OBSERVATIONS FROM A MEDITATION STUDENT
Your classes were very important for me, Ramsey, since I realised that it is in my nature to stay motionless and observe my thoughts, and to control my thoughts and impose discipline to them. Perhaps the secret for successful research is the ability to stay focused and think about only one question for hours and hours, so when it is the time to free the mind and focus on human problems of life I do it consciously.
Something I haven’t succeeded doing, yet, is control my reactions towards my partner. Sometimes I respond in the blink of an eye without thinking of her reaction. It is a reflexive action, like when a mosquito is buzzing in my ear and I can only react and flick it away. The pause you speak about; this is something I need to practice. They say that when we grow older our reflexes become slower, which is something I am looking forward to it even if it means my driving skills will not be as good as before :)
About control, I believe it’s important to focus (as part of the control) on thoughts. Otherwise, thoughts will stream from the subconscious without issues and observations. Moreover, observation of a thought will generate new thoughts. ‘My thought on my thought was that I thought this because of that.’ This is a game in our minds, a paradox. I believe that for part of our training we require discipline in mind and body, and the ability to observe and judge our thoughts is part of a person’s intelligence.
Thinking about analytical intelligence again, when I sit down to think about a problem I leave my body behind. I can stay motionless for hours, just focusing on one thought: analysing, interpreting, recollecting, and judging methods and ideas. In other words, thinking about a thought. The same happens when I meditate. I leave my body, I can observe my body, I can feel the environment, and sometimes I can see the environment with closed eyes. I focus on my thought. I analyse thought. I judge thought. Is it important for me? If it’s a problem, can I solve the problem? Why that thought?
Another thing that’s important in problem solving is simplicity. If you make your thought process complicated, then it’s impossible to solve a problem. When trying to solve a problem, you need to go with the simplest thoughts you come up with. Complicated thoughts are only for gods!
So I can see similarities in the processes of problem-solving and meditation. Let me know if I am mistaken.
RAMSEY MARGOLIS RESPONDS
What happens in the mind when we work is unlikely to be the same as what happens in the mind in meditation. You’ll find it far more useful and beneficial to approach your meditation process differently to the way you use thought in your work.
There are types of meditation in which a person is instructed to observe thoughts and attempts to control them, but I don’t find these techniques useful as a way of creatively engaging with the instinctive reactivity we all have as humans. Controlling thoughts by, for example, filling the mind with a mantra or a visualisation may create a state of bliss or happiness, but when we come ‘down’ from these experiences, we remain the person we were before we started.
There are ways of dealing with our reactivity, though. If we want to live a life that is flourishing, one with greater equanimity, we can get there by getting to know the mind better, being gentle with ourselves, observing and reflecting on our thought patterns rather than trying to control thought, and letting go of the instinctive reactivity that arises often in forms such as greed, hatred and confusion. Counter-intuitive to someone who’s used to thinking rationally perhaps, but it works. But don’t believe me, try it.
A friend overseas recently mailed me a well thought through book by an ex-Buddhist monk on meditation. In it, the author sets out a dozen stages a mind may go through when one meditates on, for example, the breath at the tip of the nose with the intention of shutting out thought, letting us know what obstacles we can expect and the skills we need to develop. Having read it, it’s clear there’s absolutely no guarantee that if we are able to successfully go through this training process (for that in essence is what it is), we will emerge less reflexive towards others, in particular our loved ones.
So, I recommend that you create the habit of sitting in a chair (at work perhaps, during a break) with eyes closed and meditate for five minutes each day, and rather than try to control your thoughts simply observe them with a little curiosity.
You’ll get a good idea what goes on between your ears. Thoughts will arise, and then disappear as a new thought enters the mind. When difficult thoughts arise (as they doubtless will) you’ll have an opportunity to choose to consciously let go of the instinctive reactivity you describe so well.
You’ll also see the occasional stopping of that reactivity, and hopefully have a little time in which to savour these moments of stopping. Your final task is to cultivate, outside of your meditation practice, the ethical qualities of life that will assist both you and your partner to be both less reactive and happier, a task made a lot easier by having a regular meditation practice.
At the end of each meditation session, I recommend that you spend a little time reflecting on what went on during your meditation – thoughts, what happened in the body, the sounds you heard, and so on. Take these opportunities to journal your meditation experience and let’s have a conversation specifically about this. Just as we wouldn’t go regularly to a gym without having a conversation about exercise with someone who spends significant time in one, it’s really helpful to discuss what happens during our meditation sessions with someone experienced in this process.
As it happens, this is a somewhat rambling description of the four tasks that Gotama, the Buddha, taught his followers oh so many years ago; you can find more on this here: