Facing Danger, Finding Wisdom (and safety)

Thank you, Mr. Davis. Your courage and humility have helped bring enlightenment to my experience. I will follow your lead and seek to learn from and understand the things that confuse me or even seem to threaten my very existence. Your example has the power to transform all of our lives and the world we live in.

What would happen if tomorrow morning you woke up to find yourself having zero judgments — none whatsoever — about you, the universe, or anything in it (including other living beings)?

What modern or ancient dangers lurk for someone who has no awareness of the need to avoid them? What if you had no reason to be mindful with things as benign-looking as crossing the street or getting too close to a rattlesnake, diving into a deep and expansive body of water, or drinking a toxic substance like Drano from a bottle? Which judgments bring us more safety or benefit from heeding them rather than being ignorant to them? Which judgments, if absent, would result in almost certain pain, suffering, or death?

In that same vein, which judgments, if shed, would reveal entirely wonderful or stunning realizations or experiences? Which judgments keep us back from really potent opportunities to connect with ourselves and others, or imprison us, keeping us from gaining life experiences which almost universally benefit those who embrace them? What new beauties would we find, which experiences might we finally enjoy, what people or groups would brighten our lives?

We are all looking for those things which provide safety from pain or, alternatively, opportunities for pleasure. Keeping track of this data takes up a healthy portion of our memory. But have you ever wondered what happens if we re-examine the objects in that virtual rolodex of “dos” and “don’ts”? Daryl Davis did just that, and may be able to shed some light on what is possible when we deeply challenge existing cultural and personal belief or certainty.

You see, Daryl decided to question the long-held judgments made by people inside or outside of his community. He even challenged the answers conjured up by his own mind about his place in the world around him, and why it often feels like a place of unwelcomeness for him. Rather than accept the answers, or even to imagine up personal answers for himself, he decided to revisit the question humans have long claimed certainty around: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

Many ask this question, and most often, the answers seem to be rooted in ethnocentric thinking: I hate you because you’re inferior; I mistreat you because you’re ignorant; I attack you because you’re evil; I avoid you because you’re dangerous; I criticize you because you’re wrong. But really, these answers can all trace their root back to one, simple expression: I am afraid of you because you’re not familiar — because you’re not enough like me. Few humans, it seems, stop to question the answers they’re given. His question was unique, perhaps only because it was asked more out of sincerity rather than sarcasm. I get the strong sense that Daryl wasn’t merely searching for a rhetorical question to accompany a pre-determined answer, as is so often the case.

I admire Daryl’s courage and humility in refusing to assume that he knew what motivated someone he knew little or nothing about. Rather than returning the favor of judgment and ignorance, he entered into a potentially treacherous relationship with humility and grace. Above all, he allowed himself to trust and nurture his deeper curiosity and wonder, and out of that came this incredible result of two willing men discovering their own humanity where they least expected it.

What would happen if we all laid down our judgment — shed outside opinion — long enough to at least understand, and know “the truth” about something foreign for ourselves? If Daryl’s experience is any indication, then the answer is more vibrant and enlightening than most of us might believe.

Thank you Daryl. I have something better to aim for in my own character because of you.

The quiet mind: A study on why overselling meditation hurts everyone

Anyone familiar with conversations about meditation (at least in a western society like the United States) will know how common it is for the topic of “a quiet mind” or “a still mind” to come up. This is so prevalent in the discussion about meditation, in fact, that it has emerged as one of the primary objections to or criticisms of meditation by those who have reached for and failed to grasp such prized benefits which are often touted as a surefire reward of the practices.

And this is unfortunate, because for all the benefits that meditation or mindfulness might provide, a growing group of people are deeply inclined to dismiss or even refuse to engage in meditative practice because they have been sold strong or even outlandish misrepresentations of the practice. These claims are often made for no other reason than simply to win this potential meditator as an adherent to regular practice.

This is a primary shortcoming of ethnocentricity, wherein a tribe attempts to convert non-practitioners to the tribe’s traditions, usually by attempting to oversell the group’s benefits and refute diverse (alternate) practices or perspectives at almost any cost. Having someone pick up meditation if it doesn’t serve them is bad for them, but it’s bad for those who derive genuine objective value from the practice. This fact doesn’t go away if the reason for their initially negative experience is due to judgment, misconception, resistance, or some other personal influence. This choice to present hyperbolic claims as though they are easy pickings for newcomers imposes too high of a “minimum expectation” for achievement in the group’s practices or values, and essentially cuts too many people off from the more subtle (but perhaps more attainable) benefits of the practice. With high distress levels worldwide, overlooking the simple, accessible benefits of novice practice is a foolish act of “jumping ahead”.

All this is to say, I think the idea of a quiet mind might be a misdirect, overstatement, or even outlandish promise of meditation’s benefits in the first place. I imagine this promise is driven as much from a desperate attempt to validate meditation in some big way as it is to get someone to “just try it out” so they can experience the very real, very beneficial, very needed (albeit less lavish) benefits. I’m not claiming a mind can’t be quieted, or that a soul can’t be stilled in a peaceful and healthy way. But these are the byproduct, not the goal. They’re the fruit, not the work. And many seasoned practitioners would argue that some nirvanic sense of bliss isn’t even the most abundant or valuable benefit meditation has to offer.

The truth is, most humans today are stressed, anxious, or depressed (if not a combination of all three). A subset of humans are at their breaking point. If the threshold for crossing that dangerous threshold is, let’s imagine, 50.1% presence of some combo of anxiety/depression/stress in their regular daily experience, then there are enough people at 48%, 49%, or even 50% who are moments away from having a potentially tragic experience. If anyone needs a miracle, it’s these people. But offering an empty promise doesn’t help — it risks immense damage. Feeding them “white lie false hopes just so they’ll try something that could help them out eventually is not only irresponsible, it’s unkind. I recognize the impulse for making the invitation or promise in the first place likely comes from an entirely loving, kind, or concerned place. This is what makes it an especially unfortunate engagement. If our aim is to help, it is our responsibility to inform ourselves about what helps, rather than help in ways that feel intuitive or rewarding even while they harm.

But more importantly, someone at or near their breaking point doesn’t need grand promises or lofty goals. They, in fact, likely stand to benefit much more from a regular, recurring conversation about ways they can make small and steady improvements to their situation rather than one big “whammy” solution. Put another way, if we stick with the facts, let them know what meditation is, how to get started, and draw their attention to the smaller, more immediately available, but more evidence-based benefits proven to come out of consistent practice, we stand a chance of giving them a rope they can grab onto rather than a pole they can’t even get their arms around, so to speak.

We all want to climb out of our own proverbial holes, and we all want to know there’s help there, if and when we get in a pickle — in that order. Leading someone desperate, who is feeling debilitating anxiety, to believe that they can eliminate their anxiety almost completely with a few simple meditations (or a lifetime of it) is not backed by evidence, nor is it kind.

Alternatively, letting someone who is struggling with anxiety know that meditation has been shown to reduce stress hormones, positively effect blood pressure, improve outlook, and potentially help sleep patterns — being careful to communicate that these improvements usually begin small and compound over time — gives them a reasonable expectation that if they invest in healthier patterns, they may find a small amount of relief from the practice immediately, with further relief increasing over time. It may only move them from a 49% stress load to a 47% stress load in the short term, but that small walk back from the edge of catastrophe could make all the difference for their long-term pathway to wellness.

Do you expect to be “cured” by meditation? That, my friend, does not seem to be the point of meditation. The major primary benefit I’ve found from meditation is the opportunity to ask if I’m broken in the first place.

“A quiet mind” is an idea rooted in the claim that the mind is broken. Perhaps it simply has never felt heard. Will you accept the invitation to change that dynamic with yourself, for yourself?

Sit with yourself in meditation today, and see if your mind doesn’t become easier to sit with, or quieter from a deeper sense of satisfaction from finally being listened to and heard.

The thing about Psychopaths

Humans are organizers. There’s evidence that our species has been doing it for as long as we have a recorded history. We may have begun this process by keeping nuts and berries in nooks and crannies, eventually engineering totes and pots for our tools and trinkets — but over hundreds of thousands of years it has evolved into a full-fledged never-ending process of sorting, labeling, judging, and acting on these judgments about everything. We’re so adept at this process that we often do it without being aware of it. It’s as disconnected from our daily consciousness as breathing. And just as we can gain significant benefits by paying attention to our breath (even for a few moments daily), there are profound opportunities for those who develop a more deliberate awareness of their own personal practice of judging.

You know that strange sensation that can sometimes arise when we start thinking about our own breathing (strange, because we rarely pay any attention to it)? That same infrequency of attention accompanies most of the judgments we make. We judge almost non-stop, but rarely do we pay attention when it’s happened or consider it’s impact. We judge the thing occupying our attention in this moment, and promptly forget about it when another thing pushes it aside. But the judgment remains, as does the praise or condemnation that will likely accompany any future interaction with that thing. In a phrase,

Labels are hard to shake.

It would be difficult to argue that the act of judgment and categorization are purposeless or lacking any benefit to our species. Critical thinking has empowered us to better explore and subsequently make sense of ourselves and the universe around us. While the vast majority of daily judgments are woefully misinformed and lead to potentially problematic ends, judgment isn’t the problem, per se. And in the same way that it sometimes feels strange noticing our own breath, becoming mindful of the judgments we are making from moment to moment may feel awkward at first, especially if this is a new idea to you.

That’s why I like this video. It reveals, with surgical precision, the tsunami of nuance that can easily arise when we stop to examine the labels we apply — labels which we rarely have any logical reason for gratuitously applying to almost everything in our lives.

This video has been a helpful catalyst for raising crucial questions in my own day-to-day experience. Here are a few examples of those questions:

  • What/who do I judge?
  • What process do I employ when I judge?
  • What influences (or who’s perceived authority) do I allow to persuade my judgment?
  • Is this pattern of judgment something I’ve chosen, or did I simply inherit it from the culture/society around me?
  • Is the thing I am judging good, or do I just choose to label it as good?
  • Is this thing bad, or am I choosing to ignore/undervalue the benefit that surely exists if I simply judge it differently?
  • Am I operating in “black and white” thinking, or have I made space to consider more diverse perspectives than my own?
  • Does anyone get the opposite effect from this idea/place/person/thing than I do? If so, is it due more to personal subjectivity or objective reality?

Check out the video above, and see if practicing mindfulness while re-assessing the judgments you’ve made might provide value to you. Will developing a new process of mindfully judging future experiences in your life simplify and improve your daily experience?

What do you think? Can you think back on any time in your own life when you’ve re-assessed old judgments and come up with more informed or diverse perspectives? Can you identify any challenges you feel this process might pose?