The Prescriptive Society

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce says when it comes to advice for working with your mind, one size does not fit all.

Dierk Schaefer/

In ancient Greece, or so the story goes, there was an innkeeper named Procrustes. His slogan: No person is too tall or too short for the beds at Procrustes’. He made good on his claim by cutting off the legs of the tall people and putting short people on the rack to stretch them out. Everyone “fit” but there was a lot of pain involved, and so was born the notion of a Procrustean Bed: a norm that we try to fit everyone into.

Every era has its brand of conformity. In the Information Age, where measurement is rampant and media are omnipresent, a prescriptive society has grown up that offers—through every conceivable channel, expert, pseudo-expert, and convert—a barrage of instructions for how to live each day like Steve Austin, the Bionic Man: “better, stronger, faster.” We’re told the number of steps to take each day, the number of glasses of water, vitamins, and supplements to take, glasses of wine and cups of coffee to drink or not drink, what exercises to do, what to eat and not eat for what results, the desired size and shape of feces, and yes, how often and how long to meditate.

The prescriptive bug has infiltrated our social lives as well. Friends and acquaintances will be happy to supply you with free advice at any social occasion it seems. Presuming in a social setting that you could tell someone else how they ought to live used to be branded as rude. Now it’s considered “being helpful.”

It’s one thing to consult with trusted authorities who can get to know you and your specific needs (FitBit won’t apply if you’re in a wheelchair or maybe the standard yoga routine will exacerbate an old injury). It’s another to be following blanket prescriptions that don’t take into account what is most interesting about human beings: their variability.

Standards are necessary and desirable. You need to know whether someone is qualified to teach meditation, just as you need to know what qualifies as mindfulness instruction or a mindfulness retreat. But standards and conformity are not the same thing. Breathing exercises might be a better place to start than quiet meditation for people suffering from trauma. Children benefit from moving meditation. For some people, starting with kindness is more effective than starting with focused attention.

In the world of meditation and mindfulness, the danger is that a particular program or regimen or set of principles will be seen as applicable to everyone at all times, and taught and advertised in that way. Everything in the realm of mind training ought to be treated as suggestions to be considered, guidelines to be tested and adapted, and that includes everything in this magazine. A big part of our job is to not become doctrinaire, prescriptive, and proselytizing.

Outside expertise has its place, but in the end we are the best witness to what’s going on in our own mind and body.

Because the main result of that tends not to be people becoming healthier and happier. Rather, the main result seems to be people feeling perpetually inadequate or guilty. By contrast, if authorities, experts, friends, coaches, and caregivers can help us to find what fits for us, we can feel empowered from within. We can rely on deep inner resources rather than depend on outside measurements and confirmations. They do have their place, but in the end we are the best witness to what is going on in our own mind and body.

So many people say they’re bad meditators or can’t meditate. Perhaps they’re trying to fit into a procrustean bed set for them, rather than feeling empowered to experience and embody the inherently meditative quality of their own mind, which cannot be measured, dosed, sold, or prescribed. No one is expert when it comes to simply being who you are.