Sometimes I try to meditate when I am very tired. This is a bad idea. The brain is never very good at being held fixed on a single object of attention, and when it’s tired the task becomes nearly impossible. Instead, I get progressively more florid hypnagogic delusions centering around the meditation practice in increasingly tangential ways.
(yes, I just said that something centered in a tangential way. Suck it, circles.)
The meditation practice is very simple. Breathe in, breathe out, just watch the breath.
As I become more tired, my brain tries to complicate things. Breathe in, breathe out. Was that a correct in-breath? Was it a correct out-breath? How can I tell? Maybe I should judge each breath dispassionately, looking for flaws?
Now a train of thought is begun, and I am far too tired to notice or stop it. Breathe in, breathe out. I judged that breath to be good, but how can I be sure I was really dispassionate? Perhaps I need to do it three times per breath, to establish inter-rater reliability?
Then I lose the plot entirely. Breathe in, breathe out. Judge each breath three different times. Why am I judging my breath three different times? Will something terrible happen if I don’t? Perhaps it will. There have been a lot of tornadoes lately. Maybe if I don’t get the breath exactly right, and judge it three times, there will be a tornado. Or maybe I’m already in a tornado, and it will only let me out if I get the breathe right.
Over a matter of seconds, the plot thickens. Breathe in, breathe out. Okay, I’m in a tornado, and the only way to get out is to judge the breath correctly three times. But is this the correct way to get out of the tornado? Maybe I’m just thinking this superstitiously, and actually God is refusing to let me out of the tornado precisely because I am being arrogant by thinking I can judge my own breathing. Maybe I need to let someone else do it. What about my sister? She’s the first person I can think of who’s both intelligent enough to judge correctly and kind enough to sympathize with my plight.
By the tenth or so breath, I am in some kind of elaborate fantasy world. Breathe in, breathe out. Okay, I’m in a tornado. God won’t let me out until I have three perfect breaths. But I can’t judge my own breath. I need my sister to do it. But if I ask her to do it, will she be caught in the tornado with me? And will God be upset if I drag my sister into this, knowing that I’ve inconvenienced her? Or will He be angrier if I continue arrogantly setting myself up as my own judge?
And then suddenly something snaps and there’s a moment of awakening. There’s no need to judge my own breathing, that’s not the point. I’m not in a tornado. There’s probably no God. And I don’t even have a sister.
All I need to do is breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
I’ve made the extremely good decision not to meditate while tired anymore, because it obviously doesn’t work, but I sort of miss this kind of situation. The rush of euphoria I get when I realize that this entire complicated and dangerous situation I thought I was stuck in was entirely of my own devising, that there’s a clear and obvious path forward and all is nice and organized – well, it’s a really good feeling.
I think a lot of my passions are attempts to capture that same feeling on a larger scale. This is how I feel about consequentialism, for example. Every so often I get into this really complicated moral debate and there’s this huge argument on who has the right to do what and which group is more oppressed and how dare X think Y, and the suddenly I think “Wait a second! Consequentialism! I can just figure out which act has the better consequences!” And even if that’s hard – the way that keeping your mind on your breath is hard – watching what you thought was an unsolvable harder problem dissipate like fog at sunrise feels pretty great.
Atheism, Bayesian reasoning, capitalism, consequentialism, logical positivism, determinism – at their best moments all of these share that feeling of taking a seemingly impossible problem and realizing that it’s simpler than you think, that the nightmarishness was a fever dream, that you don’t even have a sister. And of course that’s no argument for these ideas – sometimes you do have a sister, sometimes you are caught in a tornado. But there’s something about that feeling which is fundamental to my aesthetic sense.