Monthly Archives: February 2012

Meditation for the Western Mind

Meditation is often mocked and maligned in the M5M, yet it is a powerful way to focus the mind. Humans are capable of changing the way they think–reprogramming their brain software, if you will pardon the metaphor. Mental training is valuable, and most humans are capable of this without help. Gurus and educators are nice but not necessary.

One way to train yourself is to use classical behavioristic techniques. For example, if you bite your fingernails and wish to stop, you can put a rubberband on your wrist, and everytime you find your fingernails approaching your mouth you can snap the rubberband on your wrist as a ‘punishment.’ This technique is effective but not quite what I mean by meditation or mental training.

The most powerful thing I have learned from meditation is how to recover from distractions when thinking–a kind of mental persistence. I cannot claim that I rarely have distracting thoughts even after years of meditation practice, but I do recognize quickly when my brain has strayed and I need to return to my original train of thought. I have also learned that I do not multi-task well–so I don’t allow myself to daydream while driving, for example. When I daydream, I prefer to do it in a quiet place with few distractions!

“I lived in solitude in the country and noticed how the monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” Albert Einstein also said his ‘secret’ was his ability to think of one problem for a very long time.

I think that every action and thought consumes limited brain processing power; including humming a tune or even twiddling the thumbs. Noise or other external distractions also consume brainpower, but this can be minimized with practice. Internally generated ‘noise’ is still a problem, but less than it used to be. “Buddha was said to meditate so serenely that birds were able to nest in his hair. (…)  Buddha is one of the few Dear Leaders that you can place a bird’s nest upon his head and his fundamentalist followers won’t try to blow you up.”  Edward Tufte

Concentrating on a mental task has been an excellent way for me to learn how to meditate, even if the mental task is something as weird as generating mondegreens for the Pledge of Elite Gents. I found that meditating on my breathing or on a phrase was boring and tiring, but perhaps I didn’t persevere long enough. If I could teach myself to focus mentally on what I consider boring, then interesting mental tasks should become easy to think about without losing concentration–but the learning curve was too steep for me.

My preferred position for meditation is lying down on a comfortable surface, such as a bed or couch. Falling asleep has not been a problem for me. My body complains if I sit too long, which interferes with my mental focus.

I do not claim that I have discovered the true nature of reality, nor to have discovered who or what I ‘really’ am, nor do I claim to be ‘enlightened’ (whatever that means). I have learned the beginnings of metacognition–the ability to evaluate my own thinking. I have learned that I am a font of infinite desires, and that new desires will appear should I satisfy present desires–so I might as well pick which ones I will try to satisfy. I have learned that there are T\/ programs and adverts that are an unwanted antidote to meditation, causing unquenchable desires and occupying brainspace for far too long. I have learned is a way of thinking that allows me to concentrate on one mental task for a long time, to identify and ignore irrelevant distractions, and a little of the power of thinking–and I learned all this from the same person who taught the Buddha–nobody.

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.”  Aristotle

“It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them.” Epictetus

“An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.”  Albert Camus

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”  Henry David THoreau

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Posted by on Fri, 2012 in General Knowledge