The line between being a meditator and a mediator is a fine one. I am not a mediator other than in disputes of which cat threw up on the couch and and internal discussions concerning my justifications for switching from coffee to tea. See, this is why I’m a bad meditator, already this post is off the rails when all I wanted to do was sit down and focus on a single thing. Which is never true.
I’ve taken up meditating again as a defense mechanism to the anxiety driven daymares I have upon waking up each morning, daymares in which I’m not particularly good at anything. So, what I choose to do is partake in an activity that I’m, and I’m being completely frank here, terrible at. I’m treating performance anxiety with an activity that increases performance anxiety. Perfect. And when I call myself a meditator, I mean that in the same sense that someone might call me a piano player or French speaker or litter box cleaner, i.e it’s not something I do on a regular basis, regular enough to even be competent at it.
Still, I have this odd conviction that if I could only focus on my breath for a ten count up and then back down, twenty in all, my concentration abilities would be through the roof and thus, I could stop concentrating on failure and concentrate instead on creating the next great American novel or even a clean litter box. For the past 10 mornings (including weekends, a sign of my temporary commitment), I’ve gotten up and meditated for twenty minutes in an attempt to calm the existential hum that has taken over the radio signals of my brain. Kurt Vonnegut coined the phrase “existential hum” as his description for the constant buzz that exists in our brains all the time, the demands and worries of our daily lives rattling the anxiety noisemakers at full blast. Or maybe it’s just Vonnegut and I that have that problem. Regardless, he said the only time he was able to actually extinguish the hum was when he was doing heroin. Not knowing any heroin dealers, I chose a slightly different path in trying to learn how to meditate the hum away.
Awareness meditation involves focusing on the breath for a period of time, in my case I chose twenty minutes, which is turning into a rather lofty goal The book I’m reading on meditation describes a process where you say in-1 on the in breath and out on the out-1 breath, repeating for all numbers up to ten and then counting back down again. This seems like a fairly simple proposition in its description but when each day increases the level of anxiety you’re dealing with (for reasons that may or may not become clear as this essay continues, it all depends on whether I can stay focused that long) and you gave up drinking for the first quarter of 2012, suddenly it’s extremely hard to ignore all that and just think “I’m going to count my breaths for twenty minutes.”
Let’s face it, in our daily world, the moments of quiet and concentration are almost non-existent which is one thing I’m enjoying about the Internet blackout today in protest of SOPA. I have decided I will just take the day off from Facebook and Twitter and possibly email if I can manage it though frankly, none of this will change my non-existent ability to meditate tomorrow morning for twenty minutes. During my times of sitting on the floor in the mornings, I have found that my mind can wander to the strangest of things as well as the most mundane, all apparently in a diabolical effort to keep me from my stated goal of focus and concentration. I think about the heater coming on or the aforementioned litter box that hasn’t been cleaned or the fact that the dog farted (a recurrent theme lately in my writing, not sure he’s getting anymore rawhide bones) to whatever else means I don’t have to sit there and think in-1, out-1, in-2, out-2.
Last Friday, I attended a staging of La Bête, a play inspired by the French playwright Molière. The central theme of La Bête pits two characters against one another. The first is Elomire, a man staked like a dog in the middle of the yard to a set of principles he holds dear. I like to think of this type of character as The Martyr. His principles are his raison d’être, fundamental not only to his vision of the world but to his interactions with his friends and patron. He is a man blind to consequences. The second is Valere. He is the prototypical stage Fool, an archetype of the theater and in the case of La Bête, the foil to Elomire’s idea of principles and The Right. Valere is interested in pleasing people and having a good time, ideas obviously anathema to the purity of Elomire.
The entire play is an examination of the conflict between these two archetypes, the Martyr and the Fool. This conflict is prominent through a great deal of the world’s literature. The stoic Martyr, ever attached to the Principle, marches on towards, alternatively, world peace, catharsis or doom. The Fool goes about his business entertaining people by appealing to their animal desires, ignoring his place in the great drama (even in a comedy!). It is the epitome of High Brow versus Low Brow and involves all the tsk-tsking and “frowning down the nose” of the elites and their Principles. Tellingly, the Martyr is never a happy, fulfilled character other than in his own tortured psyche. How could he be? He consistently and persistently sacrifices that which makes us human at the altar of his beliefs. The Martyr is invariably found unlikeable at the end of this particular play as he has spent the entire time going around saying “you SHOULD” and “you NEED” and “it’s the Principle of the matter”. In the play (and in my experience), people who plead their case by imploring others based on guilt end up taking the long walk upstage alone because, well, those people aren’t much fun to drink beer with (they probably think drinking beer is a waste of ones intellect).
The Fool has his problems too. The world would be a sad place if it was ruled by Fools (leaving aside the fact that Western Civilization IS apparently ruled by Fools at this juncture in history). It’s the Martyrs that drive change in their annoyingly insufferable ways. To live a Fool’s life is to live a life without much meaning. The Fool goes off on his merry way, totally unaware of his lack of depth, living a life completely unexamined. For many of us, we struggle between the two roles, on one hand hoping to truly change something in the world, on the other, just getting by because let’s face it, changing the world isn’t only hard, it’s largely thankless and God knows your son just wants you to come home and throw the football to him after work.
Of late, I have taken this dramatical conflict and applied it to my mental behavior where on one side (undoubtedly the left one), I feel the need for constant improvement and progress, to learn new things, to see new worlds, to be able to sit on the damn floor for 20 minutes and just focus on my breath. On the other side (or more likely, in the amygdala, that center for all things emotional and animal-like), I want to sit on the couch with a double rum and coke watching reruns of Two and A Half Men until I black out. So I’ve taken to meditating in an attempt to mediate the conflict between the two. It’s just not going so well.
If you’ve never tried to meditate (or pray for an extended period of time if you prefer things more religious in nature), it’s shockingly difficult. Not deadlift 300 pounds difficult but still, exceptionally hard. The mind, if left to its own devices, prefers to just flit along on the mental scenic byway stopping for a scenic overlook here or an interesting diner there, until it’s time to go to bed again and nothing has been accomplished. To focus on a single thing for even 5 minutes is excruciating. Or maybe that’s just my Twitter addiction talking. I’ll count up to about three and then discover that I’m thinking about an unfinished essay. Then I’ll vow mentally to redouble my efforts, start over and then only make it to two the next time. Clearly, things are not improving.
Without getting into the actual detail since there’s no sense in providing detail of an event that may or may not happen, the anxiety I’m attempting to deal with through meditation instead of alcohol regards my application to become part of something life changing in the same way the lottery might be life changing but in a much more intellectually fulfilling way. And with the same approximate odds of success. So logically, my left-side, Martyr character brain says that there is no point in obsessing about it, let’s try to improve things by becoming aware of the fact we’re breathing. Of course, the amygdala, ever present since there is no telling when you’ll need to fight or run like hell, keeps telling me to focus entirely on the event that may or may not happen and thus, degrades my ability to concentrate even more than the already pitiful level.
On the plus side, this morning during my not particularly successful breath awareness meditation session, I did manage to work out a thorny issue I was having with an entirely different 2000 word essay. Unfortunately, the solution involves deleting it completely and starting over. Still, minor plus sides that involve deleting 3 hours and 2500 words of work aside, thus far, the meditation treatment plan doesn’t seem to be particularly successful. Malcolm Gladwell thinks that it might take 10,000 hours to become truly proficient at something. If that’s true, I’ll be proficient somewhere around March 10th, 2094. No wonder people take Paxil.
Of course, long before I turn 121, this anxiety invoking event will be decided one way or the other and life can go on. Anxiety seems to be a function of indecision. When you come to a fork in the road, anxiety takes over until you make up your damn mind which direction you’re going to go. If you aren’t at all in charge of making the decision, the anxiety worsens. This is why Robert Frost was such a good poet, he just always took the road less traveled and didn’t worry much about it. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the position where the course of my life lies in someone else’s hands. Not since I applied to college have I felt completely powerless regarding my future and even then, I didn’t particularly care that much about what college I went to since all I really wanted to do was keep playing soccer.
In the end, I will probably continue to meditate for twenty minutes each morning until I don’t. They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. If that’s the case, I’ll be a full fledged novice meditator on February 1st and can surely look forward to a breakthrough on that day when I manage to count to five breaths without thinking about my legs falling asleep.