The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Some Fruits of Meditation: Simple Happiness

Odin with the ravens Thought and Memory

Odin with the ravens Thought and Memory

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve been meditating for some time, with some useful results.

A lot of modern meditation teaching and writing emphasizes meditation for benefits: be calmer, more loving, happier, be more effective. Heck, even “make money.” That’s all very nice, and I’ve certainly noticed benefits, but the original impetus for a lot of techniques was to learn something specific: What you really are.

A lot of what I do is “choiceless sitting.” I just sit there, and do nothing. Impulses come, thoughts come, feelings come, and I just let it all pass.

About a month ago, I woke up one morning with extraordinary clarity. I could feel each impulse to do something very clearly. Get up. Roll over. Scratch. Go check my email. Use the toilet.

Each one came very slowly and I watched it, and it subsided. And another, and another.

They were all, very clearly, external to me. I was watching them, and they were not me. The sensation was unpleasant; as though they were impositions, some outside force trying to make me do things.

This wasn’t a unique experience, but it was far clearer than during normal mediation, where the impulses felt much closer.

A Sense of Freedom

The Hindus sometimes say there are two paths: “not this, not that” and “this and that.”

On the first path, the one I’m on, you peel away everything that isn’t you until you realize that you are the witness, and everything you thought was you, like your body, your thoughts, your personality and so on, isn’t you.

This aligns very well with modern neuroscience, by the way, which finds that by the time the conscious mind is aware it has made a decision, the decision has already been made. You think you have free will, you think you make choices, but you don’t. You just rationalize choices your body has already made.

Ramakrishna put it, theistically, “You do nothing, God does everything.”

The result of this is a sense of freedom: Because you don’t actually make choices, you can stop worrying about them. You aren’t in control, it’s not your responsibility, so chill.

This idea is intensely alienated from the common understanding of the human condition, with all its emphasis on free will, and choice, and responsibility, and doing this, and doing that.

That Which Never Changes

Meditation can also produce a very profound feeling that what you are never changes. Indeed, it can’t. This core “Ian” was the same when I was five years old, 25, and today. My body and personality have changed quite a bit from age five to 25, or even two years ago, but that core is the same.

More than that, that core is the same as everyone else’s core. My self has no features different from your self.

Again, this is very alienated from the common understanding that we’re all unique flowers, slightly different from each other.

We are, but only in the non-essentials, the stuff that isn’t the self, like personality, or body, or personal history.  The self, that never changes, seems to be the same for everyone.

(For the Buddhists who follow the canon that there is no self, I’ll note that I understand why Buddhists believe this. You look at everything you can sense and realize “I’m not that” and are left with nothing. I simply follow the Hindus, that nothing is something, at least, that’s my sense of it. Some Buddhists, for example many Chan Buddhists, agree.)

Because the self can’t change, it also can’t be hurt. If you identify as the self (or the nothing), there is a sense that you are impervious: Yes you can feel pain (and it sucks), and your body can be hurt, but that which is actually you remains as it always was.

Happiness for No Reason

This allows for a great relaxation: You don’t have to be scared and worry all the time. That relaxation has physical benefits; you wind up in parasympathetic mode far more often. You suffer far less stress, and you’re far happier and healthier as a result. The default “not doing anything” mode for humans is to think about the past and the future, but you start doing that far far less, which is good, because worrying and dwelling on the past makes people unhappy and imaginary threats make you stressed.

This also allows a great deal of happiness to arise. It’s not the “uncaused happiness” which comes later on the path (and which I have experienced only rarely), instead it is happiness that takes almost nothing.

“My goodness this food is wonderful. Isn’t that a beautiful bird? Isn’t it wonderful that we can make buildings which soar?”

My favorite experience was about five months ago. I was walking down the street and heard the distinctive sound of air brakes and the squeal of a bus and felt happy. Isn’t it wonderful that I don’t have to walk everywhere, and I also don’t have to own a car? (Not that cars aren’t wonderful.) I felt absurd that this made me happy. But hey, happiness.

The small things that are great (ahhhhh, this mattress is soft) you notice far more often and you receive far more pleasure from. A lot of people miss all of this: They walk in a world of wonders, and they gain no pleasure from it.

A New Relationship with Fear and Anger

In the summer of 2015, readers may remember the Greek financial crisis: Syriza had been elected and was trying to avoid the worst of the terrible austerity the Troika had forced on them.

I was pretty chill about that until Syriza betrayed the Greeks by accepting a terrible deal. I was furious. I wrote an angry denunciation and went for a walk. An hour later, I was still angry, and I wasn’t enjoying being angry. It’s not a pleasant feeling when it drags on and on.

I thought, “This is ridiculous. Being angry doesn’t help the people on whose behalf I’m angry, and it hurts me.”

If you’re like I was, or most people are, you’ve had many such thoughts: “Don’t worry, be happy,” “Just relax,” “Dwelling on your mistakes doesn’t help.” They’re all versions of, “Being unhappy doesn’t help the situation.” You think the thought, and whatever emotion you’re stuck in, or problem your dwelling on, doesn’t go away.

But this time it did. Just disappeared. And I was happy.

A couple hours later, at home, I started dwelling on my personal financial situation. Not good. I was poor and if I didn’t get some money, I might even wind up on the street. I reviewed my plans, and what I was willing to do to avoid such a fate, and then I thought, “Dwelling on this further won’t help. I’ve made my plans, I’m doing what I’m willing to do, so there’s no point in making myself unhappy by dwelling on it.”

Again, I’m sure most people have such thoughts, and most of the time they don’t work. Maybe we stop for a few minutes, through willpower, but soon we’re back to it.

This time, however, I stopped, and I was happy and I didn’t go back to it. No point. When new facts come up about my finances, I revisit, decide what I’m willing to do and pack it away.

Not Giving a Shit

Life is often a shit show, but as Twain once wrote, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

I didn’t change any of what I had planned to do about money, I didn’t worry, and so far (at least), I haven’t wound up on the street. Even if I had, I might as well enjoy the day. And for the day I have food, internet, books, and a place to sleep that is air conditioned and rather comfortable. Why should I be unhappy?

None of this means that bad stuff doesn’t happen or it doesn’t suck when it does. Many years ago I talked to someone who was probably enlightened and asked about enlightenment and suffering. They said, “There is no suffering when you’re enlightened, but it’s still better to have less pain.”

I didn’t understand that then, but I do now, even though I’m not enlightened. What you learn to do is not add anything to whatever pain you’re experiencing, to not care that you’re in pain. That reduces the effect of the pain significantly, but it doesn’t mean that pain doesn’t still suck. Enough pain and you’ll still be screaming with the worst of them.  Still, you know it doesn’t harm that which is truly you and you know that it will end.

It’s funny that I started this article by saying meditation is about finding out what you are, not about benefits, then turned to the benefits. But like a lot of things in life, if your primary concern is the benefits of the action, those benefits are often slower in coming. Most of the benefits of meditation come from not caring.

I often joke: “The whole of the path is not giving a fuck.”

It’s a joke. It’s also true. The first time I listened to this “guided meditation” I laughed myself sick, because it’s exactly right.

Happiness is not giving a shit. It is not worrying, not dwelling and moving on. It isn’t not planning or not trying to fix things, it’s not mindless. You do what you can, you make your plans, but you don’t dwell. Someone insults you, say, you may get angry, but you aren’t thinking about it three hours later. You experience pain, you don’t start down the self pity road and once it’s done, it’s done.

You don’t add.

Let the Happiness Pass

I’m not perfect at this, oh no. I make no claims at enlightenment.  But I am far far better than I was two or three years ago.

Everything passes and most of the suffering of life comes from what you add to what actually happened.

And strangely, not caring, not clinging, leads to a lot more happiness.  Ordinary people think that if you’re happy you should grab on to it hard, but that kills the happiness. Be happy, let it pass, and something else will happen to make you happy.

These, then, are some of the fruits of meditation. Eat, and enjoy.

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  1. hemeantwell

    “By the time the conscious mind is aware it has made a decision, the decision has already been made. You think you have free will, you think you make choices, but you don’t. You just rationalize choices your body has already made”

    Wait a sec. Can’t we choose to reflect on the choice and bring to bear values of whatever sort to bear on the revealed inclination? If you accept that reflection-based changes of mind, or body-mind, are possible, the only way your statement can hold up is to assert a kind of predetermination of thought that rapidly takes us into the wastelands of debates over free will. The doubters end up asserting a principle of suspicion that simply amounts to dogmatic gainsaying. Can’t we just put it to rest by saying we are not free in our thoughts, but we can try to identify the limitations of our thoughts, etc, etc? This is part of, ahem, praxis.

    I’d add that the neurological position you refer to sounds a lot like the stunted Skinnerian psychology that was superseded by the “cognitive revolution.”

  2. Ian Welsh

    That’s fairly recent neuroscience based on the brain imaging, I’m afraid, though it it similar to Skinnerian psych. It’s not clear to me that behaviouralism was entirely superseded by the cog. revolution, just replaced, however. Cog sci models have huge problems. (For example, we don’t store memories, per se, we rebuild them and that matters.)

    To expand further it’s not clear that’s all there is to it. As you become more aware of your conditioning, it’s easier to choose to disregard it, to let it go, to act differently. The feeling of real choice: of being able to not be controlled by your conditioning, expands greatly.

    But because true nature has no bias, you’re always choosing based on some sort of bias, even if that bias is “body” bias. What else is there to choose on? Drive far enough back and there is nothing but conditioning or body to drive back to (if you believe in a soul or souls, well, those are just bodies made of something other than meat.)

    If you say “I choose based on love” or “I choose based on survival” or “I choose based on reproduction” (indicated the naive version of Darwinism) you’re still choosing based on something: some impulse or conditioning. “I ought to love other people”, “I ought to be kind”, “I ought to act in myself interest” (whatever the hell that is). “I ought to put my family first”, “I ought to treat everyone justly”. “I ought to eat when hungry, have sex when horny.”

    These are all conditioned beliefs, or they are body sensations. Usually they are both. As you decompose thru analysis you become very aware of this. Emotions are embodied: you analyze carefully and you’ll see that fear and happiness and anger and sorrow and hunger and ennui are all body sensations with mental interpretations placed on top of it.

    About a month ago I had a dream where I thought a much larger man was about to attack me. This made me scared and as is often the case I then woke up. I could still feel the fear: body hairs on end, tightness of skin, sick feeling in my stomach, muscles tightening: all of this was body sensations.

    A thought flashed “oh, fear is just body sensations” and I didn’t care any more. It took a bit for those body sensations to subside, but “fear is just a body sensation” freed me from the worst of the fear. (Well, along with “it was just a dream.”)

    To many enlightened people, including two of the people I have learned from, life is experienced as a dream. Everything is just a sense event, and there’s no particular reason to get particularly worked up about those. Your body does what it does, but so what?

  3. Oaktown Girl

    Yes – to everything you said.

    I have more to share – actually, more of a rant – but it will have to wait until tomorrow (which is probably just as well given the topic is decidedly not pro-rant). 🙂

    9:58 pm PST

  4. reslez

    There’s loads of psychology research, which has been reproduced countless times, that indicates human consciousness is basically a mechanism for presenting ourselves in the best possible light. If you look at the types of cognitive biases our minds fall prey to, they’re ones that allow us to believe self-serving deceptions about ourselves, portray ourselves in a positive light to others, downplay contrary evidence, and basically make us the best possible witness for the defense you can imagine. Our critical eye is reserved for others.

    For example, the fundamental attribution error: This is the fallacy that when someone else does a thing or acts a certain way, it’s a fundamental expression of who they are. But when I do a thing, there’s an outside explanation that excuses it. That guy who cut me off in traffic is fundamentally a jerk, an idiot and a terrible driver, but when I weave in a lane, it’s because I dropped my phone and had to reach for it or my attention drifted for a second and that can happen to anyone.

    There are tons of cognitive biases that fall on a similar axis: for example there’s compelling evidence that people with depression actually have a more realistic self-assessment of their skills and abilities than “normal” people. To an extent, depression means we’re lying to ourselves a bit less than is typical of our kind.

    This probably has evolutionary advantages but what it basically means is that consciousness isn’t a blank slate or some kind of generic intellectual multi-tool. It’s been honed over millennia for one purpose, and that purpose is maintaining social status within a peer group. Consciousness is designed for winning arguments.

    When you practice meditation, you start to see between the seams. You can observe the chattering part of your mind rehearse excuses. (From what I’ve personally observed, this part of the mind has a lot of words. But the desires it excuses arise from all over the place, they come and go, rise and fall until they’re named.) It can be interesting to notice yourself craft excuses not to exercise or to eat another cookie. And when you watch yourself doing it, you can sort of choose whether to participate, whether to “buy” the excuse or not… or to just ignore all the BS and go exercise anyway. Which raises the question — what is the thing doing the observing? Is that the “real” you, like Ian suggests? Maybe it’s just the built-in audience evolution crafted for us so we’d be able to rehearse our stories before exhibiting them to others.

    I’m not really sure. It’s definitely interesting to think about. (Sorry if this double posts, I got a weird error.)

  5. An impressive diary. And really unexpected, if we consider primarily a political blog. (Actually, it’s an “outlier” blog, so less unexpected.)

    Studied Vedanta back in my youth. Ramakrishna was impressive, but some teachings were unfortunate. (in particular, for me: “Japam, japam, japam”, which I took to mean “throughout the day”).

    Most impressive, I suppose, of my spiritual reading were teaching given through “the Boy”, which you can read for free at Scribd. See and The “Brothers” taught that “THE IDEA OF TRAINING THE MIND IS AN INHUMAN
    CONCEPTION.” And, in fact, I found that “japam, japam, japam” was sort of a self hypnosis, that sometimes distracted me so much from a personal conversation that I would miss what somebody was trying to say to me.

    Nowadays, I mostly meditate via heart chakra, following the advice of Dora Kunz, the former head of the Theosophical Society. I recommend her writings on meditation, as well as her lectures on karma. (Kunz also helped start “therapeutic touch”, with Dolores Krieger).

    I haven’t attained enlightenment, either. However, I often remind myself of what Ray Stanford, another very psychic dude*, said during a lecture on meditation, regarding the mind’s tendency to be impatient for results. He said something along these lines: “When your consciousness does rise, it’ll be BETTER than all of the time that was spent meditating”.

    * Dora Kunz, like Stanford, could see auras in great detail. Kunz was the unnamed subject in “Breakthrough to Creativity” by Shafica Karagulla, who medically confirmed Kunz’s psychic observations. Stanford wrote “What your aura tells me”.

  6. Steve Ruis

    Good post. Part of the meditation experience is discovering that your consciousness is actually a stowaway, riding along on top of the rest of us. But we identify solely with our consciousness and so we think that those urges come from “outside of us.” This is like the illusion of the Sun seeming to orbit the Earth when rather it is a manifestation of the Earth rotating in the vicinity of the Sun. We also operate more subconsciously than consciously but “In Consciousness We Trust” is our motto. This is the true revelation of meditation, of our real human condition.

  7. JoeRe

    Don’t attach too much importance to anything.

    Whenever I’m twisting in the wind over something or sad or pissed off, if I remember this, it always helps. The “issue” dissolves away quickly.

  8. Bob Peticolas

    Enjoyed the article, and it much more closely reflects my own experience of meditation than most articles. On the other hand, I felt the video might be helpful for a very few people. Using words that, for many people, conjure a fight or flight response, is not a productive way for most people to start meditating.

  9. Very nice, Ian. Thanks.

  10. Oaktown Girl

    Here’s my rant with an attempt not to be too rant-y.

    I’ve been pissed off for a long time about the lack of any real “leisure time” for most working people in the U. S. since the Great New Deal Rollback has been in effect. This relates to our “mediation” topic in that when folks are spending so many hours of their day struggling just to stay afloat, there’s almost no time for any sort of meaningful quiet contemplation or meditation. In fact, it’s actively discouraged – always be hustling. There was a conscious (and highly successful) effort on the part of the Right and Neoliberals to make us all identify as entrepreneurs instead of workers. If you’re struggling, the problem is not with the system, it’s with you. (See also: Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics.

    And forget about time for any creative pursuits in the extremely likely event you toil in a job that is not also your passion. Or, forget about making time for healthy physical exercise. On what tiny scrap of leisure time you have, you can either exercise your body, or exercise some other passion, but you damn sure can’t do both and still get enough sleep to keep functioning to live another day working to stay afloat.

    I became even more pissed off about this whole thing after Ian posted a while back that the natural human condition is to work approximately 20 hours a week, and this 40+ hour a week thing is totally unnatural, in addition to being total bullshit.

    Knowing that things absolutely do *not* have to be this way is what makes me so angry. It’s my observation that people who *don’t* know it doesn’t have to be like this are a lot less angry about he situation than I am. Not more happy or more fulfilled in their lives, just less angry about the state of our sociopolitical situation.

    9:41 pm PST

  11. V. Arnold

    @ Oaktown Girl
    September 8, 2016

    Well ranted, spot on. I think most have accepted the 40 hour WW as the norm. I never did. I valued time/freedom over things, still do.
    My solution was to collect unemployment compensation to the maximum; usually 90 to 120 days; that was my paid vacation. I spent it hiking the Columbia Gorge, Cascade Mountains, reading, etc..
    Due to not infrequent layoffs I rarely worked a single company for more than 6 years (maybe one for that long). Even then a layoff could be for a month or two and then a call-back.
    I think most do not think of their lives as comprising choices all along the way.
    I have retired (not in the U.S., due to no pension) on my meager SS and live a modest, non-thingy, existence.
    I learned a long time ago that I cannot change or fix the system; I can only fix myself…
    It’s taken over a decade; and my anger has subsided substantially.
    You may find this helpful; the podcast meditations are very nice;

    Thanks for this thread Ian, very nice as usual.

  12. karenjj2

    @ Oaktown Girl — perfect rant and concise summary of the “cons” perpetrated globally.

    @ V. Arnold — good summary of my life as well; VERY blessed to live during the good years of decent pay for hard work, unemployment benefits and ADULT jobs always available unlike today.

    Thank you, Ian, for sparking a good conversation.

  13. XFR

    @Oaktown Girl:

    It seems to me the rise of “in-your-face” culture is similar in effect. The brain represents a large energy cost and I imagine it tends to use a “triage” strategy in its allocation of available power. Contemplative thinking probably represents a very low-priority task while social interaction, being very important in a social species, is probably very high-priority.

    The late taboo against being too “in-your-face” may have helped give people space to engage in contemplative thought, as going into and out of that mode of thinking is tricky and time-consuming, and feeling that one may be called on to socialize at any moment without warning may have the effect of blocking off the ability to engage in any serious reflection at all. It’s very pernicious because while contemplation is not usually an immediate need, and so might be cavalierly dismissed, depriving people entirely of it probably does some rather nasty damage under the hood, as it were.

    (The much-maligned iPod users may simply be trying to push back against this phenomenon.)

    Asian cultures tend to be rather better about this…which brings to mind the time recently when I caught a snatch of a TV documentary crowing about how Asian peoples were being forcibly “liberated” from their “backward” cultural reserve by Western–i.e. American–power. Barf.

  14. V. Arnold

    @ XFR
    September 8, 2016

    Unfortunately the ugly American is alive and well in S.E. Asia.
    However, you lost me on your “forcibly liberated” comment.
    The west (especially the U.S.) is doing a very good job of pissing off the natives with their incredibly bad behavior, they call diplomacy: Envoy (Thailand) Glynn Davies has done a splendid job of alienating the present Thai government.
    The U.S. is fast losing face in Asia generally…

  15. alyosha

    The Beatles sang about this fifty years ago, in “Tomorrow Never Knows”

    Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream..

    It is not dying, it is not dying…

    The best cover I’ve ever heard of this song is by Choir!, featuring hundreds of voices, arguably the effect John Lennon was looking for, way back when.

    It’s not a small thing to begin to see the monkey mind in action.

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