Week 3 Recap: Is mindfulness more painful than electro shocks?

Once again, I can’t say that I’ve increased my ability to concentrate. Because I’ve only been practicing meditation for a very short time, I’m a bit premature in saying this but I suspect that modern productivity techniques may be more effective in cultivating focus, at least on work tasks.

For example, I’ve been trying the pomodoro technique at work and the results have been promising. Breaking work down into 25-minute, focused blocks allows me to get work done with minimal distractions.

Though meditation hasn’t increased my focus at work, it has increased my mindfulness overall.

Let’s take the example of dealing with irritating people. When someone is doing something or saying something annoying, I’m much more aware of the unpleasant feelings that arise in response to the annoying person.

What’s more interesting is that I don’t try to do anything with the feeling.

When I was practicing Stoicism, I would try to rationalize away the annoyance. When someone was playing their music on the metro too loudly, I would think “okay, it is just a sound wave, there is no reason to get annoyed over a sound wave.”

With the Buddhism mindfulness training, I just think “Hm, I’m getting annoyed in response to the loud music….interesting.” I don’t try to do anything with the feeling.

The end result is the same; I feel calmer. The method is just a bit different.

I also pay more attention to my surroundings, or at least, make an effort to. When I take a walk, instead of getting lost in thought, I try to be mindful of what I’m doing, where I’m going, etc. Instead of using the walk to think of new blog posts or generate my to-do list, I use to simply…notice.

It’s a nice contrast to the “busyness culture” that Americans love to participate in (despite their claims to the contrary). Consider this insightful passage from the NYT article, The Busy Trap:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Buddhism’s goal is to achieve penetrating insight into the nature and reality of the world and our selves. Buddhism advocates practicing mindfulness to achieve that insight. Modern culture promotes busyness in order to avoid that insight.

Apparently, for most people, being alone with your thoughts is more painful than receiving electro shocks!

The Atlantic published an article describing in experiment in which people were asked to put away their distractions for a period of time and asked them to rate how pleasant or unpleasant it was. Most rated it as unpleasant.

In one version of the experiment, participants were given the opportunity to give themselves an electric shock if they chose.

In the most, ahem, shocking study, subjects were wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. (One outlier pressed the button 190 times in the 15 minutes.)

What this experiment shows is that people are uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts. What’s crazy is that this doesn’t even require mindfulness! You have to at least become comfortable with sitting by yourself with minimal distractions before you can learn to cultivate mindfulness.

I found that by being mindful, time seems to slow down. I don’t go from point A to point B and wonder how I got there so fast. I try to pay attention to everything that happens in between A and B, and it seems like I have an infinite amount of time. And it’s generally a pleasant experience to pay attention and be mindful.

Of course, I’m still prone to distraction. If I have my phone with me, I instinctively check my e-mail, even if I’m trying to enjoy a nice walk. When I come home from work, instead of sitting and thinking, I try to distract myself with Netflix.

The big difference is I pay attention to when those desires for distraction pop up. Most of the time I still give in, but I can now analyze when and why they happen.

Overall, I’m fairly pleased with the results of meditation. I’m not achieving my original goal of focus and concentration, but it does seem to be very effective for cultivating mindfulness, which has its own benefits.

Now excuse me while I check my e-mail.