Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The past and the future, revisited

I just went back and read my "The past and the future" post. It was a lot more punchy to me when I wrote it (and read it) than it is now. I was in the zone then, but haven't meditated much since. The target audience is (people like) me today! That's ironic: the target audience is people who won't really "get" it.

With that in mind, I think I can translate. I'll try to make it shorter this time:

1) "Distraction" is a state of mind, and doesn't depend on what you're thinking about. When you're reading a book and start mind wandering, but your eyes keep scanning the page, you are distracted. Your mind is doing something, consciously, but you don't know it. Seriously, stop and digest that. WTF.

At some point you realize "oh, crap, I meant to be reading," and for that split second you are undistracted. Whatever you were thinking about during that reverie you can equally well think about in an undistracted way: just keep a constant vigilance on whatever is happening in your mind. If you were constantly vigilant while reading, you'd never wander.

2) You are probably distracted most of the time. Who cares? You care. What they call a "wandering mind" in that paper I call "distraction." They seem to think it has something to do with what you're thinking about. I posit that it does not, except for the lucky coincidence that when you're distracted you're very unlikely to be thinking about now, and conversely, most times you're not experiencing now you are distracted.

Those are "most times", not "all times." If you approximate and call it "all times", you get this sweet equivalence:

Distracted == not experiencing the now

It's not entirely true, but it's a fine first approximation. A second approximation would take into account that sometimes, you're nondistractedly planning for the future right now, but I won't go there. Now. (I also think they severely underestimate the prevalence of wandering. I would guess it's "almost all the time" for most people, including me right now.)

3) Nondistraction is epic. How so?
  • Life feels utterly free and full of possibility (i.e., blissful). When there's almost no nagging about the past or the future, there's very little to drag you down*. Yes, there are real problems in the world. Worrying is not part of the solution.
  • This does not stop you from getting stuff done. It's not like you say "well, life is perfect, I'm just going to sit here." Au contraire, you realize there's very little holding you back, in reality.
  • You can be a better person to others. During distraction, it may seem natural to lash out at others when you're cranky. With nondistraction, you can tame and/or shut down those cranky neurons before they do damage.
  • It's easier to forgive others. If your mission is to improve the world in any way, it's very useful to see compassionate solutions to problems instead of malicious ones. Even when the solution requires punishment or violence.
4) The only way (that I know of) to get there is to practice. How? Sit in a quiet room. Pay attention to your breath, and only your breath. Every time you notice yourself wandering, pat yourself on the back and get back to business. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Every "noticing" is simply you snapping into nondistraction from distraction. (I call this a "ping." Ping yourself. Ping your friends.) Do this 10 minutes a day for a week and see if life doesn't seem a bit more... real. Do it.

5) Even after reading this, you probably won't do it. Why the cynicism? Because I'm not doing it, despite writing about it. Then how do I know it's worth doing? Because every time I do it, I find out the same thing: so long as my basic needs are met (i.e., I'm not currently falling off a cliff or motorcycle), after a few weeks, doing it is even more epic than I remember.

Conclusion: go. do. it.

* This feeling is akin to I was getting at with the lottery & island metaphor before: you don't have to win the lottery to feel free. When you heard that you won the lottery, nothing changed except that you allowed yourself to be momentarily free of worries. The point is, you don't have to be objectively free of worries to not worry. And it's not cheating to feel worry-less even when you're not. Moreover, the actual things you spent the money on likely did not bring you as much bliss as the mere release you felt to find out that things were going to be all right.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

From a missive to a friend

If you can avoid having some unpleasant thought ever enter your mind, then by all means do so. Once it's there, if you can gently escort it out, that also sounds fine. These are instructions regarding the contents of awareness. The suggestion to be "clear" is about the quality of awareness. Merely recognizing the existence of anxiety ("the sensation of anxiety is perceived") does not compound it. Claiming ownership of it ("I am anxious"), and then narrating it ("therefore I'm in trouble"), does, and leads nowhere good. The former is clarity, and the latter is clinging (or what I call "distraction"). Some thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are very easy to not "own" (e.g., looking at a neutral object). Others are very good at stealing clarity, and they all go about it in distinct ways.

I think meditating in a quiet place is primarily meant to show you what clarity and its attempted robbery look like in a sandbox environment. Some emotions are harder to observe quietly than others, but in the end none has the intrinsic power to steal your clarity. Getting better at maintaining clarity requires practice. If you treat it like an adventure or game, and practice just at your threshold, it might be less of a chore and perhaps quite edifying.

What I haven't figured out is how the change in quality affects the change in contents: Mingyur rid himself of panic attacks by clarity, and it seems to be my experience too that contents are changed by clarity. I guess my hypothesis is that by addressing an emotion clearly ("hello anger, I see you, please pipe down"), you can retrain the relevant circuits with greater precision. The other thing to notice is that the elaboration ("therefore I'm in trouble") slowly becomes revealed as false, so it happens less and less. I'm told even the ownership can go away entirely (the subject / object distinction vanishes), but that's pretty advanced :)

Monday, May 2, 2011

A complicated machine

With a Swiss Army Knife, you notice 15 different tools immediately, even if it takes some time to understand how to use them properly. If you spend enough time using it, you'll master all of its functions.

The mind is similar, but has an added twist: most of its layers of complexity are hidden until you start looking for them. If you haven't spent a lot of time introspecting, you may not even realize that there exist many knobs and dials that subtly control your emotions and behaviors. Once you start getting your hands dirty, not only do you notice that there's a lot more going on in there than you thought, but the controls you found earlier start looking different.

I think this is partly why meditation is not more popular: if you haven't spent some time trying it, the claims of its value may sound exaggerated and perhaps mundane. Many people seem to think of it as just another form of relaxation, or as a crutch to avoid the difficulties of the real world. The idea that perception and experience can be fundamentally changed by "just sitting there" is, admittedly, pretty strange on the surface.

But I guess that's what makes it so fascinating. I can't think of another machine I'd rather tinker with.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The past and the future

Often in Buddhist texts you'll read things like "do not be caught up in thoughts about the past or the future." Okay, so be in the present. Then maybe you read some modern interpretation of "mindfulness" like this one:
Mindfulness or being mindful is being aware of your present moment. You are not judging, reflecting or thinking. --
Boy am I glad I never took that advice. The last time I decided to disregard the future, let me tell you, whatever transpired next is too embarrassing to print. Consequences happen in the future. You gotta think about them. Mistakes have happened in the past. You better learn from them.

So what gives? Are you supposed to be mindful at all times except when you're, you know, in the real world, doing real-world things, and thinking real-world thoughts?

No. "Caught up" in the first quote refers to the distracted state of mind. Recall from another post that it is not the contents of awareness that define the distracted mind, but the quality of awareness. The second quote says you should not be "thinking." For this to be correct they must not be talking about merely having thoughts but the state we're in for the overwhelming majority of time we typically have thoughts.

To really understand what this state is like, you're going to have to catch yourself in the act of being mindless. The bad news is, the mindless state is not exactly fertile ground for noticing... well... anything. The good news is, you're going to have lots of opportunities in which you're mindless :). But to give you some sense of what to watch for, let me give you examples of thoughts I had within minutes of waking up:
* Crap, I have to give this presentation on Monday, and I don't have all the pieces just right. There's so much to do at work today. I'll have to get this map data... but wait, don't we have a lunch outing? Man, my job is great. But boy, wouldn't it be better if I were working in a fulfilling field? Ooh I should be a wedding dancer. Oh yeah I have a wedding to attend later today...
* Oh man, I really wasted last weekend. I was planning to write on my blog, and I didn't even clean my apartment. Oh but Sunday was fun. That hike was great, remember that boulder we couldn't move? I wonder if the weather is going to be as nice this weekend... hey what's San Francisco like in May?
The future events are tinged with a certain sense of angst born of uncertainty, and the past ones with a mild sense of regret and a yearning to improve so that things start going better. Actually, life is pretty much perfect except for [some stuff that already happened and thus doesn't matter] and [some stuff that hasn't even happened yet and thus doesn't matter]. If only it weren't for all that stuff...

No. It's not the mere fact that this happened or that will happen that are preventing life from being epic and boundlessly free. It's that you're letting these thoughts whisk you away. Make no mistake, they are parasites. These narratives have the power to suck mindfulness out of you, and replace it with a vague sense of "oh no" and "if only." Worse, these emotions have a sense of urgency that will convince you that they need your attention, now. You don't have time to meditate, because by god, you have real life to worry about.

At this point you may be thinking "Well, duh... I shouldn't waste time on regret or fantasy. Tell me something I don't know." I am telling you something you don't know. I'm telling myself something I don't know. In a few seconds you'll be back at it, with those same thoughts whispering gently in your ear that no, this thought is different. This one is important. This is about your career!

It's like a guy in a clown suit keeps driving up in a windowless white van and offering you a lollipop, and every time, you fall for it. And if you're thinking "no, not me!" well, nice to meet you, Buddha.

Think about how you'd feel if you won $100 million right now. Go ahead, feel it. Pretty damn happy, right? But that's weird, because you haven't bought anything yet, and that's what the money does for you, right? Okay let's solve that: you just bought a tropical island with your money. WOO-HA! Think of all the sweet time you'll spend there! Happy again. But huh, you're happy without being there yet, and being there is what you're supposed to be happy about. So then you actually go there, and the plumbing is not quite perfect, and there are a few more mosquitoes than you'd like... In fact, the happiness you felt by winning the money or buying the island probably far exceeds the "joy" you'll experience for 99.5% of the time you're on the island, save for maybe your arrival, when you're thinking "boy, this is gonna be great..."

Unless you're really good at nondistractedness, most of the happiness money will buy you is of the form "this is going to be great" or maybe "man, I'm so cool," which have very limited novelty compared with the ongoing blossoming of actual experience. Even worse (though not much worse, incredibly enough), garbage day comes a lot more often than winning-lottery day.

Anyway, by now you get the point: being distracted is no way to live. But if you're like most people, knowing that won't be enough to convince you to try another way. In fact, even if you've savored the acute, exquisite sense of freedom that nondistraction brings, what you remember of it now is but a caricatured shadow, so even that won't budge you. "And besides," you think, "feeling free... big deal." When you return to the settled presence and purpose of that state, then you'll be in a position to judge which path you really want.

And if you're thinking "gosh, he's right, I really should meditate..." and don't act on it, boy howdy you are doing it wrong. Re-read this post if you have to, or read a better author, but damn, stop futzing around.