08 October 2009

A Very Special Pill

From ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ by Jonathan Haidt:

Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side-effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it?

The pill exists. It is meditation.
This excerpt from Haidt's interesting book is fascinating. I love it because everything it says is true - medically documented even - and yet, practically speaking, it gives an entirely wrong impression. Why? Because the actual experience of taking a pill - which is how most Americans want to deal with life's problems - takes no effort at all, and no time. No time and no effort: this is almost a secret motto for Americans. This is our approach to vacations, to preparing and eating food, and to dealing with challenges, physical and mental - we like it fast and easy, as in, swallowing a hopefully not too large or bad-tasting pill. Don't get me wrong, pills can of course solve some problems! But Haidt seems to be suggesting here, if you want all these benefits, all you need to do is meditate, which takes no effort at all, and no time, just like taking a pill! Which is just bonkers, as the English say.

Of course this isn't what he is actually saying. He is saying that the benefits of the mythical pill match the benefits of meditation. He's saying, if you want these benefits, meditate and you will have them, that simple. But it's not that simple, at all, or not for most of us. There is a major difference practically speaking between taking a pill and meditating, that is, meditating generally involves a lot of time, and more than anything, persistent effort. Meditation means engaging our energy and interest, it means working with our own mind and body through direct experience, cultivating patience...it means taking time - to be corny for a moment - for peace. Meditation is a slow (and often very enjoyable) manual reorientation of oneself.

Whereas when we take a pill, in a way, we aren't doing anything at all.

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