We suffer from the what’s new syndrome

The idea behind meditation is to sit in a comfortable pose with your eyes close and back straight, and then empty your mind of any thoughts. Sounds easy of course, but getting rid of thoughts is difficult. To aid the process, the form of meditation I have been taught involves focusing on breathing. The process is a rhythmic one and there is much to learn about something we don’t consciously think about much.

I start by getting rid of any thoughts I’ve been holding on to. This could be about an email, a person or a chore. I consider it and then let it go. Within a few minutes, I am truly staring into the dark (minus magic lights of the eye or phosphene). Then I start focusing on my breath.

You can consider many things: the pace of breathing, which parts of your body when you breath, how much does each part move, what sensation does breathing cause in different parts, how much detail can you gather from each of those parts, what is the temperature of the air as you breathe it in and out, etc.

But soon enough I run out of things to learn about breathing. Usually this starts about 12-15 minutes in. And that is the most vulnerable time of my meditation session. If I let an interesting thought in, down I go the rabbit hole. By the time I realise that, I’ve lost the peace and quiet that comes from meditation.

Why do I hit that wall every time I meditate? How can I overcome it?

I think I hit that wall because my mind has had enough of the breathing and its related experiences. Now it wants something new. Anything new. Something worth thinking about or reminiscing or observing or experiencing.

The world of new awaits
The world of new awaits.

I don’t think this is a problem of our modern day lives with the continuous social media feeds, email and app notifications. (I could be wrong, but I haven’t come across evidence to prove that). I think it’s something to do with human beings love for the new.

In any form distraction is hard to deal with. While meditating, the mundaneness of the activity makes it easier to get distracted. We all suffer from what I provocatively call the what’s new syndrome.

That’s just a new name for something psychologists have studied for quite sometime. They call it novelty-seeking behaviour. Its genetic roots and relations to brain chemistry have linked the trait with problems like “attention deficit disorder, compulsive spending and gambling, alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal behaviour”.

Researchers separate people in three categories: neophobes , neophiles and, on the extreme, neophiliacs. A recent study suggests that neophiliacs are the ones most like to suffer from disorders. But, if these people can combine their neophiliac nature with persistence and “self-transcendence” (losing yourself in something you love), then that may be the perfect cocktail for success.

I might be a neophiliac, given that I enjoy working as a journalist. But I don’t think people can be cleanly classified into three categories. I might be a neophiliac when it comes to news, but I hate changing houses. My interest in new people waxes and wanes based on an algorithm that I haven’t yet cracked. And I certainly fixate on things, like certain foods or computer games, for quite a while before moving on.

All this is to say that there must be a mixture a neophobe, a neophile and a neophiliac in me. And I suspect that might be the case for others too.

How then can it help me solve my meditation problem? Perhaps I have to channel some of neophobe nature into hating new thoughts for a little while. I know I can be persistent, so may be I have a chance at achieving this.

The virtues of restlessness

As a kid I was infamous for my mischievousness and the ability to not get tired. More often than not my parents’ visits to friends or family ended with apologies for my pranks. I got told off many times, but it made little difference. There was just so much to do and so little time.

My mum tells me that there was a point where she didn’t know whether her love for me was making her too soft. That she feared that wasn’t doing a good enough job in making sure that I behaved as most kids of my age did. That by then she should have been successful at instilling some civility in my actions. But it hadn’t happened. My restlessness was baffling my parents.

I don’t think I have changed much since then. Of course, I am lot more civil now. But I am still very restless. The only thing that has changed is that I have become aware of what it means to be restless. After realising that I could do little to reduce my restlessness, I started thinking of ways in which I could harness the power in someway. Now I think I’ve managed to do that, at least to a certain extent.

Today my restlessness helps me achieve many things. The simplest one is when I know I should stop doing something. In any activity there comes a point beyond which being involved in it is usually a waste of time. It is a tricky thing to know when that point comes. But somehow, over many years, I have found that when I notice my mind getting restless, it is probably the time to take notice of whether what I am doing is useful or not

Restlessness also forms the very basis of the creative process for me. For instance, when writing an article there are three stages: spark, research, writing. The spark usually occurs when I come across an idea that seems too cool to ignore. Then, if the idea hasn’t already been used by someone else, I spend time researching. It involves reading papers, gaining background knowledge, interviewing relevant people and feeding my brain with more ideas. Now before I start writing, I need to form a plan of how I am going to write that article. This is where my restlessness helps me. In my head I have this primordial soup of ideas, each struggling to make it to the top. This period is a very cumbersome yet enjoyable experience. My restlessness pushes me, and hopefully before I get exhausted I have picked out the relevant ideas and started writing the article.

One other thing that features on this blog quite often is finding sources of motivation. My restlessness, it turns out, is definitely one such source. I am rarely at peace with myself if I don’t have something that I am working on. It could be a long-term project like finding a job, or a short one like understanding a scientific phenomenon. My restlessness makes sure I have something to care for all the time and that helps me wake up every morning to go out and do something I can be proud of.

Vipassana center in Igatpuri

There are limitations too, though. Before I understood how to tame this beast, it has put me in trouble many times. Even today there are times when I can’t do anything about my restlessness and I end up being utterly exhausted. Another thing I’ve had to battle is balancing my restlessness with giving up. In someway it has made me become a lot more determined at finishing things than I remember ever being.

Something that helped me learn how to maneuver my restless mind, and it won’t come as a surprise to many, was learning how to meditate. I went to a ‘vipassana shibir’, Marathi words for meditation camp, when I was about 12 years old. It happened in Igatpuri, one of the most underrated hillstations in Maharashtra, at a beautiful monastery. For three days no one at the camp spoke a single word. No writing or reading either. Everyday we spent hours meditating or thinking. Any form of communication was restricted to gestures, including living in a dorm with many kids of the same age (boys at that age end up fighting quite a lot and these fights had to be without words, too). To me it opened doors to a new world, one where my mind could be made to focus on a single point on the horizon.  (For adults they do a 10-day course of this kind. Whenever I get 10 days of free time to spend in India, this is going to be on the top of my list of things to do.)

Because being restless isn’t always a joyful experience, it forces me to seek moments of peace. For example, one of the best things about writing non-fiction is the time I spend researching. I have this freedom to dive as deep as I like into something and stay there for as long as my curiosity drives me for. I can jump from one pool to the other, and even connect them if that’s what I want to do.

Restlessness gets a bad rap. It is a double-edged sword, and, rather than fearing it, we must learn to wield it in battle. It has done wonders for me, and I am sure I am not alone.

Photo credit: wargecko