My apologies to my readers for not having posted anything here for too long.. I have been heavily involved in writing an invited book chapter on hypnosis and meditation, and I have another very complicated chapter in another book that I’m obligated to do on the nature of experiments once we allow for experimenter effects and psychic abilities, so I simply haven’t had the time to do some short essays on many interesting things. I’ll break that inattention by sharing some insight I had about “mental real estate.”
Sometimes I have insights into the way our minds work that, after they occurred, seem rather obvious, and I wonder why I had never thought of them before. On the other hand, one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten on my writing, from a colleagues review of one of my books, was when he said something like “Tart writes about things that are perfectly clear and obvious. It’s just that nobody has ever mentioned them before.” So here’s a possible insight concerning our mental real estate.
Everyone knows that you can’t keep too many things in mind at once. The telephone company many years ago, for example, drew on psychological knowledge that keeping seven items in mind at once was about the limit for most human beings, so kept telephone numbers down to a maximum of seven digits. When you apply knowledge of our limited memory/attention span to the practice of meditation, it gets interesting.
Most of, if not all of, the meditative traditions say that a good deal of our suffering comes from the fact that we get negative, unprofitable, self-attacking, neurotic thoughts into our mind, and they keep reinforcing each other and going round and round. I’m sure, unfortunately, everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about! One of the most basic training aspects of meditation is to teach people to have more control over what their thinking about, but it’s not easy.
One of the simplest applications comes from something I’ve heard Sogyal Rinpoche teach on many times, in saying that the purpose of the practice of mantra is to protect the mind. I was surprised the first time I heard that, as teachings about mantras usually claim these specific sounds have various psychic or cosmic qualities and so are sacred and can bring about particular psychic results. But protecting the mind, what could that mean? Oh, it became clear to me. If you’re busy reciting some mantra over and over again, it uses up your mental real estate, and so may not leave much, if any, room for those self-defeating, repetitive thoughts.
So, using the word mantra loosely for quite non-sacred things, many of us get caught in neurotic “mantras,” things like “I’ve done it wrong again, I could never do it right, I always mess up.” And then “I’ve done it wrong again, I could never do it right, I always mess up.” And then “I’ve done it wrong again, I could never do it right, I always mess up….” On and on and on. But if you really concentrate on repeating some mantra, such as “Om Mani Padme Hum,” “Om Mani Padme Hum,” “Om Mani Padme Hum,” “Om Mani Padme Hum”…. there is no room for your neurotic and self-feeding thoughts.
This is not the height of enlightened practice, of course, but it can certainly be a useful technique for getting you out of a crazy, self-deprecating loop.
The insight that came to me the other day while doing some basic movements in the Tai Chi Chah class (which I loosely translate as simplified Tai Chi for old folks….) that I’m taking is that some of us may have more mental real estate available than others. I like learning this Tai Chi Chah, for example, because doing it correctly does train my concentration, and for a long time I haven’t had enough mental real estate left over to have my mind wander off to other things. But now I have it down well enough that there is mental real estate left over for me in my mind to wander off on other things, like thinking about mental real estate and mantras. So perhaps in so far as meditative tasks are intended to use up all your attention all your mental real estate, in a useful way, the complexity of meditative tasks may have to be tailored to specific people. A task that is sufficient for one person to use up all his or her mental real estate may not do it for another, and that latter person need some more complex tasks to keep his or her mind occupied. Not that that’s the only use of meditation, of course, but it’s one.
This reminds me of what psychologists have found out about getting people into “flow states.” The task has to have just the right amount of complexity. If it’s too easy, you get bored. If it’s too hard, you get discouraged. But if it’s just hard enough to require really good concentration from you, it feels good.
So next time I find my mind wandering as I do Tai Chi Chah, where concentration is highly valued, perhaps I can add something to it, like trying to sense chi energy….