Number 149-150 - August-September 2014
In this issue:
Shocking News About Meditation
Sparrow Hart Podcast: Vision QuestHot Links: Cathy Young: Feminist Face-Off
Menletter has been brought under the overall
aegis of Stone Bear Publications. Nothing has
changed, or will change, in Menletter, since I
run both of them. But I wanted to have a lot of
what I write under one umbrella. You can check
out Stone Bear by clicking on the - uh - stone
[Note: Menletter has been brought under the overall aegis of Stone Bear Publications. Nothing has changed, or will change, in Menletter, since I run both of them. But I wanted to have a lot of what I write under one umbrella. You can check out Stone Bear by clicking on the - uh - stone bear picture.]
Shocking News About Meditation
I once asked one of these people (who had complained about being so busy) if it would help to learn some meditation techniques - even just sitting quietly for ten or twenty minutes. She replied, "I'd go crazy after five. I just can't sit still."
Then there were the psychology subjects who were given a mild electric shock and told the investigator that they'd pay a dollar or two to avoid a shock like that. Then they were (individually) put into a room with a button that would deliver the same shock. They were told to sit quietly and do nothing for 15 minutes, just be alone with their thoughts. Twelve out of the 18 men in the study shocked themselves about seven times. (One man, excluded from the study, shocked himself 190 times.) Women did somewhat better; only 6 of 24 women shocked themselves.
One theory about this phenomenon is that we live in a society filled with distractions, and being distracted by external stimuli has become our new normal.
Maybe there's more to it than that.
Could there be some of us whose own company, whose own thoughts, are toxic to us? Our constant activity, even if it's just pushing a button to get a shock, keeps us from experiencing the kinds of thoughts that come with silence and stillness.
Thoughts can be of two kinds.
One kind is the fleeting background noise of our lives: what to have for dinner, what to say to the boss, whether we remembered to mail the bills. This goes on all the time; you might say it's our personal narrative, a running commentary. In the quiet and stillness, they can feel like an endless cascade. Annoying at first, but eventually easy to let come and go like clouds in the summer sky.
The other kind is the thing we latch onto that becomes a major rumination. These thoughts can be regrets, fears, painful memories, unresolved issues, uncertainty about the future, or even doubts about who and what we really are. What if, deep down, there's nobody home? Who the heck am I anyway?
Again, most of the time we can keep these thoughts at bay by distracting ourselves and keeping them from rising to active consciousness. Sometimes a disturbing thought punches through our defenses and becomes all we can think about. But most often we just sail along in semi-oblivion, with our deeper thoughts below the surface but affecting what we say and do.
The ruminative thinking can be triggered when there's nothing competing with it. The classic case is the three-a.m. awakening that leaves us tossing and turning for much of the rest of the night. The barrage of daytime input and distraction has been put to sleep, so to speak, and our mind finally has the space to say "Pay attention!"
This uncomfortable situation, it seems, can also be triggered by being asked to sit alone with our thoughts. That's probably why two-thirds of the men in the study chose a mildly painful shock rather than the pain of their own thoughts.
Most of us wouldn't embrace intensive, introspective navel-gazing just to expose ourselves to all the crap we'd rather not think about. In the experiment I mentioned above, the men were given time to prepare, and to come up with something enjoyable to think about. But 12 men still chose the shock.
What do we do with all this? Never allow ourselves to be alone and quiet? Carry around a portable device to distract us? (Oh wait. We already do. They're called smartphones.)
The irony is that those who regularly go into quiet solitude actually seem to be happier. Some seemingly "bad" stuff may come up from time to time, but generally the practice leads to lowered stress levels, lower blood pressure, less anxiety and depression, better concentration, sometimes fewer pain symptoms. This is not a sure thing (neither are the results of talk therapy or drugs). But the process of what is called mindfulness meditation (sitting still, noticing the breath, noticing but not judging thoughts) doesn't have documented negative side-effects.
The other irony, as I've expounded on above, is that sitting meditation (doing, essentially, nothing) seems to be harder than most of the tasks and challenges of our lives. As in any new skill, it helps to start small. Five minutes is often long enough to get a taste of some of the benefits - maybe sitting in the car for five minutes after arriving at work. It's a huge challenge to establish a regular time and place for meditation (beyond the car!), and it may take some time to figure it out.
What if bad stuff arises in the solitude? We may just be better equipped to deal with it if we've had some practice in sitting quietly. It can become possible to simply examine this stuff dispassionately, almost like an outside observer, and see if we can understand it better. One of the upshots of meditation is being able to answer the question, "Who am I?" The mix of negative and positive knowledge about ourselves can be a great source of perspective and compassion - for ourselves and others.
(Standard disclaimer here: Some very serious mental conditions need to be treated very specific ways - with medication, therapy, and so on.) M
Sparrow Hart Podcast: Vision Quest
For decades, Sparrow Hart has led vision quests and retreats in natural settings - some wild, all beautiful. He practices what he leads, going himself on vision quests just about yearly. For 20 years he co-led a weeklong men's retreat called the Men's Wisdom Council (now on a brief, we hope, hiatus). Not a typical "mythopoetic" guy like Robert Bly, he nevertheless is steeped in a lifetime of studying - and living - the myth-based life.
We all live in myth, usually in the plots of stories that others write for us: parents, teachers, advertisers, corporations, governments. The difference with Sparrow is that he teaches us to capture and take hold of and tell our own stories, our own plots. This typically involves some deep psychic work and soul-searching, but not in the sense of a religious retreat or psychotherapy. The work gets done in groups that create a community, a safe (and some would say sacred) container in which the danger we sense in exposing our inner selves is replaced by deep trust. And in trusting the community, we come to trust ourselves.
There are many ways to do this kind of work. One of them is the vision quest, four days alone, in nature, with only water, a tarp, our thoughts, and a journal.
Although there are surely variations, my experience from two quests has been like this: The questers meet before their journey for training in campcraft and the historical and mythological underpinnings of a solo quest. Even during the solo part of the experience, we feel a strong sense of community, and the knowledge that six or eight or so people are having similar (but unique to them) experiences. The group meets afterward for sharing and debriefing.
Last June, Carmen Spagnola, a spiritual guide and founder of the Numinous School of Intuition, interviewed Sparrow and created a 35-minute podcast in which he explains his work. I am happy to share it with you:
Hot Links: Cathy Young: Feminist Face-Off