We were walking our dogs past our neighbor Katie’s house when she stepped onto her front porch. Katie is a philosophy professor specializing in the works of David Hume. She is also a phenomenal baker of holiday treats (her collection of cookie cutters is prodigious) and a generous guardian to several cats.
“Your flowers look beautiful!” we called out from about twenty-five feet away.
“I hope they don’t die right away,” she said. Then she shook her head and laughed. “God, what a year. They do look beautiful. And that’s the first thing I thought?”
We’re feeling traumatized. Nearly all of us.
The marshmallow test: a researcher leaves a young child in a room with a marshmallow. “You can eat it now, but I’ll be back in ten minutes, and if the marshmallow is still there, you’ll get to have two.”
The marshmallow test has been written about extensively. The children who waited used a variety of strategies to distract themselves from temptation, like closing their eyes or singing to themselves.
Some children impulsively ate the marshmallow. Here’s a treat, nom nom nom! But the children who waited, the researchers reported, grew up to be more successful.
A variety of claims were made, like that the willpower needed to delay gratification allowed children to prioritize their futures, to keep struggling and striving even when things were hard, to turn down drugs and alcohol.
Here’s another interpretation: children who have been through trauma might be making a perfectly logical decision if they eat the marshmallow right away. Because lots of kids have been taught, by past experience, that despite a recently met grown-up’s promise, waiting might cause them to get zero marshmallows, not two.
If a child has learned that any situation might suddenly turn dangerous, they might not feel safe closing their eyes to ignore the marshmallow. If a child has learned that the money and food often run out by the end of the month, they might rightfully eat treats when there’s still a chance.
The pandemic has made me more impulsive. Like my neighbor Katie, I worry that the beautiful flowers might die –almost to the point of forgetting to enjoy them while they last.
Like a child, I worry that the marshmallow might be gone.
I am – or at least, I have been for almost my entire life – a patient, resilient person. My graduate degree took six years. I merrily undertook a writing project that lasted another six. I’m raising children, which feels both hectic and achingly slow.
But right now, I can feel it in myself. Signing up for a vaccine and having the appointment be two and a half weeks away! felt interminable. Every delay aches. The future feels like a distant blur.
Especially amid all the outbreaks of violence – mass shootings in the national news, seemingly unrelated spates of murders in our local paper, all of them likely rooted in impulsiveness, isolation, & stress – delaying any source of joy feels agonizing. As though we might not make it another whole week, or month, or year.
Today, at least, I set aside time in the morning for self-care. I dropped the kids off at school. I went for a fast run, five kilometers just under eighteen minutes. I stretched.
Most importantly, I took the time to meditate.
Meditation is the marshmallow test writ small.
Set a timer for twenty minutes. Sit down. Close your eyes. Choose some small phrase, meaningful or not – “sat nam,” “love more,” “I am calm” – and intone it silently in your mind, half as you breathe in, half as you breathe out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Your mind might wander – if you notice, try to resume your small phrase. Silently repeated sound can anchor you, give yourself space to wash away some mental turmoil.
And, if you are like me, you’ll want to open your eyes and be done with it. This is taking forever! See if you can stay. Keep your eyes closed. Repeat your phrase, and breathe.
If you can last the entire time – well, no researcher will bring you a second marshmallow. But you’ll still receive a gift. A bit of inner peace that wasn’t there before.
I could not have passed the marshmallow test yesterday.
This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.
Our bodies are chaos engines.
In our nearby environment, we produce order. We form new memories. We build things. We might have sex and create new life. From chaos, structure.
As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe.
The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward. The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.
In the beginning, everything was homogeneous. The same stuff was present everywhere. Now, some regions of the universe are different from others. One location contains our star; another location, our planet. Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.
This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become. Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos.
Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction. Sunshine is orderly. But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow. Animals eat the plants. As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.
The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine. We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.
We’ll continue until we can’t.
Our universe is mostly filled with empty space.
But empty space does not stay empty. Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence. This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.
Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter. An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar. Which doesn’t seem like much. But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.
And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.
According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously. Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.
In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver. Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.
There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.
Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle. Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge. In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.
If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.
When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy. Vacuum energy is stored inside them. Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other. Energy is returned to the void.
This constant exchange is like the universe breathing. Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear. Exhale: they explode.
Our universe is expanding. Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing. The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow. In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”
Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today. Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size. Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.
This sudden growth was extremely improbable. For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large. But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value. Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.
After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state. Technically balanced, but warily. Like a pencil standing on its tip. Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.
Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy. A truly stable vacuum. The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.
During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence. The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light.
For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared. When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.
This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky. The planets. Ourselves.
Meditation is like blinking. You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again. Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.
But more is different.
Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles. Quarks, electrons, and photons. Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together. Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.
As our universe expanded, it cooled. Particles slowed down. Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen. Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas. And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas. You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.
When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward. The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb. These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.
The cloud has become a star.
Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together. They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom. If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared. And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.
The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961. It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest. This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.
Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.
Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel. Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms. Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more. Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.
When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions. The star shrinks. It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole. Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.
Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.
Our universe began with only hydrogen gas. Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.
When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center. Satellites, orbiting the star. Planets.
Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars. It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees. Molecules would be instantly torn apart. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.
Molecules are long chains of atoms. Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons. The material is the same – but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Some atoms have an effect on our bodies. If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy. If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.
But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules. String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol. String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.
The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts. You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.
An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids. We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together. Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes. THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.
Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves. The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA. A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water. RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.
Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap. Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made. The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.
Cells can swim. They eat. They live and die. Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.
But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.
Consciousness is an emergent property. With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel. In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.
Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe. We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.
But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.
Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans. Grouped together, we are qualitatively different. The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.
English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.
More is different. The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.
Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity.
Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering.
Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him.
The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.
At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic. Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI. Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.
Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity. Our brains are plastic – changeable. We can alter the way we experience the world. Many of our thoughts are the result of habit. Meditation helps us change those habits. Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.
To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think. This is strikingly difficult. Our brains want to be engaged. After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.
But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize. To structure ourselves. And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different. Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion. Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.
Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky. Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us. How we compose ourselves is everything.
The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats. Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath. The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit. They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.
Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain. “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.” The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”
The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice. Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching. Then sit comfortably. Close your eyes. As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase. As you breathe out, think the second.
Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment. Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase. No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better. When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds. In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound. The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.
Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day. It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines. Still, some is better than nothing. Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them. Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time. After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.
Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit. Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.
In the beginning,
subatomic particles careened too quickly to connect. The universe was “hot.” (Temperature is a measure of average speed as
objects jiggle. When physics people say
that our universe was “hot,” they mean that everything was moving just shy of
the speed of light.)
In the beginning, our universe wasn’t very interesting. But then the homogeneous cloud of fast-moving particles cooled as it expanded. Speeds slowed. Soon, particles dawdled long enough in each others’ vicinity that they could interact. Hydrogen atoms formed, then hydrogen gas, then stars.
Stars are interesting – when a cloud of gas is big enough, its net gravity can pull everything inward until the density becomes so high that nuclear fusion begins. This raging cascade of explosions counteracts the force of gravity and the star reaches an unsteady equilibrium until, eventually, it runs out of fuel and collapses or explodes.
An exploding star scatters
heavier atoms across the sky. When these
are incorporated into a new star, they can participate in nuclear fusion events
in turn, producing even heavier atoms.
Then that star might
Eventually, there were enough heavy atoms floating about the universe that a condensing cloud could form both a star and a set of orbiting satellites. On these satellites – planets – atoms combine in more interesting ways than inside the bellies of stars.
After all, the infernal
core of a star is pretty hot, too.
Inside that blazing oven, particles can form atoms, and atoms can
combine to form heavier atoms, but these are too frantic to form molecules
– long strings of atoms bonded together.
The chemical bonds that hold a molecule together are much weaker than the electrostatic and nuclear forces that maintain an atom. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded ones – are peaceful places compared to stars. On the primordial earth, lightning strikes or UV radiation probably catalyzed the formation of complex molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids.
These molecules are just
big amalgams of subatomic particles. The
underlying stuff is the same … but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Consider the behaviors of a single amino acid. An amino acid is complex compared to a quark or electron. It can do acid-base chemistry! Its mix of charged and neutral surfaces lets it interact in neat ways with various solvents.
But if you compare that
single amino acid to a protein – and a protein is just more amino acids
joined together – you’ll realize that the single amino acid is total
Proteins, though …
wow! They can fold into fantastical
shapes. They can function as molecular machines,
their parts churning and twisting and flipping as they shuttle other molecules
from place to place, or even create whole new molecules.
When you glom more and
more and more subatomic particles together, eventually you create things
that are complex enough to imprint patterns on the world. They create more things like themselves. Proteins and RNA make new proteins and RNA.
And then, a cell! A cell is an amalgam of molecules all dissolved inside a bubble of fat. If you thought proteins were cool, check this out! Cells can swim, they can eat, they can live and die.
Or, what if there were more
cells? Then you can make us! With many cells, you can make brains,
which makes consciousness, which can give all those subatomic particles the
ability to work together and realize that they are subatomic particles.
Well, no. One single human animal, in isolation, probably wouldn’t figure that out. Each human, as an individual, can be pretty great – but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you’ll need more people. Contemporary physics papers list hundreds of authors, and that doesn’t even credit everybody who worked to build the equipment, and or worked to grow the food, and took care for the children, or taught the physicists, when they were young, allowing them to one day become physicists …
And each of those
physicists, and engineers, and farmers, and caregivers, and teachers … each is
a collection of cells, which are collections of molecules, which are
collections of atoms, which are collections of subatomic particles. As we transition between scales, we see
qualitative differences in behavior from adding more.
This essay is made from a
set of just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form a few hundred
thousand different words, and those can be combined to convey an
infinite number of different ideas.
We blink many thousands of times each day. Our eyes close, pause, and then open again. We need to blink. Staring at screens – as I’m doing now, typing this essay, and as are you, reading it – causes us to blink less frequently, and that can lead to headaches. But the quality of each blink doesn’t affect us much. Most blinks pass by without our even noticing.
Meditation is just a long blink. Close your eyes and let more time elapse before you open them again.
But more is
different. A blink doesn’t disrupt your
thoughts. Meditation, however, can be a
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before he began his ministry, Jesus meditated in the Judaean Desert – he saw all the world’s kingdoms before him, but rejected that vision of power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. Before he began his ministry, Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. Buddha decided to share that vision with others.
Before teaching his fellows to reshape the world with words, Odin meditated from a tree branch – he felt that he had died, transcended life, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering before him.
I’ve been preparing anti-racist material about paganism and spirituality so that we have more things to send to people who contact Pages to Prisoners. As part of this project, I’d like to include information about meditation. After all, neo-paganism is invented – typically quite recently – and, as above, many religions have preserved stories suggesting that their founders’ meditation inspired their faith. These religions don’t always prioritize meditation as a contemporary practice, but many do: Christian monks repeat prayers in a way that’s strikingly similar to mantra meditation, Hindu adherents are advised to sit and experience a simulacrum of Shiva’s asceticism, and even warrior cultures have prized pre-battle stillness as a way to focus attention and more fully inhabit the present.
The scientific literature is also replete with papers about meditation — but most of these are junk. It’s fairly easy to find published studies claiming that mindfulness training can confer disease resistance, immunity to aging, or even paranormal abilities like extra-sensory perception. Scientific papers aren’t inherently more trustworthy than the internet.
But it’s true that your mind is plastic, and your moods can dramatically alter the way you perceive the world. Conditions that affect our nervous system – like depression, insomnia, and even chronic pain – can be treated through meditation. The experiments that scientists use to assess things like “creativity” or “attentiveness” are often open to interpretation, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine that meditation would help.
All people are
creative. Our problem, often, is that
our ideas can flit away before we fully grasp them. Like dreams, they fade, and we’re left with
the irksome sensation that “I feel like I just had a good idea, but …”
Meditation can clear the
turbid waters of your mind. Like gazing
into a pellucid lake, it could become easier to spot your good ideas when they
I’ve never been inside a
prison, so I’ll have to collaborate with friends who have spent time there as I
make the pamphlets. But everything I’ve
read suggests that most prisons are loud, chaotic, stressful, and
dangerous. Which has obvious
implications for how easily people can meditate. If you live near a beautiful glen, you could
probably do well by your brain by simply taking some time each day to sit
peacefully beside some flowing water.
Instead, I’ve been learning about mantra meditation. By silently intoning the same phrase over and over – even if it’s just a nonsense word – you can overcome a fair bit of external distraction. To test, I’ve tried meditating at the YMCA. This place is very calm compared to our county jail, which I’ve heard is itself calmer than a prison, but where I sit, people are usually conversing, and there are a variety of rattling exercise machines.
Several of the guide books I’ve read recommend that you pay somebody a bunch of money to teach you transcendental meditation. During your training, you’ll be given a secret Sanskrit word or phrase. People who’ve taken these training courses have posted a bunch of the words online, and apparently a mantra is selected based upon your age and gender.
That seems silly to me –
although it’s possible that different people’s minds would respond best to
different mantras, my gender isn’t a big component of my identity, nor is my
I did pick out a Sanskrit phrase, which is perhaps a silly choice in and of itself. After all, I can’t speak Sanskrit. But I thought it might be nice to have a set of sounds that didn’t carry a lot of semantic meaning in the rest of my daily life. Although Sanskrit mantras would have held meaning to the original practitioners of this style of meditation, Sanskrit is generally considered a formal, ritual language, not something that people speak at home with their families. Even for native speakers, the chance of crossed wires, in which people were inadvertently saying their special mantras at other times of day, was probably pretty low.
While meditating, there are times when I’m pretty oblivious to my environs, even though I’m sitting in a crowded, noisy place. I assume that I should recommend, for people meditating in prison, that they use a buddy system. Unless somebody you trust immensely was sitting nearby, I assume it would feel too unsafe to allow yourself to completely let go in the way that deep meditation requires.
In case you’re interested
in trying, I can tell you what’s worked so far for me. I’ve been thinking the phrase “sat nam.” I liked the translation when I looked it up
online, and it’s felt convenient to have two discrete sounds – I think the
“sat” while breathing in, and “nam” while breathing out. I’ve read that people aim to spend about six
seconds each on inhalation and exhalation, but I breath much more rapidly than
If nothing too distracting is going on nearby – maybe just some clanking from the ellipticals, treadmills, and stairmasters – I breath in and out once every four to eight seconds. But when people are having a conversation right next to me, I take a breath every one or two seconds, which means I’m intoning my little mantra more often and can do a better job of isolating myself from what’s going on around me.
As far as I can tell, that isolation is the goal of meditation. Our minds evolved to expect constant stimulus during our waking lives. If you reduce the degree of outside stimulation, like with a sensory deprivation chamber, you invite your mind to conjure strange thoughts, visions, and sounds to replace the inputs that it expects. But you have to keep at it long enough.
When particle physicist Richard Feynman described his experience with sensory deprivation tanks, he wrote:
Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
Mr. Lilly had a number of
different tanks, and we tried a number of different experiments. It didn’t seem to make much difference as far
as hallucinations were concerned, and I became convinced that the tank was
unnecessary. Now that I saw what to do,
I realized that all you have to do is sit quietly.
I would like to
have done it at home, and I don’t doubt that you could meditate and do
it if you practice, but I didn’t practice.
I’ve only had a bit of
practice, but when I sit still with my eyes closed and block out the outside
world with a repeated phrase, my mind will sometimes drift. I’ve been trying to sit for twenty minutes,
although I often inadvertently rouse myself after about fifteen – which hasn’t
seemed to be quite enough, for either me or Dr. Feynman. But I get the feeling that it has to be
continuous. Once I’ve opened my eyes and
glanced at the clock, I stop for the day.
Even if nothing much has happened.
On these days, I console myself with a quote from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that I learned from Bob Roth’s Strength in Stillness: “Even in a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
I begin by stretching –
although I’m practicing in a relatively distracting environment, it seems
reasonable to minimize the distractions of my own body. I try not to move while meditating, and it’d
be harder to maintain a single posture if I could feel my body ache.
After I close my eyes, the
first few minutes typically feel like a waste of time. I’m sitting there repeating a nonsense phrase
and I can’t help but think of the myriad other things that I ought to be doing.
As long as I can force
myself to keep at it, though, the experience changes. More becomes different. Undulating phosphenes blossom in the umber
field of my closed eyes. Sometimes I
slip into reverie; if I catch myself daydreaming, I’ll resume intoning my bit
of Sanskrit, which helps me set aside whatever vein of thought led me astray.
Nobody is totally sure why we need sleep, but recent results have suggested that nitrogenous waste and other metabolic toxins can only be cleared from brain cells while we’re snoozing. If you stay awake too long, trash piles up along the roadways of your mind, and all that junk prevents learning, memory formation, and attentiveness.
During my classes in jail, I often work with men who have stayed awake for weeks at a time by taking methamphetamine – they’ve experienced a wide variety of hallucinations, paranoia, and mental turmoil. Amphetamines aren’t very toxic, but loss of sleep can seriously damage a person’s brain.
One day without sleep
won’t kill you. Luckily so – since
having kids, there have been many nights when a little one wakes up screaming
and I never get to rest. But more is
different. After three days without
sleep, the shadow people start talking.
After eight days, my students have started talking back: “I knew they
weren’t real … but I still didn’t want to be rude. But we got into all these arguments.”
Sleep washes away the
argumentative shadow people.
When meditation goes well, I sometimes imagine my mind being cleansed – I’ll sit there thinking sat nam, sat nam and envision a cascade of water flowing over me like Heracles used to clean King Augeas’s stables. But meditation might not help with keeping a brain tidy – those experiments on the waste-clearing function of sleep were done with mice, and (to the best of my knowledge) nobody has taught mice to meditate.
If you trust my spouse’s
subjective evaluation, though, meditation seems to help. I’ve apparently been more pleasant to live
with since I started practicing.
If you’re going to try, aim for at least twenty minutes, maybe once or twice a day for a few weeks. My apologies if it seems pointless at first. I’d recommend you keep at it – just like a single minute won’t give you the same benefit as twenty, it seems reasonable to expect that a single day wouldn’t have the same benefit as a month’s daily practice.
Siddhartha was born into luxury. Wealth wasn’t enough to banish a nagging sense of emptiness, but if Siddhartha hadn’t left the palace, he never would’ve known deprivation.
Instead, he walked. He met people afflicted with worse ills than his own lack of purpose – bedraggled souls who were poor, and sick, and miserable. He was horrified by the world we humans have been given.
The local gods feared that Siddhartha would gain enlightenment. Like Yahweh in the Old Testament, these gods believed that knowledge should be the exclusive province of the divine; like white supremacists in the Jim Crow era, they believed that shared access to the fountain would tarnish their own privilege. And so they sent a storm to disrupt Siddhartha’s concentration.
Like Satan in the Old Testament, a snake came to help. Mucalinda, a cobra-like naga king, believed in equality – humans too should have access to knowledge. The cobra’s hood formed a protective bubble around Siddhartha, protecting him from the storm.
Siddhartha gained knowledge. He now knew that non-attachment would free humans from suffering. Everything in this world is impermanent – in the very end, each speck of matter will be so far from every other that the entire universe will be dark, empty, and cold – and so our attachments can only bring us pain. We must recognize that our transitory world will always leave us unsatisfied. Even our moments of joy will fade – those fleeting bursts of dopamine aren’t enough to sustain lasting happiness.
To be free of suffering, we have to let go.
But I’m an assistant coach for the local cross country team. I run with the kids. We suffer – that’s kind of the point.
Attachment brings suffering, but, again – that’s kind of the point.
My favorite superhero right now is Deadpool. Most heroes have powers that keep them safe from harm – spider sense, super strength, telepathy. Deadpool’s power is simply the willingness to endure harm. As though tattooed with the word THOLE down his neck, Deadpool knows that life will hurt and sardonically accepts it.
He briefly considers non-attachment. When he learns that he has a daughter, he plans to stay away from her. Distance might keep her safe from Deadpool’s enemies – and would keep him safe from emotional turmoil.
Instead, he lets himself become attached. He will suffer; so will she. But he’s decided that the pain is part of life.
When Deadpool meets a young woman who’s so depressed that she’s contemplating suicide, he doesn’t advocate non-attachment. It’s true that her torments will be temporary, but that’s a Buddhist consolation. Instead, he tells a joke (he justifies his levity by claiming that his powers came when he was “bitten by a sad radioactive clown”) and takes her to experience more pain and suffering.
My own depression has seemed more manageable for similar reasons. Since I’ve been working with people entrapped in the criminal justice system, I experience more pain. More horrors are shared with me now. But that very sharing connects me more clearly to the world.
Those connections – attachment – will bring suffering, but that’s the very stuff of life. All you can do is endure. As the chemist Primo Levi wrote in If This Is a Man, his account of time spent in a Holocaust concentration camp (translated by Stuart Woolf), as long as you can resist becoming too absorbed in your tiny experience of the present moment, there is always cause for hope:
It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium – as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom – well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.
You could always kill yourself later, Levi says, so why not see how much more you can bear?
And, yes, Deadpool takes the young woman to the hospital. When one of my acquaintances needed to go, I took her in as well. (I was on the phone with my father: “Just lie to her, tell her anything, but get her in.” I keep the volume on my phone loud enough that she heard everything he said. At least it was something to laugh about.)
Hang in there. The suffering won’t change. But you might.
During graduate school, I participated in a psychology study on aging. The premise behind the experiment was simple enough: young people, when given the choice, tend to spend their time with new acquaintances, whereas older people would often rather spend time with family. But what happens when we inoculate young people with a sense of their own mortality? Will they make the same choices as their elders?
At the beginning of the study, I was interviewed and asked to play a memory game: photographs of smiling faces, nature scenes, & car wrecks were displayed on a computer screen before then interview, then afterward more photos were shown and I was asked which were repeats from the initial set. Then I was asked to spend twenty minutes a day for the next two weeks listening to a speech about the inevitability of death. No matter what we think awaits us next, I heard each day, one thing is certain. All of us will die. The time we share now is our only time in this life.
That sort of thing.
After two weeks of this, they gave me another interview and a repeat of the memory game. Was I changed by two weeks’ worth of meditation on death?
Honestly, I doubt it. The data they collected from me was probably worthless. I was about to finish my doctorate and leave California, so there was already a sense of finality to most of my actions there. Plus, I’m the sort of depressed weirdo who always thinks about death, psych study or no. I don’t usually get paid $300 to do it. But it seems unlikely that I’d be altered by an experimental treatment so little removed from my everyday experience.
My laboratory baymate also participated in the study. He seemed to be affected more than I was. After two weeks of meditation on death, he started talking about lobsters.
The meat machines we call our bodies evolved to live fast and die young, but we might be able to tweak and tune them to persist an extra hundred years.
Two hundred years is still a far cry from immortality, though.
Not, of course, that true immortality is possible. Over time, the entropy of the universe increases. Someday there will be no more life, no planets, no stars – nothing but a homogeneous smear filling all space. But many orders of magnitude separate our lifespans from the expected heat death of the universe. Humans could live much, much longer than we do now and still never need to worry about that cold, lonely end.
Which brings us to the idea that a human mind could be preserved independent of this biodegradable shell. Conceptually this is not so strange. The workings of a mind are due to electrical currents pulsing through a particular configuration of synaptic connections. If different currents pulse through, you’re having different thoughts. If the synapses are connected in a different pattern, you have a different mind, a different personality, different memories.
If our mind is nothing but the pattern of our synapses, it should be possible to map all their connections and use this information to reproduce ourselves. Even if our mind is also molded by components other than the synapses (such as the myelin sheaths formed by glial cells), it should be possible (using a very powerful computer) to simulate the entire mess.
This is why some people want their heads lopped off and brains frozen after death. Not me. When I read about these people, I generally feel sad. I hate the idea of dying. It terrifies me. But I still believe it adds something to the human experience. And, although my particular brain seems to work well, I’m not sure the people of the future would want to expend the resources necessary to keep it around. They might decide to use their (very powerful!) computers for something else.
Still, there is the dream. Maybe the people of the future will be able to bring us back to life. And maybe, just maybe, they will want to. This is the premise of Don Delillo’s Zero K. A few very wealthy individuals have funded an institution that will preserve their brains and bodies to be revived at some future time.
Any future resurrection, especially one mediated by computers, would be akin to the creation of an artificial intelligence. It will always be impossible to use nondestructive methods to perfectly map the components of a human brain. Given the quantum-mechanical fuzziness of reality, it’s hard to imagine what the concept of mapping “perfectly” would even mean. A future resurrection would be no more than an approximation of the original person.
Maybe this would be enough. After all, our brains change day by day and yet our personalities remain the same. Even severe brain injuries can leave our identities largely intact. Maybe the information inevitably lost when scanning a dead brain would prove to be irrelevant.
But we don’t know. And so one of the first experiments that anybody would suggest is: Can the resurrected mind pass a Turing test? If someone attempts to engage the resurrected mind in conversation, would the interlocutor walk away convinced that the mind was human?
Unfortunately, the characters Delillo sculpted to populate Zero K allow him to skirt this idea. It’s worth mentioning that Delillo’s White Noise is one of my all-time favorite books. I think he’s a great writer, and in his other books have loved the way he does dialogue. He beautifully depicts the interpersonal disconnect that permeates modern life. Consider this passage from White Noise in which two professors visit a tourist trap together:
Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides–pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.”
He seemed immensely pleased by this.
This is not a conversation. The speaker is unconcerned by the narrator’s lack of response. I think this is a beautiful, elegant commentary on modern life. You could read Martin Buber’s philosophical texts about the meaning of dialogue, or you could learn the same concepts while having a heckuva lot more fun by reading Delillo’s White Noise.
And yet. I think Delillo does a disservice to the ideas he’s exploring in Zero K to have the characters of his new novel also converse with each other in this disjointed way. Consider two fragments of dialogue, both from about a hundred pages into the novel (which just happens to be when I first realized that this style of dialogue, employed throughout, might be problematic here). In the first, a wealthy man is speaking to his son about his wife’s decision to be put down before she deteriorates farther:
“Yes, it will happen tomorrow,” he said casually.
“This is not some game that the doctors are playing with Artis.”
“Or that I’m playing with you.”
“You’ll be alerted early. Be here, this room, first thing, first light.”
He kept pacing and I sat watching.
“Is she really at the point where this has to be done now? I know she’s ready for it, eager to test the future. But she thinks, she speaks.”
“Tremors, spasms, migraines, lesions on the brain, nervous system in collapse.”
“Sense of humor intact.”
“There’s nothing left for her on this level. She believes that and so do I.”
In this next, a traveling monk is describing the facility to that same son – the wealthy man’s son is our window into this world.
“This is the safehold, the waiting place. They’re waiting to die. Everyone here dies here,” he said. “There is no arrangement to import the dead in shipping containers, one by one, from various parts of the world, and then place them in the chamber. The dead do not sign up beforehand and then die and then get sent here with all the means of preservation intact. They die here. They come here to die. This is their operational role.”
If I were evaluating a Turing test and my conversational partner started speaking this way, I’d suspect my interlocutor was a robot. In my experience, most humans don’t talk this way.
By making the human characters more robotic, resurrection becomes an easier prospect. The more computer-like someone sounds – liable at any moment to spout off lists of facts instead of sentimental interpretations of the world – the easier it would be for a computer to encapsulate that person’s mind. The stakes seem artificially lowered.
I’m not trying to say that the resurrection of Elizabeth Bennett would dazzle me whereas bringing back Mr. Darcy would leave me yawning. But even Mr. Darcy, for all his aloof strangeness, feels far more viscerally engaged with human life than any of the characters in Zero K. Which, to me, undermines this particular exploration of the ideas.
Would you die happier knowing that a rigid automaton vaguely like you would someday be created, and maybe it would live forever? For me, the answer is “no.” I think my passions matter.