Mindfulness and Me

by Charles Miller on June 8, 2014

Instant messages, last Thursday:

Charles: I’m spending the next two days at a terribly wanky-sounding seminar.

Charles: “Search Inside Yourself”

Vidya: Eek.

Charles: Someone else cancelled and gave me their ticket.

Vidya: You’d better not come out brainwashed and be like “It was great. I never expected it, but it’s mind blowing ladidah…”

Vidya: You’d better return a cynic.

Charles: I searched inside myself, and found a cynical bastard.

The Good

To my great disappointment, a decent chunk of what went on in the day and a half I was holed up in the Sheraton learning to be mindful was not an irredeemable load of wank. Much of the theory around self-awareness and self-improvement was prima facie plausible, and seemed backed by a non-trivial amount of peer reviewed science.

As anyone will tell you, paying attention to one thing at a time is not my strongest skill. In a recent hack day, one of the company’s CEOs went so far as to tell me I had “one of the biggest cases of attention deficit he’s ever seen” as I obsessively command-tabbed between the many windows that keep me with one leg on each strand of my spider-web of constantly streaming global information.

So as much as I hate to admit it, the “mindfulness meditation” exercises around controlling the focus of your attention, recognising when your attention was wandering and drawing it back to whatever you were originally supposed to be doing without falling into a downward spiral of judgement and meta-analysis were something I could use to good effect in my day-to-day life.

I even found myself paying more attention to the speakers than I normally would. It almost seems like cheating, when you start the day teaching your audience how not to tune out of what you’re saying for the rest of it.

The journalling exercises also reminded me of the power of putting one word after another. Whenever I write, I fight with the way what felt in my head like a linear narrative waiting to be transcribed verbatim turns out to be anything but. Turning ideas into written words forces you to fill in all sorts of gaps you didn’t even know were there until you started writing, and often you learn a great deal of what you really think by making yourself express it.

Other techniques, like the practice of recognising emotion in the physical effects it has on your body, and then distancing yourself from them enough to make rational decisions seemed promising, although I utterly failed to summon any triggers from memory during meditation.

It’s also worth mentioning the massive buffet lunch the hotel put on for us was nothing short of amazing.

The Bad

The first thing I wrote down in my notes on day one: “Amazing how you can prime an audience to say what you want them to, by describing something then asking people to describe it as if you hadn't.” If you have spent five minutes telling a room full of people what you think are important qualities for success, don’t pretend to be all surprised when you ask them what they value in a leader and have those points regurgitated back to you.

Despite the presentations being quite grounded in rationality and scientific evidence, the atmosphere in the room often verged on the revival meeting, and even if there was no “woo” on stage, you could hear the crystals’ faint clinking whenever the microphones roamed the audience. In the frequent feedback sessions, attendees competed to be the most earnest, to provide the most insightful reinforcement of the speakers, to gush at how the most recent five minutes of meditation had changed their lives.

By the second day I had started collecting examples of “common phrases that make me dismiss your statement”, including any comment from the audience starting with “Can I acknowledge…” or ending with “I just wanted to share that.”

A note from my end-of-first-day summary: “Boring people should not be given microphones.”

I hope they didn't think I was taking the piss too much when I volunteered that I had attempted to mindfully drink a beer, but wasn't sure I had experienced anything different because “the first beer after work is already a spiritual experience.”

The rare admission that some practice hadn’t been useful, or some enlightenment hadn’t been felt, was met by the presenters with a thoughtful “Well isn’t that interesting”, reminding me so much of the “That is such a great dream” that Quentin Watts, Triple J’s resident morning show dream interpreter in the 90s, would preface every one of her blatant cold readings.

A note early from the second day, whispered to me from a neighbouring seat during one of the many times comment was being sought from the audience: “I challenge you to think of the most absurd thing you can say and still get [the presenter] to agree with you.”

Even as the presenters pushed the science, they were careful to hedge their bets occasionally by pointing out that the field and much of the research was new and uncorroborated.

During the lunch break on day one, I asked an academic working in the field how you could possibly have a double-blind study when the subjects obviously knew which group they were in by dint of the fact that they either were, or were not taking a mindfulness course. His response: “It’s even worse than that. In [the study he was involved with], the evaluating therapists all knew which group each subject was in within minutes of starting their evaluation, just from the words they used to describe their progress.”

The Ugly

I suffer from a mild social anxiety. It manifests as an irrational but unescapable belief that aside from about half a dozen people—wife, immediate family, closest friend—everyone else in the world would be far happier if I wasn’t around. Amongst other things it’s why at University I was that guy who would always leave parties without saying goodbye, why I’m so bad at conferences and trade-shows, and why performance reviews turn me into an alcoholic.

Over the years I’ve developed effective ways of coping. Simple things like structuring social interaction around some activity like a game, or around alcohol, (preferably both) limiting my daily contact with strangers, or making sure I have scripts to deal with common social situations. (When I make a phone call, I’ll map the expected conversation out in my head before I dial the number. Which is why voicemail always throws me for a loop.)

Which brings me to the last four lines in my notebook, written just before lunch on the second day:

“Just like me” practice.
Kindness training.

Staring at someone - awkward as fuck.

The exercise… I mean “practice” was to explore the concept of empathy by staring intently at a complete stranger for what felt like an eternity, while the convener quietly encouraged you to recognise this person as another human being just like you, with all the same kinds of thoughts and feelings, memories, triumphs and pain as you, to connect with them.

At times it was hard not to giggle, but we got through it. It certainly created the illusion that somehow just by staring at someone for a while I had made some connection to them.

After the practice was over, as we debriefed in preparation for lunch, I felt this growing feeling of dread.

“Aha!” I thought. “A chance to use that thing we learned yesterday!”

I took a deep breath or two, tuned out the microphone-grabbers describing how their minds had been opened to the beauty of the world and focused my attention on the sensations in my body. Tightness in my chest. Tense muscles. Heightened senses. “Fight or flight” reflex.

It was the very familiar sensation of “human being overload”. Unlike all the previous one-on-one exercises which had been safely covered by my “talking at someone on a harmless predetermined topic” script, this unexpected, unscripted and unfamiliar interaction was something my brain was not prepared to process rationally.

I'd felt this often enough to realise the only reliable way to make it go away was to distance myself from anyone who might want to interact with me. So I gathered up my notepad and bag, avoided the Sheraton’s delicious buffet, ate a large tub of frozen yogurt in blissful anonymity in a food court, then went home.

Everyone’s mind is different. Some peoples minds don’t work quite as you (or they) wish they did. Introducing people cold to exercises designed to have a psychological impact, in an unregulated, highly conformist environment with no safe avenue to opt out seems… risky.

Previously: Another day in the Donna/Charles household

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