Visible Gorilla

Meditation, The Invisible Gorilla and the Invisible Buddha

Why meditate? Why practice mindfulness? The general consensus today is that meditation and mindfulness reduce stress. Fortunately, if we simply stop, sit down, and pay attention to our breath, we find relief from stress—for sure. Yet, there is much more to meditation and mindfulness.  So this post is about how meditation and mindfulness can heighten our awareness of something called Inattentional Blindness. A force that hinders our happiness and our ability to make human connections.

“Zen” simply means meditation.

Suzuki Roshi said, “The true purpose of Zen is to see things as they are…” Of course, to see life as it is rather than as we imagine it can also reduce stress. Think of the many things you feared that never happened, that were never part of the world.

But seeing more clearly can do much more than reduce stress. If we see ourselves more clearly, we might better understand our true strengths and limitations. And seeing our true strengths and limitations can help us begin to see the fuller dimensions of our own wisdom and compassion. We call this kind of clear seeing liberation.

The endeavor to see clearly is not peculiar to Zen.

For example, other schools of Buddhism and Classical Yoga also use experiments in ethics, meditation and mindfulness to help practitioners overcome certain kinds of blindness.  Like Zen, these traditions also aim  to neutralize the greed, anger, and delusion that arise from our egocentricity and misperceptions.

But, you might ask, “Don’t we see the world clearly enough in everyday life already?” Admittedly, if we’re awake and sober we feel as if we’re taking in the details there before us just as they are. Nevertheless, there is a lot of evidence that says otherwise.

Take for example the invisible gorilla.

One form of cognitive blindness that meditation and mindfulness can help us notice and overcome is the thoroughly researched and documented form called Inattentional Blindness. What is Inattentional Blindness?

I think this form of blindness is best seen in the Invisible Gorilla experiment.   In the experiment, you are asked to watch a video. In the video there are two teams. One team wears black, the other wears white.

Each team passes a ball to its own members. Your task is to count the number of times the team wearing white passes the ball. What you are not told is that halfway through the video a gorilla will walk into the frame, briefly stand there, and then exist the scene on the left.

Often people viewing the video are so absorbed in counting that they do not see the gorilla. That is, even though the gorilla is in the scene for ten seconds, even though the light from the gorilla falls directly on the eyes of the observer, the observer does not see the gorilla.

Here’s a link to the video of the Invisible Gorilla on YouTube. It’s just over a minute long. Check it out:

And here’s a link to a New York Times review of the researchers’ book, The Invisible Gorilla:

So, what’s the invisible gorilla got to do with meditation and mindfulness?

First, our attention is nearly constantly absorbed in paying limitless attention to “the story” and “chatter” of what I’ll call the discursive mind.

This discursive mind is a restless, dynamic, highly distractible thing. It’s also highly entertaining and engrossing. That’s because it swings between elation and depression since it loves daydreams that dwell on successes and triumphs and catastrophes past, future, and present.

More to the point, it is extremely difficult for an untrained person not to get swept up in the Inattentional Blindness induced by the constant goings on in the discursive mind.  That means we miss a lot of everything else that’s going on around us. And we  miss a lot of what’s going on in our own minds, too.

Paying constant attention to the discursive mind is a lot like counting the number of passes in the Invisible Gorilla experiment—only more so.

The Mind is More Than its Chattering

The discursive mind sucks nearly all of our attentional energy away so we have very little left to see or experience the stillness, spaciousness, and silence that naturally arise in the non-discursive regions of the mind. These are the regions of the mind that we train to connect with in mindfulness and meditation practice.

This much bigger part of the mind is like the gorilla in the experiment. It’s already there in the scene, but without meditation or mindfulness practice, we rarely if ever see it. Because we don’t often see it, we can’t easily sustain a connection with it. And hence, we don’t benefit from the restorative and other beneficial possibilities that come from awareness of the stillness and peace that abide constantly in the mind right alongside what I’m calling the discursive mind.

In mindfulness and meditation practice, we learn to gently shift awareness away from our constant absorption in the discursive mind. We learn to more skillfully balance our attentional resources between our discursive and non-discursive functions.  Over time this balancing act becomes far more habitual and effortless.

The Invisible Buddha Within

Second, as our meditation and mindfulness practice strengthens, as we become better at distributing our attentional energy in a skillfully balanced way, we don’t take everything we think and believe quite so seriously. We more easily see thoughts as just passing thoughts rather than as compellingly solid forces of darkness or light.  We’re less troubled or elated by our thoughts.

We grow more balanced, less self absorbed, more approachable. As we practice, we become less certain of our certainties, less dogmatic. Therefore, our happiness  and sense of ease grows and people find us easier to be with. We become much more interested in others for their own sake.  We connect more readily and easily with others.

In fact, mindfulness and meditation practice help us to overcome the force of inattentional Blindness so we might discover the peace, joy, wisdom, and compassion of the invisible Buddha within.

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I hope you have a wonderful week!