The free-will assumption

Here’s a thought exercise.

Let’s say you are at a meditation retreat. Your eyes are closed and you are trying hard to focus on your breath. You then hear somebody behind you clicking their tongue every minute or so. No matter how much you try, your attention wavers to this sound.

You patiently endure this for the hour-long session, all the while, determined to give this person a sound hearing when it is over. With your eyes closed, your thoughts drift to how best you can express your indignation. With ever click, your irritation grows at this inconsiderate and insolent person behind you.

Then, a gong sounds the end of the hour and the session breaks up. You turn back to identify the culprit who has just sabotaged your meditation session only to find that there is nobody there. The clicks were, in fact, from a radiator fan.

What happens when you find out about this? Does your anger melt away? Does it even transform into laughter?

Why are we angry at a person but not a radiator fan? It is because we believe that persons have free-will, and therefore, when they wrong us, they do it deliberately. We believe that non-living objects or even animals have no will of their own, so we are more forgiving of their actions.

But is our assumption correct? Given how fickle our minds are, how much free-will do we really have? How different are people’s entrenched habits and patterns from the periodic clicking of a radiotor fan?

Suspening belief in free-will need not turn us into fatalists. It could end up making us compassionate and forgiving.

What’s on your mind?

Here’s a revealing 10-min exercise. Think of whatever is on your mind in this moment and write down the first thing that appears.

Later, sit down with your eyes closed for 10 minutes. Focus your attention on the breath. When your attention wavers, try and find out the one thing that your mind most drifts toward – the center of gravity of your thoughts.

Oftentimes, you will notice that whatever is on the top of your mind is different from the center-of-gravity of your thought.

The top-of-the-mind is what we end up acting upon. The center-of-gravity is what we ought to act upon. This difference lies beneath much of whatever stresses us out.

The magic of 30 mindful minutes

When faced with a crisis, a pressing problem, a dilemma or anything else that feels mentally overwhelming, follow this procedure.

  • Set a timer for 30 minutes
  • Settle down in a quiet place
  • Eliminate all sources of interruption and distraction
  • Open a blank piece of paper (or an empty text file)
  • Think about the problem

At the end of 30 minutes, I promise that you will be surprised by how much more clearly you can see this problem.

A mosquito, the morning after

It is gratifying to swat a fat, swollen mosquito.

To see the enemy in broad daylight is a sure interruption. Flying around with its full belly, the pesky creature is easy prey. We are tempted to put our entire lives on hold until we have chased the insect, taken its life and wiped the evidence clean.

What purpose does killing a mosquito serve? The damage is already done – the blood is lost, the sleep has been disturbed, and the itchy boil remains. A full mosquito won’t bite again, and its murder has no bearing at all on the mosquito population.

A mosquito the morning after merely serves as a humble reminder of how little it takes for something to drive us into a murderous rage.