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Thursday, October 31, 2013

How Not to Fade ... er, Meditate



In Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book," Bod is a young (human) boy being raised by ghosts. His education includes training in the art of Fading, which sounds remarkably like a lot of meditation instruction I've received.

He took a deep breath, and did his best, squinching up his eyes and trying to fade away.
Mr. Pennyworth was not impressed.
"Pah, that's not the kind of thing. Not the kind of thing at all. ... Try again."
Bod tried harder.
"You're as plain as the nose on your face," said Mr. Pennyworth. "And you nose is remarkably obvious. As is the rest of your face, young man. As are you. For the sake of all that is holy, empty your mind. Now. You are an empty alleyway. You are a vacant doorway. You are nothing."
... Bod tried again. He closed his eyes and imagined himself fading into the stained stonework of the mausoleum wall, becoming a shadow on the night and nothing more. He sneezed.
"Dreadful," said Mr. Pennyworth.

Poor Bod. When I was learning to meditate, I went to "learn to meditate" sessions at a yoga center where I'd gone mainly to do yoga. And I was told, over and over, to empty my mind. I had as much luck with that as Bod did with fading. Minds don't empty. Minds think. But meditation is still possible.

How?

Notice the thoughts. Don't try to force them to stay down or push them away or feel bad because they're there. Just notice them as they arise and as they pass. Your mind has enough space to hold thoughts without getting tangled up in them.

Bod (was) standing in the middle of the room with his eyes tightly closed and his fists clenched and his face all screwed up as if he had a toothache, almost purple from holding his breath.
"What you a-doin' of now?" she asked.
He opened his eyes and relaxed. "Trying to Fade," he said.
Liza sniffed. "Try again," she said.
He did, holding his breath even longer this time.
"Stop that," she told him. "Or you'll pop."

I've seen people like that in the meditation class I lead. Shoulders hunched. Eyes scrunched. Jaw clenched. Determined. But there's no space to meditate. It takes something in between -- not too tight and not too loose, as the Buddha famously said. Balanced.


"What do you do when you try to Fade?" 
"What Mr. Pennyworth told me. 'I am an empty doorway. I am a vacant alley, I am nothing. ...' But it never works."
"It's because you're alive," said Liza with a sniff.

You're alive, and you have a curious mind that wired and trained to think. That's a precious thing. But you don't have to follow every thought to its logical conclusion or emotional resolution. You can rest, with thoughts in your head like bats in the evening sky, swooping past but never touching down.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Do you judge people by their phone?

I got a provocative email today asking: "Do people judge you by the phone you carry?" It went on to detail a survey of 1,000 businesspeople that found in part:

* 55 percent of respondents say that if a business meeting participant pulls out a damaged or old cell phone, this negatively affects their impression of him or her.

* Over 80 percent of people say they judge a person to be “frugal,” “not tech savvy,” or “old” if they carry an older phone model.

* 35 percent of people will think a person is “poor” if they carry an older phone type.

I don't judge you by your phone. I probably couldn't tell anything about your phone just by looking at it. Also, I know young adults who prefer dumb phones -- old school clamshell-style phones that don't connect to the Internet -- so I might think you were cool if you pulled one out. But I am old, frugal, and not tech savvy.

A friend who is so savvy that she works in a tech field admitted that she does make those judgments. Of course you would, if that's your field, like I would be very curious about what you're reading. Avocationally, I would notice your shoes too.

The thing is -- and here's where it relates to meditation -- noticing is not judging. Noticing is just noticing -- that person has an old-style phone. Judging is when you ascribe meaning to what you have noticed -- that person is poor. Judgments often lead to feelings; you may feel pity for the poor person with the old phone or think that your savviness makes you superior. And feelings like to actions: You may treat the person with pity or contempt based on your judgment.

This is why, in meditation, we try to notice thoughts without evaluating or judging them. Thoughts that come up during meditation are not good or bad thoughts, they're just thoughts. All of them. If we catch the thought before it becomes a judgment, it hasn't yet got its hooks into us. But if it moves to a judgment, it grows into a story and becomes an action. (I'm thinking about ice cream when I should be meditating ... that's a bad thought... I need to lose weight ... thinking about food won't help me because I have no will power I'll never lose weight ....)

You can practice noticing without judging -- which is, really, just noticing -- any time. Look around you. Notice something. Look for the moment of noticing before judgment arises. Rest there. When notice judgment arising, and see if you can let it keep going. Judgment is a thought too.

I won't judge you by your phone. But I will judge you if you pull it out while we're speaking.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Meditators make better decisions

A new study says that as little as 15 minutes of meditation can help businesspeople make better decisions and avoid the "sunk cost bias," Forbes reports.

The sunk cost bias–also known as the sunk cost fallacy, or the sunk cost effect–is recognized as one of the most destructive cognitive biases affecting organizations today. Put simply, it’s the tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment has been made in an attempt to recoup or justify “sunk” irrecoverable costs. The phenomenon is not new; psychological scientists have been studying the “escalation of commitment” since the mid-1970s, noting its ability to distort rational thought and skew effective decision-making. Often, it’s a subconscious action, which can result in millions of dollars being invested into a project, not because it’s a sound investment but because millions of dollars have already been spent.
The study, Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Research and the Sunk Cost Bias, found that  just 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation– concentrating on breathing or doing a body scan – helps build resistance to this "problematic decision process," which often stems from stress, anxiety, guilt, and fear, and allow better decision-making.

The study's author's say that mindfulness meditation, which brings the meditator into contact with the present moment, reduces mind-wandering and diminishes "the negative feelings that distort thinking, thereby boosting resistance to the sunk cost bias."