The Mindfulness Simulator

My first grade teacher used a unique system to keep kids from misbehaving. Instead of writing the student’s name on the chalkboard, our teacher had a large laminated cardboard apple tree with thirty or so hooks that sat at the front of the classroom. On the hooks she hung laminated apple-shaped name tags with an actual apple-picking basket below the whole installation.

Anytime a kid misbehaved, our teacher would say, “Jonathan, please take your apple off the tree.” The perpetrator would have to take the walk of shame up to the apple tree and remove his/her apple and drop it into the basket, making a terrifying thud as it hit the bottom.

As humiliated first-graders trudged up to the apple tree to toss their name in the basket, I swear, a slight smile crept across the teacher’s face.

As a quiet kid, the apple tree scared the shit out of me. Most of my fears about life as a six year old were wrapped up in that horrible Houghton Mifflin tree-shaped monstrosity. It was made of crappy Catholic school cardboard, resembling something you might see on a bad acid trip, probably designed by some art school dropout.

I used to imagine the fear and panic I would have if I ever had to remove my apple from the tree. I would have survived the entire year if it wasn’t for this chubby kid named Brian, who asked me to take the cap off his marker while the teacher was talking. I glanced at him and said, “No!” under my breath, and turned back to the teacher. But it was too late, she was staring right at the two of us. We were caught red-handed. She told Brian and me to take our apples off the tree.

For years, I felt severe shame and guilt over the apple tree incident. I think it sent me down the path of having severe, as the Buddha called it, “monkey mind” into my adult years.

Thanks, Catholic schooling.

As we can all attest to, our minds go a little crazy. We go through periods of negative self talk, anxiety, guilt, shame, grandiose thoughts, elation, and calm, sometimes all within a few minutes. I realized how much my daily life is jerked around by the unattended thoughts in my head, so I started a mediation practice about a year ago.

I have good weeks and bad weeks. I’ve learned I am not my thoughts, my emotions, or anything except just awareness. In a more practical sense, if I’m anxious about something, it’s easier to not identify with the emotion as “I am anxious,” and know it will pass.

I try to be mindful of my surroundings when I’m walking, but, as we all experience, the mind wanders to past, future, and present problems. I’ll imagine an encounter going a different way and I’ll play out the scene in my head until it fits to my liking. Sometimes I’ll see people walking on the street and create entire backstories for their lives — I bet she’s from the Midwest and works in PR. The stories are entertaining, but pointless. A waste. It’s as productive as befriending a character in a novel. It’s not reality.

I came up with a (kind of bizarre) technique to get myself present. I imagine sitting in a chair in a science research facility. A man approaches me and plugs me into a machine. He presses a button and all of the sudden, I’m on a Brooklyn street. Think the scene in The Matrix when they first plug Neo into the matrix.

With this scenario in my head, I walk down the street and imagine every thing I feel, see, and hear, is all part of this elaborate computer simulation. I imagine every person I pass is designed from scratch just for this simulation. Every sound crafted to go along with the visuals, the exact pitch and direction tweaked perfectly. I see a hole in a wood panel on a construction site and imagine each splinter direction is deliberate. The grains of the wood have a meaning in the simulation. I imagine all of the colors programmed to be vibrant and as real looking as possible. Every detail, including chips of paint on a railing, a crumpled up piece of paper in the street, and spray paint on a mailbox, are all deliberately created. Every leaf is programmed to have its own characteristics along with every person and dog I pass. The breeze is designed to hit my face at a certain speed and angle, all controlled by a complex algorithm, as it throws some nasty bits of garbage in my eye. Depth of field is programmed precisely so when I stick out my virtual hand in front of my face, it actually feels like I’m in a three dimensional space. The thoughts and emotions running through my head are also by design along with every other feeling I experience.

As I played this game, I found myself totally immersed in awareness. For a brief moment, I was aware of everything and in awe of reality. I was truly being mindful, if only for a few moments at a time. Then it hit me: if I had an opportunity to spend an hour in a real simulation like this, would I waste my time thinking about an awkward phone call I had yesterday? Or worry about plans I have tomorrow? Or play Words With Friends on my phone? Or spend half my day crafting witty text messages for my friends? Or watch six hours of Seinfeld while checking Facebook between commercial breaks? No, of course not. So why is (real) reality any different? Isn’t reality exactly like the simulation? Maybe reality is even more impressive?

Through the lens of the simulation idea, this world seems incredible. The detail, complexity, and depth seem staggering. But for some reason, when we step out of the “simulation” we spend most of our time lost in thought, not in the present moment, and not even slightly impressed by reality.

Hopefully I can stay in the simulator a little longer each day.