Sporadic Meditation

“Sugar man, won’t you hurry,
Cause I’m tired of these scenes.
For a blue coin, won’t you bring back,
All those colors to my dreams.”

…these words drifted lazily upward like the smoke trailing from a smoldering ember.

They rose to meet the blades of an indolent ceiling fan. A Dutch man, a German woman, and I sat in quiet, happy communion in a clean, simple hotel room in Vang Vieng, Laos. My companions were older, their conversation seasoned with experience, their insight marinated in consideration.

I couldn’t tell if their unbiased intellect was more a product of their age or their culture. But these minds could host an unfamiliar idea, entertain it, and scrutinize its verity with detached curiosity. If need be, they could disqualify it on the grounds of logical violation.

Conversation flowed with suspended egos. Differences of opinions were met with inquiry, not defense. Thoughts were expressed as birds seen passing overhead, not as the dear products of an invested mind.

It’s not that we were all hanging on the bottom wrung of Nirvana; having in some way grasped the futility of identity. Perhaps we just understood the irrelevance of our words. That we were three travelers coalesced by the unpredictable grace of the road. That nothing we could say to each other would even slightly affect the inertia of three strangers’ lives. So we were unburdened by the demands of consequence. But that didn’t mean we were content to speak about inconsequential things.

I rejoice in that style of free conversation. The constraints of etiquette that dictate what can and cannot be mentioned based on creed, ethnicity, or culture mystify me. Wary concern over what might offend another is sometimes enough tax on my attention that I’m rendered a stuttering buffoon. Dispensing with such concern, or speaking freely, often batters with blunt honesty, or lacerates with sharp scrutiny. Conversations die, friendship is scorched. So when speaking with my fellow man, I’ve learned to dally in shallow waters. But I always feel, when I do, like a big moose at a tea party for chipmunks.

So it goes.

But on this night I felt stimulated. While young backpackers on their pilgrimage from Pai to Phnom Penh took to the streets of Vang Vieng to get blacked-out drunk in riverside bars, I conversed quietly with a more subdued party.

The Dutch man played Sixto Rodriguez’s Cold Fact album from his portable speaker. We each rolled a joint, lit it, and smoked, in democratic succession. And we spoke awhile.

The conversation was a campfire tended by all of us, or either of us, or none of us at all. I’d delight in the warmth for a time, and other times contribute to its glowing effect.

While passing the pagan sacrament, I asked the Dutch man if he thought a state of meditative awareness could be achieved anytime, anywhere.

‘No, it cannot be,’ he asserted. To him, meditation pertained to the experience of a moment, namely an undistracted one. Even a few distractions are enough to shatter the delicate sanctuary of a meditative state. By his definition, there was a contradiction between a location of great commotion and being singularly present. Fair point my European friend.

To me, however, meditation is an act of will wherein consciousness is focused in the regions of the brain that accept sensory input, but do not process meaning. ‘Being in the moment’ is about single-mindedly grasping the immediate surroundings while denying any successive thought. Sometimes a bit more commotion gives the brain more to latch onto.

Put another way, meditation is an awareness of the prods of environment without attachment to the imagined sources they imply. Hear a rumble without imagining an engine. Feel the texture of fabric without envisioning clothing. See a flower without being swept away on aesthetic appeal. Meditation is temporarily cleaving perception from conception, not merely snuffing out conceptual notions.

I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of practiced meditation. But I see cracks in its advocacy. Through these cracks seeps the credibility of the practice. And that lost credibility alienates skeptics who might otherwise rationally acknowledge the great benefits of meditation. Perhaps they might even adopt the practice.

So let me remove the personal anecdote, the mystic explanation, and the sentimental appeal. What are the real, substantive effects of meditation? As stated before, meditation is an act of will wherein consciousness is focused in the regions of the brain that accept sensory input, but do not process meaning.

Practicing meditation is the strength-training of will: the drive to reduce dissonance between two active neural circuits. A stronger will is capable of overriding the impulsive, emotional, irrational reaction to the occasional, but inevitable, onslaughts of unforeseen adversity.

Meditation is the practice of keeping thoughts, the momentary electro-chemical impulses of neurons, within a deliberate region of the brain. Meditation is, in a quasi-literal sense, the practice of holding lightning in a bottle.

Now spending enough time ‘in the moment’ does not make a calmer, more compassionate person. ‘The moment’ is not a sack of peace-infusing marinade that an uncooked soul soaks in like a plucked chicken in a jacuzzi.

No. Spending time ‘in the moment’ is more analogous to holding up a mental kettle bell. Forcing the brain to ignore habitual, immediate patterns of thought strengthens its ability to ignore habitual, immediate patterns of thought. Big epiphany yeah?

This is useful when adversity provokes anger, stress, or any other negative emotion. The same skill of ignoring knee-jerk thoughts in a meditation session can be used to resist angry, stress-tainted, irrational thoughts. Holding back angry, stress-tainted, irrational thoughts eliminates the regrettable actions that they lead to. Vis a vis a higher quality of life is reaped.

I attempt to ‘meditate’ everywhere, at whatever times the practice comes to mind, however sporadically or briefly. Each time I do, my will is further strengthened. The more I snap to these moments, and in the more places, the more I spend my day conscious and self-directed. And the less I spend automatically performing daily actions.

Back in that hotel room in Vang Vieng, the German woman passed the joint. The Dutch man had finished explaining his viewpoint. And meanwhile I sharpened my focus on the moment.

I painted the white walls with my eyes. The music returned to my ears. My mind traveled to the cool concrete on which the back of my head rested, and the soft mattress under my butt. My eyes followed the rising trail of smoke. I opened the gates of perception to let every detail flood in. The beige tiled floor. The dark wooden bed-frames. The small desk in the corner carrying a bottle of snake whiskey.

The result of these micro-meditations is often a deep billow of contentedness. I felt that then, smiled, and enjoyed the rest of my night.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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