This category covers things that relate to the practice of meditation, the experience of learning how to meditate, and some of the resulting insights that meditation has revealed to me. While I learned and practice Vipassana, I use meditation in the broadest sense of the word in an attempt to cover as many related topics as possible. For this reason, “meditation” is any deliberate activity that is undertaken for the purpose of developing the skills of concentration, focus, or attention.
Reflective pain has a much longer half life than reactive pain. It continues long after the cause of the pain has stopped precisely because the individual has been damaged.
Pain is not the same thing as suffering. Pain is not reflective, it is a real thing and it exists in the moment. It is a representation of now and is useful at getting an organism to stop doing something that is potentially harmful. Imagine grabbing a hot utensil or hot pan. The pain receptors in the hand fire, sending signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. There will be a reflexive response to these signals, the goal being to stop doing the thing that immediately proceeded the pain. You will let go of the hot utensil or pan and this will stop the immediate sensation of pain.
If the pain stops, reflection on the nerve impulses that made it into the brain can begin and perception takes place. Generally speaking, not a lot of cognitive cycles will be dedicated to reflecting on what has just happened because there is little need to learn from it. Existing automatic responses were sufficient to avoid injury. There is no point in wasting time and energy solidifying the avoidance strategy. The one that exists works fine.
Depending on the nature of what just happened the pain may continue. If you have actually done tissue damage, the pain receptors will continue to send signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. This does not mean that there is an immediate threat, it means that there has been a real threat and the reflexive response was not sufficient to avoid damage. It is also an indication that the nature of the pain is important, that what was automatic was not adequate to avoid injury. It is in the best future interests of the individual to process this information further and create a more robust avoidance strategy to employ moving forward. Tissue damage is not good, so let’s not experience it again if possible. The best way to eliminate the same in the future is to spend time processing it to increase the amount of mental stimulation and increase the amount learning that comes from it. The brain will adapt physically to this stimulation, laying down organic material to be used as memories in the future. This is the way we learn to avoid grabbing things from the oven.
Suffering has a survival purpose too. It is to help the individual to ruminate on something that happened that is potential harmful and should be avoided in the future. However, it doesn’t need to last for very long in order for the lesson to be learned and for an avoidance stratagy to be created. Imagine when you were 6 and blurt out an answer at school. The teacher scolds you for not raising your hand and some of your classmates laugh. While this isn’t as simple as the hot utensil example, it is very much the same thing.
It has been know for a long time that the brain releases chemicals in response to the sensation of pain. Something that has been uncovered recently is that many of these same chemicals are released in response to perceiving certain things in the environment. A lose of autonomy, a lack of certainty, a lack of fairness, a lose of relatedness and a lose of status all cause a similar chemical cascade as hitting your hand with a hammer. What is different is that the pain receptors in the body do not fire because there is not actual cause of pain. The pain receptors that do fire are the ones that fire as a result of the reflection on pain – the ones that fire when in response to tissue damage. Reflective pain has a much longer half life than reactive pain. It continues long after the cause of the pain has stopped precisely because the individual has been damaged.
The outcome of this is potentially very profound. If we take the example above of shouting out an answer. There is a loss of autonomy, as the teacher is exerting control over us. There is a loss of certainty because we suddenly do not know what will happen if we shout out the answer in the future. It will not seem fair because we are getting scolded for doing something that we and other people have done in the passed. In scolding us, our certainty about our relationship with the teacher will be called into question. A 6 year old brain does not have the necessary life experience nor the capability to know that there will be a moment after this. Most importantly, the status of the child has been thrown on its side when the other children laugh. As hard as it is to deal with the teacher exerting control, they are still the teacher and are at the top of the dominance, competence, and prestige hierarchies, at least within the boundary of the class room. The other students are supposed to be on the same level. When they laugh my social status takes a clear hit – my peers are laughing at me and therefore I am not as good as them. In this example, the brain of the 6 year old fires up and releases large amounts of reflective pain chemicals in an effort to prevent future damage.
Keep in mind that the response to the threat is very real and that the brain processes perceptions of these violations as it would process actual pain. It does not matter that to an outsider that the attempted behaviour correction by the teacher and the other students response does not actually make-up a real threat. The perception by the individual is sufficient enough to cause a reflective pain response geared towards creating a strategy to avoid the situation / action that immediately preceded the pain.
More importantly, we’re dealing with a 6 year old here. First off, they don’t have a very formed brain – their prefrontal cortex has not developed so they are incapable of processing what has happened effectively. They have few executive functions, little or no concept of the future, and practically no abstract thinking capabilities. Their incomplete and less than capable brain is being forced to create a pain avoidance strategy with limited experience and insufficient long term memory. All they are able to do is generalize to a specific behaviour and outcome pairing that is void of the necessary context to make the proper decision. They are going to get it wrong unless there is a clear explanation and reconciliation of the violations that occurred.
The teacher can, for instance, explain about raising hands and proper turn taking, about the consequences of shouting out, then can mention that it is the behaviour that they do not like or that is unacceptable and therefore the child’s choice that is unwelcome NOT their opinion. And the teacher can take efforts to ensure that the other children understand that if they had chosen to do the same thing, their peers would be laughing at them. The goal is to correct / explain the perception of any of these violations to provide the child and all the children the appropriate context to make sense of what actually happened. Teaching children is not easy and doing so well requires enormous amounts of patients and understanding.
But we’re not 6 anymore yet we continue to process the world as though we are – the pattern has been established and it works. Maybe we learned to not say anything. To keep our mouth shut in class and to suppress any aspect of our personality we incorrectly attributed to being the cause of the reflective pain response that occurred when we were 6. This is not good. It is understandable because keeping quiet DID prevent the same outcome, so silence is an effective strategy. It has just been generalized to everything as opposed to the specific action of speaking out of turn in the classroom setting.
This is how pain becomes suffering. Pain is reactive at first. There is no “me” or “self” in pain, there is no subject. We do something, it hurts, we stop, the pain stops, we continue along. If tissue damage occurs, the pain becomes reflective. This is adaptive and it helps to inhibit a specific action in the future. The terms of reflection are that “action A” caused “outcome B” to the subject “me”. Don’t do A in the future. The subject is not present in the pain response, the is no “me”. There is in fact very little action and outcome because reactions are automatic and tend have very little to do with consciousness. Reactions are over before we knew something needs to happen.
Suffering has the subject, and your suffering has “you” at the centre of it. Other peoples suffering is abstract, yours is real. It is narrative, but it is a real thing in so far as it impact future the future. And anything that happens to you happens to you, and it causes a chemical response similar to pain. Which makes you notice it more, and causes you to feel worse about it. It becomes a cycle and dysfunction is the inevitable outcome.
What do you do about suffering? Well, simply put, you make the decision to notice it as soon as you can and to detach from it the moment you notice you are suffering. If it is pain, you have reacted to it; you don’t actually need to worry about pain. You cannot in fact not address pain, it requires training to ignore pain and most people haven’t put the time in. Suffering on the other hand can be ignored. It doesn’t even need to be experienced. The moment you notice a hint of negativity and “yourself” in your thoughts label it for what it is by saying “there’s suffering.” By interrupting the pattern you buy some time to start to notice that nothing is actually wrong and that almost nothing in the physical world is actually happening. You are thinking, there is some brain activity, but there is no cause of pain and therefore no pain. Any pain response you are experiencing is the result of a perception of a thought that has you at its centre.
This is an effective approach that anyone can train themselves to have. It’s hard, but very simple and after you put the time in, the process becomes automatic and you gain the freedom to choose if and when you will suffer, maybe even liberating yourself from it entirely.
“This very sad no problem” is apparently something a monk said about not having seen or heard from his family for a number of years. He had accepted his situation, that he was very sad to have not spoken to them, and was not resisting the reality of his sadness or the cause of his sadness. He just wasn’t going to make it any worse than it had to be by having a problem with it. In his view he didn’t have a problem, he was just very sad.
The quote resonated with me for a few reason. First off, living where I live and having the life that I do, I really don’t have any problems. My problems are first world problems which means that if I have one, the root cause is that I have very badly lost perspective. People who have actual problems don’t care that someone finished the coffee and didn’t make more, they’re too busy trying to stay alive to worry about that kind of thing.
The next reason I actually heard it is because I have had times when I view my transient emotional state from moment to moment as a problem. It is a problem that I am sad, it is a problem that I am not as happy today as I was yesterday. I misidentified my emotional state as the state of the world and then took this as an indication that there was a problem.
The final reason it stuck with me is the fact that the things that happen are just the things that happen. The meaning we put on them indicates the role they are going to play in our future. When faced with a challenge we are free to view it in a couple of ways and the impact it will have on our life is determined by the way we chose. We can see it as it is, a meaningless happening, one of the many things that happen in our life. Or we can see it as a big deal, as a problem to work and solve, and if that isn’t possible, to suffer it until it or we are gone. This is all the more troubling when we consider that narrative problems only go away when we reframe them as irrelevant.
Don’t get me wrong, there are problems in the world, just not that many and not nearly as many as people have. In fact, the main problem a person has is their ability to convince themselves that the things that occur in life are bigger than they are and that they matter more than they do, and then in their conclusion that they are problems that need to be addressed.
I’m not bothered by the fact that I have no idea what is going on inside my brain. I no more feel like a servant to the machine than I feel like the pilot. Whatever it is I believe I am, it only exists as electrical impulses that arise and pass away each moment as the universe is recreated over and over again, in my brain.
Let’s get this straight, human beings have no idea why they feel the way they do or why they think the things they think. And to be fair it isn’t their fault because exactly no one understands the complexities of consciousness and how a thought moves from being electrical impulses in certain parts of the brain to being a thought in awareness.
Most people never think about thinking or consciousness. Most people never consider the processes that are involved with influencing thought. Most people assume that they are their consciousness and that they are in control of the machine.
But this isn’t the case. Consciousness, like understanding language, walking, feeling hungry, etc…. is just one of a multitude of mental processes that is occurring in the brain. Consciousness is, in fact, another unconscious thought process. All we are aware of is the outcome of the process not the process itself. This distinction isn’t all that important, it matters only when we consider that almost all of our thinking, almost all of the things we would consider thoughts, happen independent of our awareness of them.
Consciousness is built upon a rich infrastructure of unconscious thought.
Recent studies in fMRI machines indicate that when given yes / no questions, the subjects brain reveals the answer BEFORE the subject consciously becomes aware of it. There are distinct “yes” and “no” activity patterns that can be measured BEFORE the subject consciously knows the answer to the question. There is a lag of up to half a second between when the brain activity signals an answer and when the person finds themselves saying the answer or becomes consciously aware of the answer. Half a second is a very long time, particularly when dealing with the human brain, an organ of billions of neurons and hundreds of billions of interconnections. The amount of processing that occurs during that period of time makes it appear to be an eternity as opposed to an instant.
When we imagine a simple yes / no question like “are you in an MRI machine?” fully unpacking the question reveals that it isn’t at all simple. Some of the examples of things that need to be sorted out, understood and factored into the decision making matrix are: what is an MRI machine, what is meant by you, what is a machine, what is meant by in, what is three dimensional space, what is a question, what type of question is this and how do I respond to that type of question. But before that can happen, parts of the brain that are responsible for processing the electrical impulses that come from ears need to sense, encode, process and convert to workable units of information that represent the question. This information has to be pattern matched to the long term memory about language. It goes on and on like this depending in how granular you want to go.
The subject in the MRI machine has no awareness of any of this happening. The machine operator may be able to see the activity moving around the brain, with some parts get brighter as they perform their function, but it all happens so quickly that in real time they don’t see much of anything. Slowed down and compared to other scans and detailed picture will begin to emerge. But not as it happens and not without the help of computers that process billions of cycles a second to help render an image that has meaning to the investigators.
All of that brain activity to say “yes” when asked whether they are in an MRI machine. It’s mind blowing to consider what must happen when faced with a tougher question. “What are the four most common things that you buy at the supermarket?” or “in what ways does elementary school resemble a capitalistic economy?” likely trigger 100s of billions of nerve impulses. We cannot even pretend to know what’s going on in our brains. Maybe, if we work at it, we can create enough mindfulness to have a decent idea what we are conscious of from moment to moment. We may even develop the ability to know what we are feeling from moment to moment or to develop the distinction to know when we are taking actions that serve a confirmation bias. But most people never consider that they are having thoughts and that they have the ability to think about thinking let alone choose to think about a though that pops up.
Personally, I find all of this reassuring because it shines a light on what we can do and what we cannot do.
Sure, we cannot know the answer to a question before the brain answers the question as being consciously aware of an answer is the last part of the process. We can, however, direct our attention onto things, maybe not completely, but we do have influence over the machine that is our brain. We can’t stop it from going where it’s going, but we can nudge it towards particular things. We may have some agency in determining what sensory information we seek out. And we do seem to have the ability to insert thoughts onto the white board that is our working memory and manipulate these ideas; in essence, creating that which does not exist, and push this vapour into the inner workings of the brain to generate output that is based on experience, long-term memory and our world view. We can rehearse and improve at things that are not happening, we can test run different scenarios and most impressively do the impossible by creating something that doesn’t exist.
Given all of this, I’m not bothered by the fact that I have no idea what is going on inside my brain. I no more feel like a servant to the machine than I feel like the pilot. Whatever it is I believe I am, it only exists as electrical impulses that arise and pass away each moment as the universe is recreated over and over again, in my brain.
YOUR brain is nearly identical to the brain of every other human being…. YOU can get your brain to write the code to do the same things as other people. As long as you consistently pay attention, practice and take appropriate recovery, over time you are bound to become successful.
A few years ago many aspects of life became very clear to me when I started to notice that I had absolutely no idea why I would spontaneously think a particular thought. Unless I had been thinking about, working on, or paying attention to something very specific, there was a good chance that some of the things that would enter my mind would have next to nothing to do with any of my other recent thoughts. This was very obvious during my daily meditation sessions when I would be concentrating on the sensation of my breath on the area of skin above my upper lip and around the openings to my nostrils or during the body scans. For anyone who has never spend much time meditating, the moments of mental stillness are few and far between and the practice is generally the act of noticing that your attention has wandered and then returning it to whatever it was that you are trying to pay attention to.
I practice vipassana which is just one of a number of different approaches to cultivating mindfulness. It is not the best or worst, it is not good or bad, it is not right or wrong. It is just an action that someone can take that will help their brain develop a new skill that will eventually find its way into all areas of their life. While I do not practice and have never practised transcendental meditation, or formally any other types, all of them share a number of properties and methods that yield similar outcomes. By consistently practising the deliberate focus of our attention, over time we cultivate the skill of being able to control our attention, to know when it has wandered, and to gain awareness into what is currently going on in our mind.
It isn’t easy for me and it can be very boring and it tends to require a lot of mental effort. The fact of the matter is, human beings do not innately run the code that allows them to easily pay attention to one thing. Our DNA was formed over millions of years when our ancestors did had to constantly be on the lookout for some predator that was looking for a meal. As a consequence, those who were able to notice the threats sooner gained an evolutionary fitness advantage. Over time this trait was passed along to the point at which practically all members of the species had it. This does not mean that we are not able to pay deep and unwavering attention to something, it just means that we need to have a big incentive to do so.
It is a matter of death on one side and novel experience on the other, and avoiding death tends to win. The fact that death as a consequence to our not paying attention to a potential threat is not as much of a factor in modern life does nothing to alter the DNA or gene expression that was so critical to our survival. We default to a wandering mind and our attention is very squirrel-like in its ability and tendency to notice the smallest changes from moment to moment. This is a feature and not a bug, even if it is mostly an antiquated feature.
This is where meditation comes in as it serves to teach and help the brain learn the skill of focused and sustained attention. Once developed, it gives us another tool to use that can help shift our mental functioning away from that of a prey creature and towards that of an apex predator. The old behavioural pattern or trait will remain and it will be activated whenever the brain perceives a threat, but our actions will no longer be unconsciously compelled to notice every little change. It doesn’t always work that way and even life long meditators experience moments when their mind bounces around and they feel almost powerless to stop it.
That is evolution for ya. It is particularly effective at cultivating traits that become our baseline or default way of operating which are tremendously sticky.
Anyway, after years of daily practice and a number of residential silent retreats, I could no longer deny that there was a lot of thoughts occurring on beneath the level of consciousness and when there was nothing going on to keep them out, sometimes they would find their way into my awareness. Over time, and with practice, this doesn’t happen as often and I have become better at noticing as thoughts emerge and letting them go before they hook my mind.
The key thing I take from this, and what I’m talking about now, is the fact that when we practice consistently and over a long enough period of time, our brain will create the code that allows us to maintain a very intense focus on something even when there is a lot of other stuff occurring. This new process can and will eventually become automatic, and once it has, the brain will be able to integrate it into its operating system to allow it to run in parallel with many other processes. The outcome will be an ability to pay complete attention to one thing while simultaneously running the threat detector baseline process that will automatically shift our attention onto something that absolutely needs to be addressed. This gives our brain the paradoxical capacity to be aware of what is important while paying full attention to something that isn’t.
The above video contains the audio of the mission control loop from STS 93, which was the 95th launch of a Space Shuttle. During liftoff, a gold pin that had been used to close off one of two liquid oxygen ports in the engine became dislodged. Once free, it hit the inside of the engine bell resulting in damage to three cooling tubes and causing a slight hydrogen leak – the engine nozzles were cooled by the liquid hydrogen fuel flowing through small embedded tubes before being released into the combustion chamber. It was a potentially catastrophic event that alarmed the mission control engineers.
They would need to quickly assess the data and make the call on whether or not to abort the launch. This was something that had never been done before and it was very risky given that the space craft would need to reach an abort height and speed to ensure that it would make it to one of the abort landing sites in Europe or Africa. Unlike traditional rockets that had an abort engine to pull the capsule away from the rest of the craft and allowing for a safe water (for the US) or land (for the Russians) landing, the Space Shuttle had nothing like this. An abort BEFORE the minimum speed and altitude meant the astronauts would have to climb out an escape hatch and parachute to safety.
When you play the video, do not watch it and try to listen to it using head phones. What you will hear is the audio lifted from the flight directors loop. This audio is cleaner than the original and yet it is still very muddy and chaotic. There are moments when three or four people are speaking at once and it can be very hard to decipher much of anything. Keep in mind that the primary mission control engineers, their back-ups, and their support teams are all listening to the same loop and each person is listening to hear any information that is relevant to their specific role. If they missed something, the odds of them making an error increased dramatically.
Errors in space flight, particularly during the take off phase, can mean death. There is a heck of a lot on the line and computer code can only handle the things it is programmed to handle. When things go sideways into the unknown, unanticipated, or the uncoded, human beings are needed to process the relevant information, share the output, and then make quick decisions. This is why the flight director loops are open for all the engineers to hear and for the primary mission control engineers to talk. You never know when what you know is the thing that someone else needs in order to solve a problem, so everyone gets to hear what everyone else is saying.
This approach has a near perfect track record in terms of preventing death and accidents. Neither Space Shuttle accident had anything to do with the immediate actions taken by the mission control team and there was nothing that they could have done in real time to change the outcome. The same is true for the fire on Apollo One. Even the potential issue associated with the thruster malfunction on Gemini eight had already been solved by mission control when CAPCOM told them to disconnect from the agena target vehicle in the event they had any difficulties while out of radio contact.
Before you listen to the clip again, consider the complexity of what is being asked of each of the flight controllers. On the surface level, they need to have a lot of knowledge about their role, all that can go wrong, how to address these problems, and how to identify when something IS a problem that needs to be addressed. But on a deeper level, they need to cultivate the skill of focused attention and then use it to hear the information that they need in order to do their job correctly. They need to listen to everything but only hear the things that are important to them even when it is coming from a team member who isn’t a part of their specific group. At the deepest level, while they are doing their jobs and listening to hear what matters to them, they must also have a level of mindfulness to notice when their brain has tracked in on a hunch or gut instinct. Finally, they have to do all of this while the lives of people they know are on the line, something that tends not to favour logic and rational thinking.
Most of these things are skills that no one is born with. Each person needed to put in the time and practice to provide their brains with the stimulation to force the adaptation that results in the unconscious capabilities in skills that are novel and arbitrary. And yet all of them are able to do it.
The human brain doesn’t care what sensory information it is tasked to handle, it simply goes about figuring out how to deal with it and then begins to grow the tissue to support or control this process. It only needs consistent practice and recovery over time and will do the rest. We have the easy part, we just need to pay attention and put in the work. The tough part of determining which neurons need to connect to which other neurons in order to create competeney and to allow for parallel processing is taken care of by the brain.
YOUR brain is nearly identical to the brain of every other human being, including the mission control flight engineers. YOU can get your brain to write the code to do the same things as other people. As long as you consistently pay attention, practice and take appropriate recovery, over time you are bound to become successful.
If you doubt this, spend some time listening to the flight director loops that are available on YouTube and you will be pleased and delighted to notice just how quickly you get good at hearing what each of three people is saying simultaneously. Better yet, pick a skill that you want to have and then pay very close attention while you practice it every day for 15 minutes over a twelve week period of time. In a couple of months you will be better at it and you will be, in fact, completely powerless to NOT improve.
Any and everything that helps to get things done is fine, but then, only as much of it as is necessary. Less is the best, so when in doubt don’t talk or stop talking.
In Buddhism, something that I consider to be a valid approach to life and not a viable religion, they have a concept called useless speak. A lot of topics are lumped into the category of useless speak so a general definition or understanding will go a long way in making the concept clear. Useless speak is any speech, internal or external, or any communication, to the inside or to the outside, that has no purpose.
On the face of it, that doesn’t include a lot, but when you consider a number of the other notions that Buddhism holds, what it includes expands to cover almost everything.
First off, Buddhism believes in the notion of no self. They do not suggest that people do not exist, but they view the self as something rather different than what most westerners believe. You are a body and that is it. You have thoughts that come from you body. whatever narrative identity you hold of yourself, it isn’t something that is real. It’s just an elaborate story you tell yourself that, when interrogated, will not stand-up to the scrutiny. As such, any talk that deals with you, your thoughts, your wishes, etc…. is useless speak.
Next, given that the self does not exist, no other self exists either. So talking about other people is useless speak as is talking about their thoughts, actions, whatever.
Finally, for the purposes here, is the concept of impermanence. No matter what happens, it will pass away. Before you thought or felt something, you didn’t think or feel it, and since it will fade away after a moment or so, it doesn’t really exist. Everything in the universe is impermanent so there is no point in discussing any of it.
So almost everything is useless speak. You are encouraged to talk about the dharma, which is the way – the experience of being alive in the present moment; which is kind of a paradox so maybe it was just the Buddha being funny. I don’t know, but in the event he wasn’t kidding, your free and encouraged to talk about this.
You are also allowed to talk about things that are helpful and things that have a purpose. As a monk, you would likely need to discuss things with other monks in terms of preparing food or coordinating work. As a householder, you have a lot of responsibilities to look after so any speech that is critical and helpful in taking care of these things is acceptable. Banking, house work, job responsibilities, raising children, teaching people useful skills, etc…. Any and everything that helps to get things done is fine, but then, only as much of it as is necessary. Less is the best, so when in doubt don’t talk or stop talking.
Okay, so now we know about useless speak, what it is comprised of and what speech is not included in the category. If we were to stop at this point and implement what we know we would simply talk less and only about useful things. That would lead us to see a big improvement in our life, which is worthwhile. Life will become both simpler and easier. We’d have more energy, an increase in available mental capacity and we would find ourselves with more free time.
With this increase in mental capacity we would begin to notice the impact of our actions, or the impact of our non-actions, on other people. They too would enjoy the same benefits that are given to us, but to a smaller degree that reflected the elimination of OUR share of useless speak into their life. Whatever impact our unnecessary or unhelpful words were having on them would disappear and these liberated resources would become available to them. What they choose to do with them is their decision and in fairness to them, that is a much better way to let people live.
The concept of Karma and how it is involved with useless speak.
Karma is best understood to be the consequences of an action. It is neither good nor bad, it is intangible and it is not banked.
The common idea of generating bad karma for doing something crappy and later receiving your comeuppance as retribution for this act has no place in secular Buddhism; this notion is shared among particular divisions or sects but I find it unhelpful as a way of objective living because it introduces the supernatural into the physical world. Equally unhelpful is the opposite idea of good karma that will contribute to a future reward or positive occurrence in the holders life. The palatability of the idea of a fair and just world that good and bad karma create is just not worth the sacrifices we make for holding them as truths. The world and the universe just are and this is neither good or bad. Things occur, these things cause other things to occur, which cause other things to occur and so on. It’s objective and measurable, and simply stimulus response or cause and effect. None of it matters to the universe regardless of the impact on the living being. Actions have consequences in the physical world and these consequences are called karma. Release yourself from the idea of good and bad and gain the power of understanding things as they are.
Given that every action has consequences it is accurate to say that every action creates karma. It is helpful to imagine a small pond that has a few similarly sized rocks in it that are sticking out above the surface. Let’s think about what happens when we drop a rock of the same size into the pond. The first thing that will happen will be the displacement of the water where the rock first enters the pond. The water will be forced down and away from the rock and it will appear that the water is bending. This is exactly what is happening as the surface tension is holding the water together like a sheet. But the attractive forces of the water molecules are weak and will quickly release allowing the rock through. The water will do a few cool things. The first is the restoration of water level around the rock; the bending of the surface of the water will be eliminated and the flatness will be restored. Next, the level of the water will increase by the volume equal to the volume of the rock that is below the surface. Finally, and most importantly here, there will be the displacement of water at a volume that is determined by the mass of the rock and the speed at which is entered the water. This displaced water will move away from the from the the rock in predictable directions and speed based on newtons laws and it represents the energy transfer from the rock molecules into the water molecules.
This energy wave will be transferred through the water away from the rock as a ripple. After a few moments, it will make its way to the other rocks that are sitting in the pond. The wave will hit the rocks and appear to bounce off. It will continue in away from the second rock in predictable direction, with some of it moving back to the first rock. The wave or ripple is will be smaller because it will have transferred some of its energy into the second rock. After a few moments, the second wave will begin to hit the other rocks and the first rock causing the wave to bounce off them and move in predictable directions away, but with less energy than before. This will continue until all of the energy from the wave is gone and the pond water will settle down as gravity pulls all of the water molecules down and the flat still surface is restored.
It’s easy to think about all of this and imagine it happening. It is a clear example of chemistry and physics at play and we have all seen it in one form or another.
When thinking about karma as the consequences of actions, consider the action to be the rock getting dropped into the pond and the wave to be the consequences. Or, useless speak is the rock and the karma is the wave. When we follow the wave we notice it hitting other rocks and transferring some of its energy. This is the karma having a consequence on other people or things. The wave bounces off the rocks and comes back to the initial rock and has an effect. This is the karma coming back to us.
This metaphor works well because it is very close to what happens. Our actions do have consequences on our physical environment (the things, people and matter around us). The actions that are a consequence of our karma will have consequences on the environment (and potentially us). And all consequences spread out like ripples and have an impact on the things that are near to them. And the size of the ripple is related to the magnitude of the action meaning that bigger actions have bigger consequences.
Given that all actions have consequence it is clear that unnecessary actions will cause consequences that are, by definition, unnecessary, and these in turn will have consequences, etc…. Rephrased, unhelpful actions will have unhelpful consequences, etc….
When we take what we have just considered and take a second look at the notion of people getting what they deserve because of the karma they create, we are able to see that there is some truth in this idea, although it remains a mistake to imagine some bank that holds a detailed account of the good and bad that each of us cause. If we think about a helpful action that creates karma, it is easy to imagine that the helpful waves bounce back and bring us something helpful. The inverse is also easy to imagine, that being a dick creates negative waves that come back at us bringing us dickish consequences. This is something that happens, although there is often a time delay between when the waves hit the other side and when we are impacted by the karma they helped bring about.
This is part of why the karma bank idea is so sticky. Not only does it manufacture a narrative of a fair and just world, but we do see people who do good receiving good and the doers of bad suffering. But a consistent narrative is just a story that feel like the truth and plausibility is not evidence of fact. It is more likely, and demonstrably true, that when we take good and useful actions that we move the physical world in such a way that the outcome is more favourable for us. For example, when we work hard and consistently do the right thing, the karma we create shifts the structure of the brain in the people we impact to form positive long term memories and that in turn shape the way they act towards us, resulting in waves of good things coming our way. Someone who always phones it in and does the bare minimum will earn this reputation and this will impact how other people approach them.
With all of this being said, the nature of the waves we create does not actually mean that they will bounce back and impact us in the same way. Most of the good things we do will result in positive consequences in places we do not consider or intend. When we drive safely and act with courtesy we enjoy a driving life free of tickets and accidents, but there is a very good chance that we will never benefit from the courtesy of other drivers. Most people look after themselves only and are not obligated to pay anything forward. Even with those who do pay things forward, it is statistically unlikely that we’ll get it back when they make the payment.
How does this impact luck?
In an objective material world, every action has and equal and opposite reaction in the opposite direction. Acting in any way creates predictable outcomes. If we take enough actions, we alter the world in such a way as to increase the chances that something will happen. Over time, enough of these things will come to pass and the environment will be set-up in such a way that has positive waves come at you. When this happens, we’ll be “lucky” when compared to those who do not have the things happen. The hard-work we did to shape the environment will largely be ignored by people who see only the nice thing happening to us. Take the person who gets the promotion at work. Those who get passed over may feel that the freshly promoted was lucky. They may never have seen or appreciate the actions that the person took to place themselves at the front of the line when it came to getting the next higher level position. But not seeing something does not mean that it does not exist. The person who got the promotion did a lot of work to put themselves into the position were they could be “lucky”. The reality is that the actions they took created the karma that change the environment in such a way that made giving them a promotion the only reasonable choice.
Back to useless speak now. When we say anything we are creating karma and these consequences have an effect on the world. When what we say is not useful, the impact on other people is not useful. This is at the core of why certain speech is useless. Helpful actions have helpful consequences. Useless actions have useless consequences. When we teach someone how to read, the long term consequences have them reading books, learning new things and altering the course of their life by altering the structure of their brain.
When we gossip about something, we create useless consequences within the listeners – they end up thinking about something stupid or pointless, which is a waste of their time, and they end up having less time to spend on the things that are helpful or important to them. Consequently, they may miss out on an opportunity to act in a helpful way or engage in useful speak, which will mean there is no positive consequences. While the gossip may not necessarily cause anything bad to happen, it does prevent the opportunity for something good to happen by filling the space that the good thing would have occupied. At best, useless speak creates karma that results in time being wasted. The possible consequences get worse from here in terms of things not getting better, opportunities being wasted and potential not being actualized.
The best advice is to keep the pond as wave free as possible and, when making ripples, make only helpful or positive ones. Every action has consequences. Always keep this in mind when you are about to act. If what you are about to do has no purpose or if it has a clear and likely downside, just don’t do it. Use your energy for something else and give people the dignity and freedom to choose what they get to do with their energy. Useless speak is a waste of time, time that can never be salvaged. Use your time to be useful and helpful!
Both parties are having a very similar experience although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.
At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me to click on the link. I am glad it did, because I got a lot out of reading the article as it reminded me about how far I have come in terms of getting clear on what the present moment is and what the experience of being in it is like. While I did have a challenge with the title, because it begs the question and therefore usurps a number of my brain cycles, I got a lot out of the mental journey caused by reading and reflecting on what the author wrote.
While I have a number of disagreements with what they say, I
think it is a good article. It is well written, it comes from the heart and
from the author’s experiences, and there is very little in it (possibly
nothing) that is distracting in terms of style, language, grammar, or sentence
structure. This final point is very critical because it allows the article to
stand on its own and to be a thing independent of the medium. The ideas that
the author puts forward are evaluated as objectively as they can be and it
seems like a lot of care was taken to remove most of the details that might
cause a subjective interpretation or trigger a cognitive bias. For example, I
had no idea the gender of the author until after I read the article and
revisited the page to do some follow-up review. Their gender is probably
important to them, but it is not relevant to those who consume the article.
This is something that I think I need to highlight more.
Ideas are good, bad, neutral, provocative, progressive, regressive,
transformational, ignorant, biased, inclusive, future-altering, creative, etc.
and, in an ideal world, they are consumed and interrogated based on their merits.
A good idea that you do not like remains a good idea, so ones opinion of the
idea should never factor into the critical evaluation of it. The best example
here, and one that may remain relevant in perpetuity, is Donald Trump. In this
case I am not actually making reference to the person. I am making reference to
the idea that is “Donald Trump.”
He does not conform to the stereotypical role of US
president or traditional western world leader. His presentation is something
closer to a mid-twentieth century union leader than a diplomat of a superpower.
There is a straight shooter quality to him that on first glance seems authentic
and trustworthy, but does not stand-up to any level of scrutiny. It is
authentic in so far as it is true that he is thinking the thing that he is
saying in and around the time that he says it, but there is no evidence or
proof that the thoughts existed before the moment or have much of a life
afterwards. There doesn’t seem to be any stacking of ideas that is building to
a grand theory or understanding of things. It is just a stream of ideas, one
after the other, and mostly non-sequiturs.
Which is why it is inappropriate to dismiss everything he
says out of hand or to accept everything he says instantly. There are a few
very good ideas in the totality of everything he communicates, just as there
are some absolutely awful things. Uncovering these things will only occur when
you take the time to divorce the message from the man and allow the idea to
stand alone. The problem here is that this takes a lot of effort and it is not
something that comes naturally or is even remotely palatable to do. It’s easier
to say “he’s a genius, MAGA!” or “he’s a dope who is ruining the country” and
then take this view into the evaluation of the next thing he communicates.
Like most things, the middle way is ideal, but it lacks all
of the power and energy that tribal reactions affords us. This is what I try to
do in-spite of the fact that it is draining and a lonely pursuit. Fewer people
operate this way now than at any time in our history and I have a feeling that
this approach will be effectively eliminated within a couple of decades. But
until then, I’m going to try to detach an idea from its creator and consume it
as though it came from someone who has a strong track record of putting forward
reasonable perspectives that are not dogmatically charged or partisan.
So given all of this, here are my thoughts on the article
title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” and the ideas that it puts forward.
The way the title reads is that “mindfulness” is a lot like
a dryer that hides a single sock, if you are in a great mood, diarrhea, if you
are feeling nothing much at all, or something between homelessness and cancer depending on just how down you are
Of course, when the page opens and the reader is greeted
with the article, the title is there, superimposed over a picture of someone’s
face, both of which are being joined by a subtitle that would, if not for the
first one, cause the brain to throw an error.
“Mindfulness promotes itself as value-neutral but it is
loaded with (troubling) assumptions about the self and the cosmos,” which
indicates that its creator is making much more troubling assumption than the
noun or verb “mindfulness” has, is, or will. Let’s also throw “can” into that
mix as well.
Before moving forward, I need to declare my conflict of
interest here. I am a fan of mindfulness meditation and a big believer in the
positive effects of disenchantment and its close relative disillusionment.
Phrased more crassly, the sooner someone takes their head out of their ass and
begins to see reality in more objective terms, the sooner they can start to do
more impressive things in the world and with their life. For example, a lot of
people have challenges realizing or learning that there is a boundary between
themselves and other people, meaning that everyone else has an experience of
reality that is theirs alone and rarely (never) is their perspective from your point
of view. This makes sense logically. So much sense that you may even think
“what a stupid and unnecessary statement to make,” which is exactly the point I
am making. From YOUR perspective it is unnecessary, so therefore it is
unnecessary. That doesn’t change the reality that until we learn to act
otherwise, our first impulse is always going to be to see things from our own
point of view followed by a castigation of anyone who is not aligned with it.
It doesn’t need to be this way, you can train your brain to
table harsh judgment of dissention for later in favor of considering how the
world would have to be in order for someone to believe something OTHER than
what you believe. Here’s the rub, the world is actually much closer to that way
than the way you believe it is.
And it is this way for EVERYONE. We evolved to get it wrong
and we do, until we realize that we are wrong and take the steps to correct our
For me, mindfulness meditation represents the main step we
can take in order to correct our path. So it follows that “mindfulness” as a
noun and verb is making reference to some aspect of what we experience when we
practice mindfulness meditation. It allows us to notice what is actually going
on from moment to moment and in doing so, creates a juxtaposition between
reality and what we think is going on. This may or may not make sense to you on
any level, but once you spend any amount of time sitting still, with your eyes
and mouth closed, noticing the sensations of your breath on the area of skin above
your upper lip and in and around your nostrils, things will become more clear.
You are probably still not going to understand what I’m talking about, but
you’ll begin to grow more certain that I am actually talking about something
that is real, and not spewing a new age or metaphysical creation designed to
improve my position on some enlightenment hierarchy. And the more you practice,
the more in-focus these two things will become – reality and the experience of
reality that each one of us manufacture from moment to moment.
With that out of the way, let us move forward and deal with
the two main goals of what I’m writing here. They are to address the authors
concern and to then address my concern with how they went about addressing
The author has a long back ground with, at least in terms of
observational exposure to, meditation. And they admit that they were bored when
they went to the temple. They practiced a few techniques during university and
later served as a control group member in a large scale University of Cambridge
study about the effects of mindfulness. Read the original article, both to
validate my summary and to gain more insight into how the author is approaching
the subject. And I’ll add that it is a good piece of writing.
They found the practice of mindfulness, like many people do,
to be rather destabilizing. For one thing, it reveals a lot about the world
that we have never paid attention to, either because we learned to ignore it or
because we never took the time to notice it. Those in the first group find
mindfulness a lot easier to integrate and it tends not to rock their world
nearly as much. They can be curious and fascinated with all that is reveals
while never feeling like they are losing their grip. The second group, those
who never noticed the things in the first place, tend not to fare so well in
the short term. Initially their mind will be blown by all that they become
aware of and the automatic nature of perception and how the brain manufactures
ones experience of being alive. But this will usually give way to feelings of
loss, confusion, and detachment. Feeling this way sucks. It won’t make any
difference if the core lessons of impermanence are taking hold, the feelings
are real and experiencing them has a negative valence until they go away. Over
time though, things will stabilize as the brain updates the software and begins
to gain confidence in its predictive accuracy. At some point in the future,
everything will be assimilated and you will move forward with a new mental
process called “mindfulness” that can be called upon as needed, and which will
run in the background making sure that your perceptions are closer to reality
than they were before.
About this fact, consider what happens when someone in a
long term committed monogamous relationship cheats on their spouse / partner.
Initially nothing happens to their partner, the world is the way it was the day
before. It will continue to be this way until they find out about their
partners infidelity. Then all hell breaks loose. Personally, I don’t think
people should cheat when they are in committed relationships. It’s a shittie
thing to do and is an act of immense disrespect to yourself. BUT, if it happens
and you make the decision to tell your significant other about it, do it as
soon as possible. Do not wait any longer than is necessary because the longer
the gap, the greater the damage you will be causing to the other person.
Cheating on a partner is bad, but continuing along as though
nothing happened for years only to come clean about it later is pathologically
selfish and has the tendency of shattering the other person’s world view. The
reason is very simple, and it is exactly the same thing that happens with the
second group mentioned above – those who did not choose to ignore how the world
actually is because they never realized how the world actually is – it causes
them to question the past and to doubt their own judgment and their
experiences. If someone comes clean five years later, they are forcing their
partner to reprocess the last five years of their life before they can move
forward. Sure, they are not going to be completely stuck at ground zero, but a
very large portion of their mental energy will be redirected away from the day
to day tasks of living and onto assimilating the new information and updating
their long term memory as it applies to their relationship, their partner, and
their shared experiences.
Over time, they will probably get through it. The brain is
remarkably resilient and can process many different types of traumas. But the
energy expenditure required to adjust to the information that your partner
cheated is proportionate to the length of time between the act and when it came
Something very similar happens when someone takes up mindfulness
and starts to realize that how they have been experiencing the world is not
aligned with reality. It will be resisted and denied until it can no longer be
disregarded. Then will come the difficult tasks of reframing and reorganizing
everything you know about the world to accommodate the fact that there is, for
example, no self. A lot of stuff will need to get torn down and rebuilt, and
this will take time and mental effort, and probably a good diet and sufficient
rest / recovery. But it can happen so long as the person stays the course and
relinquishes their attachment to their old world view. Anyone who jumps ship
will find their swim back to their old reality to be less challenging than
continuing forward, but they will be returning to a different place than from
where they left and will likely be embittered about the subject as a whole.
My own experience with onboarding meditation was similar to
what the author experienced. But I was older when I started and was certain
that my world view was inaccurate which was leading to a drop in predictive
accuracy. My journey had me leaving behind something pretty crappy and while I
was not certain about the “goodness” of what I was choosing to move towards, life
had taught me that different is good when the normal has become difficult,
challenging, or painful. It needs to be said that I had already learned to
doubt the validity of what I knew, so as destabilizing as I found the
transition, it was no more so than the year leading up to the start of the
The author does a good job at shining a light on the lack of thoroughness in the on-boarding that many people have with mindfulness practices. There is no doubt that had she engaged the practice more when she was young and being dragged to the temple, she would have been guided with a lot more vigor and care than what many people experience presently in western societies. But that is the nature of things. More care is taken with younger people as well as in places where what is being taught is viewed as important or is a big part of the traditional culture. North America is new to mindfulness, and when coming from a tradition of capitalism with a side serving of violence, it is not surprising that the care is being taken to collect the money as opposed to guiding the people.
This is not the fault of mindfulness, as either a noun or a verb, and is should not surprise anyone that the “money over everything” view is muddying the waters. The thing is this, mindfulness is like any skill, it takes time to generate, it is going to be messy in the middle, and it cannot be done for us. It is the quintessential selfish undertaking that one could argue is impaired by other people and enhanced by temporary isolation. It is like committing law to long term memory or learning how to solve advanced calculus equations, a teacher or instructor can help along the process, but the individual needs to do the practice to stimulate the brain growth to support the new memories or the new way of thinking. To this end, it is a less than optimal capitalist venture since capitalism places experience or perceived value at the top of the service offering. You cannot do mindfulness for your customers, they have to do it themselves, so the only way to make money doing it is to offer something that is scalable. Which in this case means something that is incomplete, is useless crap, or is actually counter-productive and harmful.
The medium is the message here. Those who seek enlightenment
and the cultivation of the skill of mindfulness through a smart phone get smart
phone levels of enlightenment and mindfulness. Smart phones are tools to
trigger the release of dopamine through the activation of outrage, exposure to
novelty, and social validation / approval. Mindfulness is a tool to make you
aware of what is happening from moment to moment. While these things are not
the exact opposite of each other, they are reasonable close to being completely
dissimilar. Meditation, the primary way to cultivate the skill of mindfulness,
is as close to doing nothing as someone can do without being asleep. The mind
is very active, you are alert, but you are focusing so intensely simply because
you do not want to become distracted, outraged, etc. Cultivating mindfulness is
an act that inhibits the release of reward chemicals, so it offers no hook that
business people can use to capture you as a customer.
The author talks a lot about the concept of “no self” in a
way that makes it difficult to reconcile the truth of it with the experience of
being or having a self. I am not aligned with them here. Two things that seem
to be in contradiction can coexist simply because neither one of them actually
does. It is kind of like Schrödinger’s cat or the wave–particle duality in that
sometimes something is one thing while other times it is something else (meditation
and mindfulness have NOTHING to do with quantum mechanics and my use of QM
terms is only to describe the fact that sometimes we will need to look at
things differently in order to understand them more completely).
You are a physical being, a meat sack if you will. You are
made-up of matter, and that matter obeys laws of physics and chemistry, and
other subjects. Materialism applies to people just as it applies to rocks or
dogs. The difference is, as far as we know, rocks and dogs do not have a well-formed
narrative identity of themselves. To make reference to a rock having “no self”
seems redundant. It seems similarly so, although not necessarily completely so,
to say the same of a dog. But what is the different between these two things,
and then, from these two things and us? It seems to me that human beings have
reflective consciousness that gives them the ability to think about the world
and about things that are not there or are not presently happening. Rocks do
not have this ability and while a dog may be conscious and does have the
ability to learn, we get no sense that there is any depth to their
understanding of what they are or their uniqueness in terms of being a distinct
piece of life.
What this means is that as something is happening, it is
just a meaningless thing that is occurring – it is a collection of molecules
moving in a particular direction. So in order for it to mean something, the
observer will need to take a moment to reflect upon what is occurring, allowing
their brain to interpret the collection of molecules and their corresponding vectors
as being something. But this process is not an act of mindfulness in the purest
sense of the term. It is a result of reflection and by virtue of the fact that
any meaning is generated, the person is no longer living in the moment and is
instead living in a latency period between stimulus and response.
So when we are simply experiencing reality as it unfolds
from moment to moment, there is no self. When we are perceiving and
understanding what is unfolding from moment to moment, there is a self. It is
slightly confusing but not at all if there is a willingness to understand what
it is all about.
It just seems really out of place in modern life because
without reflection, modern life could not have come to be. But no self makes a
lot of sense and is more easily observed and appreciated when someone is
sitting in a forest meditating away from everything that has been manufacture.
Simplicity allows for the sustained existence of no self because it affords the
opportunity to do nothing other than take in whatever is occurring from moment
to moment, so basically what is steaming into the brain from the senses. Other
people and manufactured material objects make this task nearly impossible
because they create the need for rules. This causes complexity and moves the person
away from the role of observer and into role of reflector in order to generate
an understanding of what is going on.
Neuroscience has revealed a lot about the nature thinking, and one part that applies to no self / self duality is captured by the two self’s phenomena. Specifically, your brain operates with information in two ways. The first way, the no-self way, is about experience. This is what happens from moment to moment and it is what is lumped into the experience of “now.” The second way is about the remembering self, which is what your consciousness recalls about an experience. While it would be partially correct to refer to this as long term memory, given that long term memories do contribute to what we remember, it is not the entire story. The truth is that most of us do not actually remember most things very well and what comes to mind when we are thinking about the past is a combination of long term memories and things we make-up on the fly to fill-in the details or manufacture a more rich or complete narrative. The point here is not to suggest that neuroscience has uncovered evidence to support the truth about what the Buddhist teachers have been saying for centuries but to lend weight to the notion that sensation / experience is a different thing than perception / reflection / remembering. So given this, it makes sense that we should hold different views about two different things.
There is a Buddhist / Zen saying that goes something like
“before enlightenment work, after enlightenment work” that addresses the next
concern the author has about “mindfulness.”
They raise a very good point, but do not track in on the
source of the issue with any vigor or accuracy, when they state: “In claiming
to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness
oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself.”
The first part of the sentence is more or less accurate, as
it would be if it was said about anything that is put forward as a panacea or
cure to everything that ails a person, culture, or society. The second part of
the sentence is less accurate. In fairness, they were writing an article and
not a text book, so there was probably a word count limit in place for them.
However, that does not negate the responsibility an author has for guarding
their words and to speak as clearly, accurately, and concisely as possible.
Their article is not a work of fiction so it is reasonable to assume that what
is written down is factual and represents the truth as the author knew it at
the time. Putting aside their right to have and voice an opinion, that sentence
journeys well into the realm of a statement of disinformation or a statement
that is demonstrably false.
The first thing is that mindfulness is a skill, so a noun or
verb, and makes no claim about its abilities to do anything – in exactly the same
way as reading is a skill and completely incapable of promoting its virtues.
Mindfulness needs boosters because mindfulness is not alive. The problem then
is not with anything that mindfulness itself is doing but with the claims that
are being made about it. In the event that this seems so obvious and therefore
unnecessary to mention, it is worth pointing out that racism is both a problem
and a part of our internal operating system. Many skills or behaviours that
human beings are capable of, that seem to lack any value in modern life, are
there because they served a valuable survival purpose at one point in time.
Racism is not good, but the ability to identify those who are not like us and
to treat those we are similar to had a place in our evolutionary past. It is an
antiquated thing, particularly given that every unique race has suffered MORE
at the hands of those who look like them than those who look different, but so
too is the appendix and a considerable amount of our DNA given that it doesn’t
seem to code for anything at all. Well the appendix used to do something and
those unnecessary genes used to code for something that promoted survival.
So the problem with mindfulness is that people who promote
it are making extraordinary claims about what it can do and how it will impact
the lives of anyone who uses it as an approach to life. The problem the author
is making reference to is the overstating or direct lying about the utility of mindfulness
made by the people who promote it. This is something that I agree with, but it
was not stated as directly as that in the article.
The second part of the sentence “mindfulness oversimplifies
the difficult business of understanding oneself” doesn’t hold up nearly as
well, even when translated or updated to reflect what is actually going on. I
believe that the author is intending to say “the skill of mindfulness is
presented as a simple way to understand yourself.” This is true and it is not a
problem. The fact is that human beings are biological machines whose brain
manufactures meaning out of electrical impulses that are triggered by
collisions between the body and molecules that are not a part of the body. The
tree we see is a collection of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. that is in tree
form. What we see is the light that bounces off of some of these molecules and
hits our retina. When we touch it, the molecules of our skin are repelled by
the molecules that make-up the tree, so this ends up stimulating receptors on
the skin that trigger electrical impulses to flow into the brain that cause the
sensation of touch. If we were to eat the tree, tree molecules would stimulate
taste receptors, if we were to smell it, tree molecules would stimulate olfactory
receptors, and when we hear the tree, receptors in our inner ear are simply
responding to air that is coming off of the tree and going into our ears.
I am not intending to be irreverent when I say that it is
“simply” anything, but our experience of a tree is so much less than any
narrative story we manufacture to capture the entirety of our knowledge about
trees. It is our brain that do all of the heavy lifting that allow us to
perceive things and to understand the world in reflective terms.
The fact of the matter is that most of what we know about
things is just a story we are telling ourselves and sharing with other people.
It is accurate in so far as it works in allowing us to navigate our way through
life with a lot of ease, but nearly all of it is just manufactured rules about
collections of molecules that human beings mostly agree on just so they do not
have to think about it anymore than they have to.
Considering and then assimilating this fact is alarming, at
least initially, but our brain will reconcile things very quickly and it will
allow us to go back to living life as though we didn’t gain the insight. From
an experiential point of view, the facts and the truth are of much less
consequence than the position and movement of the molecules that we bump into.
So no matter what we learn, life will return to normal quickly because it must
be lived by each one of us.
The skill of mindfulness is a way that anyone can gain
clarity into the nature of the world and, more importantly, the nature of our
social interactions and social conventions. It will allow someone to uncover what they are in terms of molecules
and what they are in terms of a narrative understanding, while giving them
great power to figure out what is important, what is real, and what is worth
pursuing. It isn’t going to fix anything EXCEPT the delusions someone may have
created about what is going on from moment to moment. It is not a cure for
clinical depression, it will not help someone grow taller or regrow their hair,
and it will not open up the doors to effortless success. But it can allow
someone to experience what is actually going on in the world, to gain a better
understanding of the difference between sadness and depression, it can help
someone accept the reality of their height or hair situation, and it can give
someone the clarity to figure out what actions they need to take in order to
find greatness and to then make the decision on whether or not they actually
Mindfulness, when practiced consistently, gives someone the
ability to separate the sensations from the perceptions and to then make the
decision to act in a way that makes the most sense to them in terms of these
sensations and perceptions. But that is all it is going to do. The reason some
people feel calmer when they practice it is because it dissolves the narrative,
for a short period of time, which will allow for whatever triggered emotions to
run their course before returning the person back to their baseline. There are
two ways to describe it, the first is the feeling you have right as you wake-up
in the morning without an alarm clock and when you have nowhere to go – your
mind is at ease and filled with next to nothing. It doesn’t last very long, but
while it does, it is still and peaceful and nothing is pulling it one way or
the other. The second is the feeling you have right after a very intense
workout as your heart rate and breathing return to normal. Physically you feel
fantastic and mentally you are overcome with a sense of wellness and indifference
to the world. Your mind has been parked into unflappable so you feel, for a
spell, like you are on vacation and weeks away from having to deal with the
real world again.
Now consider what you have just read and apply it to the
author’s statement: “to look for richer explanations about why you think and
feel the way you do, you need to see yourself as a distinct individual,
operating within a certain context. You need to have some account of the self,
as this demarcates what is a response to your context, and what flows from
Who we are is not a static thing, and a lot of what we may
choose to believe we are is subject to the present emotional state at the time
of perception. Before my long intense bike ride, I may be an angry co-worker
who doesn’t take the time to consider the ideas of other people before pushing
my own solution forward. At the end of the bike ride I’m more than capable of
working through their solution to actually see the merits of what they are
suggesting and realize that not only is it better than my idea, but it is the
only way forward. I would suggest that this insight occurs because the “self”
has disappeared affording me an objective perspective that is based on the
consideration of a more complete view of the available information. There is no
ego so there is no desire to be the problem solver, only a desire to have the
problem solved as effectively and as permanently as possible.
The tendency for people to see the world only from their own
perspective and to view this perspective as being more important or valuable is
a characteristic of something called disordered attachment. With the exception
of a few people, everyone has a bias towards their own point of view simply
because there is nothing so real in the universe as it. Every moment of our
waking life is experienced from inside ourselves and a good case can be made
that most of our dreams are also from our own unique point of view. “We” exist
somewhere right behind the eyes, nose and mouth, between the ears, and slightly
above our tongue and throat. All of our physical sensations have a “I” quality
insofar as they tend to originate on our skin, or at the boundary between “us”
and the rest of the world. It is reasonable that we would create and carry such
an inflated perspective given that there are only two things in the world and
that “we” are one of them; the other one is the rest of the world / universe.
But this isn’t the entire picture because EVERYONE has the
same sort of perspective and experience of being alive. When you are in a room
with nine other people, there are ten unique perspectives, each one as the sole
center of all experience. This means that no specific reality is more real than
any of the rest. As many people as there are on the planet, there are that many
versions of the real world running. So we are real, but we are not really real.
Disordered attachment is a type of psychological attachment
or dependence to something, someone or some activity. It is consider disordered
because it is out of proportion to reality or to the nature of things. The
solution I was forcing through, for example, is only held by me as the better
solution when I am attached to it and am therefore willing to dismiss the
merits of my co-workers solution. However, at the end of my intense bike ride
or at some point after around 5 minutes of meditation, my attachment has
evaporated because my emotional state has returned to baseline and I am more
able to see the world in objective terms. This can only be a good thing given
that a good idea is a good idea regardless of where it comes from. By
eliminating the disordered attachment, objective reality can come more clearly
into focus and the world can get better for all those who are relying on the
best possible results.
There are a slew of cognitive biases that have at their core
this type of disordered thinking / rationalization. The ego centric bias, the
Ikea bias, the fundamental attribution error, and conflicts of interest are
just a few of them that apply directly to the work situation I outlined. The
ego centric bias has someone rely too much on their own perspective and
experience, the Ikea bias has someone inflate the value of something that they
created well above the fair market value of similar items, the fundamental
attribution error has someone view their own decisions or actions as being
related to situational factors while viewing the decisions and actions of others
as being the result of character traits, and a conflict of interest is the
tendency for people to unconsciously act in ways that promote an outcome that
will benefit them all the while believing and feeling like they are acting
objectively. There are many more, but this list should be sufficient to provide
evidence that things are not as simple as they seem or even as we perceive them
However, intense exercise, a good night’s sleep, or a
mindfulness meditation session can go a long way in mitigating the impact of
being the center of ALL of your experiences simply because they put some
distance between the stimulus and the response. This time delay will allow any
emotional response to fade and it will reduce the perception of the magnitude
of any gain or loss.
This piece of it is rather peculiar. The “self” is something
to which things happen and this allows for the “self” to react to those things
in a way that seems like it is automatic and beyond any conscious control.
However, this is not the case for most things. With the exception of being
physically hit by something or getting physically ill, most of the stuff that
occurs doesn’t actually happen to anyone, or at least it does not actually
happen to us. We see or hear it, but our bodies are in no way implicated by
what happened. This means that the perception we have of events plays a much
bigger role in how we go about living our life than anything that actually
happens to us or our bodies. This leads to the situation that when something
occurs in the world but that only impacts us in terms of our perception or
narrative interpretation of it, we have a chemical response that causes us to
“feel” something BUT that reaction is not to anything that is real. If we think
about two co-workers putting forward different solutions to a specific problem,
not much is happening in a physical sense – some brain activity creates a
thought that is the solution, and other brain activity causes muscles to
contract in very specific ways that allow air to flow out of the lungs, passing
over the vocal chords to make a very specific sound that is the air vibration
equivalent to the thought. Both parties are having a very similar experience
although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that
are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will
have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other
person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same
way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it
exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and
belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.
But this is only happening because each one is acting as
though they are something independent from the other and that the other is part
of everything else. While this may be narratively or perceptually correct, it
is not correct in terms of what is actually going on in the world. A detached
third party would simply listen to both ideas and give their opinion on which
one is the best because they are neither of the two self’s who have been tasked
with solving the problem. They get to be objective because both solutions are
coming from outside of them. Their ego does not factor into it as they get to
say “the best idea is this one” and get back to doing whatever it is they do.
They will probably feel that one of the answers is better, but they will not be
inclined to feel that their OWN idea is better simply because it came from
inside of them.
It is worth suggesting that this level of insight – to
notice that cognitive biases have a sensation and that I am as prone as
everyone else to be subjected to them – really only came to life for me when I
spent a lot of time meditating, noticing my thoughts and feelings arise and
pass away, and getting very clear that the next thing that I think about or the
next sensation that I have is most often a complete mystery to me. The most I
can do is to try and shape them by paying attention to very specific things,
but generally speaking, there is a very random nature to almost all of it.
Which brings us to the final concern the author raises.
“After a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to
take responsibility for and analyse your feelings.”
I believe that the opposite is true, that we can only take
responsibility for and gain insight into our feelings through the practice of
mindfulness. Right where the author claims mindfulness impairs our ability to own
and understand our feelings is the point I believe that mindfulness facilitates
these things. I also believe that we are talking about the same phenome and may
actually believe more or less the same thing.
It seems that their conclusion here is based off of some of the other concerns they mention; which means that all that comes after may not be rooted in reality or fact. For example, if someone does not allow for the duality of self and no-self, they are powerless to draw any other conclusion that “mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings” because if there is no self, there can be no ownership of the feelings that are being experienced and nothing there to analyse them. But it there is only a self, the observation that thoughts and feelings just seem to flow out of our spontaneous brain activity becomes a lot tougher to notice or it must exist in a world to which it is incompatible. Both concepts are needed because there are times when we are a self and times when we are no self. The author has laid out their concerns with this part of it which has had the effect of limiting the moves they are able to make without appearing to contradict themselves or outline a paradox / problem.
I suppose I am more willing to allow for the coexistence of
mutually exclusive ideas because I am very confident that the experience we
have of being alive from moment to moment is not well enough understood to
limit any aspect or to allow us to say that “there is no self” or “there is
only a self.” There are times when it seems to be a self and other times when
there appears to be no self, so I’m going to hedge my bets by assuming that
they are both accurate while conceding that there is probably a more complete
theory or understanding that covers them both perfectly. Apart from this being
a safe move, given just how complex consciousness is, it has the added benefit of
allowing me to pick and choose the best or most effective stuff from whichever
side I happen to be considering. My goal here is to point out and highlight
what works and why it may be of value, as opposed to pointing out what doesn’t
work or the underlying historical problems with a technology such as
Cultivating the skill of mindfulness will go a very long way
in helping someone understand what feelings are and what they are not. It will
also give a person the ability to critically assess what is going on in terms
of their emotional reactions / responses. On the very surface level, knowing
that you are experiencing the sensations of anger moments before you have the
emotional experience of anger can be very helpful in determining the
appropriate course of action. Anger may be the right response, but it may be an
overreaction, and one with a big downside. On a deeper level, having a more
full experience and understanding of an emotional response will allow the
emotion to be all that it is and ONLY what it is. You can be sad because your
sports team lost, but you do not end-up devastated or left feeling aimless.
Most importantly is the fact that by gaining the ability to
see and feel emotions more accurately, you will begin to gain the insight into
what the whole thing is all about and how your brain will react to the things
that it believes are happening and the things that actually do. I would be
inclined to suggest that you cannot possibly have a cursory understanding of
your feelings or your motivations / action unless you are able to notice them
as sensations, experiences, and linguistic narrative expressions. Having access
to one or two of these things is not complete enough to be useful as each one
supplies a portion of the information. But when all three are available and
processed, we are able to create a more complete understanding of any situation
and move forward having made any decision from a place of being fully informed.
In summary then, the skill of mindfulness is an essential piece
of the equation that allows someone to figure out what is actually going on and
what actions need to be taken to ensure continued survival. Without it, we are moving
forward on autopilot, oblivious to the lack of depth in our understanding and
completely unaware of the impact our manufactured fiction is having on the
decisions we make. It allows you to figure out what is going on, what you did, and
why you did it along with illustrating the subjective and self-serving nature
of most of your perception.
Again, while I did not agree with much of what the author said, we simply have a different opinions. I see and understand the world differently than them and that is fine. They do point out some of the legitimate problems with the subject of mindfulness and how it is being introduced to the western masses. While most of these challenges are the consequence of the people who are involved and have nothing at all to do with the mental skill of mindfulness, generating awareness of these problems is a very good thing to do because it can go a long way in helping people avoid the pitfalls.
I liked the article in-spite of the fact that I did not not agree with much of it. Obviously, I believe that I can provide some of the missing insight and to help clear-up the authors concerns, but I have no problem if the author never changes their opinion. That is because their article was worth reading and forced me to dig in a little on some of the ideas or beliefs that I have about mindfulness in order to figure out what it was that I was not aligned with. At the end of the day that may have been the author’s goal – I know that it is one of mine when I write – and since the piece was well written, it allowed me to think about the subject very quickly and without having to decipher a hidden message.
So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going.
This is an odd post because it quickly jumped the tracks and took off in a very different direction; not surprising, given that brains do that sort of thing when they are allowed to. The consequence is that this shorter post will be followed in a few days with the longer one that reflects the direction my brain took with it. The link to that post will appear in the comments once it becomes live.
At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me clicking on the link. The error it threw was analogous to a hissy fit that a 3 year old might throw when faced with a parent who is telling them to go to sleep or to eat their vegetables – they were being made to do something that they didn’t agree or want to do. It was the best attempt of a near half-century old brain to hone in on the fact that something about the real world was not aligned with the internal representation it held and that maybe the real world isn’t as real as everyone would like to belief. The declaration of “up with this I will not put” was made via an automatic hand and finger movement to cursor onto and left click the link.
The title of the article is powerful, which is the reason why it landed on me the way it did. It hooks the brain and triggers it to do things WITHOUT ever asking for permission. It is a form of manipulation, and while the ask the author is making is not a big one, on some level it is less than moral. My rational for making this declaration is that it is my brain and I therefore should have final say on what goes into it and what processes fire-up to deal with the world. I have a problem with anyone capturing any part of it without my permission or consent.
The title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” implies that there is a problem with mindfulness and unless you agree with the statement, the brain is going to handle the statement as though it is a question. This transforms the title into “what are the problems with mindfulness?” It is version of the logical fallacy known as begging the question – which occurs when an argument’s premise assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. This is sort of like what happens when the question “when did you stop beating your wife?” is asked – it implies that you used to beat your wife, before it is established that you are even married. It is leading because the human brain automatically assumes to be true all of the things that are requirements for the statement to be true. Once these assumptions are made, they become “facts” unless they are immediately engaged and proven to be false.
I do not think there is any malice in what the author has done because when I read the article it is clear that they believe that “mindfulness” is being used in ways that are problematic. However, this does nothing to disabuse me of the notion that the title is having an effect on the reader’s brains that is automatic and unconscious. It is, in a way, the antithesis of mindfulness, hence the reason for my visceral reaction. Having spent thousands of hours meditating, it has become very clear to me that life is lived on autopilot for most people most of the time. I am not making a claim that the same is not true for me. My practice has only given me slightly more than zero control over what my brain is doing from moment to moment, and this affords to me only the occasional glimpse into the transient experience of being alive.
Begging the question, along with all of the logical fallacies and cognitive biases, are things that we can get a better handle on through logical means vs. experiential ones. BUT once we learn what they are and put the time in to learning how to notice them, the way they feel will eventually begin to surface. Each one of them and each one of us, will have a unique experience so I cannot say what begging the question will feel like for you. For me, it feels like manipulation or like someone is trying to sell me something, so it makes me feel queasy. But it has a tint of anger that I can best attribute to my modal-intensity being directed towards proving something that I know is not provable. Again, this is what it is like for me, how other people react to it will be different. The truth is though, most people will only react by assuming the unsupported premise is true and moving forward with whatever that belief causes them to think or do.
In fairness to all those who approach the world with good intention, two key things need to be stated. The first is that lying, dishonestly, and manipulation are very new things to our evolutionary path. Our species has had very little experience with them, so the hardware and default software we are running is the product of a world in which truth and honesty were the primary ways of operating. Advanced language that communicates abstract ideas is a necessary requirement for lying and subtle mind control to be possible. Then, in order to actually act this way, the incentive to do so would need to be much larger than the disincentive to. These factors date this type of behavior to the last 10000 years which is not nearly long enough for the brain to have adjusted to combat it.
The second thing is that the best article in the world, or the best idea that has ever come to a human beings mind, is effectively worthless if no one reads it or it is never shared with anyone. A strong title is a simple way to get people to read the article or consume the idea. If the article is helpful and moves someone forward in their life, a case can be made for skipping the informed consent or free choice part of the equation and tricking someone into reading. I do not agree that the ends justify the means but some people might.
I have been told that my articles would get better traction is they were more controversial or if they were more inclined to cause outrage in some people. I agree, and I don’t care to journey down that road. It isn’t my goal to trigger either one of those things. My purpose is much closer to the opposite of them and could be summarized as trying to eliminate suffering by helping people create order in their lives. Whether or not this is a noble or worthwhile goal doesn’t factor into it. Nor does the desire to get hits or page views. While I would love all of these things to happen – to achieve a wide reach in terms of readership and impact, and to be considered a righteous person who played a role in the betterment of the lives of many people – if my ideas do not appeal to the many or do not stand on their own, that’s just how it goes. At the end of the day I have to live with myself and I have always found it difficult to sleep well when I have tricked someone into doing something that, while it may be in their best interest, was not something they would have willingly agreed to do.
So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going. Those who lack the mindfulness to notice it happening, may not have the ability to then liberate their attention and redirect it back onto whatever matters the most or is most important to them.
Is the person willing to pay the bill before they start – do they know the value of what they are about to do and do they know why they are enrolling you in their possibility? Are they clear on why it is important to them today and for the person they are going to become? If the answer is yes, if it is obvious that there is only one way forward, success is inevitable and this mutual partnership will work.
When it comes to personal training and basically any type of training, there are two type of clients, those who do what they are told and everyone else. Those who do the work are generally self-motivated. They may not know exactly why they are doing what they do, but when pressed on it they can come-up with a good reason, or two, or more. Intuitively they understand that they must pay the metaphoric bill before they eat the metaphoric meal – the bill is the work and every decision that moves them forward while the meal is the results they are seeking. For me, these clients are moderately interesting to work with and most of the joy comes from the validation that my methods and programs work and from the empathetic joy of seeing someone work hard, get what they earn, and feel good about it. I enjoy the conversations as well because these types of people have a lot to teach and I have a lot to learn.
Everyone else acts like training is a meal at a fine dining restaurant. It’s an experience to have and the bill will be paid at the end after they know that the experience was worth it. These people are a lot more work. There is a different problem to be solved and I may not know the answer because they don’t know the question. They don’t necessarily do what is being asked of them because they don’t really know why they are in front of me, asking for my help, on a journey that they may not even have started. It’s messy with a much lower success rate. The best case is that they actually start the journey and figure out why it is important OR that a light gets shined on the life they are living, the future that this will create for them, and a sense of peace about both.
The truth is that it is much more important to me that they find out what their goals actually are and not important at all that they achieve a goal that was never theirs in the first place.
I like my life and I believe everyone else should like their life too. If I can be of service and guide / help them automate the making of the life of their dreams then all the better. Sometimes they are already living the life of their dreams and just have never taken the time to notice it. They may not realize what is involved with chasing down a goal and that the actualization of the goal can be rather unfulfilling. After you reach your goal you are still you. You may be a leaner, more muscular, faster you, but at the end of the day, you remain you.
I used to believe that everyone should work out and improve their health. This is something that I no longer believe. I know everyone will benefit from moderate exercise, improved nutrition, reduced stress, and a more mindful approach to life, but that doesn’t mean everyone should go after these benefits. Sometimes these benefits actually make people miserable. Having single digit body fat is hard work and requires a lot of sacrifice. Once you achieve it, it requires continuous effort to maintain because it is a possession of sorts. It is now YOURS to lose, and this knowledge can generate a considerable amount of negative mental energy. And regardless of what you do, if you live long enough, you WILL lose it. Everything that arises will pass away, your discipline, your 6 pack abs, your youth, even your earthly existence.
A quick conversation can unpacked that a person just want to feel happier with who they are, the solution for which is meditation. After a few months of twice a day practice is all that is needed for the laws of nature to reveal themselves, and equanimous acceptance is bound to follow.
An effective consultation can reveal that the goal is simply to feel better. The prescription here is simple, improve posture through the use of structural balance movements, core and breath training. When we automate standing up straight when your head back and breathing deeply into our belly our psychological mind set shifts towards confidence, security, and contentment. The experience of pain is reduced and we feel and act more capable.
Cultivating and maintaining mindfulness is very easy and will add tremendous value to your life because of the compounding effect of experience over time. Improving and maintaining posture and appropriate breathing requires 5 minutes a day of work and offers similar compounding lifelong benefits. These things are easy, and anyone can achieve them. And if they are actually what the person is seeking, it is better for everyone in the long run to just go straight for them.
I am not suggesting that someone should not work out to improve their health. They should, most people should, but it is even better if the person actually wants to do it. There is no downside when someone works hard to get what they want AND need. The same cannot be said when someone gets what they need but do not want. Needs and wants are not the same and when they are not aligned who are we to decide what another person needs?
I find this approach helpful when it comes to training and coaching. Is the person willing to pay the bill before they start – do they know the value of what they are about to do and do they know why they are enrolling you in their possibility? Are they clear on why it is important to them today and for the person they are going to become? If the answer is yes, if it is obvious that there is only one way forward, success is inevitable and this mutual partnership will work. Anything other than this is an indication that they do not really know what they want or that they have not taken the time to get clear on why they want it. A simpler solution likely exists for them, one that has them invest a lot less time and allows them to go directly to what they want.
This sounded familiar to me because when I started practicing [meditation], I had the same belief that it would fix things. After years of practice I had come to accept that it did not fix anything. In fact, it does not do much of anything OTHER than make you more aware of what is going on from moment to moment. What will be will be, you just seem to feel it more intensely
If someone was to ask me about that time I said something wise I would tell them about the last full day of my third mediation retreat. But of course I would, because that was a moment when there was no doubt that the words that came out of my mouth were demonstrably truth, wise, and an act of complete compassion.
The retreats that I go on last for 10 days and are silent from 8 PM on the evening before the first day until 9:30 AM on day ten. Basically you meditate as much as possible from 4:30 AM until 9 PM, day after day after day. There are people around you, but you don’t talk to them and instructors recommend that you do not even look at other people, at least not in the eyes. It is just hours on end of you and your mind sitting quietly with your eyes closed, noticing the sensations of being alive. Vegetarian food is made available two times a day, at 6:30 AM and 11:30 AM, and there is a video discourse every night at 7 PM. There are four group sittings each day, three hour long ones at 8:30 AM, 2:30 PM, and 6 PM, and a shorter one from 8:30 to 9 PM. The rest of the time is spend mediating, resting, or looking after personal hygiene or laundry.
It can be remarkably boring, extremely intense, profoundly insightful, or a flat neutral experience. There is nothing to distract you, no phones, no TV, no music, and nothing to read. It is all you all of the time and this reveals the nature of your mind with untempered clarity.
I LOVE it and I HATE it and no matter how many times I go, the experience is never the same but always follows the same sort of pattern. It is kind of like walking along a forest trail at different times of the year. The route or path is the same but the journey is always different depending upon the season.
My wisest moment arrived at around 11:35 AM on day 10. This is the final day and at 9:30 AM the silent portion of the retreat ends. We are allowed to talk to other people if we like and it is presented as an opportunity to slowly re-integrate ourselves into the real world by communicating with the other participants. At this moment in time, each of us have more in common with each other than almost everyone else in the world. By ramping up our conversations with each other, we are in a better position to reengage the world the following morning when we leave the center.
I have no opinion about the accuracy of this and tend to find the elimination of silence to be jarring and unpleasant. As happy as I am to have the retreat wind down, the contrast between silence and people talking is almost too much for me to handle. But so is life from time to time, so maybe that is the point of it.
There tend to be three types of people who go to these retreats. The first are psychonauts. These are the people who have found out about mediation, think it is cool, and relish in the thought of completing a retreat as though it is a badge of honor or an accomplishment of something. The second are the mindful-curious. These are the people who have, for some reason, started to consider the possibility that consciousness is not the thing that they thought it was. They are not sure what it is, but they are interested in finding the true nature of the mind and what existence is all about. The final group is the psychology skewed. These people have, for one reason or another, an internal operating system that doesn’t serve them as well as it could. They are not necessarily, or even likely, to suffer from a psychological pathology that is chemical in nature or for which they need to be medicated. They just engage the world, their mind, and their brain in a way that to some degree less than optimal. This causes them existential difficulties in so far as their life is tougher than it needs to be or is lived with a sense that they are living slight out of phase with the real world.
I am a member of this final group, and I rediscovered mediation when I noticed the thought that life was tougher than it needed to be. I’ll eventually write more about the specifics, but generally speaking, I have a tendency towards feeling anxious and would have labeled my prevailing thought patterns to be those of something approximating generalized anxiety disorder.
The flavor of the conversations you have on day ten will be determined the group that you belong to and your group affiliation will be obvious based on the level and nature of the energy you give off once you begin talking again. Basically it will be one of three things – “I made it” pride, “I realized” curiosity, or “I am like this” acceptance.
I was talking to a guy from the third group on our way back from lunch when he mentioned that he was going to ask the instructor a question at the end of the next group sitting. I asked him if we was willing to tell me what he was going to ask and he mentioned that it was about anxiety. Specifically, when he was younger, about fifteen years ago, he was diagnosed with anxiety because he was having panic attacks at school. The solution was medication to be taken when an attack was starting. It worked in so far as it treated the acute nature of the attacks but it didn’t stop them from occuring. As he got older, they occurred less and less frequently and he hadn’t experienced one in five years since he had graduated from university and started working. However, earlier that morning he had experienced what felt like the start of one during the group sitting. This was a concern because he thought he was cured, so he wanted to ask the instructor how long he would have to meditate for before he would be cured. He believed that after developing and continuing a practice for a few months or years that the brain would clear itself up and he would never have anxiety again.
This sounded familiar to me because when I started practicing, I had the same belief that it would fix things. After years of practice I had come to accept that it did not fix anything. In fact, it does not do much of anything OTHER than make you more aware of what is going on from moment to moment. What will be will be, you just seem to feel it more intensely. You still get angry, you just realize that you are angry sooner and feel the anger more. You still get sad, you just realize it sooner and feel it more profoundly. Mediation helps me because these two things work together to more quickly move me through whatever emotional experience that I am having. The end result is that I feel more and suffer less, which is a positive. I am still the same as I ever was, the same code is running, I’m just a little more in tune with what I am experiencing from moment to moment and this awareness gives me the clarity to not get so wrapped up in it. I react less and more often choose to respond by doing nothing.
So I asked him what he thought the instructor was going to say and then what did he hope they would say? I don’t recall the exact words that he used, but the essence of how he replied was a single answer to both questions. That it is normal right now and that everything will go away completely within a couple of months, and maybe as long as a year.
I try to do things that reduce suffering in other beings, and baring that, I try to avoid doing things that will cause suffering. I did not know how the instructor would answer the question, but I knew how I would answer it, so I asked him if he wanted to know what I thought the instructor might say. He said sure, so I answered. Be aware that by answering the question I was trying to reduce his suffering in the long run but knew full well that the action I was taking had the potential of causing it in the short term.
“I used to want the same thing, but I come to realize that it is never going away. I am prone to experience moments of intense and almost overwhelming anxiety and went on my first retreat because I was almost certain that there was a better way to experience life. And I was right and I was also wrong. The fact of the matter the anxiety is still there and it is probably always going to be, but it doesn’t mean what it used to. It used to be something that I wanted to get rid of, so I’d resist it and approach it as a problem to solve. Maybe there were times when I was able to make it go away, but I always feared that it would come back again. I wanted to be free of it so I could just go about living my life the way I believe everyone else does.”
I paused for a moment to make sure he was still with me and started-up again when I realized that he was.
“But what meditation has taught me is that there isn’t anything wrong with me and there is no reason to actually want to get rid of the anxiety for ever. Most of the time it is just a drag, but some of the time it is actually helpful, so I know my life wouldn’t be the same if it never came back. It’s natural and normal for me, so there is no point in battling with it or labeling myself as defective or less than other people. We are all equally worthless, sentences to live out our live on this planet in the middle of more or less no where. The universe is just so big that my anxiety and your panic attacks can’t actually mean anything in a cosmic scale.”
I pause again and notice that the wheels are starting to spin a little faster in his head.
“I still get anxious. Probably just as often as I used to. It kind of feels worse now than it did before, but there is a big difference now. Now I know that it is going to pass, just like everything else. It is temporary and if I wait long enough it will go away. And you know what, then I’ll be glad it is gone. It’s kind of like the opposite of feeling happy. Happiness doesn’t mean that same thing that it used to any more because I know that it will pass and when it does I will no longer be happy. But just like the anxiety, it will probably come back in the future and I can be happy again, for a moment before it leaves.”
This pause was different, at least what I noticed was different. There was a look of pain in his eyes, and his face wore that heavy weight of the world look. This was the suffering I had anticipate causing.
“All I can do is choose what I pay attention to. That’s it. I can’t control what my brain and body do from moment to moment, at least in terms of a anxiety showing up. But I can choose to be completely happy when happiness rolls in and enjoy it for what it is, just as I can choose to notice what anxiety actually feels like. When I’m anxious I can direct my attention to the sensations on my body and notice what the moments of anxiousness actually feel like, and if I feel them all over, it it feels the same on different spots, and if my noticing the sensations of anxiety change how my brain deals with. I’m free to pay attention to it, to ignore it, or to play around with it and try to think about what it reminds me of. If I needed to act, I would have acted. Since I didn’t, there is no survival trigger for the anxiety so it doesn’t matter very much.”
He was still with me.
“But it isn’t going to disappear, or it might. I hasn’t for me, and I haven’t read or heard from anyone who has eliminated it from their life entirely through meditation. But by paying attention to it as an experience in the moment as it is happening, as opposed to treating it as a problem to solve, it starts to mean something else and this I have found to be a lot easier to deal with. But it isn’t going anywhere and meditation isn’t going to fix you because there is nothing wrong with you. You just get anxious from time to time and you have convinced yourself that it is bad. It isn’t good or bad, it’s just an experience you have from time to time. Be curious about it and teach yourself to notice what it is actually like as an experience as opposed to giving it power by making it into something it isn’t.”
There was a little back and forth, but not much that seemed to matter. I had crushed his dream that mediation was a solution to this problem and obliterated the hope that he was one day going to be free of panic attacks and anxiety in general.
A few hours later, after the afternoon group sitting, I asked him what the instructor had said and he told me he didn’t ask. When I asked why, he said that during the sitting, the anxiety started to fire-up again and he choose to just notice it as an experience as opposed to react to it as a problem. It hadn’t been all that bad. In fact, it was just something that was happening that wouldn’t be happening for very long. It wasn’t that it disappeared instantly, it just seemed to shrink in significance and became the rushing sensation that was his experience of anxiety. I thought this was great, but when he continued, I realized the wisdom of what I had shared.
“If it isn’t going to go away, I’m going to be living in fear that it is going to show up. And that thought is actually one that kind of begins to trigger it. That is unreasonable. I’m either going to be having panic attacks or living in a state of fear that I’m going to be having one. So if I just accept that they will show up from time to time and really make the effort to uncover whether or not they are a problem, I’ll at least know if I need to do something more about them. If that last sit is anything to go on, they are just kind of shittie, like the feeling you get after running up some stairs or trying to catch a train that you’re late for. My heart was going faster than normal, but I was free to direct my mind onto whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to pay attention to it. This didn’t make it go away, but it made it just a thing that was happening.”
I smiled and replied with “that’s cool, and kind of a powerful insight eh?”
The retreat ended the next day and I drove home with the radio off, happy that it was over and excited to be seeing my girlfriend again.
In the days and weeks, and months that followed, as I continued to practice, anxiety still continued to show up, and I think it will always play a role in my life. Most of the time I’m able to just label it by saying “there’s anxiety” and it fades away. Other times it gets a grip and I have a moment of wondering if I ever didn’t feel it or if it will ever go away, but then I catch myself and start to pay attention to the sensation it triggers, or the sensation that triggers it. I notice just how similar it is to excitement, or too much coffee, or to the moments after a tough working set in the gym that causes my heart rate to fly. The key is that after all of the mediation, I’m able to notice when it rolls in and make the decision to do something about it if doing something will help or to just let it be.
I am not cured, and I have very little reason to believe that I ever will be, because there is nothing to be cured from. This is how my brain operates. I’m just free to choose my approach, so by deciding to view myself as normal, and to act with curiosity when it comes along. Because it is going to come along and realizing this fact was a moment of wisdom.
Spending so much time in my head – because I ride by myself so
much – I’ve started to develop an awareness of the moment when my
unconscious moves an idea into my conscious mind. It’s startling to
experience the influence of a past pattern trying to rekindle its
influence and it is wonderful to sense my emotions begin to build as
that influence almost takes hold. I’m starting to be able to observe the
process start as opposed to allowing it to continue, only to reflect on
the poor choices later. Stopping the emotions allow me to return to
logical thinking; which tends to render a much easier and quicker
movement through whatever it was that almost triggered my past to begin
This skill is developing because I’m able to spend a lot of time by
myself, thinking about stuff then thinking about nothing and repeating
over and over again. Hard bike riding is meditative to me because the
intense efforts or challenging terrain make necessary a silencing of the
mind and a shut-down of that audible internal narrative that causes me
to believe I am the center of the universe. It is of practical advantage
because the trail eventually gets easier or I tire from the exhaustive
effort and slow down; both of these things tend to shut off the
meditation, re-empowering the voice to remind me that I am all that
matters. The key thing is, after having consolidated your consciousness
into the present moment, you become aware of things that you had stopped
considering or had not normalized.
For example, my clothes don’t matter when I’m 3/4 of the way up a big
hill. What the guy who cut me off on the way to the gym yesterday
thinks about me doesn’t come into my awareness when I’m about to lock up
my front wheel on gravel just to slow down enough to not launch over
the escarpment fence. This stuff doesn’t exist then because I can’t
manufacture it into existence. And when I’m not so tired or so focused
on not crashing this knowledge carries forward into my conscious mind. I
KNOW it doesn’t matter so it’s much easier to push the thought out of
my head or simple justify them out of existence because I know they are
the creation of something from my past and not necessarily the
reflection of what I want for my future.
That is a summary of course and it represents the evolution of an
aspect of self-awareness that has taken close to 15 years to move from
not being considered, not just as a possibility but at all, to a well
organized reality that I am able to engage, observe and manage.
So what? Well, given that we are pattern matching machines with a
tendency to unconscious automation of anything that requires effort, we
are most likely going to repeat patterns over and over and over again
until we do something to stop repeating them. We KNOW something isn’t
working for us, but we just keep doing it like a mindless computer
following a program that has been written because we are, in many ways,
mindless computers that run programs that were written in the past by
our experiences and interpretations. Given this, one is not likely going
to escape their past (stop running the program) until they accept that
it is happening, which can take a while. They must then learn how to
interfere with the program by preventing it from starting (avoiding the
triggers entirely which is really tough to do) or observing the program
beginning to start and stopping it dead. One gains a tremendous amount
of independence and self-control by learning how and what these these
old programs feel like, so in many ways self-awareness is the solution
while avoidance is a treatment.
Our pasts become our future when we allow old patterns to become
present behaviors. If these patterns are not working for you, you NEED
to break them and you need to gain awareness and feel them before you
are able to stop them. It can take a while to gain this awareness, but
once you have it, you’ll be able to beat back these old patterns and
create your future based on what you decide as opposed to what you did
in the past.