When you lurch from one thing to the next, constantly scheming, or reacting to incoming fire, the mind gets exhausted. You get sloppy and make bad decisions. I could see how the counterintuitive act of stopping, even for a few seconds, could be a source of strength, not weakness. This was a practical complement to Joseph’s “is this useful?” mantra. It was the opposite of zoning out, it was zoning in.
Studies showed that the best way to engineer an epiphany was to work hard, focus, research, and think about a problem—and then let it go. Do something else. That didn’t necessarily mean meditate, but do something that relaxes and distracts you; let your conscious mind go to work, making connections from disparate parts of the brain. (Lots more on this idea in “Incognito”, “How We Learn”, “Blink” and see it all put together in “Einstein: His Life and Dreams”)
The marines were initially interested in mindfulness because they thought it might help them deal with an epidemic of PTSD, but there was also hope that meditation could produce more effective warriors. The theory was that the practice would make troops less reactive, and therefore less vulnerable to the classic insurgent tactic of provoking the types of disproportionate responses that alienate the civilian population.
The difference with meditation was that if it actually took hold, the impact would go far beyond improving muscle tone or fighting tooth decay. Mindfulness, I had come to believe, could, in fact, change the world.
Practice for development of concern for well-being of others, that actually is immense benefit to oneself.
Practice of compassion is ultimately benefit to you. So I usually describe: we are selfish, but be wise selfish rather than foolish selfish.
The fact that my days now included long strings of positive interactions made me feel good (not to mention popular). Acknowledging other people’s basic humanity is a remarkably effective way of shooing away the swarm of self-referential thoughts that buzz like gnats around our heads.
The Buddha captured it well when he said that anger, which can be so seductive at first, has “a honeyed tip” but a “poisoned root.”
When you’re mindful, you actually feel irritation more keenly. However, once you unburden yourself from the delusion that people are deliberately trying to screw you, it’s easier to stop getting carried away.
I had to swallow hard and admit that perhaps the concept of karma did, in fact, have some validity. Not the stuff about how the decisions we make now play out in future lifetime. In my emerging understanding, there was nothing mechanistic or metaphysical about karma. Robbing a bank or cheating at Scrabble would not automatically earn you jail time or rebirth as a Gila monster. Rather, it was simply that actions have immediate consequences in your mind—which cannot be fooled. Behave poorly, and whether you’re fully conscious of it or not, you mind contracts. The great blessing—and, frankly, the great inconvenience—of becoming more mindful and compassionate was that I was infinitely more sensitive to the mental ramifications of even the smallest transgressions, from killing a bug to dropping trash on the street.
“When faced with something like this,” she said, “often it’s not the unknown that scares us, it’s that we think we know what’s going to happen—and that it’s going to be bad. But the truth is, we really don’t know.” The smart play, she said, was to turn the situation to my internal advantage. “Fear of annihilation,” she said, “can lead to great insight, because it reminds us of impermanence and the fact that we are not in control.”
The Sufi Muslims say, “Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump.
Striving is fine, as long as it’s tempered by the realization that, in an entropic universe, the final outcome is out of your control, if you don’t waste your energy on variables you cannot influence, you can focus much more effectively on those you can.
The Way of the Worrier:
Don’t be a jerk.
(And/But…) When necessary, Hide the Zen.
The Price of Security is Insecurity—Until It’s Not Useful
Equanimity Is Not the Enemy of Creativity
Don’t Force It
Humility Prevents Humiliation
Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod
Nonattachment to Results
What Matters Most?
Meditation is the superpower that makes all the other precepts possible. The practice has countless benefits—from better health to increased focus to a deeper sense of calm—but the biggie is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges. We live our life propelled by desire and aversion. In meditation, instead of succumbing to these deeply rooted habits of mind, you are simply watching what comes up in your head nonjudgmentally.
From a Buddhist monk: “There’s no point in being unhappy about things you can’t change, and no point being unhappy about things you can.”
All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.
There are a lot of bad reasons not to meditate. Here are my top three:
“It’s bullshit.” I get it. As you may remember, I used to feel this way, too. But there’s a reason why businesspeople, lawyers, and marines have embraced meditation. There’s no magic or mysticism required—it’s just exercise. If you do the right amount of reps, certain things will happen, reliably and predictably.
“It’s too hard for me.” I call this the “fallacy of uniqueness” argument. Welcome to the human condition. Everybody’s mind is out of control. Even experienced meditators struggle with distraction. Moreover, the idea that meditation requires you to “clear your mind” is a myth.
“I don’t have time.” Everybody has five minutes.
Basic Mindfulness Meditation:
Sit comfortably: You don’t have to twist yourself into a cross-legged position—unless you want to, of course. You can just sit in a chair. Whatever your position, you should keep your spine straight, but don’t strain.
Feel your breath. Pick a spot: nose, belly, or chest. Really try to feel the in-breath and then the out-breath.
This one is the key: Every time you get lost in thought—which you will, thousands of times—gently return to the breath. I cannot stress strongly enough that forgiving yourself and starting over is the whole game. “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”
Another trick for staying focused is to count your breaths. Start at one, and every time you get lost, start over. When you reach ten—if you ever reach ten—start back at one.
When someone cuts you off in traffic or on line at Starbucks, you automatically think, I’m pissed. Instantaneously, you actually become Mindfulness allows you to slow that process down. Sometimes, of course, you’re right to be pissed. The question is whether you are going to react mindlessly to that anger or respond thoughtfully. Mindfulness provides space between impulse and action, so you’re not a slave to whatever neurotic obsession pops into your head.
Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.
Just because your wife or your kids are driving you nuts does not mean you are a “bad person.” You can’t control what comes up, only how you respond.