Monday, March 16, 2009

A Technological Monk (from the Technological Monk)

I thought I'd take the time to transcrieb the following post from the self-titled blog that it is attached to:

A Technological Monk

In it, I discuss a bit of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, how our attention is often divided, the need for developing singular focus, meditation, and how we can incorporate those point in our modern, technology-filled lives. I think you'd enjoy it, and it belongs just as much here as over there. Enjoy!

Today, I'm going to elaborate on something I've discussed before: why it's important to take time to slow down.

I am a technological monk, a modern monk. I meditate, though not nearly as frequently as I want (or need) to. Truth be told, we have to make time for the things we enjoy, and one of these days I'll get around to working it into a routine or schedule. Until then, however, I make do by slowing down. I adapt the older techniques to a more modern way of life.

The fundamentals of Eastern meditation can be found from the Upanishads down to Patanjali (Deva: पतञ्जलि, pata~njali), who compiled the yoga sutras. Actually, the first line of the yoga sutras is as follows:

अथ योगानुशासनम् ||||
atha yogaanushaasanam ..1..
Here (अथ) is the continuation (denoted by prefix अनु-) of the teachings (शासनम्) of yoga. This indirectly (though not merely implicitly) shows that the study of yoga had been going on for some time before Patanjali's formal compilation of sutras. While I'm on the subject, here are the next few lines:

योगश्चित्तवृत्ति निरोधः ||||
तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपेऽवस्थानम् ||||
वृत्तिसारूप्यमितरत्र ||||

yogashcittavRtti nirodhaH ..2..
tadaa draSTuH svaruupe.vasthaanam ..3..
vRttisaaruupyam itaratra ..4..

"Yoga is the cessation (nirodhaH) of the turnings (vRtti) of the mind (citta).
Then (tadaa), the seer (draSTuH) resides (avasthaanam) in its own true form (svaruupe).
In other cases (elsewise, etc. ; itaratra), the true self (saaruupyam) [identifies with, "is"] the turnings (vRtti)."

What this essentially means is that:
  1. The process of "yoga" is when the mind (in actuality, citta is the amalgamation of three components of sense-related consciousness) stops turning or revolving. It stops creating movement.
  2. This is a very bold statement. Most people have never experienced this in a waking state, and so the third sutra serves to allay any fears of death.
  3. The "seer" (a metaphor for the true inner consciousness) resides in the knowledge of itself.
  4. In other cases, this inner consciousness identifies with movements in the mind. This identification is fallacious.
The idea here is that we have consciousness. It cannot be turned off while we are alive. This consciousness is usually focused "outwards," through the mind and its movements, through sensory perception, and out to the world. However, through careful and sustained practice, prayer, and/or raw discipline, one can turn off perception to these "outward" things, including to one's thoughts. Since consciousness cannot be turned off, it insteads reflects back on itself, and this "self-awareness" is the basis for yoga. Mystics find their liberation from the world through this, and despite being a horrid cliché that I hate, I will buckle and say that a Westerner can think of this as "enlightenment."

(Breakdown here is courtesy of my amazing former professor, Dr. Edwin Bryant, and his amazing Yoga Sutras topical study of religion. My explanation and interpretation exists because of what I learned in his classes.)

Relax, I'm getting to the point.

Nowadays, we're brought up to multitask. Multitasking is great, and useful, and is a great skill. But, overdeveloping that ability backfires. We learn to focus first, before we learn to split our attention amongst other things. When we learn to multitask, most of us continue to develop that without fully developing the ability to truly focus on one or two things. We don't have balanced attention.

Meditation works entirely on focus, especially with only one object. I'm not saying that multitasking has absolutely no place in meditation, but unless you're advanced, have another motive, or are a special case, it primarily hinders progress. That's why I don't buy the excuse that absolutely EVERYONE gives: "I just can't focus." Guess what? NO ONE can! It's nothing that doesn't affect everyone else. "Stopping" thought is not easy. You have to work at it, over a long period of time, and with discipline. Really, that statement is pretty much just a poor excuse; either they don't really care about it or don't realize that they have to invest a significant amount of time. Instant gratification really doesn't apply, especially for things considered "ascetic" arts.

At any rate, the fact of the matter is that we're stuck with a better multitasking ability and we're left wanting in terms of singular focus. My good friend Adam pointed out to me recently that an average pack/day smoker gets to have anywhere from forty to an hour and forty minutes of time that could be considered mild meditation. Adam, being ever the resourceful one, takes whatever opportunity he can to do what he refers to as "bullshit meditations." What a great idea! I, myself, do a lot of these b.s. meditations in my daily routines.

As I've said before, taking time to slow down can really have magical effects for some people. Taking time to focus on doing something in the not-so-efficient or not-so-resourceful way can serve a great deal of purposes, including building character-defining traits, forming idiosyncracies that can enrich your life (for yourself), and de-stressing! These habits give you a chance to concentrate your focus on one or two things, which lets you regroup. Many people think that by constantly checking on problems or worrying (essentially bringing things to the forefront of your mind from time to time) "in the background" that they're doing something good. Actually, it's a lot like flicking Alt+Tab; you're flipping through open programs, but just because you're not seeing some of the programs for more than five seconds at a time doesn't mean that they're magically "in the background." You have to let them sit, until they're tossed into the swap partition. This frees up your RAM to do something else, and when you do finally switch back to your other thoughts, they really are "refreshed." From personal experience, I can tell you this is really conducive to the Eureka Effect.

Understandably, modern life differs from ancient life. We can't all just up and leave our jobs and become ascetics or monks; devoting our lives to a method to free ourselves from life doesn't seem to fit the contemporary mood. On the whole, we don't care, and most of us haven't even thought about our own mortality in a truly life-altering way (aside from the fifteen minutes after somebody close to us passes away). However, why should that stop us from utilizing meditation as a quick tool to boost the quality of our lives? It can boost productivity, balance our moods, give us some greater perspective beyond the immediate here & now of our individual lives, and perhaps give us some spiritual insight in the process.

And why shouldn't we recruit the use of technology for this? As a personal example of how I sharpen my focus, I recently started learning the Linux command-line. I've been learning some scripting so that I could do some batch video conversions for my iPod. While in the future I can convert video really easily and without much thought, I spent two to three hours last night trying to get the script to work just right. That was good, solid focus. No multitasking; I wasn't checking torrents, downloading guides, writing this blog post. I was taking things one step at a time and trying to get exactly one thing working. This is just one example of how I take time to work on laser- or flashlight-like focus, instead of a lantern or lightbulb-like focus (a modern take on a very old metaphor). Slowly but surely I am learning some discipline. Actually, I've read numerous articles on the web that highlight research in education techniques. Doing things for shorter periods of time with a more intense focus and doing them daily is generally much more effective than "brute-forcing" something into your head irregularly and for prolonged periods of time. From my varied sources, this is true of meditation. The misconception is that when you sit down to meditate, you sit down for hours at a time until you get it. Beginners hear this and it really turns them away for the idea after trying it. Actually, it is much more effective to try and meditate for maybe a half hour a day for a few weeks, and as it gets more comfortable/familiar/easier, to increase that time. Very similar to many doctors' recommendations for exercise...

This is another junction where we can identify some of our issues by taking a look at our technological practices, and how some of our technological solutions can trickle back into other aspects of our everyday lives. As if I haven't said it enough already, there's no reason we can't still find ancient wisdom in our cutting-edge laptop or bleeding-edge software release. Similar ideas are at play now that were in effect thousands of years ago. And, at least for some things, that's not such a bad idea.

1 comment:

  1. The wandering mind is quite troublesome. I've tried many times to sit and think of "nothing" It's amazing how such a "simple" task can be so difficult. People say to try and concentrate on breathing but then I find myself instead of thinking of "nothing", I'm counting my breaths. And then the numbers lead to some other memory or thought and the cycle continues.

    Meditation I think is that much more important in today's society because of the fact that information is so readily available. The problem is that in today's world, with the blackberries and the internet with the constant influx of information, it's that much harder to prevent that flow and to have peace of mind if only for a moment.