Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Passage
I have to give a shout-out here to my teacher Shinzen Young, who wrote an excellent book about how meditation can help with chronic pain. His formula is one every human being should memorize: Suffering = Pain × Resistance. Pain is an inevitable part of life. Suffering (in his definition) is not. It comes from fighting or resisting some uncomfortable sensation or emotion or whatever. When we do this, there’s a snowball effect: tension spreads, and the original insult starts to reverberate through the whole mind-body tract, leading to even more discomfort, stress, and reactivity. The suffering amplifies.
You can literally watch this dynamic play out when your knee starts to hurt when you meditate. There is the pain of it, but there’s also your panicked judgment of the pain—Oh, man, this is only going to get worse; there is bracing in the body and the face; there may be a slight holding of the breath; and there is almost always that subtle aversion layer being activated. So one meditative solution is to counterintuitively focus on the center of the sensation of pain itself, relaxing and breathing into it, trying to let go of your aversion and develop a kind of field naturalist’s curiosity and acceptance instead. You watch your pain like it’s an intriguing little animal. When we do this, the pain itself can diminish dramatically and sometimes even disappear.
Good Things About This Passage
Stuff I liked in this passage:
1. Separating pain from suffering conceptually, and in particular discussing the issue in terms of there being pain and there being a judgment of the pain.
2. Treating suffering as a solvable issue.
3. Using a really concrete example regarding a knee which I think helps people understand the issue.
4. Bringing up the idea of adopting the perspective of a field naturalist, because that emphasizes having a more objective perspective. I think having an objective perspective is important for people to do when dealing with emotional issues.
Bad Things About This Passage
I disliked this part:
When we do this, there’s a snowball effect: tension spreads, and the original insult starts to reverberate through the whole mind-body tract, leading to even more discomfort, stress, and reactivity. The suffering amplifies.
I didn’t find that the mention of reverberation or the mind-body tract added clarity.
I also disliked:
Suffering = Pain × Resistance.
I don’t like when people try to use math to reflect non-mathematical relationships in a metaphorical and imprecise way.
I found this writing unclear:
trying to let go of your aversion and develop a kind of field naturalist’s curiosity and acceptance instead.
Is “acceptance” supposed to be an attribute of the field naturalist? Cuz I can see curiosity being an attribute of a field naturalist but I’m confused about the acceptance idea, and thought maybe it was kind of separate from the attributes of the field naturalist. “Acceptance” is not concept I associate particularly strongly with field naturalists. I actually read “acceptance” as separate initially, but then I read it again and wasn’t sure. If the intent was to make it separate then I think maybe the writing is kind of awkward.
You can literally watch this dynamic play out when your knee starts to hurt when you meditate.
I’m not sure what the author intended to communicate by putting “literally” into this sentence.
Elliot Animal Welfare Tree
Suffering is a state of mind. It requires having a mind which makes value judgments or otherwise has some sort of opinions: that it wants, prefers or likes some things over others. Then it can be disappointed, can form a negative judgment of a situation, etc. Without human-like intelligence, animals are unable to decide what they like or dislike. They don’t have any opinions. They don’t care one way or another because caring is a type of intelligent thought.
Good Things About This Passage
- The writing here is precise and clear about what claims it is making; there are no vague metaphors and there is no unclear use of math. Specifically, the relationship between suffering and judgment is clearly stated.
- It is concise. It says a ton in relatively few words.
- It is well-structured. We get a statement of position (that suffering is a state of mind), some reasons for that position, and an analysis of a consequence of that position using a specific example (animals).
- The argument presented is easy to follow and interesting.
I don’t think there is anything objectively bad about the passage when it is considered in context. It’s not a complete, self-contained argument, but it’s a node on a tree, not a treatise, so a failure to be complete would not be a criticism.
I think Elliot’s passage could be criticized from the perspective of certain goals (such as pandering and not offending people), but I think those goals are bad.