Marvin G. Belzer, PhD, has taught mindfulness meditation for twenty years. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. For many years he taught a semester-long meditation course in the Department of Philosophy at Bowling Green St. University, where he was an Associate Professor of Philosophy. He teaches an undergraduate course at UCLA (Psychiatry 175: Mindfulness Practice and Theory) and teaches mindfulness in many different venues in Los Angeles.
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A Transcript of our Conversation:
Hello, I’m interviewing Marvin G Belzer PhD associate director of the Mindful Awareness the Research Center at UCLA. Thank you very much for meeting me my pleasure. And in all disclosure, I am taking courses from Marvin right now. So, you know, just so everybody knows what’s going on.
I’ve already explained to you why I’m doing this and where the questions came from. So I’m just going to jump right into the questions and we’ll go from there. The first one is. Why meditate? Well, I love the question. I often teach college students and young people older teens and I love talking with him about this and so I’m kind of prepared here and I would kind of break it into three areas.
The first is. There are these very simple activities that we can do with our minds to cultivate calmness. And so there’s this package of qualities of clarity stability resilience kind of under that that heading of concentration or calmness and whatever else we can do in meditation. It’s it’s very clear that the central nervous system is such that paying attention deciding to pay attention to something really simple.
The in our experience does not make believe the mind naturally can settle become calmer more clear and so forth. And so I would conjecture that something like this is a part of all the meditation Traditions, maybe not all exactly but you know this just this cultivation of columnists and it’s not something we have to struggle to create.
It’s much simpler. It’s just directing attention to something. Simple like the breath and so forth. Secondly, my area as you know is mindfulness meditation and so mindfulness includes that component for sure but it also includes a component of bringing awareness to what presents itself. even as we try to keep the attention with the breath or something like that and.
Gets us to the second sort of reason to do this sort of meditation, which is in bringing awareness to whatever presents itself including physical pain, including difficult emotions, you know, the racing mind there’s something about doing this which gives us more freedom in our response to these ordinary States.
And so the kind of work with physical pain is maybe the most Vivid and so. If a part of my body is in pain, then we can practice mindfulness with this in a way that helps us manage the pain. And what manage the pain means basically is having more freedom in our response to this difficult State.
And so the gist of it, of course, is really simple. We focus somewhere else like the breath the pain comes to mind. We include the awareness of the pain may be. Just for a few seconds. So it’s at that oscillating back and forth and there is something about the willingness just to be with the raw Sensations, even when it doesn’t reduce the intensity of the pain.
It gives us more freedom in our response. So the word freedom in might be a bit fancy, but for in my way of seeing it like the freedom that one can have relative to pain relative to it. I-80 also is a window into who knows how much Freedom we might have as human beings, right? And so there’s obviously much more to say about that.
But that that would be kind of that’s not as clear-cut to in my mind as the first answer around concentration, but it definitely would be in the territory of like Buddhists talking about freedom from suffering right and that’s very plausible to me. Now you come from a philosophical background of a philosopher.
Yeah. I mean, that’s what you taught. And yeah, and that kind of thing and I wondered I was curious how that fed you into where you are now, I mean, how did how did you get from? Yeah questioning everything. Yeah to where you are. Now with this. Well, I did start meditating when I was a graduate student in philosophy.
I had a friend who this is in their 80s who had information about meditation and. Got her intuition was yeah. I think you might find this interesting and I did sure enough and so for many years, it was kind of an extreme sport for I would do though. Do these events Island intensive Retreats and and and found it really interesting.
And this actually gets to my third answer about why do it okay because I was you know part of it was I was delirious. I needed to find that. Wow, these methods really do it’s not make believe it’s definitely not flaky for me, right? It really is working to both develop some concentration and to have more freedom with some difficult States, but.
Loss of hearing me the flight you don’t go to philosophy grad school unless you are exploring and willing to entertain new things and I just found it really interesting right to spend time in this situation exploring the mind and so kind of my third General answer also fits with my approach to philosophy, which is.
I don’t know why people should meditate, you know if you’re here in my class that I’m happy to teach you, but I don’t know if you should do it or not. It’s up to you. It’s such a personal thing personal choice. So it’s even working with teens. You know, I don’t I don’t haven’t worked a lot with younger than 15 and 16, but my intuition is it would be the same no matter what age you’re working with.
It’s a highly personal activity and if one is interested in doing it or trying to do it at all. Then we have to use our own intuition our own wisdom. Our own desires are relevant to this question of why am I doing this? Why should I be doing it from the very beginning right? And to me, this is an exciting part of it because you know, like the first two answers more calmness dealing with difficult States those fit pretty.
Well into like a medical model right have like how to make life better and so forth and that’s you know, and so we’re you know, managing physical pain using mindfulness is becoming mainstream very quickly as a philosopher though, you know teaching philosophy 101 with 19-year-old kids. I don’t go in the first day and say well this course is going to make you healthier, right?
This course might mess you upright but in a way, that’s true. Part of Being Human, but it’s exploring. It is like you maybe find yourself really uncomfortable. You may find that some of the things you assume to be true that are at the center of your life can be questioned and you may find yourself questioning them and it may be confusing.
And so there’s a part of me that that insists on this third answer also write about why meditate and so it’s more than I don’t know why you should meditate it’s like. You have to figure it out for yourself and you don’t look to someone else to tell you and it can be an amazing adventure in my opinion.
Because it has been for me sure and it has been for many students but I don’t assume it’s that way for everyone. There’s something in me. That’s just that radical like I don’t assume that everyone should do this or it’s good for everyone. And so when someone says well what about this other type of meditation or what about my religious practices?
What about I have a former student who posted something on Facebook the other day and she’s got into boxing and she’s guys this is my meditation because I am in the moment. Yeah, and if your son was going to hit you-you got to be present, and part of me wants to write to her and go I don’t think that’s what I taught you and the other part of me is that is exactly what I taught you, you know, because she’s thinking for herself and exploring and finding those.
Things that she can be mindful with exactly. Yeah. Well, that kind of leads me into. Well, actually before that. Yeah, the do you feel that somebody to meditate needs a teacher or a guide or a community? You think those things are important? I think they are for most people on the one hand. I think that people can discover the basic principles on.
On but I think that it’s easily forgotten even when they discover it and so that’s where the role of a teacher of a community can be helpful just to help us remember on track just to help us as an example would be again coming back to the example of physical pain. I once had a student who after I gave the lesson on pain, which I basically gave the summary of a couple minutes ago after class, but I’m obviously can be spelled out more but she came up after class.
That you know, I discovered that when I was a little girl. I was like, oh really and she goes yeah. Yeah had migraines. I didn’t know what to do. I but I found that if I felt my hands so I directed my I felt my hands that helped, but when that didn’t help I actually just felt the pain in my head just felt it and when that didn’t help I went back to my hands and I just went back and forth and I was like, wow you not only discovered this method you actually just explain it better than I did.
Your personal experience and she and so I would honestly be forgotten who it is and I would actually love to talk with her again and get more details. But my guess is she had forgotten what she discovered and the class kind of run over right? Wait a minute. I know what he’s talking about. So I think that what we’re doing in meditation is so simple that people have probably discovered it and rediscovered it countless times through.
In a history going back who knows how far right especially in a context where their pain and the anxiety have definitely been part of human life. Well, and also the fact that it’s brought up in every religious very just practice. There’s their method that’s right. And yeah and so but still it’s it’s helpful to be reminded to be and so as a teacher part of my job is to explain the sort of things we’re talking about and the other.
Part is to convey confidence that it’s actually worth doing and of course that confidence comes from my own practice, even though it kind of also comes from the word go in people’s own practice, you know, they have to develop that confidence themselves, but that’s that’s where there’s going to be a range of personalities and so forth.
So the shorter answer would be for some people the teacher the community. Are going to be more important than for others, but I think for everyone it hits I regard myself as pretty independent. I started meditating out of a book almost kind of did a two-month Retreat when I was a grad student in living in Helsinki for a year, but I really even there in that time.
I was pretty isolated. I was definitely meditating and discovering things, but there was part of me that’s like really needed other people and kind of just the connection. The like not being so isolated right the communal part Community Park. Yeah, and I find in my practice that when I’m meditating with a group of people and I mean seriously, I gotta retrieve yeah something like that.
Yeah. It’s a different energy. I have a different meditation. Yeah, when I’m there then when I’m sitting by myself every morning. Yeah, so that can be researched. You know, I expect that will be that it’s a good scientific question. What’s going on there? Yeah, is it? Yeah, are we really connected, you know?
We rightly what is there something going on between us? I don’t assume there is but there could be yeah and then coming over to the basic thing. What is mindfulness and how do we live mindfully? I think of mindfulness as a capacity that we all have we don’t have to struggle to create it. It’s part of a normal human.
Consciousness its ability to be aware of what’s happening in our experience moment after moment. And so there are other ways to conceptualize it but the core of it is utterly simple and it’s something that we do all the time and it’s a capacity that can be refined and developed. And so this is where the meditation comes in.
We know, we if we practice them. Do refine and develop it and this is where we treat come in. So actually going away from our normal lives for a few days or longer putting ourselves in that situation where the mind can really get settled. So the development of the concentration that does for most people require going away, you know, just doing it for several days or we even a month or two, you know, it can be done normal people do it relatively normal people, right?
And. And that is also part of my job as a teacher just to kind of make it clear make it, you know, I’ve done it many many times for long periods of time and it’s not make believe it really and so there is that component of the meditation practice whether it’s a daily meditation or Retreat and then bringing it into our lives does not require and I don’t think it’s actually a good idea to try to be mindful all the time as if.
Kind of a top-down thing. That’s the first thing on our to-do list and we do it every moment. Right? It’s like no that’s too much work, right? We already have enough to do but if we have a meditation practice, then these this capacity this normal capacity will be strengthened and refined so that will naturally be more connected with what’s happening in us as we go through our normal day and then there will be moments where we can remind ourselves in the midst of a busy day.
Okay, I can take a breath I can notice what I’m feeling right now and it’s quite still very interesting to me how that works. So the act so when we’re living mindfully and in our day-to-day life, it’s just being more equanimous since being in the moment more and realizing what’s going on. Is that the I think that the at the simplest level for most of us what it’ll mean is being more attuned to what’s happening in our bodies.
Hmm, the actual. Stations in our bodies and so when we teach how to work with difficult emotions mindfully and when we practice in meditation, it’s turning into the raw physical Sensations. I’ve been in the chest the Torso with anxiety fear anger and so forth. So we’re naturally and probably quite intelligently oriented to the thoughts to the flow of thoughts.
But with these emotions there also are the physical Sensations and it’s really helpful to be a to. Into them. So this is what I mean by I mean the sensations are there typically whether we’re aware of them or not. But this is where the mindfulness can be defined as an example of how it can be refined and strengthened so that even the meditation first, you know, we were more likely to notice it sure rather than just get carried away by the thoughts and then we practice with that and it’s like wow, I thought it was having a good meditation.
But here I am pissed off at such-and-such. Sure. And not pretending otherwise just like okay. This is what this is real. This is what I practice with right and then that capacity then becomes more available in the midst of an argument in real life and it’s very interesting how we have more options than right and within that discussion, it’s not because we’re being super Mindful and talking very slow.
That’s not going to help right. It’s we’re just in the middle of the action and so when an example is working with athletes, You know, like most athletes who have already skilled in their sport. They don’t need to be taught how to be mindful relative to the basketball or the baseball that’s there already there already are doing that right pretty well.
And so there is mindfulness in play, but they mindfulness still might be useful in some way and maybe it would be most useful when they’re not playing the game at all. Right, but there are actually it helps them rest better. Because they’re not they work more skillfully and so it’s fascinating and you know, and one of the things, of course, that’s going on is where the secular mindfulness is, you know, I can talk about these things a lot but everything I say is open to the research of course.
Yeah, and so even the assertion about how could mindfulness help with a basketball player volleyball player? I don’t really know but my conjecture would be it. Could help but it wouldn’t necessarily try to be more mindful when you’re playing the game. That might not be necessary or might it happen.
Naturally. It might happen. Naturally when you’re actually in the middle of the year, but then when something happens to break you out exactly and you get angry. Yep, you realize oh, wait a minute. I need to be mindful of your marketer but need to be angry. You’re more ready to break up with it and real-time what’s going absolutely and feel it when you’re absolutely middle of play.
Exactly and that’s when you can be that that’s why you. Bring your best to the game. Exactly. You don’t get lost in something tangential. That isn’t going to help and of course, that’s relevant in all areas of Our Lives working with teenage Sons and Daughters driving a car waiting in line Leonard. I know that and then probably the most significant nowadays had a relationship with technology.
Yeah, right put it in the right place, right just the rapid on slide right messages and stimulation that. So easily available and you just put it in perspective at to everything. I’ve been trying to do it myself and it’s interesting just like even the flow of emotions like boom. Boom. The boom that comes just looking at the news or your new name.
Yeah. Yeah. I have to remind myself when I’m watching the news nowadays said I just yeah need to breathe a little bit more in just to accept what’s going on because it’s happening and just realize it. Right right and and and I mean it’s very interesting because this is like when we go on retreat.
We actually are taking time away from all of that cutting yourself off from everything. Yeah, and of course to someone who doesn’t understand it. It can seem like an Escapist type of action in general. It’s not for people. Someone might be there are some cases that now and then but not really very many.
It’s just a very rational response to like the pressures of Modern Life and so, you know I talk to. A lot about going on with you know, should I go on a retreat and almost always it’s like have you found that your meditation so far has been significant. Does it seem to be helping right? And if they’re in my office talking about it, then it probably has been sure and I’m like, you won’t regret taking a week now going not to do this, but you will be leap turn off your phone.
You’ll be it’s not easy. It’s it requires some courage to go get out of our normal patterns. But then we cultivate these it does not withdraw from life at all because our minds our bodies are there right? We’ll practice missing our phone, you know well and it’s very interesting. I find that it hit to me it Likens to sleep.
You know, I didn’t sleep yesterday greet. This is my brain sleep. Yeah. This is where I can you know, let the brain. Yeah and let my mind. Well, the brain the mind that you know as. So I went to the lecture the other day where it was talking about brained in mind. Yeah, and
it’s those kinds of things that I find in a retreat that you can let all those things go and then but be ready when you’re back. Yeah because there’s some translating back in and it is an experience that you won’t get anywhere else, right? And that’s that in itself can be something we learn from.
Yeah. It’s just like that because though the tremendous. Of information and stimulation is part of every normal day. Right, and it can be really interesting to come to it fresh and see what it’s really when you do you start realizing that wow I deal with is exactly I mean, this is normal.
Yeah, and I don’t even think about it anymore because it’s so much but that kind of gives you a break and let you see really what you are dealing with. Yeah. But anyway one of the other. What is the difference between meditation and contemplation? Oh or is there I don’t know it’s interesting. The word contemplative is being used now quite a lot in University settings as a kind of General contemplative practices kind of played studies as kind of the general term for mindfulness meditation related areas.
I’ve never been a big fan of it. Because to my mind contemplation suggest something cognitive, right? Right right that I’m you know, and I think that that’s probably one reason that the term was actually used because in the academic settings because it was going to be more congenial for academic colleagues if we were actually contemplating rather than meditating.
I was Finding in some classes that are used interchangeably. Yes, that’s where the question knows some settings. I don’t use the word contemplation. Except when I’m interacting with fellow academics sure who are teaching in contemplative studies programs and a lot of respect but and I remember having a conversation with some of them about it and arguing that it’s to cognitive and what we do in meditation.
We don’t shut off our minds and we obviously don’t have to clear our minds and support because that’s impossible to do it just by sheer willpower, but we’re really not. Actually sitting there focusing on the flow of thoughts in most cases were focusing somewhere else and they were like Marv. Yeah, you’re right, but forget it.
Yep, give up because though the word is entrenched now, right and so might I would conjecture that in 10 years cause you know, contemplative studies contemplative practice in the universities will be more and more widespread just because it is being used a lot. I’m still not a fan of it, but I don’t use it for that reason.
I always thought that is something’s going on. You know, I’m thinking about some yeah, I’m contemplating my mind. Yeah, and so there definitely are meditation traditions of core involved. There is contemplative meditation. Yeah, and then we teach them like the kindness practice involves, you know, using our minds using thoughts, right?
You know, we still don’t send to say contemplation, but it is more cognitive for sure that the basic mindfulness sure. So I would have been smarter maybe with this I’m fine. I would have been smarter just to say I don’t think about this I’ll and I’ll talk about it. When asked okay, but it’s not on my radar and you’re big and any whatever I think about it the store that moment comes up when these guys were like sure of relaxing your neck.
We don’t like it either but I’m not going to change. Yeah, right. And then the last question I have is how do we facilitate compassion in ourselves and in our world around us? And like we had mentioned earlier. Does that really come from meditating doesn’t yeah? Do you become more compassionate from headed from just meditating?
Yeah, that’s it. You have to try. Yeah, but it just doesn’t I I would say this is where I’m getting. If you’re going to get a wide range of answers and I think my answer is I don’t know it’s and it is immutable to research sure and research is being done on that very question and there are some interesting studies suggested those people where there’s one.
I won’t go into it. Yeah, but it’s research is just beginning but this is this is my kind of I do have a kind of. Thoughts about it, but I don’t know how generally valid they are. But I think that my thoughts my thoughts would be that in pain attention to my own experience. You know, I think that one core element of Love is the willingness to pay attention.
And so without being dramatic about it. There’s a way in which mindfulness practice and so far as. Only to pay attention to my experience no matter what it is is a form of love and so the idea of self Compassion or self-love to me is something that we’re practicing in basic mindfulness. I also love to teach relational mindfulness practices and with college students who develop some really beautiful.
I feel exercises where you know, we’re paying attention, you know some we. If I the social rules so that in this context, we’re just paying attention with each other in a very simple way but a real way, we’re not pretending anything and and I don’t use the word intimacy because that’s a little fancy right but there is a way in which just paying attention to another person no matter what they’re going to say.
No matter what’s going on for them is love or the core of Love or would be odd to say. You love them. If you’re not willing to right to be there and this capacity to do it with others seems to me to be closely connected with the ability to do it with myself. And so my conjecture would be that yeah, what we do in the basic mindfulness meditation or strengthening some of the skills that are at the core of loving in general.
Do you find that the do you find that the practices you? In the in the relational – yes that you’re doing that those bleed out that you do see differences in people when you’re when you’re doing it. Do you the first maybe first? The first question is what is it? When you do those mindful, yes relational mindfulness practices.
What is that for the people that don’t know? Yeah changing the social rules so that whether it’s a conversation with another person or a group interaction. It’s a game, you know, so. Just like a not a normal conversation, but it might be just a repeated question and and and then there’s a role of a speaker and a listener and the listener’s job is just to ask the question and not reply other than say, thank you.
And then repeat the question, you know and the answer there’s a just say what comes to mind right sure in the group activities. Some of the best ones are just creating a forum where. People can ask questions of each other in a context of confidentiality and where we’ve kind of set a container that’s safe enough and college students tend to love this where they just like, who are you what’s going on in your life?
What’s real without trying to be dramatic? Right? They learn very quickly that it’ll be interesting. We don’t have to turn it into Truth or Dare or something like that. It’s just like what is your life like and so we get below the surface of what it’s. Tip being polite in that context is asking the questions were curious about sure.
So anyway, that won’t describe it more. But you know, I do I’ve done probably a thousand of these types of circles which go over the last 12 14 years with mainly with college students older teens and there hasn’t there’s just been a little bit of science so far, but I conjecture in the next 10 20 years.
There will be a. Scientific interest in what’s going on for people in these types of activities and my conjecture is based on my experience, which is I love it. They tend to love it. Right? It’s not necessarily for everyone. It’s definitely not, you know, I never require anyone to do it to be involved.
It’s kind of back to that earlier theme of I don’t know if you should do this, right and and and and I have friends who don’t who are serious meditators who? Not necessarily that excited about these things and so we want to always keep that in the picture here and even the things I say about it.
It may be just a certain type of person right for whom this would be great. And yeah, but-but it’s what but I would conjecture that also that for some people possibly the relational activities would be more timely and relevant to them than the actual meditation. Given where they are in their life, right but kind of going into the same territory of even columnist and connection with oneself.
So I’ve had I definitely have had students for whom meditating. It was really hard to even a few minutes of sitting with their own experience was, you know difficult a really three minutes that’s enough and like, you know, I think just because it’s so painful in there for one reason or another but.
The attention of someone else having the attention of a group, you know, not in a setting of therapy or anything like that separate but it may be related but much simpler just like who are you what’s happening? They can do that. They love that. Do you find that after they’ve gone through some of the relational training that they’re that they’re meditations increase or they find more value out of their meditate that I don’t know?
That would be another great research question. Yeah, and I should have should also say that. Most of my feedback about these activities come from the students who like them, of course, and I you know, there may be dozens or hundreds away life have been ruined and out there somewhere now blaming it on me, by the way.
I don’t hear from them. Well, we’ll find out once you get the podcast down here and here’s a pinhole Mill height. Let’s do it was already he’s to blame. But anyway, I just that’s that’s all the questions. I hate. I just really appreciate your time. And thank you so very much and you’re welcome to stay.
I think that you know, we’ll see what happens. Yeah, my pleasure this thing how it works you. Yeah, but just go from there nice and I just if I can get this thing start.