Friday, August 16, 2013

sitting in time-out

In my culture, "sitting in time-out" is a familiar tactic of child discipline. The disciplinarian directs a misbehaving child to sit for a while in a designated location, without options for entertainment. Other desired effects beyond punishment are to calm them and to offer them the opportunity to reason about their offenses. (It seems to me that a penalty box is a better-suited sport metaphor than a time-out. It wasn't that awful for me because I could pass the time fairly quickly by daydreaming, reminiscing, silently reciting a song, etc.)

Not too long ago, I abruptly noticed that sitting in time-out has some similarities to the meditation sessions which are now part of my daily routine. Although the comparison appears trivial, it strengthens rather than weakens the case for regular meditation. Given that simply sitting in time-out is considered so challenging and unusual that it serves as a disciplinary tactic, nobody should be too discouraged by the substantial effort and persistence demanded by consistent meditation practice. And nobody should minimize the substantial difference between normal and meditative brain modes.

This is a helpful counterpoint to some of the dubious assertions about the "natural" mind state that I've encountered in meditation-related reading material. While it's true that humans may occasionally transition into meditative modes without trying, those specific periods aren't self-evidently more natural than any other. Most of the time, the untrained brain doesn't produce an empty or quiet consciousness. Not even sensory deprivation can cause it to remain still for a long time. Meditation counteracts its natural tendency, which is to be about lots of emotive stuff (viz. intentionality). The struggle with restlessness isn't an illusion or an "artificial" creation.

Furthermore, a tranquil state is nevertheless vulnerable to the gentlest form of restlessness: spontaneous alternative plans for the current moment. And these plans might not necessarily be exciting, provocative, self-serving, or ill-advised. I've realized that meditation sometimes requires me to temporarily neglect an impulse to perform a worthwhile action. Instead I need to remind myself that like any other activity, I'm more effective at meditation when it receives my full attention. Also, like any other hindrance in meditation, it illustrates the importance of positive feedback loops in the brain. When restlessness has greater influence, it more easily leads to more restlessness, but if its influence is blunted, it's easier to prevent it from escalating at all. Lastly, the refusal to fixate on restlessness makes meditation itself feel more pleasant...rather than feeling like a comparative waste of time or an internal battle of restraint. In other words, rather than feeling like sitting in time-out.

Restlessness can strike not only in different forms but at different times. It can appear as reluctance before meditation starts. It prompts the cognitive and/or emotional equivalent of fascinating open-ended questions such as, "What else could I do with the time consumed? What object or pastime could stimulate and satisfy my desires? What could relieve some of my stress/pressure? What could demand less concentration? What could distract me from confronting my external and internal problems?" This attitude treats meditation like a chore, and it's common knowledge that the thought of a chore motivates a brainstorm of substitute diversions.

Lately, I respond to reluctance by carefully questioning my clarity of judgment. Meditation, or any kind of impassive introspection, reveals first-hand that at any time human mentality is filled with many immediate factors, which arise from many distinct causes. The sole presence of an attraction or aversion isn't enough basis for a wise decision. It's more informative to trace the origin of the present emotional temper. Is there a recent setback or irritation? Is there fatigue? Is there doubt about the level of "progress" in meditation? Is there strong anxiety about something else altogether? Is it a problem with the meditation act, such as the need to experiment with a different posture to avoid pain?

Once I identify the causes of reluctance, then I can solve or disregard those causes. And I can recall two general truisms. First, apart from stable opinions or tastes, human feelings are short-lived and change rapidly. To the extent that my reluctance is a passing whim, it doesn't have the authority to overrule my prior commitments. Second, humans are surprisingly inept at estimating their feelings in future situations. If my reluctance partially depends on a predication of what the meditation session will be like, then it is probably at least partially mistaken. At worst, I can tell myself, "I'm about to meditate right now, whether or not I feel motivated," and then order my body to do each tiny step one by one.

On the other hand, I can refresh my memory about the psychological benefits of regular meditation. Of course, the psychological benefits differ in differing psyches. I don't claim that any of these are certain to develop after any specific length of time. I also don't claim that meditation is the only strategy to get these results, and I don't claim that meditation eliminates the need for other strategies. Psychological well-being isn't my area of expertise...

  • greater ability to ignore distractions during important tasks
  • greater ability to recognize and compensate for bad emotions or moods
  • greater ability to remain calmer in a wider array of situations
  • greater ability to take an unselfish viewpoint
  • greater ability to appreciate an experience for what it really is, as opposed to despising it for what it isn't like
  • greater ability to directly observe the predominant trends of one's thoughts
  • greater ability to avoid harmful short-term impulsive decisions
  • greater ability to cope with setbacks and trauma
  • greater ability to replace rigidity with flexibility, narrow-mindedness with open-mindedness

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