50 shades of grey.
What do all of these things have in common?
They are all fads, specifically, fads from the 2010s. Do you know another big fad? Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This book is probably the most read and most referred-to book of all time in the entrepreneurial section of society. Every manager, director, corporate executive, EVERYONE – seems to have read the Art of War and found wisdom therein.
And just like Crossfit and Paleo diets are new fads in the world of sports and exercise, the world of entrepreneurs has seen the emergence of a new fad too: mindfulness meditation.
Just google “mindfulness meditation entrepreneur” or “meditation business” and you’ll get scores upon scores of results where people claim that meditation will make you a better businessman, a better CEO, a better leader, a better everything.
And it’s not only the entrepreneurs, even though I personally find it amusing to see such fads emerge in the entrepreneurial sector. There are many studies that are trying to research meditation and try to quantify the results, measure correlations and do all the work needed to draw evidence-based conclusions. This fad is actually so strong now that we have even seen anti-meditation articles, criticising some aspects or even the whole of meditation.
How to explain mindfulness to someone that’s not already mindful?
Explaining mindfulness to someone that isn’t mindful is like explaining the beauty of Japanese poetry to someone that doesn’t speak Japanese. They understand that if they had a skillset that allowed them to understand Japanese poetry, they would be able to appreciate it. They also understand that there is something there, but it’s not relevant for them – they just can’t get it, so they don’t try.
Or explaining to someone how exciting it is to skydive. A person will certainly have an image of what it must be, but this idea is nowhere near the real thing, the real experience of jumping out of a plane and diving towards the ground at 200 km/h. There is simply a limit to how vividly you can image something that you’ve never experienced.
To fully appreciate Japanese poetry, you kind of have to read it and experience it yourself.
To fully appreciate skydiving, you also kind of need to do it.
And meditation is similar in this respect, with a difference that it doesn’t demand a skillset (like Japanese) or it isn’t sudden, life-changing, extreme intensity (like skydiving). It’s very boring and it takes a lot of time to come to a state where you can appreciate it. You need to try it, and keep doing it for a long time, and you need to do it right – just unfocused thinking and semi-sleeping don’t really count as meditation.
And oftentimes people don’t want to bother with it because they don’t feel they need it. I’m not a “meditation evangelist” so I don’t go around convincing people to start meditating, but I really do think that meditation is good. Notice I said “good”, not “useful”. It can be useful too, but it’s more than just useful.
Useful implies that you’re going to live your life normally, as you would do without meditation, and that meditation has its use, its purpose. For some people it’s stress relief, for others it’s to calm their thoughts. If you see meditation as only useful, you think you are a certain person, let’s call you Bobby, that has an identity composed of many different things. Bobby is a man, he drives a car, he likes to drink coffee with cinnamon, he works at an IT company, he plays drums, he is under stress sometimes and he meditates to relieve his stress. Meditation is a technique Bobby uses within his identity. This is Bobby:
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with Bobby. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Bobby is a much better Bobby because of his meditation. He is probably doing better at his job, he doesn’t get so nervous when his deadlines are approaching, he’s not angry when he’s sitting in his car on a crowded highway. He’s, like, cool with things he can’t influence. Good for Bobby.
But many meditation practitioners see meditation as something else rather than a technique to aid you in your life, or, ONLY a technique to aid you in your life. This is where we first start seeing the word spiritual and where an instinctive allergic reaction appears on the skin of every skeptic, atheist or advocate of the scientific method. Let’s say that Bobby, after many years of meditation practice, has come to a certain realization. He still has his job, loves cinnamon in his coffee, drives a car, works at the same company – his life is mostly the same. But let’s say that he has been meditating more and more, and that he isn’t meditating because of meditation’s usefulness. Let’s say, without defining it yet, that Bobby attained enlightenment. This is Bobby now:
If you don’t see him, that’s good, because Bobby went from some-Bobby to no-Bobby.
I assume that with this, I pissed off even the most forgiving of skeptics and rationalists.
What the hell is this cryptic, woo-woo nonsense? What you’re saying is undefined, it can’t be understood!
Well, I shall endeavor to explain.
Some-Bobby is a person that has an identity. He has a story. Car-driving, IT-working, cinnamon coffee-drinking, drum-playing – these things make up who some-Bobby is. They are the building blocks of his identity. Then also the fact that he is male, and that his name is Bobby, and that he was born in America. All these things make some-Bobby who he is. They are what he is known for. If you were to list out these things to his acquaintances and ask them if they know a person that fits the description, people would point at Bobby. Even practicing meditation is a part of his identity. And Bobby, he thinks of himself in terms of his identity. In his mind, his name is Bobby, he drives a car, works at an IT company etc, etc. and that makes up who he is.
The second Bobby (the no-Bobby) doesn’t think of himself that way, though. He doesn’t think of himself, in fact. Actually he doesn’t think at all. No-Bobby just is. Or isn’t, depending on how you see it.
In order to understand how Bobby came to be no-Bobby from some-Bobby, we have to meet his transition form: the maybe-Bobby (also known as “I dunno-Bobby”, “not sure-Bobby”, “potentially-Bobby”, “probably not-Bobby”). We shall picture maybe-Bobby like this:
This is what maybe-Bobby is thinking for the brief second he exists in between some-Bobby and no-Bobby:
“Dude. Like, my name is Bobby, but would I be me if I were called John? And if I didn’t play the drums? Yeah, I guess so. I don’t even have to have the same address or birthplace or car or job to be me. So what does make me – me? Is it my gender? Like, if everything else was the same and I was a chick, would I be me? Like, the same friends, same family, same life experiences – but just me being a girl. Yeah… Well sure, then it’s still me. But wait… If all of my identity is negotiable like that: my gender, race, possessions, activities in life, NAME – then do I even exist?
[at this point a break happens in Bobby’s line of thought and some-bobby and no-Bobby arrive at the scene]
Some-Bobby: ‘Yeah well, I guess that each individual element of my identity IS negotiable, but the relations between them aren’t, and my complete identity is also not negotiable. So you can change maybe one or two things, but not all of them, and you can’t switch the relations between them.
No-Bobby: [listens to some-Bobby talk]
Maybe-Bobby: ‘Who is this person listening to me talk, that is, think?’
No-Bobby: [listens to maybe-Bobby ask the preceding question]
Maybe-Bobby: ‘Wait, did I just say that there is someone else in my head except me?’
No-Bobby: [listens to maybe-Bobby ask the preceding question]
Maybe-Bobby: ‘Duuuude, this is sick. So I can listen to myself think. Lol wtf. I can see my thoughts as they form and listen to them as if I were a different person. But what kind of person is this?’
No-Bobby: [listens to maybe-Bobby ask the preceding question]
Maybe-Bobby: ‘Aha, I get it. This person that listens to the thoughts in my head is capable of only listening, but can’t produce anything. It can only perceive things. It’s just conscious. It just… is.’
Some-Bobby: ‘Dude, you remember those woo-woo bullshitters that talk shit like You are not you. You are a walking field of consciousness?? This must be it man!’ ”
We said that Bobby attained enligthenment – and enlightenment is understanding that you’re not some-Bobby but that you’re no-Bobby. You’re just a group of atoms capable of perceiving itself, no less, no more. All of your identity – your house, your friends, the language you speak, your name, the very thoughts you think – all of this belongs to some-Bobby, and it is only an upgrade to the walking consciousness that no-Bobby is. In other words, the story about Bobby is not Bobby. Bobby is a group of atoms that can perceive the story of Bobby.
Let’s say that one more time. There is:
A. Bobby’s story. This is what we would call his identity. All the thoughts he thinks go here, ranging from work related problem solving to him remembering a prank he pulled in high school. His name goes here. His familial relations. Basically, everything goes here, and we call this Bobby’s story (or some-Bobby).
B. Awareness or consciousness. This is what the part of Bobby that can’t think, but can register thoughts, the same way it can see, hear, smell and touch. The best way to understand what no-Bobby is, is this: the next time you think of something, try to ask yourself “Who is it that is thinking this?” And when you ask yourself that question, try to simply perceive it, just as if you were looking at a bird flying by, or heard a noise. Just try to register your thought, but don’t think it.
And as long as this whole meditation business stays within the confines of A, many skeptics and rationalists will be okay with it. But as soon as it hits B and we start seeing words like awareness, consciousness, spirituality (this word is the closest word that comes to describe the state of being no-Bobby) – as soon as we get there, disagreements arise.
Skeptics and advocates of the scientific method often regard themselves as superior to those that are “spiritual”. You need only see the Facebook comments on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and similar places. They often mock spirituality and advocate that we should accept and live by rules of logic, science and empiric evidence. Of course, they are right. There are a lot of quacks and there is a lot of pure bullshit in the world of the “spiritual”. However, skeptics and rationalists – among which I count myself too, by the way – often don’t understand that they don’t understand.
When you try to explain the importance of mindfulness or meditation, the reaction is sometimes sheer lack of understanding, undertones of sarcasm, accusations of “woo woo” and so on. Naturally, there are woo doctors and quacks, using scientific terminology to create “sciencey” words that in their essence, mean nothing. By the way, here is a Deepak Chopra quote generator. However, there is importance in mindfulness, and there is a materialist, rationalist, skeptic way of explaining why it is so important.
According to this research, our actions are not really initiated by the conscious part of our minds. Our subconsciousness dictates our actions, the words we speak, the friendships we make, the jobs we take – and our consciousness simply observes what is going on. To quote:
“From this perspective, it is concluded that in both phylogeny and ontogeny, actions of an unconscious mind precede the arrival of a conscious mind—that action precedes reflection.”
It is like we are a passenger in a driverless car. We think we’re the driver. It’s very intuitive to think so because we’re in the front, we see when the road is bumpy, or curved, or straight, or full of other cars. So we must be the driver.
But let me ask you this: have you ever been in a situation where you just did something, and afterwards thought “Jesus Christ, why did I do that”?
Of course you have. We all have.
You didn’t understand the reasons you did something, but you maybe rationalized it, or simply forgot about it. But what happened exactly?
Let’s say you’re being pulled over by a police officer. There’s nothing wrong, you haven’t been speeding or drinking, your car is in perfect order – there is absolutely no reason the cop needs to pull you over. You have absolutely no reason to be upset about it.
Then why are you nervous?
Why do you fumble while searching for your licence?
Why have your hands gone cold?
Why have you said that stupid awkward joke that was meant to ease the tension?
Well, the answer is obvious. You are not being controlled by the conscious part of you. You are being controlled by your subconsciousness, and your subconsciousness is a dumb animal that knows how to fight, run, eat, laugh, have sex – but it doesn’t understand that 2 + 2 equals 4. And your consciousness is all like “I’m just gonna watch this stupid motherfucker and tell him how stupid he was.” It kind of looks like this:
Did you cheat in a relationship despite thinking that you wouldn’t and that it was against your principles? Bam, subconsciousness.
Did you play computer games for 3 hours instead of doing what you needed to do? Bam again, and yes, subconsciousness again.
So no, you’re not the driver. Your body is the car and you’re a passenger. At least that’s how it is most of the time.
It seems highly counter-intuitive, because we have been conditioned to see ourselves as the creators of our own destinies, but it goes hand in hand with – laws of physics!
We are made of atoms.
Atoms obey physical laws.
That means that our brains obey physical laws.
Furthermore, that means that our decisions are chemical reactions in the brain.
And seeing that chemical reactions follow physical laws, our decisions follow physical laws.
One chemical reactions means raising your left hand, another means raising your right hand, yet it was impossible that one came instead of the other, precisely because it didn’t. It is like saying that water spilling out of a cup could have not spilled – of course it couldn’t have. Gravity has precisely the same effect on matter – it pulls it. The water had no choice in the matter – it was simply pulled down. Much the same with our actions. We are simply governed by the very rules that govern the rest of the universe, and our brains are no exception. It is the illusion of choice we have, not true choice.
However, this is not fatalism. I argue that even if it is true that we have no choice, it absolves absolutely no responsibility. It simply means that, if we do something, we were, so to speak, destined by the factors of the universe to do just that, but it doesn’t tell us anything of the future. Even if it is predetermined (which we don’t know), the future is always unclear to us, and we should regard our illusion of choice as true choice.
How does mindfulness play into all of this? The answer is quite simple. When you practice mindfulness, you stop having the feeling you’re the driver. You’re simply a passenger, looking out through a window and observing what your car does. You observe what it thinks when it does certain things, and how its thoughts change upon changing environments. This is the true value of meditation and mindfulness – the genuine understanding that you’re not driving the car – the car is driving you.
Horrible, isn’t it?
When you’re deep in meditation, you might even come to worse realizations than not being a passenger. Maybe you also realize that you’re not even a car. Or that numbers are a human invention and don’t exist in nature. All sorts of weird, feeling-based realizations can come up when you’re meditating really deeply. Some of it can be explained, some of it has to be felt.
And yet it is not all that horrible. It is what it is. AND it also might be useful. Because imagine this:
You practice meditation a lot so you’re a lot more mindful of what your thoughts are doing, real-time, during interaction with people. You are about to make a dumb decision.
You are aware of what you are about to do.
You start thinking of it.
You think some more.
You don’t do it.
It could have been you cheating on your girlfriend, or drinking too much alcohol, or using drugs, or buying a new car or any sort of decisions you would later be sorry for. Because you were much more aware of your thoughts and of yourself thinking these thoughts, conscious of your own urges and wants, this awareness translated itself into action – that is, non-action, not doing a stupid thing.
Isn’t it funny that we end with this Zen-like, logic-defying paradox, where the illusion of choice actually gives you a choice?
Well, Zen. Can’t get enough of it:
A monk asked Zhao Zhou to teach him.
Zhao Zhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal?”
The monk replied, “Yes, I have.”
“Then go wash your bowl,” said Zhao Zhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.