Meditation At Gunpoint
May 14, 2012 8:46 AM   Subscribe

Cartoonist and Essayist Tim Kreider on the soothing effect of dangerous situations. (NYT)
posted by The Whelk (15 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
That article reminds me of a scene from the play Copenhagen
posted by Blasdelb at 9:02 AM on May 14, 2012

Recently, The Pain was updated with This is the Worst — and a reader contribution contest!
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:06 AM on May 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, wow, thanks snuffleupagus. I get the Pain via RSS and had I not checked his site, I would have never known he's going on a book tour. I met him once and he was just the most charming and genial person.
posted by griphus at 9:14 AM on May 14, 2012

If you’re anything like me, you probably spend the majority of your time either second-guessing the past or dreading the future, neither of which actually exists...

Get out of my head this instant, Kreider.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:21 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

The fact that he calls it "meditation at gunpoint" makes me think that he's partially aware of this, but of course complete presence of mind isn't necessarily coupled with dangerous activities. Music and programming are two concentration-heavy activities that also seem to work that way.

I think most of us either aren't aware of meditation as a means of inducing that state or we find it too difficult, so I guess it's natural that we tend to extol thrill seeking for its beneficial effects on the mind. The fact that we seek things out because they can clear our mind makes me think that everyone is aware on some level that maintaining a constant internal dialog is unpleasant at best and harmful at worst. Meditation gets lumped in with a lot of woo, but I wish there were more awareness of it as a solid tool for shutting that part of your mind down when you want to.
posted by invitapriore at 9:30 AM on May 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Based on my own close calls, I suspect that if I am killed while biking, the state of mind in which I am likeliest to die is extreme annoyance.

From my own experience, it will probably be extreme surprise.

Honestly, my advice would be to slow down and meditate later. Of course there is a soothing effect in very dangerous situations (i.e your mind is so busy with no worries so you're getting all positive feedback), but that doesn't mean they often have horrible, horrible consequences.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:37 AM on May 14, 2012

Others before have suggested that when we create, play, interact, or whatever, we're looking for that space where there's no pain, thought, speculation, or anything else, and you can be totally consumed in the moment. I wouldn't focus too much on fear as the catalyst there, I recall someone else crediting writing with bringing them to the same state... Hitchins maybe? We all get into that space in our own ways; I know a lot of fear adverse people that would never, ever choose adrenaline pumping games to get them there.

Over-generalization, but an interesting idea.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:39 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Like many people, I like to set aside a few hours every day, generally between 3 and 6 a.m., to lie quietly thinking about everything that could go horribly wrong with my life and all the ways in which I am negligent and reprehensible.

I don't so much relate to this as embody it.
posted by brennen at 9:51 AM on May 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

This is exactly why I've taken several of the jobs that I did. Not the least of which was bouncer at a bar.
posted by Splunge at 9:54 AM on May 14, 2012

His comments about worry being a form of procrastination ring so true, as well. I don't suffer from anxiety in the paralyzing-panic-attack, lock-myself-in-my-house sense, but when I'm worried it's like a constant whirr in the back of my mind, preventing me from concentrating much, truly enjoying anything, or -- worst of all -- working productively to solve whatever problem is troubling me in the first place. Ugh.
posted by eugenen at 9:57 AM on May 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

A little over two weeks ago I was robbed at gunpoint.

I work, as some of you may know, at an adult retailer, located in one of the shadier parts of town. I'd had a fairly ripping morning and my junior - a lovely woman who is perhaps five two in her socks and forty kilos wringing wet - had just relieved me. The theif came barrelling into my shop, waving a handgun about, demanding money. I'd nipped out into the staff room for a quick snack, and came out to investigate all the noise to find a tall thin man in a clown mask monstering my staff, shoving her around and holding a gun to her head.

People talk about disassociation, shutting off under stress and becoming zombie like. That didn't happen to me. I'm terribly protective about my staff. I get enraged at the notion that prank callers would waste their time, let alone hold a gun to their heads. I was more completely there than I had ever been in my life.

I came out of the staff room, so he could see me, and made enough noise that he could hear me, and he pointed the gun at me instead. Give him a target that is further away and harder to hit. This was not something I decided to. The grim faced engineers that Krieder mentions had taken control.

Decisions were made without consideration. Good practice for armed robberies is to just front up cash and get the thug out the door as soon as possible. This was what my reflexes wanted too. Lots of eye contact, soothing voice - the techniques honed on a thousand drunks. The voice you use to sooth angry animals. Hands where he could see them. Move him away from my junior. Lure him away to where the money lived. Get her close to me.

It went smoothly. He left without violence and with what he thought was all the money. He didn't take our wallets, or phones, or any other valuables. My reflexes had him convinced he had everything. I'd like to think there was some sort of cleverness there, but all it was in the end was muscle and skin moving without taking the time to consult my brain. And it worked.

I guess this isn't how it works for everyone. Plenty of people are post traumatic wrecks after that sort of a run in. People freeze, they freak out, they cry, they loose their shit. These are all appropriate responses.

But I understand Krieder. The front of my brain just shut the fuck up and let the hard wiring do its work. No time for second guesses. And afterwards there was just this vague sense of rage, like this shithead had ruined my day. No nightmares, no freakouts, no nothing. Just the memory of that strange calm focus.
posted by Jilder at 9:58 AM on May 14, 2012 [17 favorites]

This is called flow or 'flow state' and has been in this state that I have created some of my fondest memories. Coincidentally or not, I was cycling during many if not most of those times. It can be a tremendous gift for those of us endowed with what used to be (still are?) called neurotic personalities.
posted by $0up at 10:10 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

The horse trips and you give yourself to the inevitability of the fall, hit and roll to your feet, unaware of the impact, without even having dropped the reins.

Military parachute drops: The last fifty feet, and you are moving across the ground with the wind, your chute won't slow you any more than it already has. You are off the DZ and into the rocks. Nothing to do but hit the ground at maybe fifteen miles per hour, a bit to fast...but you give yourself over to the inevitability of the fall, hit and roll to your feet, barely noticing the impact.

Training and attitude help create that zero space, where you focus on the event, not the possibly disastrous consequences. Meditation can put you there, but then a meditative state is a result of training and concentration.

I can make a similar argument for what happens during a firefight. There's a hell of a lot of difference between a firefight and the war. For example, the firefight has no moral implications. You don't think about how your girlfriend might view what you are doing, or how what you are doing will impact on the families of those guys on the other end of your weapon. Pure tactical immersion. Well trained, you shoot better, react faster, think clearly about the tactical aspect of the situation. The other stuff--what comes from introspection--you deal with later, maybe forever, but not while the heat is on you.

Braiding leather can do the same thing--suspend your internal dialog--but without the accompanying adrenalin fix. I guess painting is another example of how it works. You'll notice that stuff like braiding leather can also free you to turn on the dialog machine in your brain, too...let you daydream about the boat you almost bought, or what you might have said to that asshole you encountered in traffic that morning.

Sort of depends on where you want to go: oblivion or the holodeck.
posted by mule98J at 10:40 AM on May 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am of the thought that going to no-mind through dangerous activities is kind of a cheap way to achieve no-mind, since your body is making you do it. That being said I am all over doing that shit because I got adrenalin problems. It seems like there is not much room in current culture for the calm, detached focus discussed in article, but then my brain immediately flips to Musashi, Buddha et al as proof that people have been trying to figure out how to shut their brains up for quite some time, modern world notwithstanding. It is a complicated thing.
posted by beefetish at 11:28 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I leave a cycling session convinced that fixated morbidity isn't so much a compulsion/character defect as it is an adaptive, selected trait that guided our ancestors through some dicey situations; e.g., those more capable at envisioning all kinds of gruesome hypothetical accidents were naturally better at taking the precautions necessary to avoid them. The sheer number of times I've been on the road and had some unprompted backbrain thought, more visual than verbal, of "wouldn't it be [funny/sad/senseless/annoying] if some cellphone jackass blew through that upcoming stop sign" only to have it become reality moments later (and me brake accordingly) would probably be significant to me if I were more disposed to new age thinking. As it is, it just makes me feel like my life has been saved repeatedly by whatever part of my character structure also makes me receptive to things like H.P. Lovecraft, "Murder Ballads", Gravediggaz, etc.

In addition to the state described in the article, I think cycling is also crudely therapeutic because it provides a concrete way to experience and sublimate aggression that would be totally counterproductive and inappropriate to bust out in other parts of one's life. Not in the sense of this song, but in the sense of exercising the steely assertiveness that's necessary to safely negotiate mixed traffic and sensory overload. It's good to have a valve for the controlled release of those kinds of feelings. I notice I experience a lot more garden-variety annoyance that brings me back into "the moment" when I'm managing my route around bad/unsafe cyclists than I am with motorists, and maybe a part of that has to do with how the latter pose a mortal threat while the former just get underfoot and, more abstractly, are bad bike ambassadors - not something I necessarily want to think about while riding!
posted by metaman livingblog at 12:02 PM on May 14, 2012

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