3 Reasons to Meditate when the Sh#t Hits the Fan
According to the field of complexity science, complex systems all go through periods of chaos, chaos defined as a system that is “difficult to predict.” If we look at history through this lens, what we see are times of Order and Chaos: Dickens began an excellent novel with the line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Weather patterns go through this cycle of order and chaos, and so do human-made systems. Companies can go through periods of exponential growth, then come crashing down. Celebrities can be on fire and then burn out. The Roman Empire lasted a thousand years but eventually fizzled out. In yoga mythology, two deities represent these energies of order and chaos: Vishnu, the preserver, often depicted chilling on a lotus floating on a sea of milk, which is symbolic of the good times; and Shiva, the destroyer, symbolized as holding a flame and burning all of existence.
As I write this, a highly contentious American election is looming. A global pandemic, unseen for a hundred years, continues. Trust in leadership is at an all-time low. The great technologies we’ve created that harkened in the information age have been subverted into fancy manipulation tools, fueling the fires of political polarization and the dawning of a new era: the “age of disinformation.” Chaotic times indeed.
The origin story of mindfulness meditation directly addresses the human problem of dealing with chaos. The story goes that the Buddha grew up a prince, highly sheltered for the first 29 years of his life. He had a helicopter Dad (the king) who was afraid the Buddha would go running off if everything in the palace was not perfect. Anything that alluded to the chaos inherent in human existence was removed from the court, including old people, sick people, ugly people, anything that might reflect the possibility of disorder. As fate would have it, the Buddha left the palace at 29, saw older people, sick people, and a corpse, and proceeded to have an existential crisis. This confrontation with chaos started the Buddha’s journey towards enlightenment, aka “the end of suffering,” and his tool for getting the job done was mindfulness.
Reason 1. Making peace with reality.
Human beings’ most habitual way to deal with chaos is through what is called in psychology, “dissociation.” Dissociation means being disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, memories, and surroundings, also known as being “checked out.” Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, this mostly unconscious impulse towards dissociation has us avoiding huge swaths of reality.
The mindful approach, very similar to the psychological technique of “exposure therapy,” is actually to expose ourselves to the chaos in a skillful way. Which leads us to reason number two:
Reason 2: Anti-fragility
Nassim Taleb invented the word “antifragile” and used it in his book by the same name to describe a small but significant class of systems that gain from shocks, challenges, and disorder. Bones and the banking system are two examples; both get weaker – and more prone to catastrophic failure – if they go for a long time without any stressors and then face a significant challenge. The immune system is an even better example: it requires exposure to certain kinds of germs and potential allergens in childhood to develop to its full capacity.
In mindfulness meditation, we learn to sit with all of the things that make us human, from our messy emotions, inner critic, or catastrophizing thinking process. And what we realize is that these phenomena will not kill us; as we sit with them with a mindful presence, we become more resilient to their intensity, so that eventually we may even seek out the challenge of unpleasant mental phenomenon.
Reason 3: Not Adding to the Chaos.
One of the superpowers one develops on the journey of mindfulness is the ability to observe the thinking process objectively. The untrained mind has a thought and instantly believes it, or they aren’t even aware of having a thought and believe it anyway. When a meditator approaches the intermediate phase of mindfulness practice, thoughts can be seen as a phenomenon arising and disappearing in consciousness, as narratives coming and going like a radio station in the background. Many folks live totally lost in this narrative of cognition and are entirely at the whims of its changing tide. So much of this narrative is an unhelpful commentary that exacerbates an already bad situation; catastrophizing, fixating on past regrets, obsessing over desires. Mindfulness gives us the option of dropping the narrative and resting in the spacious here and now.
“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Posted by: Brent Morton
Join Brent for a Mindfulness Meditation Course starting October 31.