I’m afraid I must take issue with my friend Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at Columbia University (whom I had the pleasure of talking with on meaningoflife.tv last year).
On his Scientific American blog, Scott recently posted an interesting piece about what kinds of things give people’s lives meaning.
It turns out people say they derive meaning from (among other things) extreme emotional experiences—not just positive ones, but negative ones as well. Which makes sense, when you think about it. The death of a close relative is an intensely negative emotional experience, one you wish you’d been able to avoid—but you certainly wouldn’t call it meaningless.
The first rule of meditation retreats is, You do not talk about meditation retreats. The reason is that, by and large, people don’t want to hear about them. They don’t want to hear about how beautiful the world started to seem on day three (you had to be there) or about the aches and frustrations of days one and two (first world problems) or about the dark night of the soul toward the end of the retreat (ditto).
Still, I’m going to say a bit about the 10-day retreat I finished this week, because the second rule of meditation retreats is, Meditation retreats are hard not to talk about. A good retreat—and all eight I’ve been on have brought more good than bad—fills you with an urge to rhapsodize, even evangelize.
But don’t worry: I’ll try to repress the rhapsody. Though my retreat had plenty of powerful moments, my aim here is just to soberly make a couple of points about the virtues of staying off the grid for 10 days—and about the added benefits of combining that with the intensive practice of mindfulness meditation.
Three weeks ago, I suggested a way to use smartphones to (ironically!) weaken smartphone addiction. And I promised that in a subsequent issue of MRN I’d “talk about why this exercise has broader application than it may sound like it has.” So here goes.
First, a quick review: The anti-addiction exercise I recommended was to hold your smartphone and, upon feeling the urge to open some app, close your eyes and examine the urge. “The more you observe feelings like this, rather than succumbing to them, the more likely you are to notice them in the future, rather than reflexively, unthinkingly, obeying them.”
The reason this exercise can bring benefits beyond the realm of smartphone addiction is that “feelings like this” is a pretty broad category. Consider this lamentably common sequence of events:
You’re sitting at your computer and you’re supposed to be getting some work done—you’re staring blankly at a Word document or a spreadsheet or whatever—and then all of a sudden, before you know it, you’ve opened your browser and you’re doing something more fun than work. (Not that fun is a bad thing!—but there’s a time and place for everything.) Maybe you’ve checked into your favorite social media site, maybe you’re checking out things you could buy (next-day delivery!), maybe you’ve surrendered your autonomy to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm and are watching passively, almost helplessly, as a series of increasingly unredeeming videos parasitize your consciousness.