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Comments are for the page: The dead don’t think
I worked my way through the exercises. First one: couldn’t manage it, but to the extent I could I felt light and peaceful, and that lingered afterward.
Second one I kept up a buzzing confusion in my head for about five minutes, but by the end I was so cognitively fatigued I was barely able to recite the alphabet. There was lingering fatigue afterward for a bit.
The last one started out well – well, except I had this idea to will/imagine myself detaching from my thoughts, which left me euphoric and just generally seemed unwise after a bit – and with time the thoughts faded. But it left me deeply sad for some reason I can’t quite identify. Besides the sadness is a numbness. Maybe some existential despair in the mix? (I also have this admittedly-excessive fear of turning myself into a zombie through meditation, ever since I read your article on the dangers. I wonder if that fear got amplified by the practice, somehow?)
It’s fading now as I move and bring myself back into the world. Maybe I just overdid it doing all the exercises back to back late in the evening.
James, thank you for trying this, and for your very interesting report!
It’s great that you got some results from the first two. It’s common to find one can’t get anything from the first, and to have the sense that the second is easy (which can be due to overlooking gaps in thought, as we normally do).
Also interesting results from the third. (That is the actual meditation practice “shi-ne,” whereas the other two are one-shot experiments). I can clarify a couple of things (and maybe I should do that in the texts of the pages as well).
Remaining uninvolved is different from detachment. “Remaining uninvolved” means you don’t push your thoughts along, or pull on a train of thought, or reject ones you don’t like, or massage ones you do.
You aren’t detached when “uninvolved,” though. That would suggest that “I” am over here, and I push my thoughts to be over there, and distance or even ignore them. In shi-ne meditation, you are right there with your thoughts. It turns out that, if you don’t continually manipulate them, sometimes they just stop for a while, of their own accord.
Ideally, there’s no sense of separation: “I” and “thinking” and “not thinking” are aspects of the same bigger picture. That picture includes your body and everything you perceive, the sights and sounds and sensations, and the space you are in, and the earth and sky and all their inhabitants, all together as a vast and glorious symphony.
I’m curious why you are particularly afraid of turning yourself into a zombie. My piece about meditation risks pointed it out as a potential pitfall, but it’s not common, and it usually only comes with intensive meditation of particular sorts. Those sorts do emphasize detachment as a method and as a goal, though!
Their risk is depersonalization/derealization, which does feel like numbness, and like depressive sadness too. So perhaps you know you are prone to that, and recognize that meditation could be particularly risky for you for that reason?
There are meditation methods that aim toward greater connection and involvement with the world. That is characteristic of Vajrayana (and probably other systems too, but it’s the one I know). Typically Vajrayana takes “experience of emptiness” as a prerequisite; and shi-ne is one way to get that. However, some people find they can go for connection and vividness first, and then backtrack to get “emptiness” once a healthy confidence in involvement is established. This might be the best approach for those of us who are prone to depression/depersonalization/derealization.
Just out today is a podcast with my spouse Charlie and Christopher Lövgren, talking about exactly this issue!
It begins with a brief guided meditation that encourages vivid, excited involvement rather than detachment. Christopher talks about his experience some years ago of “feeling like a ghost,” and how the spiritual approaches he was applying made that worse rather than better, and then they discuss the Vajrayana approach of enjoyable involvement.
So, as I read the first experiment, my thought was “I know this one, and the point is that it’s impossible. Still, I can probably do it if I cheat just a little.”
So, I held my inner voice at a constant 1kHz (ish) tone for the duration of the experiment - no mental imagery, no inner speech (apart from the internal 1kHZ tone), no thoughts at all apart from hearing the tone. And held like that until the timer went off for the end of the meditation.
Disclaimer: I am not usually a meditator, since meditation tends to be great while I’m doing it and then make me a little nuts. Like spending the evening wanting to bite and claw things and feeling like I’m a tiger after an afternoon of intermittent meditating. This effect could be fun maybe, but it does not feel very civilized, and it can be a bit alarming as it’s not exactly a controlled state. (I think this could be an obsessiveness side effect ??)
I tried the first exercise. I can easily focus on something like breathing, but it feels like that’s a thought. Thoughts follow each other like the knots in a khipu. There always seems to be an active connection to the next one. I banished breathing focus and switched (accidentally) to noticing sounds. Then I managed to not notice the sounds of the fridge and the cars passing and the kids thumping around upstairs and moved on to involuntary visuals. After getting rid of the images, I tried to imagine myself as dead, which led to the unfortunate urge, a thought, to be actually dead so I could win this game and achieve nonthinking. Not great! As you have pointed out elsewhere, it might not be advisable for some people such as an obsessive person-tiger to do much meditating! (Don’t worry, I’m fine.)
So after a bit of self recrimination about the unexpected urge, “Cheap Thrills” by Sia popped into my head, and it was game over. About 20 minutes. Fun exploration. ;)
When I read Shantaraksita, I thought: some diacritics missing there: Śāntarakṣita
Thank you for the meditation experiment reports!
I deliberately omit diacritics most of the time, on the theory that they are off-putting for most readers, and the few who know they should be there can supply them mentally.
I included them in the Heart Sutra quote, to give the sense that the language there was archaic and barely understandable for Surya, who would have spoken Magadhan Prakrit. The vetali, of course, is fluent in Sanskrit, being many centuries older, and having had the company of Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti, and others.
I feel like having the meta-intention of thinking non-stop brings you into the mode of awareness of your thoughts. This awareness to a certain degree precludes thought.
I find the exercises have the same issue as most Buddhist teaching, they fail to define “thought”. Which then becomes something like “god”, everyone has their own definition.
This isn’t necessarily bad, mind you, might even be useful.
I usually arbitrarily choose to define “thought” as “something that’s verbal or in some other way trying to clearly divide or predict the world”
In so far as this definition goes, I find the exercise “fail” for me, it’s mainly when my attention slips (from the goal, i.e. I forget my intention) or disolves itself (sleepiness)
Attempting experiment 1 put me in the mood to try something closer to conventional nāda yoga.
At night, when it is dark and quiet, I turn out the lights and try to halt my internal monologue. This isn’t fully successful: there are short bursts of internal mental audio chatter between the silences. Although it is completely dark, occasional visual imagery flashes like magnesium flares. At one point, I see meaningless cursive calligraphy in black on a dark red background, like old linoleum (dakini script :-)) In between the bursts of mental audio chatter, I listen to see if I can hear anything else through the silence, And there it is: a musical note like B3 on the piano, amplitude modulated at about 1hz. It’s not a real sound, and it’s not internal monologue either.
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