Meditation ain’t no ancient thing

We’ve made up meditation out of thin air and desperate need. But that only makes it more important.

“Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice passed down in unbroken lineages from enlightened beings like the Buddha.”

This is a bad idea.


And this is the first in a new series of critical essays by me, Damien Walter, playing my part as “The Critic”. I’ve been looking for a new way to do high quality critical writing for a while now. Maybe this new place called Substack is it? We shall see.

Head over to Substack and get a free membership to my mailing list before I introduce paid subscriptions.

I think we need to be brutal in taking apart bad ideas, and inspired in opening up good ones. I intend to do just that in these essays. They’re going to range from political theory to spiritual practice, stopping off at sci-fi novels and superhero movies along the way. For now it’s free to subscribe, but at some point I’ll tick the box for paid subscriptions and only those kicking in a few $$$ will be able to answer me back.

Until then.


I’m ten years into a Buddhist meditation practice, which means I’ve gone through the peaks of belief, out into the dead calm of a crisis of faith, and am now docked in the harbour of this over extended metaphor taking some time to consider the journey behind me.

“meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020”

I can’t even begin to prove that meditation is any good for anything. It might be nothing more than sitting around doing…nothing. And the scientific evidence otherwise is…sketchy at best. I suspect – my intuition and experience both tell me – that meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020.

But I can’t prove it.

What I CAN say about meditation with relative certainty…

…is that it isn’t old.

The fake histories of meditation.

Lineage is a great marketing strategy. It gives the student meditator confidence that the practice is worthwhile, and it gives the meditation teacher ownership of what they are teaching. Unless you’ve had the mantle handed on from some dude who got it from other dude going all the way back to Buddha, you ain’t the real deal.

This is bullshit. In the technical sense of the word…IE information that we believe because it appears to be highly salient to our situation.

Here’s a more honest appraisal of what’s really happening between meditation teacher and student. The teacher is just a regular fucked up human being, who has struggled through a lot of life’s suffering, and found some relief in meditation. And the student is much the same, and they’re working together to see how meditation might help.

That’s it.

You can read all about the histories of various meditation lineages. There’s a convenient wiki on the matter. I’m not disputing that meditation goes back some way, maybe to to the historical Buddha (whoever that was). Most of the techniques of meditation taught in Vipassana or Zen were developed in the 19th or 20th century as part of religious revivalist movements, or even as part of the New Age movement.

But none of that matters. Lineage or no lineage, scientifically proven techniques or no, meditation presents every person who studies it with the same challenge.

Only you can teach you to meditate.

What’s happening inside your head right now? Maybe you’re lost in a maelstrom of thoughts? Maybe you have a mind like a crystal labyrinth? Maybe the whole damn cosmos is unfolding inside the nexus of consciousness called You.

I can never know. The essential nature of being You is that only You can have any true insight into You.

“Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.”

“Know thyself.” Through history echo the words of the oracle at Delphi. So apparently simple, so deceptively hard. Who are you? Are you your name? Are you your nationality? Are you the process of evolution that birthed you? Are you the outcome of the Big Bang? Once we start to ask this question, we’re thrown into a depthless ocean.

Meditation is a set of useful tools for learning who you are. Mindfulness. Concentration, Compassion. They’re useful. They’re very, very useful. A good meditation teacher can show them to you, and talk you through part of the journey they might take you on.

But from there, you are on your own. Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.

Meditation is a 21st century survival technology.

Ancient lineages as marketing strategy isn’t just a bad idea. It’s a bad idea that stopes us seeing the really, really good idea about meditation.

The Nine Dot Puzzle is a famous psychological example of “frame breaking”. To solve the puzzle you have to break the frame that your mind projects over reality.

Life in the 21st century is an endless series of frame breaking exercises. Are you frustrated, desperate, overwhelmed and angry with the circumstances of your life? The answer lies entirely in how you frame those circumstances, your ability to break that frame, and to construct new frames as you change and grow.

This is the task that meditation has evolved to help us with.

As 21st century beings we’re uniquely challenged by change. 21st century life means re-inventing ourselves many times over, titanic changes of self and circumstance that our ancestors, who lived and died in one place and as one person, could barely have imagined.

Meditation isn’t a practice passed to us by our ancestors. It’s a technology we’re innovating right here and now in the 21st century. The best meditation teachers are nothing more than your fellow passengers in these times of change and upheaval, who’ve learned a few techniques you might find useful.


Taking apart bad ideas, and opening up good ideas, is essential. Meditation as ancient tradition is a bad idea. Meditation as 21st century survival tech is a good idea. Because the good idea is a much better place to start learning.

The job of criticism and the critic is to ruthlessly take apart bad ideas to make space for good ones. I’ll be publishing high quality critical essays via this Substack newsletter as and when I can. The more subscribers I gather, the more time I’ll channel into the task. Help spread the word. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies.

My name is Damien Walter…and I am The Critic.

Head over to Substack and get a free membership to my mailing list before I introduce paid subscriptions.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.