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.
How sure are you that meditating when tired is a bad idea? It’s possible that you get state-dependent learning from it.
I think I’m half-asleep when I’m doing it; doing anything when half asleep seems bad.
I find things funnier when I’m sleep deprived.
Funny, to me it sounds very interesting or valuable, from the description. My sense is that I should try it.
It sounds as though you (sometimes?) learn by experience that you can break past specific sorts of habitual self-distraction. It’s at least possible that you could make a habit of not distracting yourself that way when you’re tired.
Have you tried writing computer programs? “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” happens a lot, at least as long as you consider “my shit won’t work and I’ll get yelled at” as a danger.
I’ve done a little of it, but never got past the point where I could solve problems by adding epicycles.
I’d be really curious to hear some examples from capitalism, determinism, and logical positivism.
We have a monstrously important and difficult problem to solve – how much of what to make, and what to do with it. Capitalism says the optimal solution to this problem is to, for the most part, let people do what they want. All alternatives that I’m aware of are many orders of magnitude more complex.
A little less clear to me, but I imagine it goes along the lines of this. How can we tell what’s going to happen? Determinism says you just need to learn enough about the prior state and you can definitively state what happens next. Alternatives to determinism basically say that question is impossible to answer.
How do we know what’s true? There’s all sorts of unverifiable statements in the realms of metaphysics, theology, and subjective arguments that we might want to know the truth value of, like “does a non-interventionist God exist”. Lots of energy has gone into debating the truth value of those, but logical positivism says that any proposition that doesn’t have verifiable consequences in reality or in math is meaningless. We no longer have to evaluate “does a non-interventionist God exist”, because it’s a meaningless statement, since it’s truth or falsehood has no consequences.
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!
But maybe enforcing a taboo on whether X can think Y is instrumentally useful – so even if we can more easily solve the object level issue here by violating that taboo, it might not be worth it. The consequences down the line of weakening the taboo might outweigh the benefit to be gained now. You can reframe most virtue ethicist objections in consequentialist terms and get most of the fog back.
That’s really beautiful, Scott.
Circles sucked it a long time ago: nowadays, tangents do center.
Oooh, good point.
“that feeling of taking a seemingly impossible problem and realizing that it’s simpler than you think”
I love this feeling too, and the most consistent source of this for me has been really dense physics and math writers. There are certain sentences you read fifteen, twenty times and that you’d think are complete gibberish if they weren’t written by Landau and Lifshitz – then suddenly it dawns on you and you realise they’ve gone and connected stuff from different parts of your brain and your whole belief system gets simpler.
This sometimes happens in problems too, but its unlikely that I come up with really deep answers.
Oh! And combinatorics! Always! I’m sitting in a corner counting and someone gets up and says, so consider a room full of women and men… et voila!
That’s my experience of Project Euler, when I compare my crude solutions to this blog.
I don’t know how many books on meditation you have read, but studies have shown that experienced meditators are in a state of sleep or quasi-sleep for a significant proportion of time during meditation. Austin’s Zen and the Brain contains a lot of information of this kind. He argues that something quite similar to sleep is essential to the exotic states of consciousness experienced during meditation.
Also, intensive meditation in Zen monasteries involves sleep deprivation.
Anyway, this piece reminds me of Confessions of an Opium-Eater. Newtonian ethics also seems like something De Quincey might have written. All of this Victorian research has clearly had an effect.
Shinzen Young on sleepy meditation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64BBTV3FOc4