In my late teens, I became interested in Buddhist Psychology.
I read about meditation, attention, the four noble truths, dharma, karma, citta, and various other exotic words.
Ironically, all these ideas became somewhat of an addiction.
On the one hand, I came to understand, at least superficially, that my mental experience was a reflection of my environment. Put simply: garbage in, garbage out.
Yet despite knowing this, and despite my mind being in a pretty uncomfortable place, I never took up a meditation practice. I just kept piling up the knowledge like trophies, and I was (literally) none the wiser.
At the same time, weekends would usually involve the consumption of a concoction of caffeine, sugar, alcohol, cannabis, fast food and the particular type of reality t.v. that made a hangover seem like an achievement.
My mind was so loud and chaotic I didn’t even notice.
Sattva and Samadhi might as well have been Vodka and Sambucca.
What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You
The cabin of an aeroplane is louder than you think. You actually cruise at around 85 decibels. After a couple of hours on board though, you tend to forget you’re sitting on the sonic equivalent of a lawnmower. It all becomes white noise. Most of the time, that was my mind. Loud, bustling, restless white noise.
Part of me wanted to meditate and truly experience what these books we’re talking about. But most of me wasn’t ready; I simply wasn’t accustomed to a quiet mind. Silence was a salad, but my mind had a sweet tooth.
Hmmm. Maybe a salad isn’t the best analogy here. Silence is more of an acquired taste. It’s something that requires exposure before we can start to enjoy it. Like a pungent cheese, a glass of dry wine or whisky with a kick, often we might need to grow into it.
Until we train ourselves to enjoy silence, we’re going to keep being attracted to those things in our life that bring us confusion, disquiet and drama. It’s a slippery slope, because when chaos becomes familiar, it is silence that seems too intense. Noise can distract us from the overwhelming sensations that a quiet mind will expose. At that point, we don’t even try to hold space in our life for peace and quiet — at least that’s where I was.
Even 30-seconds of silence waiting by myself for a friend would build up into an explosive scroll through social media.
I would’ve mourned for my mind’s chaos but the minute’s silence would’ve been unbearable.
Evolution and the Modular Mind
In his 2011 book, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, Evolutionary Psychologist Robert Kurzban explains how the brain evolved to have several specialised, and often competing, systems.
To put it simply, our brains have independent ‘modules’ for separate tasks. For example, we may have one system to promote short-term physical survival, another for morality or social status, and another for meaning-making. Given that meditation is now a billion-dollar industry, we likely have a module for peace of mind.
It’s all much more nuanced than that, but you get the point; sometimes one part of you will do things that another part of you doesn’t appear to want.
That’s why meditation is such a hard habit to stick with. It’s not exactly an easy sell. Happiness and calm aren’t really necessary for the four F’s of evolutionary survival: fighting, fleeing, feeding and fornicating. If the different parts of your mind are having a board meeting, whoever is pitching meditation is probably doing a pretty lousy job.
Fortunately, with time, life experience and a little maturity, our palates can change. The sensations that you’re motivated to experience at 11 are different from what you look for at 21, as they are at 41 and I’m assuming at 81.
Eventually, I did take up a meditation practice, and quite a serious one at that.
Until I acquired the taste for silence — an ongoing process by the way — the benefits of silence just wasn’t interesting enough to convince me to stop chasing the dramas in my head. They didn’t make sense in a paradigm where I didn’t know what peace of mind looked, smelled, felt, tasted or sounded like.
The cost of peace of mind tends to be discomfort and sacrifice, and the uncomfortable reality is that in the realm of the mind, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
So what to do?
Well, that’s up to you. To be clear, this isn’t a call to cut out everything in your life that might contribute to mental noise. That’s unrealistic and relative to each individual.
All I’m trying to say is that at this point in my life, I simply don’t get bored with silence. As strange as it might sound, it can be more interesting than noise. The more time I’m exposed to silence, the better I feel. If someone would pay me to meditate, or even just stare at a wall, I’d take it. It’s probably just a sh*t wage.
Although nutritious, peace and quiet alone doesn’t necessarily constitute a balanced diet. Engaging with noise and chaos and all the stuff that makes your mind race is part of being human. To me, silence rules, but it need not be totalitarian. And besides, sometimes it’s no fun being the only vegan at the BBQ.