I’m sitting here at a patio table. I am in my yard and listening to the birds chirping overhead. One electrical thing or another – it doesn’t matter – is humming along. The air is mild, if slightly damp. It feels warm or maybe a little bit cool; I am not sure.
Now there is an orb inside me that is pulsating. It has fuzzy boundaries and it radiates outward from the center of my organism. It feels warm.
A stray thought about what my favorite food might be enters my mind and exits just as nonchalantly. It is followed by – or perhaps arrived alongside – an impulse to go for a walk and perhaps look at some moss that has engulfed the stone bridge nearby. I resist that impulse and it too is supplanted by something else.
The warm orb has returned, and I hope to find that my bicycle seat is dry after the morning rain. It would be a shame to drive a car in such mild, if slightly damp, weather. Now my legs carry me to the bicycle that is on my porch. My arms extend and brush the bicycle seat. It is dry.
These perceptions occur to me automatically, and when I introspect carefully, I can discern no point at which “I” can be said to initiate them. They appear sui generis; no cause makes itself evident. Absent introspection, their cause is – seems – obvious: It is “me”.
A brief interlude may be in order.
As a rule, people have no patience for conclusions such as these. Even – perhaps especially – highly educated people are particularly prone to eye-rolling, as they recall some early experience in an introductory philosophy course, or a time in which a friend rambled about the nature of identity or the universe while intoxicated. We are to understand that these were frivolous moments, though their supposed frivolity didn’t stop us from concluding that the subject itself is without merit. (Notably, Flat Earthers do not similarly shake our confidence in geology.)
We are not encouraged to think about the world, our place in it, and just what “our” is supposed to mean. And when we do so, we are often derailed by anxiety and skepticism. Perhaps cynicism. That we are not as we are supposed to be, if it is clear just what that is, but that this cannot be the path to find it. And so, we revert to our lives as just the sort of “practical people” that Socrates bravely dedicated himself to offending. In ignorance, there is bliss, but only the bliss of the addict.
Of course, we know that our ideas and our perceptions are all that we make direct contact with. The “our”, the “we”, the “I” – these are convenient grammatical artifacts. If we can momentarily reach beyond irrelevant strictures as these, we can see that that which we attribute to our minds – our fleeing musings and ill-timed remembrances – impose themselves upon us in the same manner that the birds’ song does. Their origin, as we resist our idea of metaphysics, is as obscure.
All of this is in principle accessible to each of us. It is the one thing that as yet defies appropriation, outside we presume murder. And yet a kind of murder is what you see in countless apps, expensive courses, and charlatans – or sophists – as the ultimate ware is brandished. The Protagoras of our era, promising that knowledge, awareness, and goodness can be taught. One can follow them as they perform their routine and hope to recall something worthwhile during the intermission.
That these find themselves with a ready audience is hardly surprising. Most of us drift through life, carrying friends and family we do not like, jobs that bore us, and cars that never seem to start. A thousand annoyances and we spend much time feeling altogether precarious. We know we will die and many plan to begin living no sooner than this. And so we are desperate for a fix to a problem that may or may not exist, and that in any rate, we feel somehow unfit to fix ourselves. Conveniently, the fix that we’re offered is only ten dollars per month – a subscription-based service that proves we are serious – and onward we go to find ourselves.
What’s offered is merely a palliative at best. Protagoras too could stir emotions and make even the best feel they discovered themselves or in any case something. But in the end, the duct tape uncurls, and we imagine our broken selves crashing to the floor. We were promised serenity but received nothing that a benzodiazepine couldn’t do better.
I’ve practiced mindfulness meditation for years – and it’s entirely a matter of practice – but can say that it has only started to click. It comes in waves of ten seconds or less: A sense of ego-death or transcendence. The sensation that the homunculus leading the body is dissolving, and that you can perceive something nearer to objective truth. You cease being you, as such, and come to recognize how little nature pays respect to things and their boundaries. Then the homunculus reappears and you enter a tailspin. Perhaps it’s progress.
Nothing about this is metaphysical, and I resist the temptation from this to conclude anything about how the world works. No form of religion or spirituality can ever threaten the physical sciences, and these will forever attract our aforementioned charlatans. From mindfulness you can, however, draw conclusions about your ideas and perceptions, but that task is your own. There are no coaches, no meditation apps, no books, and the Dalai Lama will provide you nothing of value. All you can do is practice. When you accept that, your practice becomes all the more liberating.
Here’s how I practice. Take from it whatever you will, or nothing at all. Adjust it to your liking, or discard it alongside the apps. You can say if I’m one of the charlatans, but see if it works.
- Sit upright or in a position where you can remain alert. You can sit on a chair or cushion, or practice while standing or walking.
- Bring your attention to some focal point. It may be the feeling of your breath, entering or exiting through your nostrils. It may be a heavy coin that you have in hand. Or it might be a painting hanging on the wall before you.
- Whatever you choose, study it. Don’t think about it if you can help it, but merely observe it. If it’s a heavy coin, take notice of its color and texture. Feel its weight.
- You will find yourself losing whatever it is that anchors you in the moment. That’s okay. Follow your ideas and lead them back to your focal point.
- If the idea resists being led, take heed of that fact. Observe that you are thinking, then notice the texture of that thought, and guide it back to your focal point or anchor.
- Imagine your anchor expanding to encompass the whole of your awareness. If you lose it, just gather it back into its original form. Watch it as it expands again.
- Do this for thirty minutes twice per day, and crucially, incorporate it throughout the day. If you find yourself annoyed by a driver honking their horn, take notice of the sound. Stare it in the eye and watch it fade. Gently return yourself to an anchor. Do it when you’re not annoyed too.
- Repeat this forever and hopefully something important will happen. There is nothing else to know, and nothing will make your practice easier.