Notes On Meditation Practice – II

Meditation induces two interesting forms of self-consciousness that do not arise during the actual sitting itself. They are, rather, ways of regarding the practice of meditation as it meshes with the rest of the meditator’s life.

First, the meditator is self-consciously aware of the fact that he is one. The normal, ongoing processes of identity formation and maintenance now include the attribute, ascribed to oneself, “engages in a meditation practice.” This is not innocent; for better or worse, ‘meditation’ carries certain connotations with it. These include, at the least, dimly perceived and understood stereotypes about the kind of person who does meditate, and why they might do so; by becoming a meditator, some of those stereotypes become ways of regarding yourself.  For instance, shortly after I began my practice, I found myself kicking off what looked like turning into a heated argument. As I did so, I felt curiously abashed and undignified, and a thought, unbidden, came to me: this was not how those who engage in meditation practice are ‘supposed to behave.’ I was supposed to be one engaging in a practice that induced calm and dignity, but here I was, squabbling like a child. Overcome by a sudden awkwardness, I retreated from my previously grimly defended position and began winding down the argument. I wanted to retreat from this zone of my loss of composure. This has not always been the case; on many occasions, I have blundered straight into the heart of a meltdown, and emerged with very little of my former grace intact. But that new perspective on myself has not gone away. It remains, lurking on the edges of my consciousness of myself, reminding me I now engage in an activity supposed to be changing me and making me into a new person.

Second, meditation is self-indulgent and the meditator knows it. Forty minutes a day is ‘too much’ to spare; none of us, especially here in this city, have that time to spare. As such, the very act of sitting down and shutting out the world’s demands feels like a supremely, virtuously self-centered action. You deny the world its claims on you–even as you carry thoughts about it into your mind, and yet, for those twenty minutes, remove yourself from its embrace. The awareness of the sheer subversiveness of this act–in a world-context in which there is an unceasing demand for our time and attention–is a liberation. It brings with it a curious sensation of power; to step away from this world feels like an empowering act, an assumption of agency in a situation where we are used, all too often, to bemoan the loss of ours. This awareness too, becomes part of our identity; it becomes an attribute to ourselves; it changes who we think we are.

Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do. Sitting in meditation, with a regular practice, makes you a meditator; that change, by itself, without any other extravagant claims, is a significant one.

Note: The first post in this series is here.

Notes On Meditation Practice – I

Last year, after being urged to do so by many–friends, strangers, dissertation adviser–I began a meditation practice. In May 2015 to be precise. I registered for a four-day class, attended four two-hour ‘training sessions,’ and was off and running. Or, rather, I was off and sitting down. Twice a day for twenty minutes at time. The modality of meditation practice that I received instruction in, the so-called Vedic method, appears to be a re-branding  or simple variant of an older technique called transcendental meditation: sit comfortably with your back supported, your head free, your eyes closed, and repeat, silently, a simple word or phrase given to you by your teacher. That is all there to it. There is no counting of breaths, no sitting cross-legged (or in the Lotus Pose.) You can be sitting on a chair or a couch or a park bench (or, as in my case, on a couple of occasions, a seat in a car, subway, or airplane.) You could, if you wanted, just sit up in bed after waking up in the morning, rest your back against a propped up pillow and headboard, and get to meditating.

The mental repetition of the word or phrase supplied by the meditation instructor is crucial; it acts as a kind of block against the intrusion of distracting thoughts and permits the transition to a more quiescent mental state, one which is more placid and less agitated. (It also, interestingly enough, allows access to some very interesting behind-the-eyes imagery.) The ‘mantra’ may be displaced by these thoughts of course, but on noticing that such a displacement has taken place, it should be ‘summoned back’ and the mental repetition should begin anew. The ‘mantra’ is meaningless and deliberately so; a meaningful mantra would induce a distraction all of its own.

I cannot, currently, offer any testimonials to any dramatic changes in my temperament or my physical state–i.e., an empirically verifiable change in some physical parameter–as a result of my meditation practice. However, I will say that I look forward to my two daily meditation sessions–once in the morning, immediately after waking up, and then, once in the evening, at some point before dinner. (On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, my evening session is really an afternoon one, conducted at 3PM or so before I leave the library to go pick up my daughter from daycare; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I meditate in my office after finishing my teaching for the day, and on Saturday and Sunday, I meditate at home, sometimes in the living room, sometimes in my daughter’s room (the only quiet place in our apartment while my girl tears up the rest of the joint.)) I look forward to these sessions because I find them relaxing and useful de-stressers. The morning session seems to compose me for what lies ahead of me; the evening session relaxes me after a day’s stress has started to accumulate. (In that regard, the evening session plays a role similar to my evening walk home from campus.)  Just for that rather simple and yet hugely important reason, I consider my meditation practice an invaluable addition to my daily routine.

In future posts I hope to elaborate on some other subtle effects and changes induced by this practice, and on its relationship to other modalities of self-reconfiguration.

High-Tech, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

This afternoon, overcome by a mounting frustration at being unable to get two monitors working on my new single-graphic-card-equipped home desktop personal computer, I blurted out the following on Facebook (only a couple of minutes before I entered a plaintive plea for help on the same forum, which resulted in several responses, and indeed, even a phone call from an old friend):

Nothing quite sums up our relationship with some kinds of high-tech better than the fact that in order to get it to work, you have crawl around on your hands and knees.

I’m not exactly a naif when it comes to high-tech; indeed, to invoke the spirit of Walter White‘s claim that he was the one “who knocks on doors,” I’m often the person asked for technical help by my friends. But over the years, I’ve lost my patience with the promises of the high-tech world: all too often, to interact with high-technology is to be left fuming, spluttering, hypertension and cortisol levels spiked. Many interfaces still remain counterintuitive, trouble-free interoperability between different kinds of devices–and the software they run–remains a distant mirage, and day by day a bewildering alphabet soup of formats, protocols, decimal-annotated versions, and their various misbegotten cousins rains down on our heads like a malevolent anti-manna.

I know, I know, I sound like an old fart. Fair enough. I’m not that young anymore, and it’s been years since I wrote my last line of code (whether in a lowly scripting language or in a more exalted programming language.) But the funny thing is, I used to bitch and moan like this even when I was a ‘techie,’ a programmer and systems analyst at Bell Labs, or later, a UNIX system administrator. I’ve always felt vaguely resentful of the discordance between the promises of high-tech and the stress it induces in our lives. (My complaints about the ‘fragility of the digital’ are another dimension of this unease.)

Yes, I’m well aware that I’m getting this message out using a writing and distribution platform on a computer connected to a gigantic worldwide network, which I use daily for communication, entertainment, and accessing vast stores of information relevant to my ongoing learning and education. Respect. Much respect. I am staggered by the ingenuity and brilliance and labor that makes this thing–or things–work. But this same friend and aide, the one dispensing benefactions which make our lives so much easier, also exacts a fairly high psychic cost. (I have, on many an occasion, felt like hurling my computer monitor at the wall.)  And, yes, I’m aware, my complaint today this is not a particularly new complaint. But it remains interestingly persistent and finds newer forms of expression as our technological ‘gifts’ and ‘burdens’ grow in seemingly equal proportions. Perhaps that’s the sobering part of this giddying rush onwards to the ever greater technologization of our lives.

Note: I have still not managed to get my two monitors to work. At one point in the afternoon, I decided I had had enough of looking up help forums on the net and banging my head on my desk, and decided I would get to work instead. On a computer, of course.

Georg Simmel on Sociologically Positive Conflict and Urban Life

A quiet span of days with a national holiday mid-week, rare access to expansive living spaces, no subway riding. So, by virtue of having occupied a ‘retreat-like’ space and by taking a step back from the madding crowd, back to a slower pace, there is time to reflect on the space-living-crowds bargain that New York City exacts from its denizens.

Some useful thoughts on that theme may be found in Georg Simmel‘s theory of conflict as an integrative force in groups:

[The opposition of one individual element to another in the same association is by no means merely a negative social factor, but it is in many ways the only means through which coexistence with individuals intolerable in themselves could be possible. If we had not power and right to oppose tyranny and obstinacy, caprice and tactlessness, we could not endure relations with people who betray such characteristics. We should be driven to deeds of desperation which would put the relationships to an end. This follows not alone for the self-evident reason…that such disagreeable circumstances tend to become intensified if they are endured quietly and without protest; but, more than this, opposition affords us a subjective satisfaction, diversion, relief, just as under other psychological conditions…the same results are brought about by humility and patience. Our opposition gives us the feeling that we are not completely crushed in the relationship. It permits us to preserve a consciousness of energy, and thus lends a vitality and a reciprocity to relationships from which, without this corrective, we should have extricated ourselves at any price….

[O]pposition is an integrating component of the relationship itself….Opposition is not merely a means of conserving the total relationship, but it is one of the concrete functions in which the relationship in reality consists. In case the relationships are purely external, and consequently do not reach deeply into the practical, the latent form of conflict discharges this service: i. e., aversion, the feeling of reciprocal alienation and repulsion, which in the moment of a more intimate contact of any sort is at once transformed into positive hatred and conflict.

Without this aversion life in a great city, which daily brings each into contact with countless others, would have no thinkable form. The whole internal organization of this commerce rests on an extremely complicated gradation of sympathies, indifferences, and aversions of the most transient or most permanent sort. The sphere of indifference is in all this relatively restricted. The activity of our minds responds to almost every impression s received from other people in some sort of a definite feeling, all the unconsciousness, transience, and variability of which seems to remain only in the form of a certain indifference. In fact, this latter would be as unnatural for us as it would be intolerable to be swamped under a multitude of suggestions among which we have no choice. Antipathy protects us against these two typical dangers of the great city. It is the initial stage of practical antagonism. It produces the distances and the buffers without which this kind of life could not be led at all. The mass and the mixtures of this life, the forms in which it is carried on, the rhythm of its rise and fall—these unite with the unifying motives, in the narrower sense, to give to a great city the character of an indissoluble whole. Whatever in this whole seems to be an element of division is thus in reality only one of its elementary forms of socialization.

Ref: Georg Simmel. “The Sociology of Conflict: I” American Journal of Sociology 9 (1903): 490-525