concentration vs. mindfulness




meditation is very important to me. most of the time when i meditate i simply sit still for 15 or 20 minutes and practice noticing and accepting whatever sensations i feel. this is mindfulness meditation, or at least as close as i get to it. mindfulness is the type of meditation that has been the most helpful to me. at times, i can be so unaware of what i feel and how it affects me that i don’t even realize that i’m physically sore or sick or extremely anxious about something in the future. mindfulness is the antidote to that lack of awareness and refusal to accept the facts of what i feel. but mindfulness isn’t everything when it comes to meditation.

this article talks about concentration meditation. after reading it, i can see why i’ve been stuck in my practice for a long time. i have steadily improved at mindfulness, but my ability to avoid getting distracted has stayed at a complete standstill. a year ago, i could meditate for around 20 minutes before i realized i was squirming and thinking so much that i was no longer really meditating. and today, i still can only sit for 20 minutes before the same thing happens.

concentration meditation, as taught by this helpful video, seems like the answer. the narrator describes this type of meditation as going to the gym for the brain, to make it stronger. the article i mentioned a minute ago even talks about concentration as a tool, which could be used for good or evil, but is powerful either way. this practice includes some approaches that i normally would avoid, because they don’t fit into mindfulness. for instance, in this concentration practice the narrator directs you to count your breaths and say the number in your head, while mindfulness rarely encourages naming, even at the beginning stages. both types of meditation seem to converge as they improve, so that, in the end, you might be able to sit still and accept sensation and avoid distraction and not name anything at all.

i’ve also found a lot of help in metta meditation, which is a whole different type of practice that involves a lot more naming and thinking. i like the idea of having a whole arsenal of practices, developed by people thousands of years ago who had no televisions or computers but just as much of an ability to sit still and notice, deeply, what it is really like to be human. i recommend the article and video for a practice akin to lifting weights, tough, intentional, driven by willpower, which will leave you calm and all the more able to find a deeper peace and acceptance with your mindfulness practice.

Vipassana meditation is something of a mental balancing act. You are going to be cultivating two separate qualities of the mind – mindfulness and concentration. Ideally these two work together as a team. They pull in tandem, so to speak. Therefore it is important to cultivate them side-by-side and in a balanced manner. If one of the factors is strengthened at the expense of the other, the balance of the mind is lost and meditation impossible.



the organized mind, and my unorganized wallet


the Organized Mind

a month or so back i borrowed an audiobook called The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin, but never got around to reading it before it expired. ironically. i tried it again, today, and it is interesting and highly applicable.

i was already thinking about optimization, because i listened to Tim Ferris talk about his new book on a podcast earlier. and that, mixed in with information systems theory and cognitive overload anecdotes, is helping me see the world in a different light.

for instance, i got several new items this evening. all of them are, broadly categorized, items that i will keep in my wallet. my wallet is a little thinking tool, a metaphor for my brain, at least a well organized wallet would be. and the more i look at the wallet and all the cards that i mean to put in it, i can understand how much data is being processed. minds are like rooms full of stuff, which are like computer desktops full of videos and documents, which are modeled off of actual desktops with actual physical folders full of files.

my wallet

about half of the items in my wallet have an undisputed, assigned location. for instance, my newest bus pass is always in the clear pocket, in front, and older bus passes are always in that same pocket in the back. cash is always in the outer fold, and, if i’ve been paying attention, organized by bill size going from ones on the inside to twenties, and beyond, on the perimeter.

those preassigned items could be seen in two different ways. on one hand, they are helpful and decrease superfluous decision making and processing: it may be better to always know where the key files are in the folder. on the other hand, if the way i keep my wallet has more importance that i realize – and so is worth more effort and consideration – then maybe these domains are a hinderance, and i’d be far better off with bills stuck in the clear pocket and cards lined up in the fold, and so on. but i can’t imagine a world in which a formerly unheard of shuffling of the contents of my wallet generate an important change, so i don’t worry about it.

the second pile of items to go in my wallet are more difficult because they are more diverse, and less related, and all of a lower tier of importance to me. i know exactly where i keep my driver’s license, because it is necessary for many things, but i don’t care so much about my safeway club card.

the wallet is also similar to a junk drawer. junk drawers come up a lot when i’m learning about how the mind works. Levitin mentions it early on in The Organized Mind. you fill junk drawers with odds and ends, often just to procrastinate making the decision to throw them away or to expend the effort of putting them in the proper place (three random screws at the back that could be stored in the toolbox, if the toolbox was just a little easier to get out from under the piles of boxes in the garage…and weren’t you meaning to pick up those boxes and organize those? so you can’t deal with the screws in the junk drawer until you go through the boxes in the garage, though of course if you organized it would only make sense to clean in there, too, because it has been a shamefully long time and there are cobwebs…)

in the case of my wallet, i had old versions of cards, like a work pass. i know i don’t want to have a wallet stuffed full of useless copies of the same tool. but can i really throw out the old one? what if i need it? should i file it away somewhere? should the card be recycled? does it need to be cut up so no one can use it? and don’t i vaguely remember the HR department collecting the old cards, last year, and won’t they be pissed if i throw it out?

incidentally, the card in question, which i did throw out, was actually for the 2015 year, not 2016, and that potential problem never once materialized. so, it stands to reason that i can dispense with giving a fuck about it and spend my cognitive calories elsewhere.

i had a pile of business cards from friend’s projects and my own side projects. individually, i had no qualms about accepting them and stowing them away. but now i have collected a pile, and it is too much, because the real estate is valuable.

some of the cards are easier, and lend themselves to sorting: a pile of giftcards, tj max, starbucks, and guitar center. christmas gifts. and a fourth, a visa gift card given as a holiday bonus. but that card has a place of in the first slot facing out. above that are three other slots, all open in rotation between a few key players, ID and debit and credit. the health card, rarely used but vaguely similar to the driver’s license for purposes of identification, gets to piggy back a special permanent slot behind it.

so what does that leave? half a dozen of my own business cards, bulky but worth keeping handy. a card with my banking number in case i forget it. a private security ID for the state of oregon, unarmed professional. these sundries will need to fight it out for space in the remaining pockets.

each decision (to store, or to discard) is a little victory, and i feel a satisfaction like an itch or a smoke. the work ID and work pass and old entry pass sort of fit together, both in that they relate to work and in that they are rarely used and only need to be in the wallet in case i need them. they can go in the least accessible pocket. of course, all my business cards go together (of course: “of course” means taking for granted, and taking for granted is the enemy of new ideas. fortunately, it is my wallet, which i’m analyzing for fun, so no loss).

cognitive-metaphysical theory of my wallet (jk)

in the end, i put the wallet away in my backpack. that is meta as shit, right? my backpack is another container that holds, stores, protects, hides, and secures different tools. one moment ago my wallet was an ecosystem filled with fauna, and now it is a singular object among many. in hand, stripped, the wallet is the sum total of cash and cards and coupons. now, it is part of the backpack, along with laptop and chapstick and papers. when i take the backpack home again it will become a singular object in a room full of bookshelves and dresser drawers and wastebaskets, all designed to hold different types of things.

but, like zooming in by powers of 10 to see galaxies and then planets and then people and then atoms, the whole process folds back onto itself depending on the nature of each item i have stored. a book, or a sock, could go missing and i might never even know. those items are relatively inconsequential, and to spend time worrying about each of them would cripple me. if a human head got smacked with a rock and the brain inside started to care equally about each possession, the person running in that brain would be as handicapped as someone who can no longer feel physical pain, or who no longer experience emotions.

but some of those items from the vast store of hundreds in my possession – more than a tribal chieftain in 1000 BCE, more than some kings in 1000 CE – enjoy special properties and responsibilities. in the apartment, in the room, in the backpack, in the wallet, is the debit card, which in itself is a system of organization for electronic numbers meant to reflect currency which is meant to reflect a gold standard. this unassuming piece of plastic pays for everything from the wall to the backpack to the room to the apartment.

tl;dr i wrote 1000 words about organizing my wallet. does this mean i’ll never have any friends ever again?

the book

so, in case i didn’t make myself clear, i recommend The Organized Mind. here is my favorite quote, so far:

The appearance of writing some 5,000 years ago was not met with unbridled enthusiasm; many contemporaries saw it as technology gone too far, a demonic invention that would rot the mind and needed to be stopped. Then, as now, printed words were promiscuous—it was impossible to control where they went or who would receive them, and they could circulate easily without the author’s knowledge or control. Lacking the opportunity to hear information directly from a speaker’s mouth, the antiwriting contingent complained that it would be impossible to verify the accuracy of the writer’s claims, or to ask follow-up questions. Plato was among those who voiced these fears; his King Thamus decried that the dependence on written words would “weaken men’s characters and create forgetfulness in their souls.” Such externalization of facts and stories meant people would no longer need to mentally retain large quantities of information themselves and would come to rely on stories and facts as conveyed, in written form, by others. Thamus, king of Egypt, argued that the written word would infect the Egyptian people with fake knowledge. The Greek poet Callimachus said books are “a great evil.” The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger (tutor to Nero) complained that his peers were wasting time and money accumulating too many books, admonishing that “the abundance of books is a distraction.” Instead, Seneca recommended focusing on a limited number of good books, to be read thoroughly and repeatedly. Too much information could be harmful to your mental health.

The printing press was introduced in the mid 1400s, allowing for the more rapid proliferation of writing, replacing laborious (and error-prone) hand copying. Yet again, many complained that intellectual life as we knew it was done for. Erasmus, in 1525, went on a tirade against the “swarms of new books,” which he considered a serious impediment to learning. He blamed printers whose profit motive sought to fill the world with books that were “foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive.” Leibniz complained about “that horrible mass of books that keeps on growing” and that would ultimately end in nothing less than a “return to barbarism.” Descartes famously recommended ignoring the accumulated stock of texts and instead relying on one’s own observations. Presaging what many say today, Descartes complained that “even if all knowledge could be found in books, where it is mixed in with so many useless things and confusingly heaped in such large volumes, it would take longer to read those books than we have to live in this life and more effort to select the useful things than to find them oneself.”

A steady flow of complaints about the proliferation of books reverberated into the late 1600s. Intellectuals warned that people would stop talking to each other, burying themselves in books, polluting their minds with useless, fatuous ideas.







…is a good word. i learned it from Hitchens’ Hitch-22 a few months ago, but despaired of ever remembering it. the word registered again once or twice when i flipped through old pages in a notebook where i’d written it down, but never with the type of familiarity that made me think i’d learned it. now, today, writing in my journal, i had need of exactly that word and out it pops, from a part of my brain that i can’t manually operate, like a piece of alien space junk gliding over the edge of a black hole’s event horizon. and, i even spelled it correctly.

that means i learned “frisson” when i’d consciously thought that i’d certainly forget it. i learned without trying, memorized as a side effect of a few 30 second cognitive exercises (write it down, look up its etymology, look at it again after a few days…).

take heart, good people of the world: when you try hard to improve it starts to happen when you aren’t even looking.

[free-sohn; French free-sawn]

a sudden, passing sensation of excitement; a shudder of emotion; thrill: