People spend 46.9% of their waking lives thinking about something other than what they’re actually doing. It’s a terribly inefficient use of one’s mind and, worse, it actually seems to make people unhappy.
Letting your mind wander might seem like a bad thing, but really it’s just the natural byproduct of being capable of abstract thought. Humans are capable of thinking about things that have happened, things that might happen, and things that may never happen at all. (As a science fiction blog, we rather encourage doing that last part.) Sure, letting your mind wander is a good recipe for goofing off, but it’s also a necessary part of contemplation and reflection.
I’ve quoted this from Auden several times before, but it just sums it up so perfectly:
With envy, terror, rage, regret,
We anticipate or remember but never are.
But yeah, I think there’s maybe a little more nuance to this. As many have said, especially Buddhists, the future and the past are mere abstractions. We only actually exist in “now”. Alan Watts used the image of a ship’s prow to symbolize this — we only ever exist right there, at the prow, as it cuts through the water, and the past flows behind us in our wake.
If you spend every present moment wishing you were somewhere else, you’re going to feel perpetually dissatisfied, since the pleasures you’re so eagerly anticipating will seem boring once they become actualized, and you’ll already be looking forward to the next one. It’ll never feel like you’ve actually experienced anything fully. You’ve become attached to the wanting, not the having.
But on the other hand, meditation is, in many ways, a form of purposely letting your mind wander, tiring itself out. Personally, I do my meditating while listening to music, and I find it revitalizing, not distracting. It’s like a mental equivalent of a good workout. Sometimes I do it while performing simple tasks that don’t require my undivided attention, like washing dishes or cutting grass, and it seems to me that somehow, the repetitive physical activity keeps me grounded, even though my mind may be on various other things. I’m not sure how to explain that exactly.
But as I mentioned earlier, all these prostrations, chants, incense offerings and the rest have an undeniable psychological and physical effect. Even though we may not know where our need for this kind of action comes from, we need to acknowledge it exists. It’s just as strong in any atheist as it is in any religious fanatic. Atheists want to throw away everything about religion, including the stuff that clearly fulfills a real human need. That’s never gonna fly. We need certain aspects of religion to make us feel right.
Brad Warner, from Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate
As the philosopher Bugs Bunny said on numerous occasions: He don’t know me very well, do he?
He doesn’t elaborate, so I have to presume he means what most apologists for religion mean; that even if you don’t literally believe in the old deities and myths, simply going through the rote motions keeps you from killing yourself and others out of boredom or nihilistic frenzy. But what is this “real human need” stuff? Going out on a limb again, it would appear he means “good” things, like a need for comfort, reassurance, companionship, etc. But I would point out that the need to belong and find purpose among kindred has a flip side, and the urge to dominate, destroy, and otherwise violently distinguish yourself from others not of your tribe is just as “real” and widespread a need as any other value we naked apes hold. I’m sure he would agree that we don’t need those urges to be cemented even more firmly in place by elaborate metaphysical justifications, as religious belief has been known to do a time or two.
And let me state for the record that despite being human, all-too-human, I do not need “certain aspects” of religion to make me feel right. Popular music, photos, scented candles and books also have “an undeniable psychological and physical effect” on me. What? Does that sound vaguely insulting, that I would trivialize profound religious experiences by comparing them to ordinary objects and activities, harrumph harrumph?
Well, good. That was the intent. But it was actually only the first step! The follow-up to that is to point out that this false distinction between the profound and the ordinary, the sacred and the profane, is itself a problematic illusion.
Yes, that’s right. I’m saying that this belief, this religious faith, that certain activities and thoughts and feelings are somehow more valid, more meaningful, more elevated, is nonsense. We mistake relative for Absolute. This attempt to set those things above and apart from the rest of existence represents yet another instance of the strange human desire to prove that we aren’t just another kind of animal, to create and hold some kind of stasis where we can have the things we like while shunning the things we don’t, like trying to have the blooms of flowers without the roots.
Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments. When we turn away from our all-too-human yearnings we turn back to mortal things. Not moral hopes or mystical dreams but groundless facts are the true objects of contemplation.
You don’t need special robes and particular chants and elaborate rituals and traditions that have been passed down over centuries to cultivate and maintain an awareness and appreciation of the literal interconnectedness of all life. You don’t need to treat anger and sadness and all the other “deadly sins” as obstacles preventing you from fully enjoying life. In fact, you’ll probably enjoy it all the more when you realize that while they may adversely affect your ability to achieve specific goals, they are not inherently wrong. You don’t have to enter a special state of mind in special surroundings to realize some special secret. All you have to do is wake up in this moment, as other Buddhists like to say, even if it finds you unshowered and unshaven, naked in front of the computer, and scratching your left asscheek.
Sacred mountains and groves are no closer to the heart of life than carrion and offal. Anyone can find the spirit of life in a flower or sunset. When you can find it in a dungheap, though…ah, that’s the trick.
Lee: It is like a finger pointing away to the moon.
Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!
People frequently hail me in the street. They sez to me, they sez: “Damian, I’m with ya on all that far-out meditation contemplation reflection stuff, but pondering your own death first thing in the morning? No offense, but that’s some bizarre shit, borderline messed-up, you feel me, brah?”
So I sez to them, I sez: “First off, don’t call me “brah”. Only douchebags call people “brah”.
With that out of the way, then I sez: “But yeah, I know what you’re saying. It’s not for everybody. Fortunately, there’s something much less grim you can contemplate. Right above you. The moon.”
I don’t believe in the moon. I think it’s just the back of the sun.
Well, hey, to each his own. The thing is, it doesn’t even matter. Call it what you want. What’s important is this: that glowing orb has been there since life on earth evolved the capacity to look up and see it. We’ve gone from worshiping it to bombing it, and through it all, there it hangs, obvious yet unobtrusive, staring impassively down at us. This is what I find cool to think about: every person that has ever existed has taken notice of it. Spent some time staring up at it, dancing under it, writing poems and songs about it. Everyone, from homo habilis to you and I. Peasants and kings, heroes and villains, anyone with minimally functioning eyesight. Anyone from history you’ve ever cared to meet has passed the time gazing at it while lost in thought about earthly events. Even animals feel and react to its influence.
Now, maybe it’s just this off-brand oven cleaner I’ve been huffing, but I find that contemplating that for a while really gives me a transcendent feeling of the literal interconnectedness of all life and the endless flow of time. It simultaneously makes my life feel more grounded while reminding me just how transitory and ephemeral my individual existence really is. And isn’t that what meditation is all about?
Here’s something strange: for some time now, and with increasing frequency, my first coherent mental activity upon waking has been a vivid sense of my own mortality. I mean, vivid. Like, lying on your actual deathbed-vivid. I’ve always had a strong disposition toward melancholy and morbidity, but this isn’t the same thing. It’s not an intellectual understanding of mortality, it’s a pervasive feeling of it, into my bones, as if the disorientation of sleep has removed all the mental barriers we keep around us so as to be able to continue with our mundane activities. No more distractions — YOU ARE GOING TO DIE, with all the subtlety of a foghorn in your ear.
I can’t really recapture that feeling once I’m up and moving around, so I’ve taken to getting up a few minutes earlier just to be able to sit and reflect on it while it lingers. I don’t think too hard about it; I just try to observe it unobtrusively. Just acknowledging its existence and seeing how it affects me. As you can imagine, this was pretty jarring at first, but I’ve actually come to look forward to it somewhat. Not for any of the usual pragmatic, utilitarian, self-help rationales — I don’t care if it lowers my blood pressure, or gives me a more balanced perspective on trivial irritations, or any of that shit. It just feels…right. Good for its own sake. More real.
The best part of waking up is Thanatos in your cup.