photo by Greg Sacks

“We were both in the fugue-state that exhaustion through repetition brings on, a fugue-state I’ve decided that my whole time playing tennis was spent chasing … hypnotic, a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt.”   
– David Foster Wallace

Last week, three friends and I took an introduction to mountaineering course in the Canadian Rockies, north of Banff, on the Wapta Icefield. Every morning for five days, our little group put on our climbing harnesses, clipped into a long snaking rope, and began our glacier ascent. Some days the sky was cobalt blue, and we moved single-file along a narrow causeway next to sheer drop-offs, tiny figures in a vast landscape of stone and ice. Other days, the combination of snowfall and diffuse sunlight turned our world to white: no horizon line, no features, no direction. We used a compass to keep our four-person rope arrow moving in a straight line, ice axes ready to secure us in case one of us were to suddenly disappear into a crevasse.  

It was an exhilarating week — the friendship, the adventure, the self-sufficiency. The ridiculous perspective you get at 10,000 feet, where the scenery is so huge there’s simply no room to think about yourself or your problems. A good view sucks both right out of you; a good view for five continuous days resets the brain. No wonder people live in the mountains. All of us felt great: clear, settled, present.

At some point I realized that I was, in fact, at a meditation retreat — only, not a mindfulness one. This was more about the body: hour after hour engaged in a single activity, all of me engaged, attention riveted to my next step and the slithering rope in front of me. As DFW put it so beautifully, for hours on end I found myself in a mental state “at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt.”

Sometimes this is the practice we really need. There’s a dimension of human happiness that emerges not from panning back into more awareness, but from plunging into less. It’s a kind of trance, one that depends on our whole body’s capacity to become absorbed in experience. 

Often in life I’ve been too ADD to meditate in the usual seated way – too jumpy, too agitated, too busy-brained. When this happens, I’ve learned to turn to these sorts of active absorption practices. This is a path of concentration, but not the Buddhist kind, or not exactly. More the athlete’s or the artist’s kind. Its external form may look like going for a run, or drawing on a canvas, or even moving the vacuum around the house.

Most of us have experienced the fruit of this kind of commitment – the one-pointed focus, the mental settling – but we may not realize there are ways of increasing the activity’s potency and its powerful soothing effect. It has to do with how much of our total attention we bring to what we’re doing.

Here is a cruel human calculus: every time attention splits, the thing we’re paying attention to becomes exactly half as rewarding. For many of us, our attention spans are chronically divided, with one part paying attention to our physical surroundings, one part worrying about work, and one part self-conscious about how we look or what we’re saying. Our attention in these cases is like a frayed braid, an exploded frazzle of thin waving strands. Thin strands = a thin world. No single strand is satisfying, to say nothing of the cumulative effect of all that half-worrying.

By contrast, as we bring more strands together, the braid of attention gets thicker and stronger until it effectively merges with the activity itself. At this point, whatever we’re doing becomes inherently more rewarding and satisfying – in part because the “complaining strand” of attention is no longer present (or at least, it is not being actively reinforced). This is one way we get over ourselves, and it leads into the delicious mental state that DFW called “fugue,” athletes call “the Zone,” and Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously calls “flow.”

When people tell me they’re “too ADD to meditate,” this is what I suggest: get absorbed in something else instead.

The key is to really go for it. How fully immersed can you become? Can you bring your entire body into play? The whole of your being? Don’t say “yeah, running is my meditation” and then ruminate on your problems while pumping your legs. This is about devotion. Devote your attention to your breath, to the feeling of energy and exertion, to the flow of movement in your arms and legs, or the scenery tracking by. Choose one direction, and then converge the strands.

Your body is waiting. Waiting for your commitment, waiting to absorb your mind back into itself, waiting to disappear into the action. 

This month at the CEC, with summertime finally blooming and buzzing all around us, we let our bodies take the lead. Peace to all my fellow explorers!

Chief Exploring Officer, The Consciousness Explorers Club