Sometimes when I am at home alone, I turn up the music really loud and dance like a madman in my living room. Yesterday while I was dancing, my phone rang, and I didn’t hear it. The music was too loud, so I missed the call. We’ve all had experiences like this. When the ambient sound near us is loud, we are less sensitive to quiet sounds. In a quiet room, we can hear someone whisper, but when the vacuum cleaner is on, we can’t. This applies to all of our senses, not just hearing.
Imagine I’m carrying a grocery bag with twenty pounds of groceries in it. If you carefully and quietly steal a chocolate bar out of my twenty pound grocery bag while I’m not looking, I probably won’t notice the change in weight. However, if I’ve only got a chocolate bar and some chapstick in my grocery bag, and you try to steal my chocolate, I will probably notice, no matter how stealthy you are. Even though the chocolate bar always weighs the same, I’ll only notice you stealing it if my nervous system isn’t overstimulated by the weight of other items in the bag.
We are less sensitive to changes in sensory stimulation when our overall level of stimulation is higher. When the music is loud, we can’t hear quiet sounds. When a bag we’re carrying is heavy, we can’t notice a small decrease in weight. Similarly, our sensitivity is higher when the overall level of stimulation is lower. When the room is quiet, we can hear the phone ring, and if our grocery bag is light, we’ll notice if someone tries to steal our chocolate! This phenomena of sense perception is known as Weber’s Law, which states that our ability to notice changes is inversely proportional to our level of stimulation. In other words, more stimulation, less sensitivity; less stimulation, more sensitivity.
One of the goals of meditation practice is to increase our sensitivity to changes in our experience so that we can more clearly notice the effects of our choices. When we are more sensitive to small changes in our bodies and minds, then we are more sensitive to the feedback we’re getting from our natural self-balancing mechanisms. Since the basis of our practice is to learn directly from our experiences, then it benefits our practice to become more sensitive to those experiences. For example, if we drink a double mocha every day, then when we drink our daily double mocha, we are not as likely to notice the effect that it is having on us. But if we cut out coffee and sugar for a couple of weeks, and then we have a double mocha, we will definitely notice the effect. It’s the same double mocha, but we are more sensitive to its effect because our overall level of stimulation is less. Based on the information that we get while we are in a more sensitive state, we can decide whether or not we like the effect of the double mocha. Though I can appreciate the zip I get from a cup of coffee, based on the information I get when I’m in a more sensitive state, I have personally decided that I don’t like the overall effect that coffee has on me. But I love the effect of chocolate, so I just have the chocolate without the coffee.
Rather than making our choices based on ideas and concepts alone – rather than doing things just because we are told they’re good and avoiding things just because we are told they are bad – one function of meditation practice is to increase our sensitivity, and then see for ourselves. The key here is first to increase our sensitivity. That way, we can more clearly notice the effects our choices have. The way to increase our sensitivity is to decrease our level of stimulation. I’ve used the examples of coffee and chocolate here because they are both physical stimulants, but every input to our system is a stimulant. Every sensory experience is sensory stimulation, and every mental event is cognitive stimulation, so to increase our sensitivity, our practice is to construct environments that are less stimulating. Dietarily, we may simplify so that we can notice the effects of the foods we eat. That’s a good example, because it is quite obvious and relatively easy to do.
Other kinds of simplification are more challenging, and may take time and effort to achieve. For example, if our occupation is inherently stressful and full of constant mental stimulation, it may be that the only thing we can do to decrease the level of stimulation is to change our occupation. The choice to change occupations is not simple, and usually takes time, effort, and planning. Most of the time, we make these big kinds of changes when we become completely overwhelmed and totally stressed out. We get to a point where we just can’t take it any more. A gentler approach would be to do small, simple things to decrease our stimulation so that from a place of less stress and greater sensitivity, we make our choices based on natural awareness rather than panic-based, emergency measures in response to total sensory overload.
One of the simplest things we can do to decrease our level of stimulation and increase our sensitivity is to sit comfortably and gently in a quiet place and just relax for a few minutes. We may call it meditation, but really it’s just a simple, natural thing that makes a lot of sense. It is only because our level of background stimulation is so high that for many of us, it takes quite a bit of effort to do such a simple thing. For this reason, there are formal meditation structures that help us with the practice, but fundamentally, it’s just decreasing stimulation.
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