The strange efficiency of enlightenment

Oct 26 2019

I’m not a big booster of Silicon Valley mindfulness. That is, I don’ go around telling people they should meditate because it can increase their productivity by a few percentage points. I think the best reasons to meditate are to clarify your view of the world and to become a better person. 

Besides, I don’t know if mindfulness meditation does enhance productivity, and I don’t have time to research the question. (I’m not very productive).

But there’s one version of the enhanced productivity question that I find fascinating, because it arises in some of the deeper regions of contemplative practice. Meditators who go very, very deep — so deep that their very sense of self may dissolve and stay dissolved — sometimes report a paradox: they no longer think many thoughts, and they don’t feel that they’re consciously making decisions, or consciously shaping their path through work and life — yet some of them report becoming more productive, often in very demanding jobs.

I was reminded of this last week by a post on the quirky and interesting blog Slate Star Codex. The blog’s proprietor, Scott Alexander, dove into a study of people, from various spiritual communities, who plausibly claim to have “persistent non-symbolic experience.” Or, as the study’s author, Jeffrey Martin, fleshes that term out: an ongoing state of consciousness that might be called “non-dual awareness, enlightenment, mystical experience, and so forth.”

Martin said the people studied could be placed at various locations along a “continuum that seemed to progress from ‘normal’ waking consciousness toward a distant location where participants reported no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts, no emotion, and no apparent sense of agency.” People at this end of the spectrum “reported that they did not feel they could take any action of their own, nor make any decisions. Reality was perceived as just unfolding, with ‘doing’ and ‘deciding’ simply happening. Nevertheless, many of these participants were functioning in a range of demanding environments and performing well.”

All of which brings us to Gary Weber, a guy I’ve gotten to know a bit over the past six years. Weber fits this description to a T. He says he rarely has thoughts, especially “self-regarding thoughts”—whether he’ll fail at this task or succeed at that one, whether he offended that person or charmed this person. And he says he doesn’t entirely understand why he does things; he doesn’t feel he’s made a decision to do them—he just finds himself doing them. 

Gary’s claim that he at some point “turned the page,” as he puts it, and found himself in a permanently altered state of consciousness, has gotten a kind of scientific affirmation. He was part of brain-scan study involving highly adept meditators, and it turned out there was one difference between him and the other meditators. The brain state they achieved after meditating for a while—reduced activity in the “default mode network”—was a state he was in before he even started meditating.

In 2013 I recorded a conversation with Gary, and here’s how he described his performance at meetings, such as meetings of a hospital board of trustees that he served on:

The thing Gary said about being fully present at meetings is almost completely alien to me, because my mind tends to wander, typically toward topics that involve me. But it’s not completely alien to me. I got a taste of what he means once during a meditation retreat. On this particular retreat, the silence was broken for a while mid-way through the retreat, and about ten of us got together with a teacher to talk about things. Never have I felt such effortlessly sustained focus during a group discussion.

My contributions to the discussion were also effortless. I spent little if any time wondering whether I should say something or thinking about when I should say it. Things just came out of my mouth, and I don’t think I’m fooling myself in saying that by and large they were well chosen interventions—things that contributed to the conversation, not done for the sake of show—even though they didn’t feel chosen at all. 

At any rate, I didn’t spend time, as I tend to do, wondering afterwards whether I should have said what I’d said—whether people found it impressive or stupid, useful or annoying. It had happened, and that was that.

I think the explanation for all this is the one suggested by Gary’s account. Over the first few days of the retreat, my normally robust sense of self had weakened a bit. Fewer than usual of my thoughts were about me. I was observing the world more on its own terms, and less in terms of its relationship to me, less in terms of what it could do for me.

This probably doesn’t sound shocking: the less self-absorbed you are, the more carefully you can pay attention to the world out there—and so, presumably, the more skillfully you can interact with it. But what’s interesting to me is that apparently this correlation between the subduing of self and productivity can persist even at the extremes—after you’ve reached the point Gary says he’s reached, the point where you have, as he describes it, no real sense of self at all, the point where the bounds between you and the world, in an important sense, cease to exist. 

Gary makes his ongoing state of mind sound pretty blissful: “It’s a space you can’t imagine bringing anything in to improve it or taking anything away that would make it better.” 

I can’t claim to have gotten to that point. And I can’t claim to have gotten to the point where you’re just watching your behavior unfold, with no sense of control whatsoever, and everything is turning out fine. But for an hour, at least, I got a lot closer to that. Engagement with the world felt pretty effortless, and the feeling that I was in the flow, and not trying to control it, gave me a sense of peace. The temporary retreat of my self was apparently good for me, and I like to think it was good for other people in the room.

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