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The Tinkered Mind
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November 21st, 2020
There are certain efforts that have results that are entirely unlike the process of getting those results. In fact, most things are like this. The experience of having a clean and tidy room is not at all like the task of cleaning a room and making it tidy.
Unfortunately there are many useful habits that run on the same paradox. The 3rd day of attempting to meditate is not at all like the 300th day of meditation. And it goes even further. The whole day when we squeeze in that third session of meditation is entirely different from the 300th whole day when 299 days of consecutive meditation are stacked up behind. It’s the difference between walking into a completely wrecked room and trying to do a few minutes of cleaning walking into a fairly well kept room and organizing just a few items that are out of place.
The important difference to note is that the effects of sustained effort aren’t really available to the person who’s just starting. This simultaneously goes without saying and needs to be explicitly spelled out. When starting out, we all have a hazy intellectual notion of what the effect will be, but so often we give up before receiving any meaningful result because the bridge between that intellectual understanding and a meaningful, visceral and tangible result is vast. Having done it contains an important gulf that is very rarely crossed by intellectual understanding alone. And in some sense that gulf can never be crossed by conceptualization alone.
This is one of the diametrically faulty and virtuous aspects of the imagination. For some people and some circumstances, conceptual faith, as aided by the imagination is tantamount and required for making good decisions, as with navigating decisions around an invisible enemy like a virus, or radiation poisoning. In such cases the conceptual imagination - that is reasonable imaginative extrapolation upon facts - is vital for getting enough of an understanding in order to avoid experiencing the real thing.
The flip side is using that conceptual imagination - that is the reasonable imaginative extrapolation upon facts in order to get enough of an understanding in order to take the leap of faith and go for it. The version of this regarding meditation is to take certain facts and place them at the core of an enduring practice that feels pointless in the moment for the sake that one day such effects will turn up. For example, brain changes, as seen in MRI scans, induced by meditative practice aren’t visible until a person has racked up a minimum of 3 or 4 months of consistent practice. That’s quite a long time to do something without receiving some sort of positive result. Now granted, for many people, subjective results come long before this 3 to 4 month period is traversed, but it’s possible that such results are psychosomatic. Real progress can only be objectively verified by brain changes, regarding primarily the size of the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the size of the connections linking the two along with the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
So there’s a tricky balance to strike when it comes to those things that we understand but haven’t actually experienced. It’s easy for the imagination to run off on it’s own into the realm of unsubstantiated conjecture. Strangely, at the same time, the human mind seems fairly resistant to pulling the same trick when the fulfillment of those substantiated conjectures require real work, regularly and consistently. The actual effect, if an when we finally take the leap and put in the time is often, a surprising if expected experience.