Mindfulness without the Woo Woo

How to survive Ubud, Bali as a skeptical empiricist.

I recently spent 6 weeks in Bali, most of them living and working in Ubud. Ubud is in the middle of Bali. There’s no beach. En route towards Bali’s highest mountains, the elevation is higher. The air is a bit cooler. Everything is lush rice terraces and

It has also been made famous by the book Eat, Pray Love (EPL). I’ve been there three times but only ever seen it post-EPL. Thousands of spiritual tourists head there every year to immerse themselves in breathwork, yoga, meditation, reiki healing and chakra balancing. You can get vegan food and coconut water on every corner and a coffee colonic any time of the day.

I haven’t spent a lot of time defining my epistemological views, but words like skeptic and empiricist would likely be included. No one would ever refer to me as spiritual. And yet, among all that “woo woo” hippie stuff I still manage to thoroughly enjoy Ubud. But I can see how someone, with views similar to mine might hate the place and the people in the place and groan-worthy stuff they sometimes talk about.

So I thought I would write a little empirical survival guide to enjoying yourself in a place like Ubud or generally any place filled with lots of spiritual stuff that you think is a bunch of hokum.

Just repeat the following mantras to yourself.

Mantra 1: Placebos are real too

Think about the lengths modern science must go to in order to stamp out the placebo effect. Double-blind, randomized, repeatable trials are mandatory.

Why? Because the placebo effect is freaking real! If you tell someone that the sugar pill they are about to swallow will reduce their headache, they will most likely feel a real reduction in pain.

Because modern science has to work so hard to remove the placebo effect, rational-minded people come to view it as exclusively negative — a spanner in the works — something to be stamped out in all instances. But the very effort required to remove them from the scientific method shows that they are in fact a powerful tool if used correctly.

Placebos are generally harmless provided they don’t prevent you from seeing real medical treatment when necessary. If meditating and visiting traditional healer once a week keep you functioning and off Xanax, why not.

I think a lot of the stuff you’ll find in a place like Ubud: quantum touch, reiki crystals and so on, are all elaborate placebos.

But placebos work, remember!

There are real world benefits to an effective placebo. And these rituals need to be elaborate because the benefit of a placebo is proportional to how much the recipient believes it will work.

Remember, placebos are real and often useful.

Mantra 2: Oral mythologies are just a way to remember useful stuff

I first learned the word phenomenology via Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile. The concept is simple. There still lots of things in the world that we know work, without knowing exactly how they work. This process of learning things primarily through trial and error and observation is essentially the opposite of the scientific method. No hypothesis is created beforehand, no controlled experiment to disprove the hypothesis, just observation and tinkering.

Premise 1: Many old things work through shear trial and error.

Many of the things that we know through phenomenology are very old things. Over thousands of years cultures tinkered with things and found that some things worked without having a valid scientific theory for why. Take for example massages. We know that massages are great, that they loosen your tight muscles and that regular massages improve your overall health. But as far as I know, we still don’t have a conclusive scientific theory for why it works.

Massages are completely unscientific. But they are also awesome. This is ok.

Great Tyler, yes massages are awesome but they are also very straightforward. This muscles aches: rub it until it doesn’t. What about the more elaborate stuff and the stupid stories about chakra energy pulsating through universe and blah blah blah. Why, you might ask, do we have shroud “We do this because we know it works” in all this hoopla and mythology.

Premise 2: In oral traditions the most effective way to pass on knowledge was through more elaborate mythological structures.

Well, how would you actually go about executing a trial and error and observation-based practiced pre-Internet? Prior to the written word and WebMD? You would do what all mythologies (and some would argue even major religions) do. You wrap the knowledge in a story with characters and concepts that are more interesting, and thus more memorable, than the basic facts.

I think this is what a lot of the “woo woo” stuff that turns off empiricists is. It’s just a delivery system so that people could remember what previous generations has observed and learned about physical and mental health in an age where copious notes and diagrams simply could not be passed down. Ok, it’s not the most efficient system in the iPhone age, but it still roughly works.

So let’s say you’re doing a guided meditation. Tell yourself (1) this mediation works via 1,000s of years of phenomenology and (2) all this aura-balancing chakra nonsense is just a delivery system to help people remember it, I don’t need to believe all that to agree that this process empirically works.

Mantra 3: Embrace Mindfulness, Skip the Woo Woo

I first heard a version of the phrasing “Mindfulness without the Woo Woo” from Waking Up by Sam Harris. It’s a great book showing many of the ways certain religious and spiritual practices, or a stripped down kernel of the practices, are actually being validated by modern neuroscience. In particular there has been a boom in science validating the benefits of mindfulness or simple meditative practices. If it suits you, you can strip away all the placebo-inducing rituals and just sit, calmly in a chair (no complicated cross-legged position required) and focus on your breath for a few minutes. Try out the Headspace app, or a similar purely secular mindfulness practice and you’ll see there are real benefits to this kind of stuff.

Periodic fasting and yoga are also surging. With science increasingly validating their benefits. And Ubud is a fantastic place to practice all of these activities. You have world-class yoga teachers all over. A community that is supportive of people with weird eating habits and cleanses. Meditation retreats and meditative spaces are everywhere.

There are real benefits to many of these things and it’s helpful to experiment with them in a supportive environment, even that environment also contains a lot of gag-worthy woo woo stuff that you wish wasn’t part of the package.

At least for me these mental tricks let me enjoy the mindfulness while skipping the woo woo. Any other good tricks?

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