If you discount the countless times I used to get stoned, I was 26 years old when I took my first fully conscious inhalation and meditated for the first time.
The stoner’s path just wasn’t an option for me. After being completely hooked I had finally given up a couple years earlier—it had stopped being fun and its function had become to make me feel normal, which seemed pretty pointless. As when I’d given up anti-depressants a few years earlier, I knew I had to discover who I was without all that.
I was on a mission to find ecstasy, or at least some peace of mind. The non-drug route was now appealing, if only because getting off my head had provided just fleeting respite from ‘me’ so far. After extensive immersion in losing my mind I had to concede that there were still as many downs as ups and I still hated myself.
Could meditation really offer relief from the depression and anxiety that wrecked each day? As the Buddha had observed, life was suffering, and I needed a way out.
So I started meditating.
I wondered exactly how I would find the time to meditate in a day that was already too short. There seemed only one way to do it. With a rare display of conviction I set my alarm clock 40 minutes earlier than normal. This was how it would be.
I remember the first time I meditated. I was hungover. I listened to a guided meditation on a CD. As I cycled to work later that morning, the colours and textures of the world were different. Richer, more detailed, more real. Maybe I was still pissed. Whatever, it was enough for me to figure that perhaps there could be something in this after all.
In those early days I was shocked at the sheer volume of shit that my mind insisted on spewing forth. It was a continuous tidal wave of mental and emotional sewage. I was amazed. Is this really what is happening whilst I attempt to go about my daily life? No wonder I’m screwed. The thought that peace of mind was an actual attainable thing seemed ridiculous as I cowered under this mental bombardment.
While frustrating, I had glimpses of what could be. Though hard to stomach, the notion that we can choose how to respond to our thoughts had been planted like a seed in my mind.
I recognised how this could be a remedy for the victim status I occupied in relation to my own mental activity. I dared to envision a day when this was no longer the case. I trusted what I had heard in regard to this being possible, and gambled that waking up 40 minutes earlier for the rest of my life was a price worth paying for that freedom.
The time I invested started to pay off. Sitting on that cushion I learnt not to judge the quality of my thoughts, but to simply experience them, recognise them for what they were, allow them to be, and let them go. In time, the intensity and imposition of these thoughts would slowly begin to subside.
With more time, I started to recognise how thoughts emerge from nothingness, that they appear for a while in awareness, and then dissolve back into the same void from which they came. I realised their transitory and illusory nature.
I spotted their cunning plan: to hijack my emotions, to fool me into believing they had substance and they were real, to trick me into thinking my thoughts and feelings were ‘me’, that my brain vomit should affect my mental state.
As much as I could, I stayed present. I learned how to feel but not respond to the sensations, emotions and thoughts that came.
I wasn’t blocking anything out. It wasn’t about trying to control the contents of my mind, but to let whatever it was just be, without invoking an emotional response. And if there was an emotional response, I tried to just hold that in my awareness without judgement too.
I was able to nurture a space between the arrival of a thought and how I responded in relation to it. In time that space made it’s way from my cushion to other parts of my life, and it continues to grow. Not smoothly though. Fuck no. Sometimes it feels like nine years of meditation was for nothing. But these downers pass, like everything else.
Sometimes I experience astonishing things. Waves of ecstasy. Compassion. Love. A strange and intense spinning sensation. Clarity. Insight. Focus. Having thousands of arms like a Buddhist deity. Often it’s the best half hour of my day.
I’m convinced that the activity of our mind that causes us so much trouble is like clouds in the sky. When we meditate it’s like sitting in a plane that’s taking off. As that rising plane pierces the clouds that shield the sun, we pierce the veil that keeps us from experiencing the clear blue sky of our untainted minds.
At other times I feel tired, frustrated, sleepy and blunt.
I learnt that actually none of this matters. What is important is to just do the practice. Witness the contents of awareness and let it be. Meditation is not about achieving anything, it’s the process of observing and letting go.
Now I’m certainly no luddite but I’ve got a nagging bad feeling about the technological rampage that defines our modern world. Mindfulness aspirants beware, for testing times lie in wait. Since I bought an iPad I swear I’ve noticed a subtle but definite change in my subjective experience of ‘right now’. It’s no longer enough to just sit down and do nothing, or to even read a book. A tiny part of my attention is not ‘right here’, but instead craving the gratification of interacting with a shiny interactive opium-like touchscreen device.
If I’m honest I often feel like a slave to the slinky and seductive shiny black mistress. I just want to look at it and touch it and caress it, holding it in my hands and never letting go, whispering sweet nothings to Siri and sometimes even taking her to bed. I really hate to admit it but I’ve a feeling I’m not the only one and this makes it a little easier. Everyone has some kind of tablet or smartphone these days and I sometimes ponder by how much attention spans all over the world are being truncated on a daily basis through the use of these evil devices.
I’ve noticed that moderate to heavy use of social networking apps on things like the iPad stimulates the mind in a very particular way that has ramifications for those of us who meditate and value being fully here right now. There are two main activities that I feel are responsible for changing the way our minds work.
One of these is the way that receiving new email or Facebook notifications triggers a highly addictive reward response in the brain. That little red dot in the top left of your Facebook app – don’t deny it, I know it’s always the first thing you look for! – is doing more damage than you think. As well as being a simple behavioural response the gratification gained is partly because of what the red notifications symbolise – that someone wants to communicate with you; you are wanted; you are important; people like your stupid new shoes or how you look in your new profile picture or whatever it is. The red notifications alleviate the anxiety that comes with publicly displaying a photo or expressing yourself to several hundred people at once in writing. We may not tell each other but I bet we all feel this act makes us feel quite vulnerable, and this new technology might just have raised the bar for what it takes to feel validated.
The second activity is through the way we are now able to scan different types of information so quickly – for example on our Facebook news feeds and the infinite amount of websites at our finger tips. We have apps for this and apps for that and push notifications interrupt us constantly. We’ve never had so much sensory input available to us before and I honestly don’t think the affect of this on our brains can be understated. I’m not the only one to voice this worry and in fact many studies have raised the particular concern that the internet and social media is absolutely terrible for our attention spans.
Now where was I? Oh yes, but how does all this relate to meditation? Well when we meditate, depending on how we do it, we hope to achieve a highly relaxed and open or focused state of mind. The trouble is that since we all bought that new smartphone we can never put down, our brains are now often in a state of overstimulation. The default state of our minds is now more alert and searching for stimuli. As a result of bingeing on social media and the web there is a subtle but compelling desire to place our attention somewhere else. As if things weren’t hard enough already the aspiring meditator now has to deal with the background whirrings of a mind conditioned to constantly check how many ‘likes’ they’ve had, and which can’t focus on the same thing for more than a few seconds.
I’m not saying that these things consciously occupy us all the time, though to an extent I think they’re starting to. Perhaps worryingly though I do think that a mechanism we’re barely conscious of has been triggered through our engagement in this type of media. It keeps us from being able to sink into the present moment fully; it holds being at ease just slightly further away. For God’s sake I’ve seen people checking Facebook when they’re in conversation with someone else (shit or maybe that was me…). One thing to focus on is no longer enough!
Thanks to our iPads our attention risks becoming more scattered and our ability to reach deep meditative states could well be compromised. In a subtle way we are giving up power over how we think and behave, and in the future, as technology advances and doubtless becomes more immersive I think this will pose even more of a challenge.
Of course we can choose how to respond to the presence of new technology in our lives. I don’t think most people will make ths choice though and in any case most people won’t be aware of it or care about it either. Whatever. But some will, and for those of us who aspire to live mindfully I think it is important to be aware of the changes that could occur in our lived experience of the present through technological advances that demand our attention in the ways I’ve described.
I don’t think I’m stuck in the past. I freaking love browsing stupid pointless shit all day long and chatting to friends on the other side of the planet, and I’m enthusiastic about what the internet has done for us and the way it has opened up our world. Of course not everybody’s mind will work in the same way, but I am concerned about the impact of my iPad on my already addictive predisposition. From now on I’m going to try to limit time spent on devices like this. I will try and use my iPad only for specific tasks and not indulge the compulsive urge to binge on information. In fact the next blog post will be written on paper. Er, no hang on, that won’t work…
Sent from my iPad.