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Why We Can’t Sit Quietly In A Room Alone

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I’ve always liked the Blaise Pascal quote, “I have discovered that all the miseries of men derive from one single fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their own room.”

People interpret this famous pronouncement all sorts of ways, but if you look up the context, it’s clear he’s saying “we prefer the chase over the quarry.” In other words, we live more easily in a state of pursuing future experiences than settling into the experience we’re having.

It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We’re less likely to be descended from easily-contented hunter-gatherers than from the ones who got antsy if they took too long to go out hunting and gathering again.

You could say that this persistent restlessness is nature’s way of keeping a little fire under our butts—one that makes “elsewhere and later” seem like a more suitable site for happiness than here and now.

This is a delusional belief, however, because once you get to that particular “elsewhere,” it’s already become another “here,” complete with that same fire of discontent under your butt. Another future-based haven soon forms in your mind’s eye, and you’re off trying to make that your new present.

And so goes nature’s endless carrot-and-treadmill trick. It’s an effective formula for driving us to perpetually create, accumulate, and procreate. It’s also a perfect recipe for existential angst.*

In 2014, psychologist named Timothy Wilson published several studies in which people were left alone with their thoughts, for between six and fifteen minutes, in order to gauge how much they liked it. He found that people generally hate it. Many subjects felt distracted and uncomfortable, unsure of where to direct their attention.

People seemed to prefer doing something over doing nothing, but Dr Wilson wondered if that something had to be pleasant. So for a few trials, he added a single optional activity: a button that gives you electric shocks. Six of twenty-four women, and twelve of eighteen men, took advantage of this option “at least once.”

What’s interesting to me is figuring out what that little fire under our butts really is. When you defy Pascal’s observation, and just sit there, what actually happens? What experience descends on you that is so objectionable that it chases you out of the room?

I’ve done of lot of my own “field research” on exactly that. I sit alone in a room once or twice a day in my meditation practice. There are lots of ways to meditate, but one way is simply to sit there, trying to be as receptive as possible to whatever comes up, whether it’s mental or physical, pleasant or unpleasant. Whatever experiences come down the pipe—boredom, unease, desires to make coffee, or money, or war—you try to watch them come and go without interfering.

Doing this has many benefits, but two are particularly relevant to this discussion:  

Firstly, you get to see what Pascal was referring to. You get to see what makes sitting there, simply existing without doing, such a challenge for a human being. (Essentially it’s an ever-changing combination of body sensations, mental talk, and mental images, which we reflexively try to control or escape from, due to our human preoccupation with doing, manipulating, and ordering things.)

Secondly, you become much better at experiencing those churning sensations without being pushed around by them. You see that each of the sensations that make up the fire under our butts come and go, and most of them are uncomfortable only to the degree that you resist them.

Eventually, by cultivating receptivity rather than defensiveness, a kind of tranquility can emerge.

Presumably, Pascal didn’t know about this possibility—coming to terms with the angst. Intentionally sitting alone in a room, as it turns out, is ideal remedial training for our human condition of not being able to sit alone in a room, and all miseries derived thereof.

Exploring Pascal’s Forbidden Realm

My next experiment is to explore Pascal’s forbidden dimension of solitary room-sitting further than I ever have.

On a normal morning I sit alone in a room for 45 to 60 minutes, and often that’s enough to settle into a state of greatly reduced unease, and occasionally almost complete equanimity.

However, having the same routine can lead to a kind of stagnation. When you practice only under familiar conditions, you tend to meet only familiar challenges, leaving certain holes in your game unaddressed.

My primary teacher recommends something called “duration training,” where you enter uncharted territory simply by sitting much longer than usual. You sit for your usual hour, then remain sitting for another hour or two or three.

That leaves a lot more time for settling and tranquility to occur, but also more time for the emergence of boredom, physical discomfort, snack-related desires, and Pascalian angst. I’m interested to see how these two aspects of the long-ass-meditation experience interact.

I’ll also be employing an oldschool principle called adhitthana, or“strong determination,” which means you vow to sit as still as possible, without shifting or moving the body. (The only time you move is if you believe not doing so would harm your body.)

The point of this vow is to ensure that you meet the all the little discomforts you sneakily avoid in your usual sittings by casually adjusting your posture, scratching itches, and quitting when you get uncomfortable. Without the the option of movement, you only have your mindfulness skills and steely resolve to rely on. This commitment is supposed to accelerate the development of those skills drastically.

I’ll be doing these long sittings for seven days, beginning today. (Details on the experiment page.)

I really have no idea how this will go. At this moment I feel quite confident, but by the end of the week I’ll be sitting for the duration of Titanic, only without an intermission, or popcorn, or the movie.

I invite you to follow my progress on my experiment log. If you do have a meditation practice, and you want try sitting longer than usual, I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments, but I won’t tell you how long “long” should be for you.

Or perhaps you’re just morbidly curious of what happens when a person defies Pascal’s thesis about sitting in a room alone. I’ll report what happens to me in the place he said we couldn’t go.

***

*This “delusional treadmill effect” is a major point in Robert Wright’s provocatively-titled book, Why Buddhism is True, which is too tangential to get into here but I highly recommend it. Wright is an evolutionary psychologist, and his book suggests that the kinds of “suffering” ancient Buddhists identified are caused by evolutionary mechanisms that we’ve only now begun to understand, 2,500 years later.

Photo by Phil Berndt

{ 46 Comments }

Vilx- August 19, 2019 at 12:41 am

You have waaaay too much free time. :D

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:19 am

Nope, I just have different priorities. There’s no such thing as free time.

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Corné August 19, 2019 at 12:52 pm

Great reply.

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PJ Connors August 28, 2019 at 6:26 pm

I sit once a week alone in a chapel for an hour. It’s a spiritual reflection. Many years now and it is very good. I’ve also traveled alone on a small motorcycle over some long distances. Met many wonderful people, had many wonderful experiences.

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Ron Jones August 19, 2019 at 2:29 am

That Pascal quote has been one of my favorites for decades (though I’ve never seen this particular translation). I’m confused a bit by your statement, “Presumably, Pascal didn’t know about this possibility—coming to terms with the angst.” Seems to me that the value of sitting quietly and “coming to terms with the angst” is just what he’s talking about, his admonition, saying that we err by not doing so.

Anyway, good post, and good luck with your extended meditations. I started meditating for one to two hours some months back (by no means regularly, but fairly often) and I find that those extra minutes can be quite different and more potent than the first 30-60 minutes. FWIW.

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:23 am

Thanks Ron. I’ve had the same experience — when you sit longer than usual, there are new challenges and new rewards, presumably because you tend to meet the same range of experiences in that initial stretch.

By coming to terms with it I mean equanimity with the direct experience of it, not just acceptance that it exists.

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Mysoulitude August 19, 2019 at 2:40 am

Good luck in your endeavors. It’s good to see a soul searching for deeper meanings. In our ancient indian culture, kids were sent to gurukul for first 5 years to practice how to sit still. It is believed if you can manage your self, you can manage everything else that life may throw at you.

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:24 am

I often wonder how life would have been different if these sorts of skills were emphasized in school. We were definitely told to sit still a lot in school, but never told how.

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Beth August 19, 2019 at 2:52 am

Good luck! Really interested to see what you discover. Will extend my (short) meditation sessions (slightly) in solidarity and curiosity

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:24 am

I appreciate your solidarity Beth!

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Michelle August 19, 2019 at 3:18 am

I think the more interesting question and experiment would be why you feel the angst return after the silent sitting/meditation. Taking a break from a turbulent mind is a good thing but better is not to have such a mind in the first place?
Tbh, I’m always slightly bemused why so many people find it so hard to be with their own thoughts. The conclusion I’ve come to so far ( always learning! ) is I think the more you are yourself, the less unease you have, alone or otherwise. There is so much pretense in the world, why add to it by not being yourself. Sure it’s scary but also so empowering and freeing, it’s awesome.

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:28 am

I think the angst returns because one of the deepest layers of conditioning is our biological approach/avoid reflexes. Our uneasiness is part instinct, but even the rest of it is highly trained through unconscious repetition. But even when it returns, we can develop skills in meditation that allow us to abide in it mindfully so that we’re not automatically pushed around by it. That capacity grows over time, so that even if the angst returns, it’s not as problematic.

I also don’t quite understand why people can’t stand to be with their thoughts. I suppose it has to do with what kind of relationship has formed with them. Even as a kid I entertained myself with my thoughts.

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Michelle August 19, 2019 at 10:09 am

Ha, me too to the kid thing.

Interestingly, I learnt the same kind of peacefulness outside of how you describe meditation. For me, it’s always been getting outside to nature and walking or sitting, it’s magical.
It also took me a while to realise how lucky I was in that I rarely suffer the kind of angst a lot of people seem to live with, often about seemingly trivial stuff. Big stuff, sure but so much of what people let drive and worry them is just so not important or relevant.
The more people you can help feel the same peacefulness, the world will be a more contented place. Good to have you helping others along.

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Jon Santiago August 19, 2019 at 3:25 am

Hey David,

I started meditating daily for an hour at the beginning of this year. It was a lot less daunting than I thought it would be once I got into the rhythm of it. I also still get the same amount of stuff done (maybe more) even though I dedicate extra time to the practice. As far as other observations, I’ve had moments when I’ve reached a level of calm that I didn’t experience in shorter meditations. I rarely experience the absence of thoughts, but meditating longer has given me greater distance from the inner voice that never turns off.

If you are curious to hear more, I wrote more about in detail in this post on my blog – https://santiagos.space/why-meditate

Thanks for the article.

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:31 am

Hi Jon. I’ve experienced the same thing. The inner voice slows and slows, but never quite ceases. (I suppose it can for a time though). But the important part is the disidentification with it anyway. I’ll check out your post, thanks :)

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Boykie August 20, 2019 at 5:27 pm

Nice post Jon.

I’ve never gone more than 20 minutes, but reading your post has sparked the desire to give it a shot.

It’s something I’ll consider …

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DiscoveredJoys August 19, 2019 at 3:53 am

“This is a delusional belief, however, because once you get to that particular “elsewhere,” it’s already become another “here,” complete with that same fire of discontent under your butt.”

Plus I expect there are others who push on to escape the troubles of their past – but you carry your past with you on your attempted escape. And probably still more people who run towards a good future and to escape a poor past at the same time.

I guess ‘running’ is a symptom of suffering.

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:34 am

Agreed… suffering is some kind of insistence to not be where you are, and I guess we see the future as a possible haven, because we know conditions can be different there.

The interesting thing about both the future and the past is that they are only experienced in the present. They’re just mental images experienced here and now, but they are unbelievably compelling illusions. I regularly get swept up in bleak images of the future, and it’s so convincing it’s unbelievable.

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September August 19, 2019 at 1:34 pm

Fascinating comment on suffering!
I enjoy reading your comments as much as your blog. Makes me think!
Have a happy day!

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Rocky August 19, 2019 at 7:13 am

Howdy David….When you are sitting quietly in your own room, observing the moment as it is, there is no need to chase anything. You already have it. I’m reminded of your post “Gratitude Comes From Noticing Your Life, Not From Thinking About It” Thanks for all the help you’ve provided for so many.
It is all the result of your practice….
“The crux of the biscuit”

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:35 am

It’s really the only place you can be, it just doesn’t seem like it at first. Little by little you start to see that you can’t escape the present, and the present is just phenomena coming and going. But wow is it hard to open up to that.

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Derek August 19, 2019 at 7:35 am

This is why meditation is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but highly rewarding.

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:36 am

It is hard, but we can take solace in the fact that it’s generally hardest at the beginning (both the beginning of your practice and the beginning of a session). After a lifetime of bumping alone in reactivity it’s jarring to just sit there.

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Ginzo August 19, 2019 at 8:23 am

Meditation can be a two-edged sword. We attempt to view the merry-go-round of ‘ourselves’, seeing how we get caught up in the swirl. But this can become just more ‘swirl’. As long as we try to fix it, change it, and even observe it; we still think we can make it ‘how it should be’. Its so hard to accept that maybe, ‘nothing needs to be done’.

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 8:38 am

Definitely… there are apparently competing motives: trying to be where you are, and trying to improve the conditions of your life by trying to be where you are. It’s possible to put the latter aside while you attend to the former in meditation. But it’s easy to get caught up again and again.

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B. August 19, 2019 at 10:02 am

After reading Pascal’s quotation, the first thing that came in my mind: how this new generation fully-digital since they were born (alpha generation) will deal with this in a few years when they grow up, since they aren’t being able to get ‘bored’ for a single minute cause, generally, parents are over-allowing distraction habits with smartphones/tablets. Paradoxically, at same time we’re having more tools available to get better at it, we seem to get worse.

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 10:36 am

I think about this a lot too… There was no internet until I was a teenager, and in many ways I’m quite caught up in the pull of the online world, so I can’t imagine how younger generations will differ in their ability or inability to wait, be bored, etc

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SirEvidence August 19, 2019 at 10:05 am

I would think that mindfullness is a state of alertness that can be sustained anywhere — in a room alone or in New York’s crowded Fifth Avenue. How long one is able to sustain such a state of alertness about what happens within oneself and out there in the surrounding world is really a matter of determination. It’s a very difficul kind of awareness to sustain.
In the end, one has to wonder if meditation of any kind, shape or form can it be an end in itself or, it too, is part of the desire to achieve something more than what and where we are in the present.

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 10:44 am

To your first point — the difficulty in sustaining mindfulness actually changes drastically as a quality called “stability of mind” (or samadhi) develops. When you practice for an extended period, depending on the technique, your ability to keep your attention where you want it can gradually increase until it is virtually effortless. Cultivating samadhi and mindfulness are easier to do in circumstances where there is less competing for your attention, which is why meditation is usually done in a quiet place, sitting still.

Your second point is a well-recognized problem — striving. Mindfulness is a matter of attending to present moment experience, but we practice it to cultivate certain qualities in our lives. We have to set aside the attachment to that outcome in order to practice effectively. But it’s an issue that comes up repeatedly.

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Ashley Kung August 19, 2019 at 10:49 am

It does sound weird to say it, but somehow… it is excruciatingly difficult to just do nothing for an extended period of time! And somehow, it feels so much more effortful than doing something, anything, else!

At one point it was a goal of mine to gain the ability to “sit quietly in a room alone”, but I never got anywhere with it, probably because of how, well, excruciatingly difficult and effortful it seems to be… so, I guess I’ll try again.

I actually tried it just now and made it three minutes before I realized I had unlocked my phone and was watching a video. I didn’t even really notice that I had picked up my phone. So. I guess my new goal is… four minutes?! haha. When you first began sitting/meditating, how long were you able to do it? How long did it take you to extend that time?

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David Cain August 19, 2019 at 10:51 am

Haha.. It’s kind of amazing isn’t it? Just sitting there should be the simplest thing in the world.

I will say though that there’s a tremendous difference between just sitting there letting time pass, and having a practice to do while you sit.

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Joy August 19, 2019 at 4:29 pm

I love sitting by myself in a room, alone with my thoughts. The only problem I have is not drifting off to sleep when I do!

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Alex T August 19, 2019 at 4:30 pm

Simple curiosity explains at least one electric shock per person, I’d be alarmed if, knowing it’s not a damaging shock, a person wasn’t curious enough to check. It’s why cats have nine lives, and why we’re kindred spirits with them.

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David Cain August 20, 2019 at 10:27 am

Heh well how do you explain the guy who shocked himself 170 times

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Patrick August 20, 2019 at 1:12 pm

This is something I have observed in myself:

I write articles part time. My process is to decide on a topic or idea, come up with a title, and then I type it out on a keyboard (at ~80wpm) as I create the words in my mind.

When I am mentally at my sharpest, I have noticed that I have up to 5 “threads” or so going in my brain:

1) Typing on the keyboard at 80WPM. Physically telling my brain which keys to hit.
2) Thinking of the words for the current sentence that I am composing.
3) Planning–or getting a rough idea–for the next sentence or paragraph.
4) Randomly getting a new idea and “banking it” for a future article.
5) Having my brain somehow “watch” these threads and know that they are happening.

I’m not trying to say that I am a mental superman or anything. What I am wondering is if the “watcher” in my brain is just another thread.

When I am meditating I have random thoughts pop up, and then I notice those thoughts (the watcher), and then I can also “zone out” and seemingly have no thoughts at all for a brief moment (just a few seconds maybe?), and then I “come back” to be able to notice that, and presumably that is my “watcher.”

So…..is it not just the case that we often have multiple threads going, and when we meditate we pare it down to just one or two or maybe even zero?

I’m not sure that I actually have a question here….sorry!

I’ve dabbled in meditation but I don’t like how loud everything seems after I get done.

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David Cain August 20, 2019 at 3:26 pm

Hmm that’s interesting. There is definitely a lot going on in the mind at any given time, and long meditation sessions tends to calm down activity a little, and generate increased clarity about the different objects occurring in consciousness.

Mapping out the different layers or strands of activity can be tricky, because what seems to be there depends on how you think about it. The five threads that you mentioned don’t need to be separate parallel threads necessarily. The mind can jump from function to function remarkably quickly, from the writing intuitions to the planning ones, and then back. So it could be regarded as very quick mental associations happening, each summoning the next kind of “doing,” all very rapidly.

To answer your question, from the mindfulness point of view, there is no watcher. There is just phenomena happening in awareness. The sense of there being a watcher is just more mental activity that is being noticed. This is what they mean by there being no self. We have many self-images, the “watcher” being one of them, but the phenomenon we regard as being the watcher is just an object being watched — it’s not watching anything. It’s mind-bending to think about but the idea is to discover this by examining your experience very closely in meditation.

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Gary Coy August 20, 2019 at 4:33 pm

I just wanted to stop lurking and tell you that I love reading your blog. It is so insightful and inspirational. Very ‘Zen’.

I am learning about some Buddhist concepts – I found “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright to be mind opening. His other works as well (The Evolution of God).

I am not a Buddhist. I don’t know if you call yourself one. But being able to learn from your thought processes and experiences is really cool.

Maybe some of it will rub off on me :)

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David Cain August 20, 2019 at 9:16 pm

Hey thanks Gary. I appreciate you coming out of lurk-mode to say hi.

I don’t call myself a buddhist but I do a lot of buddhist practices. You might like Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs. He has a refreshingly pragmatic view of Buddhism.

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Boykie August 20, 2019 at 5:30 pm

GREAT post David.

I’ve been slagging of a bit on my meditation practice, but after this post not only will I be ‘getting back on the horse’ but I will also seriously start look at increasing it to over an hour!

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David Cain August 20, 2019 at 9:17 pm

Hi Boykie. If you do a long sit like that, I’d love to hear how it goes. We have a little discussion going on the experiment log page.

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elisa August 21, 2019 at 5:23 am

I Can sit. No We, no You, just individual experiences. sheesh
i won’t be reading nor posting anymore
i want experience not generalizing and the putting of your stuff onto all others. If that works great, it’s just not for me. Happy Trails :)

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David Cain August 21, 2019 at 3:42 pm

lol what?

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Mark G August 25, 2019 at 10:34 pm

David, good luck with your experiment.

Your post rekindled many similar thoughts I’ve had on this type of subject. A few years back I was driving down the road longing to be at my destination. I drive a lot for work and to go hiking or visit friends. I noticed my own longing to be elsewhere (at the future destination) in how other people were driving. Driving too fast or recklessly with an obvious need to be somewhere other than where they were in their car. What happens if they (or I) crash, or get pulled over or even something mundane like the bad luck of a flat tire occurs? All that rushing (mentally and physically) to be at the future destination is now further delayed. Almost every day I think about this on my commute, but unlike what I observe around me, I’m making the most of that 25 minutes. I’m singing at the top of my lungs or I’m enjoying a podcast, and lately I’ve just enjoyed having my window open as winter in Wisconsin is not far away now. Sure I want to get to work or get home, but I have that time in my car and I’m going to make the most of those moments. I’m never getting those moments back, no matter how much I long to be in a future moment; those present moments in the car would just be squandered due to future longing.

I try really hard to be in the “present tense,” but civilization makes that difficult. I’m encouraged reading your posts and the other comments. Plenty of people working very hard on the same battle!

Thanks for your thought provoking posts they are always a treat.

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David Cain August 26, 2019 at 11:43 am

I think the best thing we can do in life is practice ways to find contentment in the present moment, because that’s where we always are. Mindfulness is one way — it eventually allows us to find equanimity even in uncomfortable moments. It also allows us to enjoy the pleasant stuff that constantly surrounds us… the sun, the air, the foliage.

There are other ways. The stoics believed that all that mattered was practicing virtue in every moment, which allows you to gracefully bear the difficult and appreciate everything else. Some people contemplate how to best serve their diety, or other people, in each moment. There’s always something to do, and it involves practicing something other than succumbing to the habit of trying to already be somewhere else :)

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Martin September 14, 2019 at 5:29 pm

Hi David,

Thanks for sharing this experiment with us.

I’m an ex-Camp Calm camper, and I have yet to try these longer (30+ minute) sessions, partly because I’m a wimp and I am afraid that my hips/butt/low back will go numb, and partly because I just haven’t set the time aside to do it, which is totally up to me of course.

I’m happy with the fact that I’ve been meditating daily for 12-13 minutes daily now for more than a year/year and a half, but I am somehow still deep down scared (I believe?) of having to tolerate pain and not move for 45-60 minutes, so I commend you for giving it a go. It’s kind of funny cause I actually experience much more intense physical pain (though shorter in duration) through the workouts and training I do!

I think I’ll just increase the length of the longer sessions gradually, i.e. 20 minutes one week, 25 minutes the next, then 30, etc. and use a cushion for those longer sessions.

I haven’t read through your other experiments, but I will certainly do so after having read this one!

Thanks,

Martin

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David Cain September 15, 2019 at 6:22 pm

Hi Martin. Ah, I’m glad you’ve recognized that fear of sitting longer. I know it well! That’s the main reason we resist sitting, or extending our sits — we’re afraid to encounter unpleasant experience.

But that’s the perfect reason to do it. An essential part of mindfulness is seeing what it’s like to open to experience we normally resist. And really, as you say, you’re unlikely to experience anything too bad in another 10 or 20 minutes of sitting that you don’t already willingly experience in other areas of life.

In Camp Calm there is a resource called “How to improve” or something like that, and the gist of it is that we improve mindfulness skills by frequently opening up to experiences we normally don’t open up to. So sitting longer is a very simple way to do that. Just sit longer, and discover what is waiting in that second, third, and fourth ten-minute segments. That’s where the really rewarding territory starts. Let me know if you need help or guidance.

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