In his new book The Science Of Enlightenment, the meditation teacher Shinzen Young claims that if you meditate for a few minutes a day, you’ll double your lifespan. There are two obvious possibilities here. One is that he’s a charlatan. The other is that he’s talking in an annoyingly metaphorical way, as when certain new age authors claim that “you are the universe”, which may be true in some sense, but isn’t much use when you’re trying to get out of a parking ticket. Actually, I think neither applies. I think he might be right. Bear with me.
If you’re older than about 25, you’ll be familiar with the way time seems to speed up as we age. That’s probably because we encounter fewer novel experiences, so with less information to process, we pay less attention; and, in recollection, the months and years feel shorter. You can test this: just recall a recent time when you did expose yourself to lots of novelty. A five-day trip I made to Sweden last year still feels like a substantial episode in my life, but the five days either side of it have evaporated, lost to memory for ever.
The usual advice, to slow time down, is to have more exotic experiences. But few of us can spend more than a fraction of life visiting mind-blowing foreign lands; if you have a job, or kids in school, much of life will necessarily be routine. Yet, as Young points out, there’s another option: what if you could increase the attention you paid to every moment, no matter how humdrum? The result would be the same: experiencing each moment with twice the usual intensity, “your experience of each moment [would be] twice as full as it currently is”, he writes. So any given period of time would seem to have lasted twice as long. Well, meditation certainly improves concentration. And, now that Young mentions it, the meditation retreats I’ve done do seem, in memory, far longer than a few days each.
You might object that this is exactly the annoyingly metaphorical talk mentioned above. You’re not really living longer. Or are you? When we say we want to live longer, we surely don’t care about the numbers on our birthday cards. We mean precisely this subjective sense of a long, full life, of expanses of time spent with those we love, or on work we enjoy. In the only sense that actually matters, then, a life to which you paid twice the attention would indeed be twice as long.
Moreover, citing psychology research, Young argues that high concentration is intrinsically rewarding, independent of what you’re concentrating on. If you could fully focus on the sensations of any given experience, rather than being lost in thought about it, you’d never suffer, he insists. (On those retreats, I found the searing pain in my legs eventually became a merely interesting combination of hot and cold sensations.) In short: concentrate better and you’ll have a happier, longer life without needing to alter your circumstances or life expectancy. After all, isn’t it weird to yearn for more years when you’re not even fully showing up for the ones you’ve got?