Dogma-free meditation for calming your mind

How to stay present and stop your mind from fixating.

Damien Echols: You don't have to believe in it. There's no dogma. Even like I said it uses iconography and symbolism from things like gnostic Christianity and esoteric Judaism, things like that. But it doesn't require you to believe in these things. The reason it uses this symbolism is, for example, in the part of the country that I grew up in there are literally places where you come to a four way stop and there are churches on all four corners. So even if you're completely atheist, even if you're repelled by these things, they are still part of your psyche, still part of our culture. So we on some level respond to those things in some way. That doesn't mean we necessarily have to believe in them for magick to work.

Like I said the people who devise these techniques wanted to know what works, why it works, how it works, and how we can make it work better. You don't have to believe in any of this any more than you have to believe that your muscles are going to get bigger by going to the gym.

The way that I guess one of the things that was so hard about Eastern traditions like Zen was you focus almost entirely on staying in the present moment all the time. That is really, really hard. Once you actually start trying to do that you realize how out of control your thoughts are. Our thoughts chase themselves around like a dog chasing its own tail all the time from the time we get up until the time we go to sleep. And a lot of the Eastern traditions deal with almost wrestling against that. Every time you realize you're doing it, bringing yourself back to the present moment, back to the present moment over and over and over. For me I didn't get a lot of results out of that. I never found myself in the present moment m ore than I was whenever I started the practices. Ceremonial magick on the other hand what it does is it doesn't really address that at all. Instead you're dealing like, for example, on energy circulation practices where you're circulating chi through different parts of your body, you're trying to energize different energy centers. It runs down through your spine. Doing that as a side effect you become more and more present. And I didn't even realize a lot of these practices say, for example, the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram, when you would learn these things traditionally the organization, the Order, would give you these exercises and they would not tell you what they're going to do. They would not tell you what they're for. They would say "go practice this for a year, come back and talk to us then. And if you're interested in learning more and going forward we'll talk about it then." Whenever you came back they would say "okay, well what did you experience?" That's how they would know if you had actually been practicing them or not. So I would practice these techniques, the middle pillar, the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram, and one day while I was in prison I bent over to tie my shoes and I realized, without even trying to do so, I was in the present moment. And it was almost like an atomic bomb going off because it was for the very first time in my life I realized "oh my god, I'm completely in the present moment!" Of course the second you think that it's shattered, and you're back to thinking or whatever. But it was even after years of Zen practice it was the first time that I had truly experienced that, and it was due to ceremonial magick.

One of the techniques that I use, you know, the analogy I used earlier about flushing yourself out like a cup of water, this is a technique that flushes our thoughts out. If you have a song going through your head over and over or if you're reliving an argument you had with someone a year ago, if you're obsessed over something that you can't get out of your head, this technique is good for that as well as just general meditation purposes. It doesn't have a name. I usually just refer to it as the prison cell meditation. But if you're interested I'll do that. Is that okay? All right. You start by closing your eyes and then you envision yourself in a prison cell. Standing in the center of a cell, everything is white. The walls are white. The ceiling is white. The floors are white. The only thing there is in the cell other than you on the back wall is a slit of a window. And it's up so high that the only way that you can reach it, the only way you can see out of it is by gripping the window ledge high above your head and hoisting yourself up by sheer, brute, physical upper body strength. Almost like you're doing a pull up or a chin up. So you want to bring as much tactile sensation to the visualization as you possibly can. You want to feel it as much as you can. So picture yourself walking to the back of this wall, pressing yourself against it, reaching up with your hands and gripping the edge of that windowsill with your fingertips. Try to feel what the back wall of that prison cell would feel like pressed against the side of your face, pressed against your torso. Feel the coldness of it, the grittiness of it. And as you start to lift yourself up off the floor using just your arms try to feel what that would actually feel like. Feel the muscles in your shoulders. Feel the muscles in your chest, in your abdomen firing, tensing as you're pulling yourself up.

Try to feel what the wall would feel like as you scrape against it lifting yourself slowly by sheer strength. As your eyes crest over the rim of the window white light bursts through the window, floods through the window, and obliterates everything: The cell, you, everything, until there's only white light remaining.

Do it again. Press yourself against the back of the wall, reach up with both hands, and grip the edge of the windowsill. Feel the muscles in your chest, in your abdomen, in your shoulders tensing as you start to lift yourself up. Feel the wall scrape against the front of your thighs, against the side of your face as you hoist yourself until your eyes come over the edge of the window frame, and then white light comes flooding in through the window obliterating everything – you, the cell, until there's only white light.

Once more. Feel yourself pressed against the wall, raise your arms, hook your fingertips over the window ledge. Begin to raise yourself slowly up by sheer strength, feeling the muscles in your shoulders, your chest, your torso straining as you lift your body weight. Feel the wall of the prison cell as you scrub against it; and as your eyes go over the edge of the window frame, white light comes flooding in, obliterating everything.

And this is one of those things you can do for as long as you have time. You can do it five times, you can do it ten times. The longer you do it the more effective it is. And it gives you something to work with in your visualization instead of just trying to stay in the present moment, which is really, really hard.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.