We’d Rather Zap Ourselves Than Face Ourselves

shockkongBefore I start, my very first on-line retreat at Tricycle.com is going on right now. Check it out!

Several people, including the lovely Whitney, have forwarded me different versions of an article that says we’d rather administer electric shocks to ourselves than sit quietly with our own thoughts. The first one I saw was from the Boston Globe but the one from i09.com is a bit more detailed.

The articles say pretty much the same thing since they’re all drawn from the same Science Magazine article. We’d rather do pretty much anything in the world than be alone with our own thoughts for a while. When test subjects were given a device that delivered painful electric shocks, they chose to zap themselves rather than sit quietly without any outside stimulation.

The article says that Timothy Wilson, the University of Virginia psychology professor who led the study, ”wonders whether people who regularly meditate will rate the experience differently.” I’d be interested to see that too. I’ve spent seven days at a time with nothing to entertain me but my own brain farts, and I also do it for an hour a day every day of the week, so I’m pretty sure I could go 15 minutes without zapping myself. But who knows how others will react?

This study shows just how hard it is to really meditate. Like for realsies, with nobody talking you through it, no mantra to repeat to yourself, no pretty pictures to stare at, no goal to achieve, no silly questions to ponder so you can try to impress some old guy in golden robes with your answer…

The researchers don’t know it, but this is a study about shikantza, or “just sitting” meditation practice the way we do it in the style Dogen brought back from China. The researchers’ knowledge of the varieties of meditation probably won’t be sophisticated enough for them to make that distinction. I doubt they’ll realize there are plenty of dodges available for people who want to look like they’re facing themselves when really they’re just finding more subtle forms of distraction.

I don’t think most people — even when they have advanced degrees in psychology and stuff — really understand just how difficult it can be to really remain quietly alone with yourself. It takes a lot of effort. The more mystical among us might posit that the existence of the entire Universe is what happens when God has to try to be alone with his own thoughts for a while. Even he can’t do it!

On our own human level we can see that we’ll do all sorts of horrible things just to distract ourselves from seeing what we really are. We’ll fight wars. We’ll carry firearms around in shopping malls. We’ll eat Big Macs and tell ourselves they’re really good. We’ll go to the most extraordinary lengths just to avoid having to look at who and what we actually are.

The irony of all this is that when you make the effort to actually look at yourself what you inevitably find at the very core of your being is unspeakably beautiful. Of course, in order to get to this point you have to sift through a lot of awful smelly garbage and ugly unpleasantness. But it’s worth the effort.

I hope some people out there who have been discouraged with their initial forays into meditation practice will read this article and see its implications. It’s scientific evidence that meditation is hard work. I think a lot of people go into it expecting meditation to be easy-breezy. It’s just sitting still, after all. Anybody should be able to do that!

But sitting still is hard work. It was just as hard for Buddha and Bodhidharma and Dogen and the Dalai Lama and Thich Naht Hanh as it is for you. I put a video about being still at the bottom, which proves everything.

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Thanks for your support! Like I keep saying, I’m deeply into a new book about Dogen which is taking up all my time. As a result I haven’t been touring lately and haven’t been making any money at all. Your contributions really help!

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Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:

Aug. 2 9:30 AM – 3:30 PM All Day Zazen at Angel City Zen Center Los Angeles 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230

Aug. 16 I’ll host a screening of the movie Zen, about the life of Dogen, in Los Angeles

Sept. 5-7 Houston Zen Center (The folks from Austin have vanished! So I’ll probably just go back home after this gig)

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oct 30: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Oct 31: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)

35 Responses

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  1. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer July 9, 2014 at 6:52 am | |

    That was an interesting study. I was curious whether they picked a certain age group or if it was random. Maybe I’ll look it up.

    I’m also kind of amazed that people would pick a shock over sitting alone. I can’t see myself ever picking the shock, even in the days before I meditated. This may be due to the fact that I work with electricity and I’m a wimp regarding pain..

    In engineering there is an old saying that always makes me smile, “Tarry not among those who engage in intentional electric shocks for they are not long to this world”.

    Cheers.

  2. minkfoot
    minkfoot July 9, 2014 at 6:55 am | |

    I saw the article and wondered the same thing. Amazed at the gender difference. C’mon, guys, of all things to be afraid of — your own self!?

    Actually, that kind of makes sense. I’d be afraid of someone who was afraid of themself!

  3. Steve
    Steve July 9, 2014 at 7:17 am | |

    I’ve often wondered about this in the context of arguments that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. Watch any prison movie and the idea of spending a week “in the hole” freaks the prisoners out. There was a law and order episode where eliot subjects himself to it and almost loses his mind. Just wondered if zen training would make that easier? Is there something about solitary confinement that I don’t understand?

    1. mb
      mb July 9, 2014 at 7:38 am | |

      Meditation could be considered a form of “voluntary solitary confinement”. I think it’s the involuntary nature of being in prison that makes the crucial difference here. Check out the documentary film “The Dhamma Brothers” about the introduction of a Vipassana meditation program into a max-security prison in Alabama.

  4. mb
    mb July 9, 2014 at 7:26 am | |

    The L.A. Times write-up on this Science Magazine article suggested that people may “turn to meditation” to seek a way to “rein in unruly thoughts”, which I found to be a curious characterization (and also it was the only time the word “meditation” was actually mentioned in the entire article). My immediate impression after reading it was that these clever scientists put ordinary people into a meditative situation without naming it as such, took away all their distractions (except for the exceedingly lovely distraction of electric shock self-administration) for a short time period, and then polled them on their experience of “being alone with their thoughts”. Welcome to the human condition, scientists.

    http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-people-alone-thoughts-mind-dislike-electric-shocks-20140703-story.html

  5. sri_barence
    sri_barence July 9, 2014 at 9:44 am | |

    I’m not surprised by this study at all. I have been doing zazen for around 30 years, and it still takes about 15 minutes for my thoughts to begin to settle. Sometimes this doesn’t happen at all. I’m guessing most people have a similar experience. If you didn’t know that your thoughts would eventually get quiet, you might not want to sit by yourself for even 15 minutes, especially if you count some thoughts as “good” and others as “bad.”

    My wife often complains that her mind is whirling, jumping from one thought to another. She says the experience is very distressing sometimes. I have suggested she try zazen, but she refuses. I think she is afraid of what might happen if she just sat down with her thoughts. Maybe other people are also like this.

    About Brad’s “silly questions,” I want to mention that the Kwan Um School in which I practice, Kong-an (koan) study is a key part of the practice. However, I have found that is completely unnecessary to ponder kong-an questions during zazen. I usually do think about my kong-ans while walking around the city, but my practice of zazen has always been to do shikantaza. When your mind is clear, the answers to kong-an questions appear naturally, without effort. Sometimes it takes a long while to discover the answer though. It is mostly a matter of dropping off preconceived notions, or of acting ‘before thinking.’

    OK, that’s enough.

  6. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer July 9, 2014 at 2:39 pm | |

    I did a little looking around and (surprisingly) found the original paper. The summary and the findings are a short two pages.

    http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~dtg/WILSON%20ET%20AL%202014.pdf

    The total length of the paper was so long that I decided to give myself a painful (but harmless) electrical shock instead of reading it.

    Cheers.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 9, 2014 at 9:41 pm | |

    sri_barence, your wife might like my description of the practice of waking up and falling asleep, it’s here.

    “Acting ‘before thinking’” and koan practice– may I offer a rumination keyed off a practitioner’s assertion that in neigong, “brain activity approaches zero and yes, we can do that almost instantly, and I have proven this in a sleep lab, but natural awareness increases “:

    From Wikipedia on Milton Erickson:

    “Erickson also believed that it was even appropriate for the therapist to go into trance.

    ‘I go into trances so that I will be more sensitive to the intonations and inflections of my patients’ speech. And to enable me to hear better, see better.’”

    Erickson used something called the confusion technique for induction:

    ‘Confusion might be created by ambiguous words, complex or endless sentences, pattern interruption or a myriad of other techniques to incite transderivation searches.”

    Transderivational searches are described on Wikipedia as:

    ” search(es) for a possible meaning or possible match as part of communication, and without which an incoming communication cannot be made any sense of whatsoever.”

    The turning word of Zen instruction, which is designed to “utterly kill a dead man”, because:

    “Utterly kill a dead man, then you will see a live man. (Bring a dead man fully to life, then you will see a dead man.)”

    (Blue Cliff Record trans T. Cleary, 41st case verse commentary, parenthesis mine)

    Now why would the Zen masters be looking to induce a state of trance. Because the senses get sharper, and the way in which all the senses inform the sense of location and through location alone, engender activity, comes forward.

    “…Layman Pang pointed to some snow in the air and said, “Good snowflakes– they don’t fall in any other place.”

    (Blue Cliff Record trans. T. Cleary, 42nd case)

    My own turning word lately is difficult to say, but I keep saying it anyway:

    “She calls to her maid again and again though there’s nothing the matter, because she wants her lover to hear her voice.”

    (Zen Letters: The Teachings of Yuanwu, trans. T. Cleary, pg 16; contemplating this saying, the “bottom fell out of the bucket” for Yuanwu)

    Ok, wrote that last night, looked for a better translation of Layman Pang’s remark just now and discovered an amazing abundance of interpretations. But here’s another Layman Pang remark, from Wikipedia:

    [People of] the ten directions are the same one assembly—
    Each and every one learns wu wei.
    This is the very place to select Buddha;
    Empty-minded having passed the exam, I return.

    1. sri_barence
      sri_barence July 11, 2014 at 9:57 am | |

      Mark Foote:

      I’m not the expert here (if there is one, that might be Brad), but I do not think that Zazen is the same thing as trance. As far as I can tell, Zazen (as shikantaza) is simply the act of sitting quietly. There is no special state of mind involved; rather the state in Zazen is the state of ordinary mind. This ordinary mind is always present, always functioning perfectly.

      What kind of trance is that?

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 9, 2014 at 9:45 pm | |

    Meaning, I deliver my own turning word in thoughts, and that’s the place. It’s the end of the exam, isn’t it!

  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 9, 2014 at 9:46 pm | |

    Shocking.

  10. The Brain Police
    The Brain Police July 10, 2014 at 4:10 am | |

    It’s the fear of doing nothing worthwhile.

  11. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 10, 2014 at 5:02 am | |

    “…how difficult it can be to really remain quietly alone with yourself.”

    Because the “self” is non-existent, a whirling mass of sense and nonsense that helps and confuses us as we navigate the world of self construction/ conceptualization, sitting with that misconception as it still spins and demands its illusory existence can be challenging, especially as it’s foundation of “no-self” emerges and swallows the bullshit whole.

    Of course that’s why you wanna do it, but the getting there can be rough for some folks.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ohlA__xABw

  12. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon July 10, 2014 at 5:02 am | |

    “The more mystical among us might posit that the existence of the entire Universe is what happens when God has to try to be alone with his own thoughts for a while.”

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/axp/2014/07/03/determining-the-attributes-and-effects-of-gods/

  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 10, 2014 at 8:24 am | |

    ‘At Intel, they’re expanding their 9-week mindfulness course “Awake@Intel” to make it available to their over 100,000 employees. Among those who have already taken part, on a 10-point scale there’s been a 2 point decrease in experiencing stress, a 3 point increase in wellbeing and happiness and a 2 point increase in creativity and new ideas. “People get more authentically related to each other – beyond competency levels and their roles,” says Anakha Coman, who co-founded the program along with Lindsay Van Driel. “The corporate mask that people put on when they walk through the door comes down.”‘

    That’s from here.

  14. Wibble
    Wibble July 10, 2014 at 4:05 pm | |

    Dan Harris a US TV anchor and news guy has a new book out on Mindfulness.
    Dan claims Mindfulness makes cultivators “10% Happier”.
    That’s a good return.
    Book link here…
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/10%25-Happier-Reduced-Self-help-Actually/dp/1444799045/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405033401&sr=1-1&keywords=10+happier

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot July 10, 2014 at 5:32 pm | |

      Quantifying happiness is funny. If mindfulness keeps you from falling into the various pits of suicidal despair and loneliness, that’s infinitely more happiness.

  15. senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra July 11, 2014 at 8:32 am | |

    I work as an addictions counselor, and one of the things that drives me nuts is when other counselors encourage the clients to “do just about anything to remain distracted.” It comes from a good intent, because when people with addictions get bored, they typically use drugs or partake in other destructive behaviors. But at the same time, I think if people with addictions can learn to be by themselves, then it will be a pretty effective way to deal with their addiction. But it’s challenging because these people have done a lot of things that they’re ashamed of, and it contributes to their not wanting to be alone with themselves, but I feel like it’s something they have to learn to do, because in all actuality, there is no escape. They will always be alone with themselves, regardless of what they’re doing.

  16. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 12, 2014 at 11:00 am | |

    I rewrote the piece about the “turning phrase”. I’ll repost it here, because I know no one who’s here wants to be anywhere else; I’ll hope that Brad forgives me, ’cause it’s long (and not particularly shocking to those who might need high-voltage)

    The “Turning Phrase” of Zen

    A teacher of neigong said:

    “For the neigong we do, brain activity approaches zero and yes, we can do that almost instantly and I have proven this in a sleep lab, but natural awareness increases.”

    (Ya Mu on Tao Bums)

    Milton Erickson also described an increase of awareness in trance:

    ‘I go into trances so that I will be more sensitive to the intonations and inflections of my patients’ speech. And to enable me to hear better, see better.’”

    (Wikipedia, “Milton Erickson”)

    Both statements assert that the senses are heightened with the induction of a trance.

    One of Erickson’s approaches to trance induction bears remarkable resemblance to one of the methods of teaching employed by the Zen masters. Erickson sometimes used a “confusion” technique to allow for the induction of trance:

    ‘Confusion might be created by ambiguous words, complex or endless sentences, pattern interruption or a myriad of other techniques to incite transderivational searches.”

    (Ibid)

    Transderivational searches are described on Wikipedia as:

    “…search(es) for a possible meaning or possible match as part of communication, and without which an incoming communication cannot be made any sense of whatsoever.”

    The “turning phrase” of a Zen teacher is the result of a spontaneous pivot in the teacher’s frame of reference, perhaps in response to a question or a situation; the phrase or word that expresses the pivot can invoke a transderivational search in the listener, and allow for the induction of trance.

    Induction with the confusion technique is sudden, as with Milton Erickson’s famous “handshake induction”:

    ‘Among Erickson’s best-known innovations is the hypnotic handshake induction, which is a type of confusion technique. …This induction works because shaking hands is one of the actions learned and operated as a single “chunk” of behavior; tying shoelaces is another classic example. If the behavior is diverted or frozen midway, the person literally has no mental space for this – he is stopped in the middle of unconsciously executing a behavior that hasn’t got a “middle”. The mind responds by suspending itself in trance until either something happens to give a new direction, or it “snaps out”.’

    (Wikipedia, “Milton Erickson”)

    With the “turning phrase”, the Zen master leaves any listener “stopped in the middle”, which allows the induction of trance and a heightened awareness of the function of the senses that provide the experience of self.

    That the senses are involved in the experience of self is the conclusion of scientists Olaf Blanke and Christine Mohr. In their research, they have found that the tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic, visual, and vestibular senses are crucial: these senses appear to give rise not just to sensations connected with the physical body, but to an actual feeling of the existence of a self. Blanke and Moore made their conclusion through the study of a particular kind of out-of-body experience called heautoscopy (or HAS):

    “It might thus be argued that, HAS is not only an experience characterized by the reduplification of one’s body, but also by a reduplification of one’s self. As strikingly reported by Brugger et al. the high risk of suicide during this terrifying experience cannot be overstated as some of these HAS-patients try by all means to reestablish their unitary self.”

    (“Out-of-body experience, heautoscopy, and autoscopic hallucination of neurological origin: Implications for neurocognitive mechanisms of corporeal awareness and self consciousness”, Brain Research Reviews 5 (2 5) 184-199)

    The tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic and vestibular senses are closely involved with the perception of a person’s physical location in space; the visual sense is tightly connected to both of these senses, and can reset the perception of location.

    The sense of location is emphasized in many of the classic teachings of Zen:

    “Be aware of where you really are 24 hours a day. You must be most attentive.”

    (“Zen Letters: the Teachings of Yuanwu”, trans. T. Cleary, pg 53)

    “When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.”

    (“Genjo Koan” by Dogen, trans. by Aitken and Tanahashi)

    A peculiar feeling with regard to posture is also emphasized in the classic Zen teachings, a feeling perhaps produced through the interplay of the tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic and vestibular senses with the sense of gravity:

    “When you arrive at last at towering up like a wall miles high, you will finally know that there aren’t so many things.”

    (“Zen Letters: the Teachings of Yuanwu”, trans. T. Cleary, pg 83)

    Sometimes the reference to the influence of the tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic, vestibular, and visual senses in posture is unmistakable in the classics:

    “To unfurl the red flag of victory over your head, whirl the twin swords behind your ears– if not for a discriminating eye and a familiar hand, how could anyone be able to succeed?”

    (Blue Cliff Record trans. T. Cleary, 37th case)

    It is possible to train to recognize the function of the tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic sense, the vestibular sense, and the sense of gravity independent of the visual sense, and perhaps even necessary in order to take up the postures recommended for the practice of Zen meditation, yet allowance for the induction of trance opens a gateway to awareness in the particular senses that underlie the feeling of self in everyday life:

    “Erickson maintained that trance is a common, everyday occurrence. For example, when waiting for buses and trains, reading or listening, or even being involved in strenuous physical exercise, it’s quite normal to become immersed in the activity and go into a trance state, removed from any other irrelevant stimuli. These states are so common and familiar that most people do not consciously recognize them as hypnotic phenomena.”

    (Wikipedia, “Milton Erickson”)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saQJ8z4714w

    1. Fred
      Fred July 12, 2014 at 12:04 pm | |

      “When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.”

      (“Genjo Koan” by Dogen, trans. by Aitken and Tanahashi)

      A peculiar feeling with regard to posture is also emphasized in the classic Zen teachings, a feeling perhaps produced through the interplay of the tactil-proprioceptive-kinesthetic and vestibular senses with the sense of gravity:

      “When you arrive at last at towering up like a wall miles high, you will finally know that there aren’t so many things.”

      These are reference to enlightenment, the dissolution of the sense of a singular
      self in reference to other selves, ie. non-duality.

      There aren’t so many things when there is just oneness.

      A sense of oneness is the towering up, the sense of being the earth and the sky,
      and not a “skin encapsulated ego” ( Watt’s description ), formulated within the
      boundaries of culture and acted upon by gravity.

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