Originally published as four articles for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa.
Part One: Meditation and the Lottery
Since it seems unlikely at this point that I will achieve stardom as a professional athlete, I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of other avenues to fame. So far, I’ve ruled out supervillain, porn star, politician, and jockey. One option that seems promising, however, is to have something named after me, because then my name will stick around for as long as the thing exists.
I don’t want to get a disease named after me, though. Who wants to be an Alzheimer, a Hashimoto, or a Lou Gehrig? No, thank you. One of the better ways to be an eponym, I’ve decided, is to come up with some kind of useful theory. The Peter Principle (which states that people tend to get promoted beyond their level of competence) is already taken, though. Besides, I would have to share the tremendous riches and recognition that come with inventing such a theory with every other Peter in the world.
However, The Borten Principle almost guarantees a direct association with me, since very few others share my last name. I’ve been kicking around a few ideas, but the rising contender seems to be this one. Let’s say you bought a Powerball ticket. As you know, the biggest increase in your odds of winning at Powerball occurs when you buy one ticket. Before buying one ticket, your odds were zero. There were no odds, really, because you weren’t even in the game. After buying one ticket, your odds skyrocketed to something like 1 in 175 million. A few more tickets would make only the most minuscule difference.
But taking that first step . . . that was everything. It was the biggest hurdle and it made the biggest difference. And that’s what The Borten Lottery Principle states: the decision to act represents both the biggest hurdle and the biggest improvement in return. If this is already an established theory, please just start calling it The Borten Principle anyway.
This month, The Dragontree is focusing on meditation, and I’m introducing this principle because I know people often have the hardest time getting themselves to meditate, despite knowing that it would be good for them. If you’re one of them, and the time commitment or perceived difficulty is daunting, how about just buying a single ticket? Ready? You have time right now for this.
Let’s meditate for a single breath. Don’t do anything special to prepare. Just close your eyes and bring your focus to your breath. Instead of following your own thoughts like you usually do, just “watch” what happens as you inhale and then exhale. Don’t manipulate anything or try to achieve anything. Just pay attention to your breath for one inhale and exhale, and then open your eyes and keep reading. It will take about ten seconds or less. Do it now.
How was it? Horrible? I know, breathing is like fingernails on a chalkboard. But maybe it wasn’t so horrible or difficult. How would you feel about making a commitment to do that about once an hour? That’s all I ask of you, and, if you don’t already have a meditation practice, that’s all I recommend you ask of yourself for now. Even if you decide to do this only once a day, just make it something you know you can succeed at.
Next time, we’ll go a little further. Meanwhile, congratulations on buying that ticket. I have a good feeling about it.
Dr. Peter Borten
Part Two: Watch What You’re Doing
In case you’re wondering what’s the cause of all the buzz around the water cooler, well, people have been talking about The Borten Principle. I introduced it in last week’s newsletter, Meditation and the Lottery. Basically, it states that your decision to act (versus not acting) is the biggest hurdle and yields the biggest improvement in return on the energy you invest. One you’ve taken that first step, bigger investments are usually easier and also less significant.
Two minutes of meditation may be better than one minute, but one minute of meditation will get you much farther than zero minutes. Moreover, that one minute is your ticket into the game, and who knows where it might lead? The same is true for exercise, stretching, and many other healthful pursuits.
If you’ve been putting these things off because you believe they’re only worth doing if you can devote an hour to them, don’t let duration be your hurdle. Just start doing any amount – one minute of stretching when you can get it, a five minute walk, playing a single song on your clarinet. It’s so much better than nothing.
It’s not that I believe one minute is ideal, but look what I have to work with here. The images in television and movies move faster than ever. Those disclaimers at the end of commercials sound like they’re being narrated by auctioneers. Our preferred forms of communication are text messages and 140-characters-or-less tweets. While people have meals with their friends, they simultaneously carry on text conversations with other friends, browse a stream of status updates, or check emails. We’re training ourselves to have very short attention spans and a minimum of mental downtime.
In contrast, there’s meditation. In my opinion, one of the most valid reasons to do it is as a counterbalance to our usual behavior. That is, we should meditate as a much needed rest from mental processing and as an exercise in holding our attention. Both can be accomplished by simply fixing the attention on something that doesn’t require thought – the experience of breathing, the flame of a candle, a mantra.
In a way, it can feel like work, because it’s not our M.O. But when we stop fighting it, we can sink into the delicious, restful simplicity of it. Cultivating such a state in waking life is a different kind of replenishment than what we get from sleeping. Sleep doesn’t train us to experience life with greater ease and presence the way meditation does.
Last week, I introduced a one breath meditation as your entry level ticket to the benefits of meditative practice. Hopefully, you were able to watch a single breath a few times since then. This week, I want to challenge you just a little bit more. Rather than ask you to sit down and look at a candle, which would mean potentially missing some very juicy tweets, I’d like you to just do whatever you’d normally do.
There’s just one tiny difference. I’d like you to watch yourself do whatever you’re doing. Put your attention on only what you’re engaged in. Choose one mundane activity today, like washing dishes, cooking, cleaning, driving, or bathing, and see how long you can pay attention to just what you’re doing and nothing else. Your mind will be understimulated, and that’s fine. If you’re washing a dish, and your mind wants something to chew on, you can let it think, “I’m washing a dish.” Don’t indulge any unrelated thoughts. Pay attention to the process completely. Easy.
Then tell me what happens in the comments section below.
Dr. Peter Borten
Part Three: You Can’t Put the Genie Back in the Bottle
Once upon a time, a woman stumbled upon a tarnished bronze oil lamp in her backyard. Hoping it was one of those genie lamps you hear so much about, she rubbed it. Sure enough, a genie popped out.
“Hello,” said the genie. “As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a genie. I like to stay busy, so give me something to do.”
“Oh, goodie,” said the woman. “Is this a three wish deal?”
“Nope,” the genie replied. “You get me forever.”
“Awesome!” exclaimed the woman. “Could you do the laundry?”
“Yes,” said the genie. “It’s done. What next?”
“How about painting the house?”
“Weed the garden?”
“Neuter the dog?”
“Ummm…. make dinner, I guess.”
“How spicy? Never mind, I chose medium.”
“Gee, thanks so much,” the woman said. “Why don’t you go take a break now?”
“I don’t take breaks,” said the genie.
“Oh, well, go hang out in your bottle and amuse yourself,” she tried.
“I don’t think you get how this works,” said the genie as he brought his face closer to hers. “GIVE ME SOMETHING TO DO OR I’LL EAT YOU!”
The startled woman was quick on her feet and replied, “Ok, I’ve got it. Climb up that flagpole. When you get to the top, slide down. Then climb up again, slide down again, and just keep doing that until I think of something else for you to do.”
It worked, and the woman didn’t get eaten.
In this parable, the genie is meant to represent the human mind. As for the flagpole routine, that’s the value of mantra.
Mantras have a number of forms and purposes. Some believe that mantras, through their particular composition of sounds and ideas, produce a spiritual or therapeutic effect. Certain mantras are meant to be spoken aloud; others can be simply “spoken” mentally. Using a mantra with a meaning you understand may have the additional benefit of aligning your intention around a positive idea, although using a mantra in another language or one without any meaning may be useful in that you won’t be analyzing the meaning.
Most mantras originated in Hinduism and Buddhism, although Sikhism and other religions use them as well. Hebrew, like Sanskrit, is a profoundly intentional language, with each letter also representing a number and spiritual concept, so it has been proposed that Hebrew scripture also has a mantra-like quality. If other religions – or religion in general – make you uneasy, don’t worry. Repeating a mantra that originated in some religious tradition doesn’t indoctrinate you into that religion or make God upset.
There are entire books devoted to the theory and practice of mantras, so rather than try to say everything about them in this brief article, I’ll cut to the chase. Whether or not you believe in the vibrational power of mantras, they are useful for occupying the mind with something that doesn’t involve analysis, and they often help facilitate a meditative state.
There are short mantras and long mantras. I recommend a shorter one for silent meditation, since it’s easier to remember. The shortest one syllable mantras are called bija or “seed” mantras, such as Om, Aim (“aeem”), Shrim (“shreem”), Hrim (“hreem”), Krim (“cream”), Hum, Hu (“hue”), Ram (“rahm”), Vam (“vahm”), and Ham (“hahm”). Some other short ones include Ong, God, Love, and Shanti (peace). Then there are slightly longer ones such as the Sikh mantra Sat Nam (“saht” on inhale, “nahm” on exhale), the Hindu mantra Om Namah Shivaya, and the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (or Om Mani Peme Hung). There are thousands more. You may wish to find one that seems suited to your spiritual sensibilities, or one that just feels good to say. In my opinion, one of the most relaxing is the Willywonkian mantra Oompa Loompa.
This week I’d like you to try meditating with a mantra. Choose one from above or find one you like online or from a book. Sit comfortably and repeat your chosen mantra silently, at a speed that feels comfortable to you. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to the mantra. See if, compared to simply watching the breath, this makes it easier to enter a relaxed state. Report your findings in the comments section below.
Dr. Peter Borten
Part Four: The Stick and Carrot Show
In this month’s series of articles on meditation, I’ve tried to be gentle on you.
They say people can be motivated by the threat of a stick or the reward of a carrot, and I really want to believe the carrot works better than the stick, but I’m not so sure. I used to live near a church that had a billboard with movable letters and they changed their message every few weeks. Most of the signs were friendly and in good humor, such as, “50 Shades of Grace – every Sunday.” Or, “Staying in bed and yelling, ‘Oh, God!’ does not constitute going to church.” But then, they must have gotten a new writer who felt the community had a brimstone deficiency, and one day it read, “Repent for your sins or burn in hell.”
I actually called the church and asked them, “Is this really how you want to lead people to God? Through fear?” The woman I spoke with was quite nice and seemed to understand my viewpoint. The next day they graciously changed the word “burn” to “smolder.”
Honestly, the negative message – the stick – got my attention more than previous ones did. I think an actual stick, called a keisaku in Zen temples – to whack us when we nod off – might be useful. But we have a long history of psychological sticks (the threat of hell, foremost) that primarily served to disempower us. They led us to believe that “god-fearing” was a good quality, but from what I’ve seen, fear leads mostly to self-preservation, not philanthropy.
Perhaps the problem isn’t the stick, though. It’s that those who wield it (and those who cower beneath it) are missing the point. Last summer I got to watch my daughter playing the game Operator at camp. Kids have no idea what an operator is these days, but they still love the game. One child starts it off by whispering something like, “The ladybug sat on a leaf,” to the next child, and ten kids later it ends up as, “I farted on Miss Johnson’s head.” It seems that essentially the same methodology has been used in the transmission and execution of many spiritual teachings. Hence the fire and brimstone.
Sure, you can use a stick to dominate people. But, I think the value of the stick approach is to highlight what’s not working – i.e., a “hell” of your own making – with the intention of waking one up to something better. And there’s plenty of stick material out there without the need to resort to pools of fire.
So, enough carrot. When it comes to meditation, here’s the stick: Our trend of material overconsumption – from Black Friday, to giant food portions, to so much plastic that there’s a swirling mass of it in the Pacific Ocean the size of the continental U.S. – is perfectly paralleled by a trend of mental overconsumption. In an effort to turn our minds into foie gras, we mustn’t miss any opportunity to read something while sitting on the toilet, or to cook a meal with a television in the kitchen (ideally with the capacity to watch two channels simultaneously).
When I first started learning about videography 20 years ago, I was taught that you should change the camera angle every ten seconds so the viewer doesn’t get bored. Nowadays, the standard is half that time. The problem is, hyperconsumption and hyperstimulation are addictive. They infringe on almost everything. And life without our addiction starts to seem bland. The sweetness of simplicity is endangered, and real life is insufficiently data-rich to hold our attention. So, we invite the iPad and cell phone into the bed, and on the hike, and into the massage, and to the concert, and to the wedding, and to the birth of our child. . .
Therefore, perhaps the best reason yet to meditate is this: the practice of a mental fast in the midst of this all-you-can-eat buffet is almost revolutionary. It’s so different from our M.O. that it has the potential to change our consciousness in a big and positive way. There’s something there, that we only notice when we look beneath all the noise, that calibrates us, heals us, and reminds us of what we are.
The Chinese philosopher, Zhuang Zi, wrote:
Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all things. The Way [Dao/God/Spirit] gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.
Be well (and quiet),
Dr. Peter Borten