I've pre-emptively excluded meditation from my set of legitimate things, because it pattern-matches to white people taking something non-white people do and finding "deep wisdom" in it. It's the same reason why various fruits and berries that are common and worthless in south africa sell like hotcakes in the US, and the same reason why anime has so much Christian imagery.
It's true that part of the attraction of meditation for a lot of Westerners is that it seems "exotic" and "different". However, I would strongly disagree with you that such an attraction to exoticism is a reason for completely disregarding meditation.
After all, many things that are common in Western societies (some of which you might actually value quite highly) are considered exotic in non-Western societies, and might be valued for their exoticism. Usually, these are material goods such as cars, houses, clothes, food -- but not always -- Western music is also quite a hot cultural commodity. Do you avoid listening to Western music because it might be considered exotic in some other culture?
Something else to take in to consideration is that meditation is highly valued in many non-Western cultures. Even in non-Western cultures, meditation is rarely considered "worthless" to the same extent as common fruits and berries would be in South Africa. Common, maybe. Worthless? It would really depend on the person, but many in non-Western cultures value meditation quite highly (more so than most Westerners would value it, I'd wager).
Finally, I think that many strongly negative views of practices that are strongly valued in other cultures usually are rooted in xenophobia and deep ignorance. Some people don't know and don't want to know about such practices simply because they seem strange or different. I find that really sad.
Oh, I'm not negative of meditation because it originated in another culture. I'm negative of it because it seems like a mystical practice that's only more popular than Christian prayer in the US because it originated from an "exotic" culture. Christian prayer is certainly popular in the US, even to the point where it could be said to be "highly valued," but I would never try to use prayer to make myself more productive in the way people tell me to use meditation.
Meditation is pitched as a tool, and I (try to) evaluate tools based on their objective properties and effects, not based on their exoticism or wow-factor. This applies equally to meditation as it does to, say, dynamic typing.
Answer the question (privately if you like) and you just "meditated".
Meditation is self-observation, nothing more, nothing less. If you want to learn more about how the specific "tedks" configuration of neurons works, that's what meditation (a.k.a. self-reflection, self-observation) promises, as opposed to science which by definition cannot do this. I'm pretty sure that many of the things you consider valuable already do count as meditation (e.g. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5331514 ), it's just that nobody labelled them as such or built a formal discipline around them. That might be part of why meditation seems like such BS to you.
The stuff about sitting there with your eyes closed and focusing on your breathing isn't really necessary (I don't really do this anymore), all that's meant to do is help you slow your brain down so you can look at it, kind of like using a debugger. You can get kind of high from that and while fun it can be a hindrance in all sorts of other ways.
All the spiritual stuff you see is perhaps best described as a metaphor for the kinds of things people experience, since they don't have better words for it. Ultimately there isn't a particular belief system tied to meditation, kind of like there isn't a particular belief system tied to the act of debugging a program (although people do like to get into holy wars).
Finally, there's this joke that says all Buddhists are either meditating or feeling guilty about not meditating. So if someone is telling you that you "should" meditate they are quite possibly projecting some of their own guilt about their own spiritual practice onto you. Of course had they been practicing meditation by being "mindful" in the conversation with you (this is just code for "paying attention to their own thoughts and feelings while not sitting in silence somewhere"), they would see that this is what their feelings were doing and they'd probably choose not to pressure you like that.
There is definitely a lot of "orientalism" surrounding Buddhist practices. And yet, there are other ways to approach meditation. I entered meditation the same way I entered running: I saw people around me doing running and enjoying it, thought I would see if I enjoyed it too, did a little research, asked some questions, and tried it out. And yet running isn't for everyone.
If you were ever to try meditation, you sound like you might get the most out of Mindfulness in Plain English. The author presents meditation as a practice which serves a philosophy. The philosophy is that as a species we suffer from our emotional attachments to the outcomes of events, to the objects around us, etc. In geek parlance, we have stress responses that were appropriate in our evolutionary environment but are unadaptive to modern life. Meditation is a practice that helps us override these stress responses, and for many people meditation is a better tool than attempting to override those stress responses with thoughts. And even if you don't consider yourself particularly stressed, a Buddhist might suggest that overriding those responses can help remove the weight of attachment from your decision making process and make you into a more rational person.
About a thousand years ago, Tibet had a similar relationship with the teachings coming over the Himalaya from India. Now people in America have this Thing with elite Tibetan teachers. :-)
When we're long dead, I think we'll see a uniquely Western Buddhist tradition that grows beyond its adolescent pangs. I've already seen at least one new one, a fantastic practice that works fairly well.
Mathematics isn't popular because it originated in India and China; it's popular because it's practically useful in a variety of ways.
Why are Christian symbols popular in anime? It's not because they're inherently compelling in any way, it's because they're from a foreign culture and they have exotic appeal.
Why do people in the US practice meditation? Is it because they rationally considered all available peer-reviewed evidence, or because meditation is associated with a foreign culture and has exotic appeal?
I think that's largely true, but doesn't speak to whether meditation is actually worthwhile. And I'd think it's less true for people here. For myself, I never tried it until I started hearing of studies. After that, I found some nice secular material on it. I would have had a lot of trouble wading through much woo, and luckily that wasn't needed.
Things tend to exist because they're popular (QWERTY) or good (DVORAK). While there is certainly "evidence" in some form for meditation, it seems to exist mostly because it's popular.
If meditation is actually good, and it eventually permeates society, I'll just be a late adopter. No account I've ever read has pitched it as so wonderful a tool that being a late adopter would be terribly painful for me.
But for now, I'm predicting that meditation will be a fad. I don't expect to see ~5-10 meditation centers in my hometown in 15 years.
Meditation is not essentially a "non-white people" activity. Christians in Western Europe and the Americas, both lay people and clergy, many of them white (and many non-whites too, of course), have developed and engaged in various forms of meditation over the past two millennia.
I don't mean here to exclude parallel developments among Eastern Christians (i.e. Eastern and Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholics), I'm just making a particular point about meditation not being essentially non-Western or "non-white".
At the risk of oversimplifying, the Western Christian tradition breaks down into two schools of thought: one school advocates active contemplation, while the other advocates passive contemplation.
Since the 16th Century, the school of active contemplation, also known as discursive meditation or mental prayer, has been strongly influenced by various writers and preachers in the Jesuit tradition, but stills feels the influence of great figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Benedict of Nursia.
The Western school of passive contemplation has, since the 16th Century, been profoundly shaped by the writings of two Spanish authors, John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila, together known as the Carmelite Doctors.
Personally, I am more drawn to active contemplation. In 2007-2008, I had the opportunity to read a classic work on the subject by a 16th Century Spanish Jesuit -- Fr. Alphonsus Rodriguez, The Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues. That work's "Fifth Treatise" is a detailed treatment of personal development with respect to the practice of mental prayer, and I can't recommend it highly enough to persons with an open mind.
This is all true, but does it relate to the reason why meditation is popular in the West?
The real determinant of the "legitimacy" of a thing is the true reason why it came to your attention, not the post-hoc reason that might be a more "legitimate" explanation (where "legitimacy" is the fuzzy criteria referred to in my original comment).
Since I doubt any of the people in my life telling me I should meditate are aware of anything in your comment, the facts in your comment have no effect on my decision to discard meditation.
Cognition is layer upon layer of pattern processing, all the way down to sensory inputs. His particular pattern matching mechanism might need adjustment, but pattern matching itself is the only mechanism by which we decide anything. If you doubt me, ask yourself, do these sentences pattern match to "correct" or "incorrect"? See?