Dave Rogers wrote:

But here's the thing, I kind of knew all this stuff before, it didn't really matter, did it? I think you could reasonably say I believed it, don't you think? I didn't disbelieve it. But it didn't matter, because even though I knew it and believed it, I still couldn't do the pose. If we say something doesn't matter, that's another way of saying it's meaningless, is it not? Look at a fixed point, focus on your center, that's just information. Believe it, disbelieve it, it's just information. It only mattered when I did it. It only mattered when I lived it.

After reading my Reminder: You Will Die post, my dad asked me something like "so if death helps you remember what's important in life, what's important in life?" I knew what I thought, but had trouble putting it into words. I think I said something like "living is important," which I think probably sounds like a hand-wavy zen statement after talking about the importance of death. I like how Dave phrases it, but even his "bring meaning to life" seems a bit vague.

And maybe a little wrong, too. I think life already has meaning — we just have to recognize it. It's like the difference between hearing to a song, and listening to a song. Anyone can hear whether life has a pleasant melody and go humming along to "You are My Sunshine," but you have to listen to catch the meaning. I'm sure "we have to listen for the meaning of life" sounds really trite, but I think that's because listening sounds so much easier than it is. I'd explain how to listen, but I'm not very good at it myself.

I think listening for meaning is what people are generally doing when they pray or meditate, but I'm hesitant to suggest anyone do those things. I've had too many people ask me if I pray when it's obvious they don't. They're asking if I sit with my hands folded and recite the same meaningless words they do. In that sense, I quit praying several years ago. And I've had the same experience with meditation. Though it does seem to be more difficult, I've encountered enough meditation evangelists — certain that if I only go to their meditation class with them, all my problems will be solved — to believe it's possible to meditate without listening.

And then I've met people who neither pray nor meditate, but are clearly practiced in listening for meaning in life. Some find it in music, some in words, some in photos, some in other people, some in themselves. We're not at all short on places to find meaning in life. We just need to listen for it.

 

I don't know a lot of Americans into Asian self-improvement practices such as Buddhist meditation or Yoga, but from the few I do know I have developed a theory. My theory is that self-improvement practices from distant lands more often than not act as a particularly effective placebo.

I used to be very interested in Buddhism. I got some books on the subject, even took a course in university, and some of it I found useful, but never life-altering. But one after another, I've listened to friends and acquaintances with major personal problems extoll the virtues of this or that Asian self-improvement technique after a week or a month of practice. The thing is, they're still just as messed up. They just don't realize it anymore because they've convinced themselves that Shiatsu, or transcendental meditation, or whatever has cured what ails them.

So I've developed this theory. Basically, I think some people with big problems start looking for some answer they never thought of before, because nothing they've done previously seems to be working. And they find some teaching from the other side of the world, and it tells them to do everything different, and they do, and their lives seem different. So they go out and tell everyone else about this great new thing.

Which is great, until everyone else realizes that the person hasn't changed at all. They're just as angry, only now they have mantras to recite about anger. They're just as unhealthy, only now they can lecture everyone else about healthy living. Maybe it's just me and the people I know, but the net result of all the eastern evangelism I've heard has been to make me want to stay as far away from a Tai Chi class as possible.

When someone starts telling me how great Asian cure-all X is, I have a game I like to play now. I replace X with "Ronco Food Dehydrator."

"I've been practicing Ronco Food Dehydrator for about a month now, and it's really helped me. I think you should consider trying it. There's a center in California that gives away free Ronco Food Dehydrator lessons. It will really change your life. I know you probably have a lot of bias from American culture about how weird Ronco Food Dehydrator is, but it's really easy to use."

And maybe Ronco Food Dehydrator really does amazing things to improve peoples' lives. But when I hear someone selling it so hard, I start to think they're not trying to convince me - they're trying to convince themselves that something has really changed, trying to make the placebo last. That's my theory, anyway. I wonder if it would translate into actual placebos. I wonder if giving people "herbal medicine" sugar pills would cure them more than traditional sugar pills.