Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Negative Meditation

I've been rather coy about stating what meditation exactly is, and I'm going to continue in that vein for this post too. I will end up offering a definition, but I think that it might help make the one I eventually give a lot more intelligible if I continue to offer suggestions about what it isn't. This actually isn't a very odd way to pursue this issue, as it is a path that has been very well-trodden by others. In fact, it has a name of its own---the via negativa.

With that in mind, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that certain practices that people do not associate with meditation are actually forms of meditation---but ones that are harmful to those who practice them.

Video Games

A lot of people take exception to video games because they are often so violent. It might be that this is a problem, but the thing that I find most damaging about them is the way they draw in people's concentration to a tighter and tighter form of concentration, speed people's responses up, and, cause people to manifest stress.

I think that this happens because video games are a perfect "Skinner Teaching Machine". These sorts of mechanisms give anyone who plays the game immediate feedback about success or failure. They also immediately escalate in lockstep with a person's increased skill at playing the game. By doing both of these things, they speed up and intensify the player's concentration the same way an engine does when it has had its governor removed. In effect, the mind races faster and faster until it begins to fly apart.

I first noticed this phenomena when I was a student playing one of the very first video games: Space Invaders. I found that after playing the game for a while I would end up holding onto the joystick with the "grip of death" and by the end of some of the higher levels I was almost having heart palpitations. (The soundtrack had a beat that was just like a heartbeat that kept speeding up as you advanced in levels.)

Since then I've noticed similar problems with other games. A few years back I got a copy of Populous for my desktop computer. It is a "god" game instead of a first person shooter, so it involves a different type of concentration than Space Invaders, but I found that while I didn't end up tight and panting after playing it, I did find it incredibly addictive. Ultimately, I found my quality of life degrading yet I found it almost impossible to quit. I ended up having to break the CD that it ran off of in half in order to stop wasting hours of time playing it. (I have a younger friend who said that it spread like the flu through his residence when he was at university and wasted enormous amounts of time.)

I am including video games as a form of meditation because they are based upon developing a specific type of consciousness---which is a large part of meditation. But they accentuate a negative, obsessive form of concentration that is damaging both to the mind and body.

Commercial Television

Again, many people complain about television's content, but I am more concerned about its form. The problem is that television asks the viewer to become engaged with the programming but jarringly interrupts the narrative every ten minutes or so to put in advertisements that almost always a little louder and more manic than the actual programming. If a person chooses to pay attention to the show and try to watch and listen intently, the commercials are extremely jarring.

I remember reading a short story by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. where some misguided future government chose to homogenize people's abilities through various technical innovations. Dancers had to perform with weights tied to their legs and so on. People with very high IQs had to go through life with devices that attached headphones to their ears and which would randomly emit very loud noises. This startled the people and robbed these people of the ability to concentrate, thereby robbing them of the advantages of having more innate intelligence than the general public.

In a same way, I think that the commercial interruptions of commercial television damages a person's ability to concentrate and "get into" drama. I rarely watch tv any more and I have found that when I do it very quickly gives me a headache. I think that if anyone does watch a lot of tv, they will inevitably have to learn to not pay much attention to their surroundings or else suffer a similar problem. I suspect that some of the many people I meet who seem to have the attention span of a gnat have developed this as a response to watching too much television.

Black Berries and Cell Phones

Where I work all the middle managers have been given blackberries and are forced to constantly wear them so they can always be "on call". At risk of biting the hand that feeds me (RIM is just down the road and pays a lot of taxes that in turn support my job), I would argue that this is a very bad idea.

I rarely have a conversation with my boss where he doesn't have the vibration function go off on his blackberry and he has to interrupt what he is saying in order to respond to it. Almost invariably, it is an email---quite often spam. Either way, the poor man simply doesn't seem to have the time to create a whole idea without being interrupted.

This is not only a bad idea, but unnecessary. My boss is a very low level manager in a second-rate academic library at a not-quite first-rank university. There is absolutely nothing that happens in his work life that cannot wait until he checks his email or telephone answering machine.
It is just a question of status---his boss (and him, to be honest) want to think of themselves as being so important that they always need to be on call.

What is really bizarre, is how the university students have bought into cell phones. They constantly answer the darn things, even though it strikes me that university students are, as a class, the group of people who are the least likely to actually need to be chained to one of these things. Maybe they are cheaper than a land line, but surely they could turn the things off once in a while!

In my next post I'll talk about some non-meditation, meditation that is actually good for you.


Andrius said...


This post made me think about reading. Can reading too be called some sort of meditation, a negative one?
It might be similar to what you say about video games - reading might become obsessive, it does affect the formation of consciousness, and it might multiply the illusions that one holds. Each story one reads is just another tale, and usually not about reality.
What do you think? Can reading become harmfull?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Anything is possible, but I think you are fixating on the wrong things. The problem with video games is the way they rivet the attention through various tricks like constant acceleration of stimulation. There is nothing similar that I can think of with regard to reading books.

In many cases reading books can be a good thing because doing so creates a sort of "one-pointedness" and a calming effect. Of course there is a difference between reading a work of high literature and the latest "page turner". _War and Peace_ is probably a much better experience for the mind than _Jurassic Park_.