Monday, April 24, 2017

Screw Transcendental Meditation; Here's a Better Idea!

“Well, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
Yeah, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
I’m just sittin’ here thinking
With my mind a million miles away”
        Bob Dylan. Lonesome day blues. Love and Theft.

“The conflicts, the craziness and the sound of pretenses
Falling all around...all around
Why are you so petrified of silence?
Here can you handle this?
Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines?
Or when you think you're gonna die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?”
        Alanis Morissette. All I Really Want. Jagged Little Pill.

"Don't look for happiness. Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much, it goes away."
        Tim Minchin.

I have a confession to make. I just don't get transcendental meditation. I don't understand how you're supposed to put everything out of your mind and stop thinking altogether. I’ve tried and tried but my brain just refuses to shut down for even a minute to allow that to ever happen. I’m sure it’s as blissful as they claim but the reality is that such a nirvana is not accessible to the rank and file given our hectic daily lives and personal as well as professional entanglements. So, I’ve come to a convenient conclusion: Screw Transcendental Meditation! It's great if you are smart enough and strong enough mentally to pull off that trick but, for most of us, it just ain't gonna happen. My version of the exercise is much simpler, more natural, and, I find, more therapeutic. I call it “Consequential Meditation”.

The first step is to just put on your headphones and listen to some music. I don't mean listening to music while you read the news on your iPhone or flip through your social media feed. I don’t mean listening to music while driving. That’s just multitasking and we all know about the evils of multitasking. I mean actually putting down whatever you're doing and just listening to your favorite music for a while. For me, the location almost doesn't matter. I can be sitting at a bar with the big screen TVs blasting sports and news. I can be sitting uncomfortably in the middle seat at 30,000 feet. I can be at the local coffee shop with a cup of joe in front of me. I can be on the train going to work in the morning. The headphones are the game changer for me. The ability to tune out the outside world makes it possible to let my thoughts run free. Good luck trying transcendental meditation in any of those environments.

Here's the second and even more critical distinction between my approach and transcendental meditation. I don't try to clear my mind. Instead, this is where I do my “debrief” of the day's events: Why did he say that in the meeting? What did she mean by that sentence in her email? What if we ask John to help with Project A instead of the lower priority Project B? What if we do an image based backup instead of a file based one? What if we change the code to avoid grabbing a multiprocessor lock? I don’t mean to imply that I sit there and methodically work through technical or personal problems. Instead, thoughts naturally pop into my head based on recent events and I just follow them to their logical conclusions.

To be clear, most of my ideas are bad ones. I spend a few minutes on a given topic before realizing that my solution will never work, that he couldn't have possibly meant that with his remark in the meeting, etc. The point is that allowing this process to take place helps clear my mind of its clutter. It gives me a chance to test various hypotheses and discard them - be they about projects at work or business plans or personal relationships. In other words, my version of transcendental meditation boils down to slowing down long enough to give my brain a few minutes every day to work through its issues.

That’s awesome, Ben! What you’ve just described is called “thinking”… Don’t we do that all the time? As a matter of fact, no. We don’t. Most of us, myself included, are so harried and so hurried in our daily lives that we never give ourselves a chance to do so. Non-stop auditory and visual stimuli pretty much assault our senses on a non-stop basis. Any wonder our poor brains are so tired trying to make sense of it all? If only we would give ourselves the opportunity to sit down for a few minutes a day and think! Transcendental meditation be damned. I'd settle for just plain old meditation any day of the week.

How many of you get, say, one or two hours a day with no screen in front of you, not surrounded by a dozen people in a meeting room or a hundred people in an open seating arrangement at work? When is the last time you sat down for an hour and did nothing? Didn't reach for the smartphone, didn't check Facebook or Twitter, didn't check your email, didn't check your watch to see how much time had elapsed, didn't fidget and squirm? Rewind the clock fifty or sixty years and compare for yourself. If the difference is not obvious to you, then I propose you rewind the clock a hundred years - to a time when televisions, radios, and computers didn’t exist. Yes, they worked hard but they also spent long stretches of time alone or with family - and with no distractions. Time to think, time to reflect, time to introspect, and yes - even time to generate ideas... as opposed to constantly consuming them.

All the time that we used to spend daydreaming and thinking, I claim, has been replaced by time on the computer. The only problem with this new world is that we have turned on the hose and are drinking directly from it. We are constantly bombarding our brains with information, never giving it time to parse all that data or, heavens, maybe even come up with a few ideas of its own. Within a couple of generations, we have gone from a species that had lots of free time on its hands to daydream and think for hours on end to a species that is not only busy every waking moment but is busy doing multiple things, context switching between them every minute of the day, and gets bored the minute we take away the stimuli.

This is not mere nostalgia for a slower pace of life. I love the new world in which we have instant access to information. I just happen to think we’ve gone too far and become digitally addicted. If you don’t think we have a major problem on our hands, just wait until Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality become commonplace. Not only have we lost all semblance of control over our own thought processes, we are also busy teaching the same bad habits to our children, many of whom, I'm sad to report, are fluent on their iPhones and iPads long before they even begin to speak!

“Next time your kid's watching television, just come up behind them when they don't know you're there, and just turn it off without any warning. Just go--pfft. Watch what happens. They go-- [Screams] Do you think that's a good sign? You think it's a sign that it's healthy for them? That when it's taken away they go-- [Mutters] because you've created such a high bar of stimulus that nothing competes. A beautiful day is shit to a child now. A gorgeous, panoramic day with hawks catching fucking mice and flying away and bears with fucking fish in their teeth. And the kid's like, [screaming] ‘I want to watch the television! This is nothing!’"
Louis C.K. Hilarious.

What our children don’t know, what we seem to have forgotten, is that this bombardment of information every second of every day robs us of the ability to think. Every minute spent staring at a screen is a minute spent not thinking, or at best, being told what to think.

Update: This just in from our intrepid reporter, Dinesh Nambisan, on Twitter... According to a study published in Science, "Guys prefer electric shocks to boredom." That's it. We're doomed. We're biologically wired to want more stimuli. We'll never learn to sit down and think again. We're doomed. Oh well, so much for that theory. I guess it's back to square one. See what I mean about following my thoughts to their "logical" conclusion?

1 comment:

  1. I loved this blog entry very much, Ben!
    Your technique is very close (in spirit) to Soto Zen's, actually. Don't muck with your thoughts, just let them be, let them flow like ocean waves to their natural conclusion.
    Just that you use music where I use the outside noise, through the open window. Different type of music!
    Don't forget to keep a notepad close to you ... paper and pencil. ;)