Saturday, August 9, 2014

On Meditation and the Future of Humanity

Do you find it unpleasant to be alone in a room with your thoughts for just 10 minutes, with no smartphone or other distractions to keep your mind occupied?

Apparently, most people do.

A recent article by Kate Murphy in The New York Times examined how excruciating it is for the average person to simply be alone with their own thoughts. Citing a study published in the journal Science, involving 11 experiments and more than 700 people, Murphy writes that "the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes."

Even more alarmingly, in one of the experiments, "64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think."

I ask you to pause for a moment and consider the implications of that: A vast swath of human beings find it so incredibly unpleasant to be alone with their own thoughts that they will resort instead to shocking themselves with painful electric currents simply to have something — anything, even something unpleasant — to redirect their attention.

Most of the time, we don't have to go to such extreme lengths to avoid introspection. That's because we never bother to go there in the first place.

As a society, we've become masters of staying busy all the time, always distracted and plugged in and entertained. We never have a moment to think, and when we do, we are programmed to reach for a familiar device or an activity or an experience to fill up the empty space.

"Our habitual tendency is to always be busy, doing something, changing something, or cultivating something," says the 17th Karmapa. "Therefore when somebody asks us to just relax, to just be natural, it is very difficult for us to actually understand how to do that."

Watch your mind closely the next time you step into an elevator and the door closes. During those 20 seconds of in-between space, in which nothing much happens, how strong is the impulse to reach into your pocket and check your mobile phone? Or is it already in your hand?

Murphy speculates that the reason we find it so unpleasant to be alone with our thoughts is because, given the opportunity, our minds tend to veer towards darkness: we begin to ruminate on our worries, our frustrations, our fears, our doubts and existential questions. Left to our own devices, we begin to make contact with our shadow, and our shadow is naturally something we experience as unpleasant because it is (by definition) composed of all the things we don't want to think about.

Monkey Mind

I don't disagree with Murphy's point, but I believe the root problem is deeper than that. As a meditation instructor, one of the most frequent things I see in beginning students — and in experienced students too, including myself! — is a very basic resistance towards sitting down and coming face-to-face with the reality of how restless and hyperactive our minds really are.

When we practice meditation we are confronted with what Buddhists call "monkey mind" — our mind's natural tendency to be scattered and to have trouble resting on one object for very long. The mind is a skillet in which millions of kernels are constantly popping into awareness: thoughts, judgments, memories, feelings, commentary, plans, daydreams, fantasies, schemes, regrets, wishes — every kind of storyline imaginable. We try to stay in the present moment, but the mind keeps jumping into the past and the future.

It can be disheartening to see just how wild and untamed our minds really are, and a lot of beginning students mistake this encounter with the mind's wildness as a sign that they are "not good at" meditation, or that it's "not for me." What they don't realize is that they are just like everyone else. I've never met a human being who didn't know exactly what I was talking about when I described the phenomenon of "monkey mind."

Taking Your Mind to the Gym

Training in meditation is just like training at the gym or learning to play the piano: it feels really hard at first, but with time and practice and patience and willingness (and the right coaching) something begins to change. You begin to have a bit more space in your mind, a greater sense of relaxation. You begin to develop more capacity to sit quietly and witness the wildness (or the boredom) of your own mind without running away or resorting to whatever toys or activities usually keep you distracted and entertained.

And something bigger than that begins to happen in your life: you start to develop a greater ability to confront whatever shifting circumstances life throws at you with more equanimity. As with physical training, the process of training the mind in meditation begins to make your mind a healthier, less uncomfortable place to be. In short, through meditation, you learn to make friends with yourself.

"If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation," the Dalai Lama said in 2012, "we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation." 

The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." A more true statement has perhaps never been spoken. If we all could learn how to sit quietly in a room alone, with no distractions, and become better friends to ourselves, then of course we could more easily extend that friendliness outwards and get along better with our fellow humans. Many of the world's seemingly intractable bubbles of conflict could be greatly deflated if people everywhere simply developed a greater capacity to be still and quiet, and to relate more openly and honestly to what's going on in their own minds.

Have we grown so disconnected from ourselves, so afraid of our own interior lives, that 64% of men and 15% of women would resort to jolting their bodies with electric currents rather than sit still and be with their own thoughts for 10 minutes?

Are human beings losing their capacity for stillness and introspection? And if we lose that capacity, what will become of us?

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