Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Listening to the radio in your head

Some of my blogging friends are pretty serious about their meditation - I'm thinking of Nick and Dan, in particular - whereas I am a complete beginner. Our office is round the corner from London's Buddhist Village and Pete, our Chief Technology Officer, has been encouraging other members of the School of Everything team to come along with him to lunchtime meditation a couple of days a week. Today was my second time - and I definitely have a long way to go.

The first time I went, I was quite nervous beforehand, but really enjoyed it. Today was harder - I struggled to focus, even for a few moments, partly because I kept thinking about something the teacher had said at the beginning of the session. The meditation we were doing was the Mindfulness of Breathing, and he was talking about avoiding thinking about one thing whilst doing another. "For example," he said, "I try not to listen to the radio while I'm washing the dishes, because then my mind would be elsewhere."

I grew up in a home where the radio was nearly always on and the habit stuck. A housemate in my early 20s, when I was less well domesticated, once famously ended a rant to another housemate about my misdeeds with "...and he listens to Radio 4 in the bath!" I even had a career as a radio journalist for a while (you can hear the evidence on the Internet Archive...). And, where I can happily live without TV, I've always thought of radio as mind-expanding.

Then I remembered a metaphor I used to use during my summers selling books door-to-door as a student. It was the toughest job most of us would ever do, not least in terms of the mental and emotional strain, and I learned a lot about mental self-discipline along the way. Training other students for their first summer knocking doors, I used to encourage them to tune in to the radio in their heads and listen to the things they were saying to themselves all day. "There are things you say to yourself," I told them, "which if anyone else said to you, you'd probably punch them."

The trouble is, I was remembering all this instead of concentrating on my breathing, which doesn't say a great deal for my mental self-discipline these days. But it did all make me more curious about developing mindfulness - and I'd be interested to hear more from those of you who have more experience of meditation. I'm so used to my mind being full of words and ideas and a constant stream of connections, much of the time very enjoyably so, that I find it a real challenge to get out of my head, as it were. Also, I'm curious about where the limits to mindfulness might lie - is it really better to wash up mindfully than to do it absent-mindedly while listening to Melvin Bragg talk about Charles Darwin?

What I do know is that I could definitely benefit from becoming more mindful, so I'll be persisting with the lunchtime sessions. And I'm looking forward to Vinay's workshop on Meditation and Magic tomorrow at the Temporary School of Thought.


Tom Critchlow said...

Interesting. I definitely would like to get into mindfullness (and buddhism generally) more. I know it's just one example, but I imagine that there's nothing against doing multiple things at once and being mindfull so long as you're concentrating on them all at once. If the radio is on and you're listening to is then I suspect you can do the waching up as well but if the radio is on as background music then I suspect that's not very mindfull and you'd be better off concentrating on the washing up. But what do I know! If I was a bit closer I'd love to come for a lunchtime meditation but I suspect it's a bit far to go...

Cool re: poker lessons, no rush!

Dan Aktivix said...

This flurry of blogging is great, keep it up! I have much to say on your previous entry, but for now...

I've gone in and out of meditation - at a very basic level - since I was 15. A youth worker at our youth club in Nuneaton (wild times!) took us to meet some Buddhists and that got me started. Since then I've occasionally started again, but - as with so many other things in life - it hasn't become an in-grained habit. So mostly I don't practice, but I am opinionated, so...!

When I used to practice a fair bit, it was the best way of getting to know how my own mind works. It can make apparent the kind of things that hallucinogens can - but as Starhawk says, it's more like climbing the hill and seeing the view than seeing it from a helicopter passing overhead.

Mindfulness of breathing IS phenomenally difficult - and practice slowly improves matters. You shouldn't castigate yourself after two sessions! I did do a couple of months of meditation recently - badly, but tried. Mindfulness of breathing, for me, teaches the first - and perhaps most vital - lesson about the mind. The sense we have that it's 'our' mind, that we have control? Wrong. Under normal circumstances most of us cannot count three breaths without discovering that, by the fourth, we're thinking about something else. And - here's the rub - 'we' didn't notice that happening. Despite having sat down with the express purpose of letting the mind follow a number of breaths, we're often unable to even notice when we've failed to do so. "One moment, there was this intention to follow the breath, and now I'm thinking about what to cook for tea, and I have no idea how I got from one to other." The usual sense of stability of mind we have is largely provided by the world, not by our ego. But, of course, you have to be unvexed, not scold yourself and just let your mind return to the breath...

So that's always been the most vital lesson for me: our sense of sovereignty over our own minds is misplaced. (A good example of this to ask Tom about is, if I remember - people seeing a signal on a screen directly from their brains when they make a specific physical movement. To them, the signal on the screen appears before they consciously make a 'choice' to move their hand - only by a few milliseconds, but enough to be alarming!) This stuff is (was) a slightly risky thing for a young person to think about, since it can lead to denial of ego, which has its own drawbacks. A table may be an ephemeral thing made mostly of space, but it can still hurt if you drop it on your head.

The truest thing I ever read about meditation: "Many sit down for meditation and wonder why they do not succeed. How can you suppose that half an hour of meditation and twenty three and a half hours of scattering of thought throughout the day and night will enable you to concentrate during the half-hour? You have undone during the day and night what you did in the morning, as Penelope unravelled the web she wove." [Christmas Humphreys]

Several things from that: mindfulness of breathing teaches concentration, which is the foundation for meditation. I, for one, have had no luck in improving my concentration much recently; I think everything else in my life needs a little nudging and tweaking first! Even the most practiced will sometimes find their minds unable to focus, but I think the quote above gets to the nub of it. But I don't think that requires one to become hermetically sealed off from any 'disturbing force'. It's about what you do with your mind in the intervening period. On the washing up and radio question - I've always found it's good to do a bit of both. A third enjoyable option is letting the mind wander in silence while doing tasks - interestingly, I spent a day tidying my office up recently, and though all menial, I had about a million ideas. Letting the mind work in different ways, and having some volition over what that is.

Back to Starhawk again: she says magic is the art of changing consciousness at will. By "at will" she actually means - I believe - getting to know the nature of consciousness, in both it's isolated and social modes, and being a student of how to structure situations, as well as structure individual practice and thought. That's all ritual does (and that's why ritual usually won't work if it's merely dead dogma.) The will alone - as mindfulness of breathing teaches - is rarely effective for long in forcing the mind to do anything at all. The times when we believe it was our will, we're likely to discover it was our conditioning!

Meditation is an artificial thing to do, in a way: it is not something any creature would normally do. But that's what makes it useful - and fascinating. First-off are the fairly immediate benefits. For me - especially since I have a mild stammer - I gain much more centredness, and my speech is immeasurably improved. (So the fact that I don't *make* time to meditate says an awful lot about the human mind's tendency to inertia, or at least my tendency...!) My ability to relate to and connect to others improves. When I need to work, I work better and know when to stop. It's an all-round health tool! And all just from a breathing exercise, not from meditation proper.

But also, we have this ability to explore the nature of mind, and compare notes. It can be some profound stuff, and quite why it should correlate to the various benefits I've just mentioned is a mystery. Here's Aldous Huxley in the intro to his 'Perennial Philosophy', which he says is...

'... primarily concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one Reality is such that it cannot be directly and immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfil certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart and poor in spirit [!?]. Why should this be so? We do not know. It is just one of those facts which we have to accept, whether we like them or not and however implausible and unlikely they may seem. Nothing in our everyday experience gives us any reason for supposing that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen; and yet when we subject water to certain rather drastic treatments, the nature of its constituent elements becomes manifest. Similarly, nothing in our everyday experience gives us much reason for supposing that the mind of the average sensual man has, as one of its constituents, something resembling, or identical with, the Reality substantial to the manifold world; and yet, when that mind is subject to certain rather drastic treatments, the divine element, of which it is at least in part at least composed, becomes manifest.'

Hmm, I'd better do some work. But, yes, there's some thoughts on the matter.

Oh - and happy new year!

Dan Bartlett said...

My answer is going to be quite to-the-point: I meditate for enlightenment. Lots of people meditate for many reasons; to center themselves, to relax, and a whole other range of reasons.

I do insight meditation, where I observe the arising and passing of all sensations, and try and see into the true nature of all sensations, including the sensation of a seperate self. Sensations all have the Three Characteristics: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness (or suffering), and "no-self."

Insight has nothing to do with the relative subjective content in your head. Solving your problems, cultivating compassion, being good to all sentient beings are vital qualities, but they come under the banner of Morality, not Insight. There are Three Teachings in Buddhism: Morality (learning, helping, working, chatting, "living" etc. Day to day mindfulness comes in here), Concentration (what you're doing with your breath meditation), and Insight (direct insights into the absolute nature of reality). You need some skill in concentration before insight takes off.

These are important distinctions if you want to seriously understand meditation and its goals. Most people just want to meditate for a bit of relaxation and problem-solving, and that's ok, but it won't get you insight.

There is one book I wholeheartedly recommend on meditation, Buddhism and enlightenment. It's free and written by someone who clearly knows what he's talking about. He's not afraid to talk about enlightenment as a concrete achievable goal, and is an arahat (level 100! :P) in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram.

Unfortunately the book is pretty hardcore: no messing about. It has everything you need. I definitely recommend the first few chapters: the intro and the stuff on the Three Teachings and Three Characteristics. This will give you a great grounding, and cut right to the chase. That book is my meditation bible, so it can probably answer your questions better than I can. I can't recommend it enough, especially in an age where meditation and enlightenment have been ravaged by over the top post-modern all-is-equal pluralistic relativism.

This post is a little rushed because I'm trying to sort out a 100 things before I go on my first meditation retreat! (Leaving Friday, will post on blog before I go)

P.S. thanks for the heads up about the site being down! Just got it fixed.

Dan Bartlett said...

I should elaborate that insight isn't some detached process - meditation initiates change on all levels, regardless of what aims and goals we have. Healing, trauma recognition, and psychological insight often accelerate when we take up a spiritual practice like meditation. Bodily releases, bursts of energy, lights, sounds, liberation from previous limits; these are all landmarks on the path. I remember one meditation session a while ago; afterwards I felt very peaceful and relaxed, like some tension had disappeared. I didn't know where until I was singing in the kitchen and realised that my vocal range had taken a quantum leap; the throat tension that had held me back before had melted away and I could move much higher in my chest voice. It was a very noticeable and welcome change!

DAVE BONES said...

Good to meet you today! Very energizing way to spend my birthday! I stuck up a link on my blog. I will be about.

Nick Herman said...

Hi, Dougald! Great to hear from you. I'm honored that you thought of me.

Perhaps a good way to start is to address a line by Tom that caught my attention: "I imagine that there's nothing against doing multiple things at once and being mindfull so long as you're concentrating on them all at once."

The idea of being able to concentrate on a lot of things a once is a common fallacy. Yes, you can drink tea, write a letter, while listening to music, and perhaps carry on a conversation--you can do it, in terms of the perception of "doing" something. Tea will be drunk. Music will be listened to. A conversation will occur. But what will the respective quality of each of those experiences be when your attention is split? Humans are very sophisticated pieces of machinery capable of multiple types of awareness that were necessary for basic survival long before multi-tasking became a word. There IS a limit to how much, say, attention-processing-power (for lack of a better word) a person has--it is finite—that’s something I firmly believe. Any given task uses up some bit of that total amount of attention. For everyday kind of things, our minds are powerful enough that we have a perception that it's OK that we're doing several things at once, because each bit is perhaps only using a relatively small fraction of the whole.

Now, this is a little dangerous, but it's subtle, like many dangerous things. At the worst end of the spectrum, this could result in a really careless mistake that could kill or injure. The best example that comes to mind are cell phones and cars, and although it's now illegal in California to talk on a phone which requires the use of a hand, it really misses the point, because it's still legal to talk on a headset; talking while driving at all distracts one’s attention and makes for a dangerous driver. One study I read suggested that the really distracting part of talking on a phone is the tendency to consciously or subconsciously imagine the other person’s physical and emotional reactions to what we’re saying, which is taking up a lot of brain-space. A lot of technology is pretty crazy when you consider that we've gone several hundred thousand years never being able to travel faster than a horse can move, only interacting face to face, and now we’re speeding along in huge pieces of metal with enough momentum to rip through a hippo, and forcing our brains to overcompensate by having extended conversations without essential physical cues we’ve always had up until extremely recently in human history.

Let's say that's a worst case scenario of a lack of mindfulness--but the same things still apply when the mind is engaged in multiple directions of any kind, and it is a slippery slope. Safety is a very concrete and important thing, but I'd like now to take a step back and ask the question of what mindfulness has to do with being human and living a full existence.

It disturbs me to see so many people who immediately slap on a pair of headphones as soon as they walk outside, or constantly need something to read when on a bus. When our minds are constantly searching for stimulation, we are missing what is in front of us. Consequently, I don't think we see ourselves as deeply. Why read a book? Why listen to the radio? Why have a conversation, do a job, learn about something? Conceivably, because it reflects something about our interests, aspirations, about who we are. Meditation (and I'm speaking from a zen perspective, for whatever it's worth) is simply about sitting down and asking, "Ok. Now who am I?" Western philosophy usually addresses this question by continuously aggregating words and meanings, but often sidesteps, most simply, a basic curiosity about our minds and the patterns they create.

I’d like you then to consider the ways, big and small, that an attitude of mindfulness applied to a single task at a time can change both the act and the mind. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote “You can drink a cup of tea in two minutes. But to spend two hours on it—this is an act of resistance!” How many fragrances, sensations, pieces of joy, are in that cup of tea? How deeply can we experience each moment of life—whether perceived “good,” or “bad”? A visiting aikido teacher at my dojo once talked about how much smoother his shaves became once he stopped using a mirror and started doing it all by feeling. Meditation is a technique which allows one to drop most external stimuli, forcing one to pay close attention to the barrage of voices inside. I think of it is a control experiment. We are simply allocating a peaceful space and time to find out who we really are, removed from the constant noise of everyday (societal) life.

I emerge sometimes from meditation, or when amidst the ever-changing turbulence of existence, and feel like blurting out, “Why is it so hard sometimes to just be? with myself?” I have to laugh! It’s really funny! Just to see our minds as they are. Wow! I mean, what rare opportunity this is, to be a human, and be blessed with this huge potential range of emotion, experience, and this idea of “self”! It strikes me as both incredible and bizarre. It seems so crazy to me that we spend the vast majority of our hours doing everything BUT watching our own minds, and it sounds so straightforward like that, and it IS hard, very hard. And I don’t exactly know why that is. I don’t understand, but I keep sitting.

I’ll end with a favorite quote of mine from, again, Thich Nhat Hanh, which I think cuts to the heart of the matter:
Life waits patiently for true heroes. It is dangerous when those aspiring to be heroes cannot wait until they find themselves. When aspiring heroes have not found themselves, they are tempted to borrow the world's weapons– money, fame, and power– to fight their battles. These weapons cannot protect the inner life of the hero. To cope with his fears and insecurities, the premature hero has to stay busy all the time. The destructive capacity of nonstop busyness rivals nuclear weapons and is as addictive as opium. It empties the life of the spirit. False heroes find it easier to make war than deal with the emptiness on their own souls. They may complain about never having time to rest, but the truth is, if they were given time to rest, they would not know what to do. People today do not know how to rest. They fill their free time with countless diversions. People cannot tolerate even a few minutes of unoccupied time. They have to turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, reading anything at all, even the advertisements. They constantly need something to look at, listen to, or talk about, all to keep the emptiness inside from rearing its terrifying head.

Nick Herman said...

As an aside, the temporary school of thought looks really cool. This is a whole 'nother post in the making, but I've been thinking a lot about community lately, and granted, London is quite a bit larger than San Francisco even when many of the surrounding municipalities are included, and perhaps it's only what I'm aware of or not aware of thanks to you and my ignorance of what's out here, but I'm wondering why there's things like that and the Space Hijackers out there, and yet have not found anything much like that here, so far? (Please excuse the terrible run-on sentence?)

I had this terrible thought the other day, something to the affect of, "Maybe we're not living in a great age; maybe we're not really a the apex of anything." And it's cynical, but I wonder how true it is, or perhaps it's really a foolish statement to make, since I wonder if people during the Renaissance, even, had an idea of how it would be looked upon in the future, or if Lord Frenchy and his missus were just saying, "Oh look, there's another literary salon up down the street. There sure seem to be a lot of those along with all those painters and such lately."

I believe I'm going to summon the courage to try an impromptu social experiment next week, sort of an instant tea-party in the park, open to anyone who wants to join us, meet someone new, enjoy some tea, take in the stark sun of a beautiful winter's day. I feel excited about this.

Lucy Pearson said...

Stupidly late to this party, but OH WELL.

Mindfulness of breathing is hard! At the time when I was meditaing regularly, I never got more than five minutes without finding myself distracted again (usually I'd suddenly go 'Oh! Oh! I'm doing it!' and BAM I'd have lost it again). It's very worthwhile, though - I used to come out feeling rested and peaceful, even though my meditative practice was very novice level.

As far as mindfulness in day-to-day life goes... well, I know that from a Buddhist perspective, they do see the washing up as intrinsically worth mindfulness. I think there is something to be said for approaching life that way - experiencing every moment, even the apparently banal. But perhaps more importantly, I think mindfulness when doing the small banal things is good training for mindfulness elsewhere in life. How often do we engage in important things - talking with our loved ones, working on a creative piece, having sex - with less than our full attention? More often than we'd like to admit, I think. Mindfulness of breathing in meditiation is designed to train us to look inwards, and mindfulness of the banal does the same. In a way, it's easier to fully experience something like washing up than something like having sex, because it carries fewer things with it. So, it's like a mind training.

All this rambling reminds me what I loved about meditation, but as you know, in practice I am just like you! I should seek out another group to attend, really.

Dougald Hine said...

Just wanted to say thank you for all the thoughtful comments - you've all given me a lot to think about. I'm going to come back to this soon, when my life calms down a little.

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