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Just Breathe
Notes on the Utility of Meditation
by Earth & Fire Erowid
Jun 2006
Citation:   Erowid E, Erowid F. "Just Breathe". Erowid Extracts. Jun 2006;10:10-12.
Although most of Erowid is focused on psychoactive chemicals, plants, and technologies, we also include "practices" in the list of mind alterants we document. The simplest and most accessible of psychoactive practices are meditation and intentional breathing. Unlike many plants and chemicals, meditation techniques are universally available, requiring only that one not be engaged in another attention-demanding task. The ubiquity and simplicity of these practices remind us how intrinsic mind-alteration is to human consciousness.

Not only do we consider a basic knowledge of meditative techniques and their effects to be important to understanding psychoactives, but even brief practice can provide secular, terrestrial benefits.

"Although there are many methods, the basics of meditation might be summed up in the words ‘pay attention and don't think.' It is hard to believe that such a practice could be of any benefit at all, let alone be capable of the kinds of transformations and insights claimed by some meditators, yet this is essentially the task undertaken. It is surprisingly difficult, as you will know if you have tried, and the many varieties of meditation can be seen as different ways of easing the task. If you have never tried it, just take 10 seconds and see whether you can *not think* for that short length of time."
- Susan Blackmore, from Consciousness: An Introduction (2004)
Spiritual Traditions & Meditation #
For many people, the concept of "meditation" is foreign and alien, associated with orange-robed monks, New-Agers, and non-Christian ideologies. Yet, in its distilled form, "meditation" is just a word that describes the intentional altering of one's consciousness through concentration and breathing. While it is true that meditation is often taught within the framework of a spiritual tradition, where the larger meaning of the practice is rooted in metaphysics, the initial goals are generally focusing or quieting the mind.

Spiritual traditions frequently focus on longer-term metaphysical development rather than on the immediate, practical applications of these techniques. In fact, short-term benefits may be downplayed or discounted entirely as distractions. Benefits can be gained from meditative methods alone without having to subscribe to a spiritual discipline, although most meditators agree that practice leads to cumulative learning and increased benefits.

Tricks and Techniques #
Various teaching traditions describe meditation very differently, from some that dissuade "thinking" altogether to those that teach complex visualizations as a path for the noisy mind to follow during a session. Clark Heinrich, best known for his writings and lectures about the importance of the Amanita muscaria mushroom in the antiquity of religion, uses the term "trick" to describe some of the simpler combinations of physical movement and breathing that can quickly alter one's thoughts and feelings.

Thinking of meditative techniques as "tricks" can demystify practices that often seem esoteric and tedious. The meditative process need not be overly complicated and is, in essence, simply playing with everyday functions. Tricks include seemingly simple techniques such as slow muscle stretches, humming, focus on breath, repeating of a word or phrase, or just sitting still "watching thoughts float by" without getting swept away with them. The trick is whatever works.

Breathing, Relaxing, and Focusing #
Many of these tricks have the effect of increasing a sense of calm and focusing the mind. Repeated slow deep breathing can reliably increase relaxation, but additional techniques are often necessary to keep one occupied so that the meditation actually occurs. Practiced meditators often say that their ability to meditate translates into an improved ability to focus in general. The methods for maintaining attention on meditation are very similar to those needed to stay focused for long stretches on other tasks. Gurustu, an Erowid crew member, succinctly describes his solution to attention distractions: "Whenever you realize that you aren't doing what you're supposed to be doing, start doing it."

In contrast to some strict traditions that require specific postures, meditation can be performed in any position, including walking or lying down. There are potential benefits even if one only tries meditating for a minute at a time. In fact, meditative techniques can usefully be practiced as one drifts off to sleep.

Intellectual Insights #
Although many of the simple benefits from meditation and intentional breathing practices are related to calming and focusing the mind, basic intellectual insights can quickly result as well.

One important insight is that the mind is surprisingly noisy, crowded, and difficult to stop from chattering. This is not only eye opening, but frustrating. Despite often feeling like we are firmly in control of our thoughts and feelings, meditation can instill an understanding of the difficulty of maintaining editorial control over what we think and feel. Initially annoying, most periods of meditation have brief flashes of "success" when unwanted distractions fall away. As practice continues, one imagines being able to access the successful moments more and more easily. One learns that some measure of intentional control is possible.

Further, meditation can increase awareness of the mind's processing, improving the ability to observe and report on one's current mental state.

Societal Benefits #
Many triggers affect how people think and feel, such as being stuck in bad traffic, arguing with a spouse, or enjoying an ice cream cone. Having an increased awareness of various states of consciousness, and the causes of such mind states, can create a window of opportunity for altering one's response to these triggers. In a moment of anger, one may reflect on the advice to "take a deep breath and count to ten" before reacting. Reducing knee-jerk reactions to stressful situations--especially in moments of crisis--can benefit the wider community.

Meditation techniques, although often dismissed as "too New Agey" by the mainstream, have made small inroads into unexpected places like prisons (see "Intentional Breathing for the Social Good", above). Meditation practices can help prisoners manage emotional volatility, which can ameliorate the violent social environment, reduce prison costs, and improve both the internal and external experience of prisoners and guards.

Mixing Meditation and Psychoactives #
Simple meditation practices are also useful as tools for evaluating the effects of a psychoactive and for helping direct and improve an experience. The skills and techniques learned are described by many entheogen and psychedelic users as the key tools at their disposal for averting crisis or avoiding anxiety-driven downward spirals during high-dose psychedelic experiences.

Inversely, numerous authors have also described the use of psychoactive substances to help explore their meditative practices. Perhaps most common are the use of caffeinated teas or subtler relaxing herbs, practices condoned and encouraged in some meditative traditions.1 More unusually, Erowid has received a number of experience reports detailing the use of low- to medium-dose psychedelics as a method for helping practitioners relax into extended periods of meditations.

Psychedelic Use Leads to Meditation #
One unexpected, but fairly well known, side effect of psychedelic use is an increase in desire to learn meditation.2 Psychedelics can bring out interest in managing one's mental state--either as a reaction to an out-of-control tripping mind one wants to quiet, or as a response to a peaceful focused tripping mindset that one wants to reproduce.

Educational Uses #
Unlike the ingestion of psychoactive plants and chemicals, simple breathing and focusing techniques can be taught experientially in most educational contexts: meditation is safe, simple, short acting, and legal. Meditative mind states offer a shared point of reference against which foods, plants, drugs, and technologies can be compared and contrasted. The effects of a brief breathing exercise provide an opening for discussing psychoactive effects in general, including strength, duration, and the natural variations between individuals.

When trying to teach about the incredibly complex subject of psychoactive drugs, meditation and other mental practices provide a less controversial entry point to discussing the intentional alteration of mental states.