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by Joel Marks
My stepson once gave me a book entitled Jewish as a Second Language by Molly Katz. He need not have bothered because I was already fluent. Take the chapter on worrying: It explains that “Natural-born Jews leave the womb equipped with a worry reservoir that is filled early and replenished constantly. We worry about everything. ... It is our duty, our birthright, and our most profound satisfaction.” I understand this implicitly. For those who are not thus genetically constituted, Katz offers the following practical advice:
“[S]imply make an enormous big deal out of some existing minor problem, such as: An ingrown toenail (it could get bad enough so you’d have to wear special shoes. But those wouldn’t go with your business clothes, and you’d be fired for having a poor image. Then you’d lose your medical insurance, get blood poisoning, and die).”
I can add a suggestion: Become a philosopher. This is perfect training for worrying, except that we call it ‘reflecting.’ And, indeed, anything and everything is our oyster – er, ingrown toenail. The regular reader of this magazine, and of ‘Moral Moments’ in particular, has perhaps already picked up on that. It’s no joke; as I indicated in a previous column, when one worries as a matter of both personality and profession, it can become quite painful.
Fortunately, there is an alternative method of philosophizing which is almost the exact opposite of worrying. It is so different, in fact, that many ‘Western’ philosophers do not consider it to be philosophy at all. I am not one of those. For me philosophy is defined as much by its goals (understanding the nature of reality, learning how to live properly) as by its recommended methods of attaining them. So I can be catholic about methods and consider even apparently antithetical approaches to be kosher.
The alternative method to which I allude is variously named meditation, yoga, mysticism, or even prayer. The variety I happen to employ is mantra meditation. Although I first learned it from the TM organization, ie Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ‘transcendental meditation,’ I have not retained any ties to that or any other organization or sect. Instead, I went on to study meditation as a component of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism during my otherwise-analytical philosophical education in graduate school and beyond. Meditation has been for me, then, a kind of oriental philosophic cure for an occidental philosophic disease.
The method is simplicity itself. You say a word (the mantra) – for example, ‘Om’ or ‘One’ – over and over in your mind.
That’s it. Well, of course that’s not all there is to ‘it.’ It is infinitely subtle. But if you could really just do that, that would be it. It is amazing how difficult it can be to do something so simple – that is what you learn straight off. (Although when I say ‘difficult,’ I don’t mean to imply onerous: mantra meditation can be surprisingly relaxing and pleasant, and is surely not boring.) You discover, for example, that your mind is full of junk – mental chatter, mental clutter – and it’s all competing with that mantra for your attention. When that happens, here’s the key to the whole thing: You bring your mind back to the mantra. But you don’t yank it; you just withdraw attention from the distraction and return it to the mantra, ‘gently.’
I have done that in ‘formal’ sessions of twenty minutes at least once a day for thirty years. What do I have to show for it? Until recently, I could not say for sure. But in the last few years, I have certainly experienced a boon: I am able to detach from thinking about things in the obsessive manner of my New York Jewish upbringing and Western philosophic training. By withdrawing my attention from the thoughts – precisely analogously to the method of mantra meditation, or perhaps even applying it – I can enervate my worries so that they cease to press on me.
What takes the place of the mantra in this real-life application? Simply whatever there is to attend to. I take my cue here from the philosophy (or practice) of Zen, a distinctive derivation of Buddhism and Taoism. The essence of this wisdom is that there is only the here and now; therefore this is what one should attend to. The present moment and place contain all that is necessary for life; be alert to them and you will know what to do and how to live. In this way the ever-thinking, ever-preoccupied mind is side-stepped, so that there ceases to be an intermediary between the self and the object perceived. It is like the difference between walking as we normally do, which is Zen, and trying to walk by thinking to oneself, “Well, first I should extend this leg, then put down this foot...” This is why Zen is sometimes called the philosophy of ‘No Mind’. But it is also mindfulness; as when you “Mind the gap” in the London underground.
How do I know my temperamental achievement has resulted from meditation? And why now, after thirty years? Maybe I’m just getting older and wiser. But as I have related, this new mental abil-ity seems to mimic the skill I rehearse in my meditative sessions. That it would take as long to ‘undo’ a personality trait as to have acquired it should perhaps come as no surprise. Probably, there has been a confluence of the two influences, practice and maturity.
However it came about, what it boils down to is self-control. I now have the hang of holding the upper hand with my own mind. A life-transforming technique, which before I could only endorse as an abstract proposition, is now something I can wield (albeit still imperfectly, to be sure). Thus, while I have been emphasizing not thinking about things – an odd-seeming desire for a philoso-pher, who is supposed to value ‘the examined life’ – a personality different from mine might benefit from more thinking rather than less. For me it has been the refraining from thinking so much, or in a particular way, that is appealing, as an antidote to despair. Despair must be an occupational hazard of those who dwell on the human condition, including their own personal prospects for happiness. But the general point is that one ought to be able to direct one’s mind to think or not to think about something, independently of one’s tendencies: to become autonomous rather than automatic.
© Joel Marks 2006
Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. You can now link to additional moral and other moments at www.moralmoments.com