Reading as Meditation
Ritual, Habit, and Reading
In an effort to reorganize aspects of my life (a cyclical endeavour as I am constantly tinkering with habits and rituals, and life is constantly destabilizing them), I have resumed meditation. I have no expertise on the subject, but I do find it consistently (noticeably) helps in very particular ways.
As someone with ASD task-switching is difficult, and meditation gives me the mental space that allows me to move from radically different types of undertaking or, on occasion, quieten an anxiety so that I can focus at all. Moreover, I find it useful when breaking a bad habit, an addictive behaviour that is unhelpful to my overall flourishing.
Whether or not sitting down in an upright position in silent focus produces an overall sense of improved wellbeing beyond overcoming those specific hurdles I am less personally sure. I do find research on the matter that suggests that it does quite persuasive, although it is harder to see such improvements when looking back at the travails and triumphs of my own life, and my satisfaction with either while meditating regularly or not.
Something I have discovered in meditating is that it is by no means a uniform practice. There is meditation that has a focus of some kind (and the type of focus, a sound, an image, breathing, etc.) makes an immense difference, but also meditation that has no focus at all, beyond not being distracted by the general sweep of thought. Moreover, guided meditations and unguided ones have quite different qualities as experiences, too.
And this notion of meditation as diverse has made me relate it to other kinds of practice. I have often felt playing on my violin in a general way can be a lot like meditation. It requires a very particular kind of sustained mental state and seems to produce similar results. The same has additionally applied in the past to gluing and painting miniature Warhammer models. And generally, especially when the words flow, to writing. But more than any other activity that possesses a family resemblance to it, reading feels most of all like meditation. I should add some clarifications to that. Reading snippets of texts, highly functional reading, etc. does not at all have the conscious quality of meditation, but sustained, concentrated, attentive reading certainly does. In part it does because it involves the same general mental challenge as most forms of meditation; i.e. constantly, non-judgmentally (that is, non-anxiously) returning attention over and over again to a single focus: the text. Without reading in that way, reading becomes harder and harder and eventually altogether impossible.
Before my latest reorganization of my life’s habits and rituals, and especially during the height of the anxiety around Covid (which for me blurred with anxieties around accepting my gender identity as nonbinary, as well as various other personal and health challenges) I was struggling badly with being able to meditate at all. But more concerningly, for me, I was struggling to do something I have done fairly consistently most of my adult life: read, and read enthusiastically and often.
Anecdotally, talking to others about the same period under lockdown and emerging, hesitantly (and it would seem prematurely, given coronavirus’s deadly persistence) from it, many others have reported to me experiencing precisely the same issue with reading. They came into lockdown thinking they would read a lot, but finding themselves (in the fist instance) far busier than expected, but also in completely the wrong frame of mind to read.
And just recently, connecting reading and meditation as I have, and seeing the mutual difficulty I had with both, this (again, admittedly anecdotal phenomenon) starts to make sense to me. Reading truly does function a lot like meditation, and so functions against the pressures of daily worries. It can only really be an escape from such worries if they are containable, that is, if they do not constantly and persistently erupt into the reading experience itself. Reading is a great mental discipline, but one that is fragile to having too many psychological distractions. (And material distractions are always also psychological in how they are encountered.)
This makes sense of other facets of reading with which I struggle. For instance, even at my most obsessive and concentrated periods of reading, it has always been difficult for me to read online articles. Not the words in themselves, clearly, but to read sustained text in an online context was a great challenge that even reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was not. And to read articles what I have tended to do is to remove an article from that context, to put it on my Kindle or, at the very least, transpose it to a PDF or Word file.
Why, then, is reading online hard? Well, as a neurodiverse person the internet is a particularly distracting place. It is defined by habitual pulls (this is especially the case when I am using social media, when I am not attempting one of my periodic hiatuses), but also just the bewitching bewilderment of the paths of hyperlinks. None of this is conducive to reading as meditation.
(A great deal of my work is also reading, as editing is inevitably reading, but this I find is experienced completely differently again. Reading for such a purpose seems to alter its phenomenological quality completely, presenting new challenges and benefits that would be better discussed in a wholly distinct essay. Although here it is briefly relevant to say that reading as work does apply pressures to reading for enjoyment.)
Reading, I have come to see more and more, is a very context specific and context dependent activity. Perhaps because I found myself in a particularly good place for it for a long sweep of my life, I have tended to see it in highly context-neutral terms. But what I am seeing more and more is that as a form of meditation, in common with all such practices, reading is also a ritual. It needs nurturing, not just in the sense of returning to it, honing it as something one does, but also in the sense of thinking about setting, mood, timing. That can additionally mean applying some degree of reverence to it.
My hope is that my time struggling to read as frequently has matured my appreciation for it. There are few other activities from which I benefit as much, and feel as called to perform.
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