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controlling emotional reference points via meditation

October 15, 2019

Meditation comes in different modalities.

I’ve been waking up at 5:30am and practicing zen meditation everyday for the past week in Japan (photo of the temple above). Yesterday was more of superfluid, super-cerebral, internally immersive experience. Today was more of a punctuated, trance-like buzzing. There have been times where it's catalyzed terror, deep nostalgia, or sometimes no thoughts at all. I welcome it all.

I find the feelings that arise during meditation to be similar to the wide spectrum of emotions that I've felt during my more "waking" moments. While going about the day to day is a journey undertaken for yourself relative to the external world, meditation is very much an inner world exploration. In both regards, there are challenges, times of bliss, times of stillness and loudness; the ability to hold them bilaterally in both directions - all in one container - is the capacity to feel human. Since everything is relative, if you're able to explore both sides more, the delta between the two (inwards vs outwards) increases, as does the range of human experience. The emotions we experience are just manifestations of the degree that we shift emotional states.

Perhaps a better mental model of meditation is not necessarily the absolute opposite point (if you were to plot emotional states as the X axis, the positive value being external experiences, the negative value being the internal experiences), although it might help to visualize it that way to understand relativity / compare the corresponding intensities of state. But the overall effect on emotive states is the additive difference between the two. The interesting thing is that the "external" experience is less in our control, but we are very much in control of "internal" states.

As a tangible example, let's say we were to experience a negative external event we code as a -5. Let's also say that we have been able to experience constantly a positive state of 3 through our meditation practice (ie looking inwards, recalling a happy moment, imagining ourselves experiencing it, and then feeling the positivity). If we are able to do that on demand, then the additive state then becomes a -2: essentially a hedge that allows us to reframe and damper any negative event we experience. Given that this is true, if we are able to conjure up a higher amount of positive states, like 5 or 7 or 10, then this gives us the ability to hedge greater amounts of negative externalities in life.

That being said, technically, if you're able to control emotive states, you'd ask: "If you're able to summon up a 5 at any given time, why not constantly be in a 5 state all the time? Life would be blissful and everything would be great." But keep in mind that the emotional states we feel are largely from moving up or down the scale. Though we can artificially summon up a 5, over time, that we would adapt to it: the delta between a 5 one day and 5 the next day, and the next day would be 0, so it would then become our new baseline / equilibrium state. Given your emotive capacity to go to 10 in your inner world allows you to only hedge against additional -5 external situations in that state vs -10 ones if you're already in a constant 5 state. In other words, I think there's a certain healthy emotional ceiling of probably around net 1-2 when we go through this exercise of counteracting or hedging the effects of negative events. Tangibly, if even if you were able to control up to a 10 in your positive internal world, and you were to experience a -5 in real life, you'd probably only want to counteract with a 5-6, leading the overall shift to be 0-1 (AKA reframing, self distancing, positive narrative expression, but only to a certain extent; going much higher would possibly result in unhealthy cognitive dissonance or delusion).

In the same way that you can train the mind the positively reframe negative events to become more positive, the opposite outcome is also possible: you can reframe positive events to become negative. Why ever do that? One reason is because everything is relative, having a positive event can bring you to emotional highs outside equilibrium, so when you come back down to equilibrium, you may experience suffering. This is a very Buddhist mentality to have, but in the case you want to be perpetually zen'd out, this could be an optimal solution. To take things to an extreme, depressed or ruminative people can reframe positive experiences to more negative: experiencing a +3 external event but having a depressed mindset of -5 could result in an overall -2 experience. While depression is more of a constant subtractive lens, rumination is more case-by-case and can vary depending on the degree of positive experience (having a greater positive event could lead to a greater amount of fear of losing it, therefore making the net effects negative).

A question I am exploring further is: what is the optimal amount of hedging (in both directions): is it possible to just hedge negative external events, while being able to experience the positive external events as is? My personal philosophy is to hedge negative events to 0, and positive events to a net 1-2: which leads to a more grounded state in both cases. In some ways, one may argue that this is decreasing the capacity to feel all the emotions available / depriving myself of the beautiful human experience. But if you're able to hedge so many negative or positive events to this degree, that implies you're able to reach those same heights and intensities of feelings in your internal world, which is a much more controlled environment to external events.

Case in point: the mind is a powerful cognitive tool that can be leveraged for or against you. The ability to not only become aware of the thinker, but also train anti-fragility and a sustainable mindset that allows you to not only survive but also grow stronger through a variety of life events that extend outside your control.

TLDR; at the end of the day, it's about shifting our reference point. In the same ways that we can do this physically (if you touch an ice cube normally vs touching an ice cube after putting your finger next to a flame for a while, the "coldness" will feel much more intensely on the latter), we can train our emotional point of reference through mindfulness.