the meditation). This is always a pleasant surprise. Often, I think of very small and seemingly insignificant things like breathing clean air, having food and water to eat, or having friends. It’s quite amazing how grateful I can feel over mundane things with a little directed focus.
From an EA perspective, this helps me understand my immense privilege. Consequently, I am motivated to be more altruistic towards those who are less privileged. Another very useful thought experiment to enforce this feeling is imaging all the misfortune that others are suffering and I am not. When I think of the fact that billions of people would likely give anything to live my exact life (with all my supposed problems), I feel immense gratitude along with the immense urge to help.
I would like to reiterate that I am still a beginner and do not consistently feel the benefits that I have described. Very often I am unproductive, focused on my sense of self and internal narratives, partial to what is close and visible, and not grateful for my privileges. However, these meditation practices have certainly brought me closer to my desired EA mindset.
If anyone would like to share their experience with meditation, please comment. Additionally, please feel free to correct any mistakes I have made.