Friday, September 23, 2016

Slouching Towards Human Dystopia

The other day I saw a news segment about pressure-sensitive devices that detect the presence of a small child in a car's child seat and alert you if you might accidentally be locking your baby in the back seat of a hot car.

BEEEEP!!! "Oh, I forgot! I have a baby, and she's sitting right behind me! I'd better bring her with me!"

Hey, saving babies is a good thing. I understand that the intentions of the people who invented these devices, and the people who buy them, are good. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

A while back, I started seeing ads in my Facebook feed for a wearable device, sort of a FitBit for emotions, that alerts you when you are experiencing signs of anger or stress, and tells you to pause and take a few deep breaths. Again, good intentions. I’m happy if this device helps someone who actually needs it. But it saddens me that there might be anyone who actually needs it.

I feel a gnawing sense of despair about the increasing dependence of human beings on electronic devices to perform for us the most basic functions of survival and caring for ourselves and our loved ones — functions that used to be performed by common sense. Soon there will be no aspect of our lives that is not mediated by machines and managed by algorithms and big data.

People don’t own, or know how to read, traditional maps anymore, and map-makers have stopped printing them due to lack of demand. Who needs 15th-century navigation technology when you’ve got Google Earth at your fingertips? And people don’t remember phone numbers anymore, either; just tell Siri who you want to call. “Okay. I have eight phone numbers for Doug Sanchez. Which number would you like to call? You can say things like, ‘Mobile, Home, Office, Other’.”

I still remember the phone number of the house I grew up in, 40 years ago. Back then, I could have made a call from that phone even if Russians hacked the power grid and took down all the cell phone networks and Google Maps and Facebook and the whole damned Internet went dark, because it was a copper phone line that didn’t require a separate power source or any data towers. Well, okay, back then we didn’t have cell phones or the Internet or data towers — cable TV was still a new invention — but you get my point. Actually, allow me to date myself still further: I remember when the Powers That Be finally required that all telephones be upgraded from rotary dial (look it up, kids) to touch tone phones, to facilitate wordless, touch-tone communication between human fingers and the machines on the other end of the line. Perhaps THAT was the defining moment, the start of all this. And look at us now.

INCOMING TEXT: "Hi, this is your GE Smart Refrigerator. You’re running low on milk. Based on your location settings, you're at Wal-Mart now. Perhaps you could pick up a carton while you're there. The milk is in aisle 12. Reply ‘1’ for walking directions to aisle 12. Reply ‘2’ for brand recommendations. Reply ‘3’ for easy 5-minute recipes using dairy products"

ALERT: "Hi, this is your Range Rover. It looks like you left a human child weighing 14.3 lbs in the back seat of the vehicle. I've started the engine and turned on the AC as a cautionary measure. Press 'OK' to dismiss or 'PANIC' to activate the vehicle’s alarm system."

REMINDER: "At Facebook we cherish your significant moments. Today’s your 10th wedding anniversary! Why don’t you post something about your spouse to let your friends know how much he/she/they mean(s) to you?"

Another new technology called Magic Leap is being cooked up for you right now, behind a veil of corporate secrecy so thick that it rivals anything the military might be working on. Magic Leap, from what we are told, will project virtual reality images not onto a screen in front of you (like all previous VR technologies) but directly into your eyeball, tricking your brain so you will find it difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s unreal. But why would you want to? Magic Leap is pretty damn cool, to be honest. The new reality that’s being created for you is so much more comfortable, so much more convenient, so much prettier. There’s less to think about, and more to enjoy.

Slowly, one device, one technology at a time, we are becoming the humans depicted in the film Wall-E, who float like blobs through shopping malls on their self-driving hover-chairs, no longer able to walk on their own legs, hooked into VR screens and automatically fed snacks and sodas, video-chatting with the person next to them because it’s too much effort — and frankly it would just look weird — to turn their heads away from the screen and engage in actual conversation with another human.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Busted! Three Myths About Meditation, Debunked



You know this one. Fill in the blank with your favorite excuse:

“I can’t meditate because…”
  • “…it’s hard for me to sit still.”
  • “…I have a lot of thoughts.”
  • “…I get sleepy.”
  • “…I’ve had a difficult life.” 
  • “…I don't have time.”
  • “…Yadda yadda yadda.”

I literally hear some version of this, from at least one student, almost every time I teach meditation. The funny thing is, the people who say this always seem to actually believe that they are different from other people, uniquely challenged in the practice of meditation because __________.

Here’s the thing. You are not different. Your challenges are not unique. Everyone has had a difficult life. Everyone finds it hard to sit still. Everyone is busy. Everyone has a lot of thoughts. Everyone gets sleepy. Everyone in the history of the world who has ever meditated finds it challenging in one way or another. If it wasn’t challenging, it wouldn’t be a practice.

Imagine going to a cycling class, and telling the instructor, “I can’t cycle because my heart rate increases.” “I can’t cycle because I get sweaty.” “I can’t cycle because I’m not in shape.”

The real reason you think you can’t meditate is because you’re not used to meditating.



This myth is closely related to the first one, and it’s usually the main reason people think they are so bad at meditation. Chances are, you plopped down for your very first meditation session and you were surprised to discover how wild and untamed your mind really is. You have thoughts! A lot of them! Perhaps you spent the majority of the meditation session thinking, and realizing you were thinking, and beating yourself up for thinking, and thinking about your thinking.

My standard reply to this is: “Welcome to the human race.”

Here’s the thing. You can’t actually stop thoughts. A Tibetan aphorism says, “Trying to meditate without thoughts is like trying to have tea without leaves.” What you can do, over time, with practice, is learn to stop taking your thoughts quite so seriously. You can learn to stop being hooked by every thought that comes along, and simply observe thoughts as they come and go. Meditation creates a larger sense of space in the mind, so there’s more room to accommodate everything. When thoughts are allowed to come and go – that is, when you neither follow them nor try to suppress them – they lose their power to define you or control you.

Thoughts are like stray animals: if you stop feeding them, they don’t come around as much.



You’d be surprised at how many people stay away from meditation because they believe this myth.

At the beginning of a meditation class, I usually check to see who’s brand new to meditation. If I’m feeling mischievous, I say something like, “Okay, we’re going to chant ‘Hare Krishna’ for 30 minutes.” I watch their faces go pale for a few seconds before telling them, “Just kidding!”

Sure, plenty of people meditate in a religious way – following gurus, wearing special clothing, burning incense, chanting in foreign languages. Most meditation practices originated from religious traditions like Buddhism, if you trace them back to their historical roots. And you certainly won’t find any shortage of New Agey teachers and spiritual woo-woo when you look around at the meditation scene.

However, the same could be said of yoga. If you want to make meditation or yoga religious or self-consciously spiritual, you certainly can. But at heart, the practice is really very simple and ordinary. Meditation lets you relate more openly, more honestly, and more compassionately with your mind, your body, and your life. Step One in that process is slowing down enough to actually *see* what’s going on in your mind, your body and your life. And that begins with putting your butt down on the cushion, chair, or floor and engaging in a simple practice that grounds you in presence. Then you can let those qualities of presence, openness, and compassion transform your life, your relationships, and your actions.

If you find that to be a spiritual experience, then you have grokked the true meaning of spirituality, which has nothing to do with gurus, special clothing, incense, crystals, or mystical experiences. But that’s a topic for another time.

Enjoy your practice.