Wendy: Would you please briefly introduce yourself?
Rush: So I am Mr. Rush. I teach AP Economics and Advanced Economics. I have really wide set of interests, and I try to cultivate new interests all the time. Oh, and, if you don’t know who I am, I’m the guy who walks around with a cane.
Wendy: In Advanced Economics class, you talked about human consciousness and how meditation can help change the default mode network.
Rush: So there’s actually a lot lot lot of stuff there. You know, meditation is a thing that sounds kind of hippyish. It is kind of hippyish in a way, but it’s way, way more than just that. There’s actually a lot of research that’s been done on people who meditate a lot versus people who don’t meditate. A lot of the findings were introduced, I’d say quite nicely in a book called Why Buddhism is True, so for anyone who’s really, really interested in this, I really suggest them to check it out. It’s written by an evolutionary psychologist at Princeton, and it’s not talking why reincarnation and that kind of stuff is true. What it’s talking about is why a lot of the kind of fundamental tenants of Buddhism seem true from the perspective of what we now know about how the brain works, that kind of stuff. So one of the things talked about is the default mode network.
The default mode network is the thing that activates anytime your mind is not on the specific task. So you’re not trying to add or subtract. You’re, you know, not watching TV intently. You’re not doing anything like that. You’re just kind of doing nothing. And what happens then? We can actually see from self-reporting and also from brain imaging that about fifty percent of that ends up being taken up by people thinking about things like, what’s my relative position? How did somebody harm me? Why is that thing that I did today that was wrong? Why was it not wrong? Why do I have such a good explanation for that thing that I did today and everything like that? So really it’s about this sort of social rank, social position stuff.
And that is really important for humans. You know, we are a social species. Any human by themselves is basically worthless. Okay? But the problem is, especially in the modern world, that doesn’t work so well, because a lot of our interactions are not face-to-face. We’re not actually always around other people and all kinds of different things can be happening with which we worry about. And there’s some pretty good evidence that all of these sorts of things are actually leading to people to being anxious people, to being depressed people, to not being able to really live their life as well as it could be.
One thing that’s really, really interesting is you can look at this literally on brain scans, fMRIs. If you have somebody who meditates a lot, that kind of default state is a totally different thing. And if you ask them their thoughts on that kind of stuff they’re gonna have a lot less “me” “my” sort of thoughts. They’re gonna have a lot less thoughts about their relative position in that kind of stuff. You could call it a calmer mind. What Robert Wright, the author of that book, says is a more truthful way of looking at the world.
Wendy: Can you talk about how, maybe more specifically, through your observation, meditation can help current students? What advice you can give to them?
Rush: Well, I think a lot of students tend to be really stressed. And I’ve noticed how, in a way, it’s really good to be pro-social, but I know in my classes, I ask students like hey, who here likes computer science? You know, because I talk about computer science. I talk about all kinds of different stuff in my course. So maybe one kid will enthusiastically raise his hand because, man, computer science is his favorite thing in the world, and he looks around he’ll find nobody else raises their hand and puts his hand back down and look really afraid and embarrassed when nobody’s gonna really care. Right? People don’t actually care that much. People don’t actually think that much you know. Take the stuff you post in moments. You know you need to realize that the amount of effort and thought you put into looking other people’s Moments posts are exactly the same amount of effort and thought that people are putting into your Moments posts. Right? But I see this happen actually a lot where people are getting this sort of hyperized thing that I think sort of fed by social media where it certainly can’t be helpful for them to be able to think, you know, clearly and directly.
And I think if you’re approaching things from a clearer, calmer mind, you’re actually going to be able to get a lot more done. And you’re also going to be able to just not worry about things as much. Right? And you’ll be more honest to yourself. And I think you’ll lead a better life. And honestly, I think meditation is a really important tool for separating yourself from some of your thoughts.
To get into that a little bit further, that has to be a whole lecture about split brain experiments and that kind of stuff. If you want to, I can get into that, but I don’t know how far you’re going to go in this article. [link?] Yeah. I think that it’s something that could be really helpful for basically anyone. There’s really no use case where I think that somebody would completely waste their time trying to start meditating or trying to start living a more mindful life.
Okay. Remember we spent a lot of time talking about that in the advanced class. Especially in the first semester when you guys were thinking about colleges and stuff. And I really focused on just the general idea of mindfulness, because meditation isn’t just about the act of meditation itself. It’s also about learning to see things more presently and to actually really experience them and think about your experiences rather than just mindlessly doing things one after another without a great thought as to what any of the things were.
Actually, a really great example of this was they found one of the most effective ways of getting people to stop smoking or to smoke significantly less was to just think about cigarettes. Like, they were just told, “think about a cigarette when you smoke it. Every time you smoke a cigarette, smoke it. Don’t just put in your mouth and light it up. Like actually think, how does it taste? How does it feel? Focus on all little details. And once you focus in all the little details, a lot of that, you know, kind of chemical dependency, a lot of that compulsion loses its power.
Wendy: Oh, I remember years ago, I was reading a book about how I can stop my bad habits and it just told me to just keep a notebook in the pocket. Every time I do it (for me is maybe biting my nails), I just take out the paper and draw a line and then I can see how many lines I’ve drawn.
Rush: I mean that can definitely help you be more mindful of it. Like, you know what I would say is you know this sort of mindfulness approaches on chewing your nails is, you know, when you catch yourself chewing your nails, think about it. Think why am I chewing my nails? What am I getting out of chewing my nails? How does it actually feel like? And then a lot of the times what it will do is when we start to really analyze our feelings when we’re doing a compulsive behavior or say you’re playing a phone game and you find yourself thinking “oh god” or you’re in a Youtube rabbit hole. You in your head just start being mindful about the experience and go, okay, what am I getting out of this? How am I feeling right now? And a lot of times, as soon as you start investigating something, if it’s sort of hollow, it’ll feel very hollow, and it’ll lose a lot of its power over you.
Wendy: So how would you suggest people to do the meditation or say stay mindful? Because in my own experience before, I tried to force myself to do twenty minutes a day, but sometimes I just have more urgent thing that I have to do. Or I’m just really way too tired especially during my junior or near the beginning of senior years. So I don’t know if doing it regularly is a good idea, then how do you think people can keep doing it? Or maybe you don’t have to do it on a daily basis, but you do it when you’re angry or feel irrational?
Rush: So actually, I would like to preface that by talking about if somebody’s just for starting off to meditate, they’re probably going to run into a lot of issues that I’d to probably bring up first, if you don’t mind, rather than like, okay, you know, I’m having trouble meditating twenty minutes everyday, everyone does. Hey, unless that’s your job meditating twenty minutes every day. It is hard to make time in your life. And for myself, as I have said, I sort of micro-meditate throughout the day. (大概一半了）
Or, I just try to take what I learned from when I used to do a lot more meditation, much more seriously, and those changes to my brain and stuff. so one of the main things that’s gonna happen is, ok, you’re gonna start trying to meditate. And the first thing that’s gonna happen to you is a couple deep breaths in, you’re gonna get a random thought pop in your head, and then you’re gonna try to chase that random thought away. And by choosing at random sort of way you’re chasing out with more thoughts, and then you can try to chase out the more thoughts with more thoughts, you can try to chase it with more thoughts with more thoughts and more thoughts and then it’s gonna feel like totally hopeless. Right? You’re gonna feel like, ah, I wasn’t able to keep my mind clear. I wasn’t able to keep my mind calm.
And so while you’re meditating and a thought comes up, once again, it’s just, you know, I was talking about mindfulness with smoking. You’re mindful of what that thought was. You’re like, why did this thought pop into my mind? Why this thought? You try to feel with the feeling behind that thought. You try to feel the reason behind why that thought was. As you start to understand that thought that pops in your head, it just kind of fades away. And as you keep doing that and keep doing that and keep doing that, you know, it takes time, but you’ll notice that your brain gets quieter and quieter and quieter, and then when you’re left alone your brain isn’t racing around thinking about all of the relative status ruminations that aren’t necessarily going to really help you.
But yeah, it’s hard. I would say that you need to probably do it, quite a few times for a little bit. So you need to at least get that first feeling, that first experience of meditation, where you get kind of like that. It’s really hard to describe because there aren’t words for it, but there’s just a certain feeling that you’ll get, like it’s a certain feeling of oneness with the world, you know, sorta like ego dissolution, where you don’t feel that strong of a sense of self and there’s just such a relaxation to that.
And I think it is important to try to get there, and so then you know what the carrot at the end of the stick is, I think that’s always good. Because if you never get to the carrot at the end of the stick, it’s really hard to motivate yourself to keep going. And I would say if you’re a kind of really schedule-oriented person, and you’re good at keeping that kind of stuff, [which I know you’re not. And you’re my student. I know you’re not], then try to keep schedules of how you do it. If not, try to be honest with yourself about when you really have time, because we always tell ourselves we don’t have time, we don’t have time, we don’t have time and it’s nonsense. Right? We always have the time for the things you really want to do. Okay? So if you say I didn’t have time to meditate, you gotta realize that’s an excuse. You had the time to meditate. Instead, you watched Youku; instead, you chatted with your friends; instead, you played a phone game; instead, you did something else …And it’s fine! It’s not saying that you have to do this thing. You’re doing it for your own personal advancement. But be honest with yourself. Don’t make too many excuses and try to look for good opportunities when it would just be a good chance to do it is what I would say.
Wendy: So personally, when did you start meditating? What made you decide to start?
Rush: So I started getting into eastern philosophy when I was in middle school, probably just because I liked to always be different.
And I remember I read the Dao De Jing (道德经) when I was in middle school, and I wrote a couple of papers about it that my English teacher could not super get. But it was my first kind of doing that, and then I feel like reading the Dao De Jing and really thinking about it, that’s sort of a form of meditation because you have this contradiction and then you’re trying, in your head, resolve the contradiction. And so I was originally brought into, from the Dao De Jing, I was brought into Zen Buddhism, and I read a bunch of books on that. And of course, a big part of Zen practice is meditation. A lot of the books that I read back then, though they were very much about form, I now am a lot less about form. Because I use to follow a very very strict meditational form. But over time I realized, I think in a way it’s really useful because you’re kind of putting yourself in an uncomfortable position, and that helps you disassociate yourself from your body because you have to. Otherwise, you can’t stay in that position for very long.
But, I’ve become much more agnostic about a lot of these sorts of features of this stuff. So I got into it through, you know, mostly Zen Buddhism. And then, later on, I started reading other sorts of things. And, you know, now most of the stuff I’ve read has been largely secular things. I’ve gone a pretty long time where I sort of stopped meditating. And when I got back into it, I could really just tell the difference, which is just for me, it’s just how calm my mind is.
And so most of the time I have nothing, nothing goes through my mind. Most of the time I don’t really think thoughts. So if somebody asked me a question, I’m not thinking through thoughts. I just kind of respond with the black box in my brain. You have to realize that you’re mostly that black box. And so now, especially when I don’t meditate, I can just feel that I’m disturbed, I can feel I’m thinking way too much. and I just don’t feel peaceful.
Wendy: Is there any particular example of how meditation helped you with emotion control like controlling your anger?
Rush: How about I just tell you some of the different ways meditations really helped. And also the research shows not just me, you know, I’m an anecdote, but the data also supports this. So one is I think it helps you be more of an observer and less of a judger, and that actually really helped me to understand other people a lot better. Because instead of thinking from your own kind of selfish, narrow perspective about stuff, you can just observe things from a more detached and therefore more logical perspective, and you don’t get as many feelings of snap judgment. You observe something, you kind of just think through it, and I think that really helped me not get carried away with the kind of emotional contamination that happens especially in the world of a social media. I’m not saying I have completely. You know, certainly, there have been some political things that have happened lately that truly tested my ability to remain calm.
So that’s one I said, another one is just really the calmness of the mind. It’s like once you get that feeling of not constantly worrying about where you are, without constantly thinking about how you can get more, how you can do this more, how you can do that more. Once you have that feeling of just how wonderful that peace is, there’s really nothing else. There’s no material thing that anyone could ever give you that comes anywhere close to being as good as just the feeling of just being you, not worrying about all of those little things. And also, when you spend all day thinking, worrying about your social position, most of the thoughts aren’t useful. Anyway. You know what I mean? And actually being able to distance yourself a lot from those thoughts, I think it is a really useful way of handling them rather than just going off of your thing. So that’s another thing. That’s just really. Another thing that’s gonna do though, is it’s going to make you start acting like a better person.
So if you do something, it makes you feel bad, and you’re gonna in your head, all of a sudden, you have thoughts in your head, these thoughts about some specific things. They’re just all like, oh it’s OKAY that I did this, really, it’s OKAY that I’m doing this, it’s okay that I did this, it’s okay that I did this because this has this reason. Okay? I have a good reason, a good justification. And if you know the literature on consciousness, basically you have to realize that a big job of your human consciousness and the reason why you’re thinking in words even though you don’t really need to think in words is because it’s about convincing other people that you’re right, convincing other people that you’re good, which is a lot of times you deceiving yourself. So here you are with this quiet mind, and then all of a sudden there’s a flood of you trying to convince yourself that everything is okay. You’re doing everything right. It’s always fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. Then you just think about everything and be like, no, I’m not doing the right thing. That’s not a good excuse. I know in my head I’m just preparing an excuse in case I get caught doing this thing. But I much prefer to going back to having a quiet mind, so I’ll just do the right thing.
So I think that’s another way that it’s really useful. And yeah, it also just helps with a general focus and concentration. So, I know at a young age I was diagnosed with ADHD. I probably still have it because that’s how brains work and stuff. And I know, for instance, that I do have inefficient dopamine receptors. So I know that I’m the type of person, but you know, through meditation and mindfulness, I have been able to be much much more productive and to be able to stay focused on doing things for much longer periods of time.
And also it used to be the case that if I didn’t have something to do, that instant I’d be bored. The instant I had nothing to do, I would, you know, you just reach in your pocket for your phone or you’re just doing something, right? Because you gotta do something. But once you spend a lot of time in your own head like that, you can be pretty comfortable just doing nothing, because you can always just go in. I just experience things rather than just always feeling like you need to try to consume more and more and more stuff.
So that’s another thing I’d say.