I've meditated every day, with a few exceptions, for over 45 years. For a long time I was a super-meditator, spending 1 1/2 to 2 hours at a time on a quest for the Meaning Of It All (MOIA).
Failing to find the elusive MOIA, I've shifted to 20 minutes of morning meditation, half of it guided via my Calm iPhone app, and half freestyling on my own.
Having discarded a religious motivation for meditating -- I no longer believe in enlightenment, soul travel, or union with a universal consciousness -- I've embraced mindfulness as a secular alternative.
Be here now. Live in the moment. Follow the breath. Still the monkey mind.
Sounds good, but questions have lingered in the back of my skeptical psyche. Like, if now is all there is, then isn't remembering the past or envisioning the future filled with as much nowness as eating a single raisin with rapt attention?
To be fair, Tamara, who guides my Calm iPhone meditations, says:
Beginner meditators are often under the impression that their mind shouldn’t wander. I’ve been meditating for 25 years and my mind still wanders. This is simply the nature of the mind. ;)
While we don’t want to spend our entire practice just sitting still thinking, we have to expect that as we meditate, thoughts will arise and our mind will follow.
What this practice is about, is noticing what’s happening in our experience from moment to moment.
So when the mind begins to wander, simply notice it wandering!
OK. However, if this was all there is to mindfulness meditation, seemingly there wouldn't be much difference between it and everyday life, aside from noticing the mind wandering versus simply having a wandering mind.
In this regard, my observation of televised basketball games is that players who are obviously noticing "I'm about to try to make a free throw" seem less likely to make one than players who simply step to the line and shoot the free throw. Likewise, my experience with ballroom dancing lessons has convinced me that self-awareness often doesn't produce as good a result as simple awareness.
Tamara goes on to say:
Simply come back to the breath or the body or whatever your anchor is each time you notice the mind wandering. If you have to bring it back a hundred times, bring it back a hundred times.
Well, this brings me back to my previous question.
What's so special about focusing on the breath, or the body, compared with focusing on thoughts -- whether of the past, present, or future -- since seemingly everything is always happening in the present moment, regardless of what it is?
I've started to read Ruth Whippman's book, "America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks." She's British, with an appealingly cynical (or at least, skeptical) sense of humor. Her observations of how we Americans engage in the pursuit of happiness often strike me as right-on.
Here's some passages on the mindfulness front.
Mindfulness is everywhere, the hugely popular zeitgeist theory that in order to be happy we must live fully in the present moment, with total mental focus on whatever we are doing or experiencing Right This Second.
...I find mindfulness a hard theory to embrace. Surely one of the most magnificent things about the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future, and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel, to offset the tedium of washing dishes in Pinole with the chance to be simultaneously in Bangkok or Don Draper's boxer shorts or finally telling your mother-in-law that despite her belief that "no one born in the seventies died," using a car seat isn't spoiling your child.
I struggle to see how greater happiness could be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to stare down some oatmeal.
In the 1980s I spent a lot of time with a Portland psychiatrist, Ralph Crawshaw. I was the executive director of Oregon Health Decisions, a grassroots bioethics organization. Crawshaw came up with the idea of forming the group.
When we were eating at a restaurant one day, the subject of meditation came up. I told Crawshaw that I tried to repeat a mantra as much as possible during my waking hours in order to keep my wandering mind under as much control as possible. He replied, "Not for me. I'm always thinking about something, no matter what I'm doing."
Crawshaw was an immensely creative and productive guy. He produced a lot of good in the world. And he seemed content with his life -- including thinking all the time.
I've remembered that conversation because his comment struck at an assumption that I hadn't questioned since I began meditating: thinking about the past or future, or, heck, even about the present, isn't as "spiritual" (whatever that means) as contemplating reality with a quiet mind.
Maybe. Maybe not.
I suspect "not" is the better answer. It's hard to see why thinking is less desirable than tasting a strawberry. Or why imagining what could be is less desirable than observing what is.
Like Ruth Whippman says, the human brain has the ability to mix and match images of past, present, and future, whether these be thoughts, emotions, perceptions, or whatever.
So maybe genuine mindfulness is embracing whatever your mind wants to do, so long as it works well for you.
Best post of the year! Thanks!
Posted by: Laura | December 30, 2016 at 05:07 AM
So many different states of awareness and I seem to flicker from one to the other constantly lol.
I love this quote: "The key to growth is the introduction of higher dimensions of consciousness into our awareness" Lao Tzu
Posted by: Jen | December 30, 2016 at 02:48 PM
""" I’ve been meditating for 25 years and my mind still wanders. This is simply the nature of the mind. ;) """
With the exception of LOVE
Posted by: 777 | December 31, 2016 at 09:03 AM
This. I'm not now nor have I ever been a meditator. We are only here for an brief instant and, so far as can be told, we will never be here again. Why would I want to expend effort negating the thing -- thinking about things -- that makes us human?
I smiled at the statement that "thoughts will arise" -- the passive voice, as if thoughts existed outside of thinkers.
Losses of friends, family and acquaintances in recent years makes it impossible for me to pretend that I'm immortal -- I'm fully aware that I'm on the run towards oblivion, with a future that daily grows shorter than the past. I enjoy sleep and naps, which is good, because otherwise I'd probably try to sleep less than is good for me.
Posted by: John Gear | December 31, 2016 at 02:34 PM
in response to 777
"with the exception of LOVE"
What the fuck do you mean by love?
So if you are in love, your mind will not wander?
excuse me - but this sounds like fucking bullshit
Brian is talking about the mind wandering BECAUSE that is the nature of mind. I totally agree.
The mind wanders because that is it's nature.
Like the nature of water is 'wetness'
You can't 'dry' water and you can't still the mind.
you can freeze water - but it's still wet once it defrosts
You can boil it to make steam - but the steam is still wet.
If mind could be stilled (i.e. thoughts stopped) then exactly how
would you kick-start the mind into thinking again - since that
act itself would require a 'thought' and thoughts have stopped.
so you'd be a non-thinking mindless zombie forever.
777 - you say LOVE stills the mind.
HOW does it do so?
and define what you mean by love and the context in which you are using it.
Posted by: WTF (What The Fuck) | January 01, 2017 at 04:35 AM
There is a zen saying
"when sitting - just SIT
When walking - just WALK
above all - DON'T WOBBLE" - Lin Chi
it means just do whatever you're doing.
If you are doing one thing and thinking about something else - then are you really doing the one thing?
Your mind is doing something else and your body is doing something else - this is called wobbling by Lin Chi.
Wobbling is fine too - as long as you wobble totally. and don't just think about wobbling.
whatever you do - enjoy it - be relaxed in it. If you walk - then walk and simply enjoy the walk - otherwise why bother to walk?
remove the 'should'
The 'should' does not allow you to simply do and enjoy anything. It makes a goal and creates a distance between you and the goal - now you have to achieve and get 'there' (to the goal)
so you are no longer here because you want to be 'there'
this is the 'wobble' doing one thing and wanting it to be something else.
Like meditating and then struggling to bring the mind 'back'
let the fucking mind fucking wander because it likes to wander.
simply watch and enjoy it wandering.
drop the fucking 'should' and wobbling disappears
Posted by: WTF (What The Fuck) | January 01, 2017 at 04:51 AM
As someone who also did 2 and 1/2 hours as part of Sant Mat for years, I think all the practices I have committed myself to have been like stepping stones to another place to put my foot. Mindfulness was one as were others. But what I notice is that without effort the mind stills....thoughts come and move and silence comes and thoughts come but nothing stays. There is an ease. Like life.
Posted by: Kathie Weston | January 01, 2017 at 08:27 AM
WTF.....Mike Williams...or ....tAo
Posted by: tumo | January 01, 2017 at 10:10 AM
What The Fuck said :
"" If mind could be stilled (i.e. thoughts stopped) then exactly how
would you kick-start the mind into thinking again - since that
act itself would require a 'thought' and thoughts have stopped.""
The answer is : I don't know
See it as everything in the Universe - a wave.
ANYWAY ; This Love for Music, for a Person
ask it puber , about his/her first love
They tell you exactly that
They cannot sleep, eat, and thinking hampers because there's only One Thought
Now add a lot of zeros to the intensity
and you are like that an hour which afterwards seems a minute
Wow, this is so difficult to explain and also one doen't stay at that hight
Even Saints do meditations , with pleasure,
One can never forget -
But the whole RSSB procedure is necessary : The Guide/Friend/Beloved -Loaded Simran-Sweet Sound
Then you'r sucked Up and experience Who You are
Posted by: 777 | January 01, 2017 at 04:03 PM
I think WTF put it nicely in that mindfulness is just about doing whatever you're doing and being fully present. If you're going for a walk in the woods, then enjoy that walk: look at the trees, listen to the birds, feel the air, smell it... Don't think about how you'd rather be on a beach or that there are bills waiting at home.
Observing thoughts and letting them be is a lot different than getting entangled in them and letting them take you over. But of course someone who has been meditating for so long cannot know the difference. The only way you'd see a difference is if you'd never meditated. That's impossible. Meditation causes brain changes, literally physical changes in the brain. There have been several studies done on this.
Though one study did find that people who meditated more than 20 minutes had no increased changes to their brain, so there probably is an upper limit to how much meditation is still effective. 20 - 30 minutes is probably the sweet point for most Western folk that aren't seeking enlightenment, anything more than that and you're just wasting your time sitting still.
And you're using faulty logic as well. You think our brain was made for the world we're in now? With all the stimuli? It hasn't even had a chance to adapt. Evolution is slow, technological advancement is fast. Our brain wasn't made for endless stimuli through TV, sugary food, endless distractions, gambling, addictive substances.
That's not to say that thinking about the future or past is bad. You're going from one extreme to the next. But there is a balance which most people in this hectic world don't find. Because they're constantly either in the past or the future, but not in the present. They're stressed. That's different from your daydreaming. It's hard to explain to someone who's been meditating for so long. You have all the benefits, but you don't even notice them. It's like trying to explain what a cloudy day is to someone who's been living in sunshine for the last 30 years. It's hard. Be thankful.
Posted by: mishmash | January 12, 2017 at 12:34 AM
the difference is tasting a strawberry doesnt make you suffer - thoughts about yourself do. Thoughts about the problem of how to fix your exhaust pipe thats broen without buing a 600 dollar repklacement however are fine.
Meditiation is bunk if your trying to achieve simething by it.. modern m,idfulness is new age nonesense... just understand that thoughts about yourself are just maki ng you suffer,
Posted by: Butiam Noone | February 06, 2017 at 07:23 PM
Hey Brian. Even I use Calm a couple of times a week, sometimes to just listen to that ambient background sound (without the guided mediation), which I really enjoy, sometimes while working on something that requires deep focus, other times just reading a good book. Apart from that, I'm very skeptical about the benefits of the guided mediation focused on breath. I mean, I like that it helps me disconnect from the surroundings, also cut down the noise in my head (those gazillion thoughts). I still prefer starting my day listening to that background music and staying calm for 5-10mins, rather than picking up the phone and start scrolling through the newsfeed or checking my emails. This is my idea of mindfulness for now and it's really helping me start my day on a good note.
I've never believed in any form of meditation that requires you to chant some mantra, just not my thing. Even if I tried I'm sure I'll be laughing my ass of in a few seconds, thinking how absurd the whole thing is.
Posted by: Defoe | February 22, 2017 at 05:27 AM
Sorry about being late to the party, but I can't resist commenting on a few things in this post. First, in the post you say this: "However, if this was all there is to mindfulness meditation, seemingly there wouldn't be much difference between it and everyday life, aside from noticing the mind wandering versus simply having a wandering mind." But the distinction you seem to be dismissing when you say ". . . aside from noticing the mind wandering versus simply having a wandering mind" is the key to mindfulness practice. To treat it as insignificant is what journalists call "burying the lead." The "noticing" that you give the back of the hand to is all the difference and is the whole point of mindfulness practice. You also seem to confuse self-consciousness (which indeed can give you the yips when shooting a basket or trying to make a putt or dancing) with awareness. I can be aware of the breeze against my face, and quite enjoy it without crippling self-consciousness. And you have to know better than to imply that the goal of the practice is elevating the breath to some cosmically important thing. The breath is a vehicle or, better, an anchor, just like a mantra can be and just like thoughts themselves can be. Any anchor can be used to train and calm the mind (which doesn't mean wiping it clean of thoughts). Meditation doesn't have to be an end in itself, and in mindfulness, it isn't. As for elevating thoughts over the breath, there are mindfulness practices that do focus on thoughts. Finally, even if you don't think the mind can (or should be) trained, the practice itself can be quite relaxing and de-stressing. I love your posts, but this one sounded contrary for the sake of contrariness.
Posted by: Adam Sloane | February 22, 2017 at 01:04 PM