Talking Less (The non-art of my own self deception)

the-fool-front-e1380690847246Featured Image: ‘The Fool’ a sculpture by Caitlin Smith @ www.caitlinaudreysmith.com

Communicating with language is a vital but equally frustrating process. Over the course of human evolution, the human brain has developed the apparatus for learning and understanding unique and specialized vocalizations. It is undeniably crucial to how we’ve progressed as a species; a key component in the rise of civilization and the resultant age of technology. It is not a stretch to suggest that most modern marvels wouldn’t exist if we didn’t possess the capacity for communicating with such detail and specificity.

But on an individual level, I’ve often noticed how inadequate or limited the spoken and written word feels when expressing ideas and emotions. Language, for all its beauty and utility, is still secondary to consciousness itself. Our thoughts and impressions precede the words that eventually arise to describe and explain them. There is always bound to be varying degrees of disconnection.

I’ve often been told I am good with words, that I have a distinctive knack for communicating my thoughts in both conversation and writing. Though there have been other times where I get labeled a bullshit artist or called out for glibness. While I’ve managed to grow in awareness when it comes to the perils of eloquence, there have been countless experiences where I was oblivious of how earnestly and with singular motivation I might be weaving a tale. A counselor once used that word ‘glib’ to describe me. That’s actually how I know the word exists; and it’s a pretty damn good word.

He observed that my ability to intellectualize just about anything was keeping me in a pattern of self destructive behavior. My intellect for a good while had been hijacked in service of more selfish and misguided intentions. This is basically glibness embodied. He gave it to me straight, and – not to suggest that I had everyone else fooled – he had bluntly pointed out the disconnect from my actual life by serving up a heaping plate of stark reality. It was still several years before I took much of a hint. Paradoxically, it would seem, that I was highly self aware while also being insidiously self deluded. Growing more mindful of the ego’s tricks takes time; and a boat-load of humbling experiences.

This is not all that unique, however. It’s a human failing. As Will Storr spotlights in the book The Unpersuadables, people who think they are the truth tellers, who are certain that they are the exception to the rule with regards to delusional thinking, are the most deluded of all. If you’re thinking to yourself right now while reading this that you are the exception, welcome to the desert of masterful self deception. He states at one point with little need for tact that “a great many of the findings from decades of experimental psychology come to one grand shameful conclusion: we are all deluded egotists” and that most of us experience a “restless urge to prove that [other people’s] world, and not ours, is the illusion.”

For some time, my chief delusion was thinking I was one of the few who truly had my eyes open to the nature of things. I was pretty good at convincing myself, and on occasion others, that this might be true. In retrospect, however, I see that I was just good at making other people leary of correcting me. Not because the convoluted defense I had for my troubled life was difficult to poke holes in, not because the logic was ironclad, but because it was too mind-numbing and laborious to attempt addressing me on a rational or emotional level. I needed Rafiki from The Lion King to come out of the underbrush and just smack me in the head with his staff.

Looking back on this floundering chapter in my life – this time of wrongly assuming that I traversed some inevitable path of sagacious self destruction – I now see the fundamental conceit by which I allowed this delusion to persist: I often talk way too much. This realization  has led me to consider the merits of talking less. In the past, even though I questioned myself endlessly, I still couldn’t manage going long before whipping myself into a frenzy with another facile philosophy of superficial wisdom; either soaring hope for improvement, or contrarian despair masquerading as iconoclastic and warped asceticism.

For a good portion of my life, and to a larger extent in the last 5 years, I never REALLY shut up and considered that maybe I don’t have the answers. Or if there are no concrete answers, at the time I didn’t possess  the will or resilience for cobbling together a method of gaining personal fulfillment. I built a model of reality that justified my failings. Seriously, what I needed was to shut the hell up for more than a little bit. And – at the risk of sounding overly metaphysical about it – I needed to listen to what life, the world, the universe had to teach me.

What’s intriguing about taking on this more humble approach to understanding is that, ultimately, the wisdom gained will still be one’s own. By talking less, by foregoing pontification and forcing less and less ego onto reality, a vision of what we want and need more naturally takes shape. And, remarkably, it will be far less rife with notions of self importance. I suggest that this kind of self discovery comes from letting your ego talk less, and not so much about the literal act of talking less. It’s still something we create, but is much more conducive to allowing life’s lessons to sink in.

From my own experience, still being in the early stages of ceasing my self-righteous destruction, diligence is key. Even with vigilance, my selfish desires and self doubts still creep and nag and look for ways to make themselves manifest in bombastic fashion. Only by remaining mindful of what triggers my more troubling tendencies am I able to see how that self-sabotage sneaks up. Am I listening to people? Am I listening to myself? Am I listening to the more subtle hum of peace that seemingly eluded me for so long? These questions must be answered before I talk; before I act. Without this habit of self inquiry, the charismatic ego can lead me in quick like fashion like a lemming off the cliff of sanity.

Mindfulness and Meditation (Finding benefits despite a distracted disposition)

IMG_2680

Meditation has been “in” for awhile now. But it seems 2014 has produced an even greater surge in the practice’s popularity and with those who tout the benefits. In his book, Waking Up, Sam Harris addresses meditation and mindfulness in lucid detail. Waking Up proved effectual for me in many ways, so much so that I emailed Harris expressing my appreciation for his work in the volume. Much to my surprise, he promptly responded — which was pretty freakin’ cool. I was particularly influenced by his knowledge regarding Vipassana meditation. The practice, as presented in the book, is fairly straight forward, and Harris demystified the contemplative approach for me by grounding the concepts firmly in the language of science and overall intelligibility.

In the past, I have mostly approached meditation with skepticism. This is not to say I doubted its potential benefits, I simply struggled sitting still and thought myself incapable of the necessary patience and commitment. Hearing a lot of misinformation and some of the peculiar rhetoric from committed proponents of the practice also contributed to my reticence. My own biases were certainly hedging up the way. Concluding that there was just too much weirdness surrounding the concept and practices of mindfulness made it far easier to be dismissive. “I’m a self aware dude, I don’t need this esoteric jibbery jabber. Meditation just isn’t for me.”

It remains my opinion that meditation is not very well taught or explained because it is more often being proselytized. What resolved my doubts, or rather frustrations, was having the discussion brought into the realm of secular understanding; learning about the real and proven effectiveness of contemplative rituals. Not only this, but reading about and pondering the theories of mind as well as the neuroscientific principles at play when it comes to meditation. What became clear was that I was knowingly denying myself, and remaining ignorant of, a distinctly powerful aspect of human experience; one that didn’t require much effort to partake in if I could merely discard my stubborn preconceptions.

Here are the myths that needed to be dispelled for me:

1. Meditation is about relaxing

Meditation is often work, or effort, or whatever word you’d choose to describe a not entirely comfortable experience that requires training the mental faculties. It is work making myself sit down and do it; something I still frequently struggle with. It’s often strange getting settled, consciously disengaging with the activity of the day, to only sit and breath and do little else. It’s initially discomforting. For me, the use of guided meditations helped significantly for engaging something so novel and outside my normal realm of experience. It provided some structure. I used Sam Harris’s on SoundCloud (9 and 26 minutes depending).

Fair warning, when looking for guided meditation audio, just know that you will find funky ones. This became clear while looking for some other options on youtube. I don’t like the accompaniment of floaty music or poetic instruction that tries to guide my thoughts towards imagining sensation as a fire that represents the force of my being. This kind of esoteric approach might appeal to some folks, but it is not my particular cup o’ metaphysical/contemplative tea. What was important for me was having a voice prompting and reminding me to bring my thoughts back to breathing, for helping me engage the immediate sensations and contents of conscious awareness.

2. My mind can’t wander during meditation, if it does I fail.

This isn’t true, although it is part of the challenge when meditating. What becomes interesting, once feeling less frustrated by a wandering train of thought, is discovering what made the mind wander in the first place and what patterns emerge when learning how these distractions occur. When disciplining myself to notice thoughts as they arose, and acknowledging them as thoughts and potential distractions, the moment grew easier to stay in. This keener momentary awareness also afforded more patience, comfort, and with time, a desire to meditate longer…the length became less and less important. It wasn’t a fight with boredom or restlessness anymore, although this ease only comes when the habit is being kept to steadfastly. It’s a tool that requires constant use, or the mind gets quickly reoriented to the more distracting nature of everyday life.

3. Meditation is going to blow your mind and expand it into the multiverse

While I’ve had some meditation sessions that I came away from feeling pretty damn good, I’ve never noticed a third eye on my forehead or come away from it sensing that I was floating on a new plain of existence. I can attest that my later and longer sessions led to a more distinct and welcome calmness — both of mind and body. The “spiritual” or “mind expanding” quality of meditation I would more appropriately describe as gaining an understanding for the workings of ones thoughts. With meditation, we can learn what habits of thinking try incessantly to tear us away from the moment, and develop a capacity to guide our awareness back, or rather stay in the present; so much so that the experience in meditation becomes something of a thoughtless state, where guiding and redirecting ceases to be of necessity because the mind is literally in a state where what is being thought is immaterial to the mere sensation of present experience…as it has been described, this is what pure consciousness is. This is the more difficult but rewarding quality that meditation can provide.

Humans are really bad at being able to sit and embrace a calming sense of everything being okay just because it is okay. We always seem to believe we need reasons for it, or that we need to be working to achieve a better situation for ourselves, a situation that likely does not exist. This immediate moment that I am in right now CAN be okay and I CAN feel okay about it being okay.

4. That I should “know” when it’s working
Although meditation works, it isn’t something that must be or even can be made/forced to work. Certain conditions are more conducive to having an effective session, but thinking too hard about whether I’ve done it correctly or deliberating with myself about whether I’m in the proper mindstate will basically defeat the purpose of the practice. Just by making a habit of meditating, I was able to slowly get past the nagging concern of whether I felt like it was working or not. It was indeed weird for me to just sit in a room and breath and do very little else. That awkwardness also dissipated as I continued to just do it, and do it daily. Know, within yourself, that sitting still for 4-5 and later 10-20 minutes is quite impressive for a modern human being in a consumerist society. Later on, the “working” quality — the benefits — become apparent without having had to think about it very hard.

5. That I could not sit still long enough to succeed at meditation

Yes I could, and I did. I just simply had to do it.

To sum up my sentiments concerning meditation: it’s been quite the departure from what I normally participate in, but it’s that very foreign quality that was probably essential for me. I needed to be shaken from my normal frame of mind, from my normal day to day scrambling — and scrambling is often what I am doing. Although, with new habits taking shape in the area of exercise and mindfulness, scrambling has been less of a problem for me. But recently Caitlin and I packed up and moved from Lakewood, WA to Emmett, ID, and I’ve let the meditation habit grow more sporadic. It is something I’ve seen benefits from if and when I’m committing myself to doing it daily, and regardless of any anxiety or a busy brain. Writing this blog is my manifesto for declaring the goodness of meditation as well as my recommitment to making it a daily habit again. Here are some resources for getting started if perhaps you were interested at giving it a shot:

The full text and audio of Waking Up Ch. 1, of particular relevance being the section on mindfulness

Guided meditations:
9 Minute
26 Minute

Further information:
Dan Harris and Sam Harris talk mindfulness and meditation
Wherever You Go, There You Are
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14096.Wherever_You_Go_There_You_Are

A Personal Meditation (Mindfulness Reminders)

IMG_7371

I wrote this over a year ago at a time of serious self reflection. Questioning, doubting, and working towards more patience and compassion with myself (something I think we all struggle and face with regularity). I wanted to share it here as many of my friends at the time that I wrote this said that they had found the words comforting and helpful. I know I haven’t revisited the words enough and that is what they are designed to be for. So, I hope they can resonate with another as they had and continue to have deep significance for me.

Petitioning the Deepest, Authentic, Inner Self

Allow me to give of myself that I might find myself

Help me see more the good around me, and in myself

Turn away from any secrecy in my actions,

and the hiding of my feelings and thoughts

Be present

Accept the past

Have curiosity, not despair for the future

Remain patient when hope ebbs

Realize that someone is there to listen

Reach out if someone else is struggling

Understand the power in sharing our human experience

Remember that I am never alone

Help me be diligent in offering and acting with natural goodness

Find where my talents can be beneficial and edifying for others

Give freely and do not revel in praise or recognition

Maintain vision,

And if I lose sight, call to mind where that can and has taken me

Let go of what I cannot control

Embrace and have reverence for mystery, ambiguity, the undiscovered

Being ever aware of that uncertainty,

But inviting towards the possibilities of each new day