Meditation without Magic: A Writer's Path to Woo-free Mindfulness

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When I discovered meditation in ninth grade, I believed I had discovered a secret of the universe. I also had a five-foot dreamcatcher, was convinced I could see auras, and had a “spiritual” awakening when I stood atop an Anasazi kiva in Mesa Verde National Park at dawn to meet my spirit animal. I happened to be a writer as well. I loved stories and mystery and magic, so the ideas behind all that woo-woo were too alluring for me to resist.

Then I grew up.

 It wasn’t overnight, mind you. Not until college, my own personal Age of Enlightenment, did I discover that I was a master of confirmation bias. Turned out I was fighting to hold on to my New Age-y faith because it was enchanting, so I had been doing mental yoga for years to count the few hits and ignore the countless misses. Through intensive writing and studying books like Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, I discovered “science as a candle in the dark.” I put my “spiritual” beliefs to the test of intellectual honesty, and they all failed—every last one. (If you’re wondering why I am putting “spiritual” in quotes, well that’s because it’s a tired and meaningless term.)

Yet when I tested meditation, what I thought to be “a conversation with your soul” actually held up—some of it anyway. Chakras, qi, meridians, and anything to do with “spiritual energy” turned out to have no basis in reality, which helped me to dismiss practices like acupuncture and chiropracty from an energetic standpoint. Also, the anecdotal claims of sects like the Self-Realization Fellowship turned out to be fluff. So once I had stripped away all the beads and incense and flashy gold brocade, what was left? 

Just me. Just now.

Meditation became my way of generating peace when there was none to be found, a method of recalibrating my state of being when I was being controlled by events and emotions. It was, and still is, how I get unstuck from my writing, detaching from the page in order to see it and the world around me with new eyes. There is no elusive and unobservable “spiritual energy” required, no contact with angelic beings—just a great big literal whiff of concentrated reality every once in a while. 

When I adopted meditation as a practice, it was before much of the scientific research emerged that indicates potential benefits of mindfulness, like stress reduction, improved mental health, and neuroplasticity. The studies are far from conclusive, in fact some of it is poorly designed and “woefully lacking,” but even if the health claims turn out to be unfounded, the positive psychological results speak for themselves. 

Far from the enlightened monk on the mountain stereotype, it turns out that meditation is anything but lofty. In fact, it is one the most grounded and simple things you can practice. That, of course, does not mean it’s easy. Drowning out the constant chatter of the modern mind turns out to be a rather daunting feat, if not ultimately impossible to sustain. But mindfulness is found not just in the fleeting glimpses of peace and euphoria, but also in the mere acknowledgement when you have been carried away on the nagging tide of some random thought. That instant of recognizing the messy imposition of your errant mind can empower you to re-ground yourself and work toward a sustainable inner calm - a coveted state that makes the work of a writer much more bearable.

 So, if you haven’t given meditation a chance because it brings to mind vapid magical thinking and overpriced hemp fashion, know that you can practice it without all the crystals. You can be a keen-minded skeptic and still gain tremendously from mindfulness, just ask ABC News anchor Dan Harris, author of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics and host of the podcast and meditation app, Ten Percent Happier. Or author and public intellectual Sam Harris, who also delivers a similarly pared-down and delightfully magic-free message with his meditation app called Waking Up

If, however, you cling to the mystical adornments that meditation has been saddled with, like I once did, maybe give it a harder look. You might find that putting those beliefs to the test of intellectual honesty will relieve you of some unnecessary baggage and help you get to the truth of mindfulness. It may not be a secret of the universe, like I thought it was in ninth grade, but for our spastic conscious minds (especially those of writers), it may very well be the next best thing.

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Cam Baity is an Emmy award-winning animator who has worked in film and television for twenty years, having written and directed for animation studios like Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, and Warner Brothers. He is also the author of the fantasy trilogy The Books of Ore by Disney Publishing.