Since he started his first meditation lesson a few years ago, John had kept a regular meditation practice every day. The challenges he encountered during his meditation practice had also led him to serious metaphysical study of human mind and relevant philosophy of life behind those challenges. His own philosophical insight in turn helped him tremendously in meditation practice, and his progress was remarkable in terms of discipline of mind and mind-body harmony.
When he started meditation practice a few years ago, he could not truly appreciate a clear mind with sentient awareness but not busy thoughts. At that time he was only struggling to drive the busy thoughts out of his mind during meditation or try to distract himself away from busy thoughts during normal life. For most of the time when he did that he needed to direct his attention to some surrounding happenings, mostly the sound of classic music, the sense of gentle air flow, or even his own footsteps, etc.
After a few years of effort to discipline his own mind through meditation and self-restraint from negative thoughts, he had developed a sense of sentient tranquility so that he could delve into a state of the tranquility that was clear of busy thoughts at any time without the need of connecting his own attention to surrounding happenings. Even though the sentient tranquility could normally only last for quite limited length of time, at least, he had tasted the juice of that sentient tranquility and could enjoy the taste basically whenever he wanted.
John had always been a quick learner and deep thinker since he was in school. But over the past a few years he started to enjoy much greater mind power than ever when he needed either to solve some complicated logic issues or to stay intensively focused for some tedious and difficult readings. Ideas and inspirations often flew into his mind like fountain from underground whenever he did some serious thinking; and he could see deep into the words and grasp the obscurest meanings easily whenever he read. When he felt tired of his work, he could enjoy a peaceful mind through disciplined mental activity with ease. By looking back to his own past, John could now sense the difference between profound wisdom and ordinary cleverness. The meaning of life and the whole world had been completely different for him. He felt that he stood on a philosophical new high and thus he could even sense a greater responsibility towards the whole human civilization.
A few months ago, John and his friends formed a philosophical saloon. They regularly met at John’s house the first Saturday of each month to discuss various philosophical issues that were affecting their personal life or their community welfare. John normally prepared certain main topic for the discussion, but anyone could also bring up own interested topic for discussion. This evening they would meet again and the topic John planned for this meeting was “the plateau phenomenon”.
In the process of learning or practicing to reach certain goals, very often after a period of progress the learners or practitioners would come to a stage when they find themselves could no longer make any improvement. This phenomenon is called as plateau phenomenon. Even though John had enjoyed a lot benefits after a few years of meditation and intentional mental discipline during normal life, John also sensed that he had hit the plateau in his desired self-improvement. The reason that he went to the meditation school to take his first meditation lesson was because he heard that meditation could help people to get rid of stress and fatigue, especially for those whose daily work involved intensive use of mental power. That magic did not happen. He still would be highly stressed and felt some continuous fatigue whenever he worked extra hard. For the past a couple of weeks he had been doing some literature study and trying to find out what caused this plateau phenomenon. Even though he was still not very clear of the cause but he could sense that there might be some complicated philosophy behind and thus he decided to bring this issue to the discussion.
After the supper time, guests were coming to John’s house one after another. Among the regular attendees were those old friends we had met in previous chapters, Jack, Ralph and Linda. John treated them with the best chocolates in his house which he brought back from his last trip to Europe for the Annual Postmodernism Symposium.
“Jess called me and said that she will be a little late and we don’t need to wait for her.” Linda told John.
“Sure. She won’t miss the chocolates at least since I have plenty here.”
While the guests were enjoying the chocolates and drinks, John wrote the topic for the evening on the white board, “The Plateau Phenomenon”, and then drew a curve to represent the plateau.
“I know a lot about the Plateau Phenomenon.” Linda said when she saw the topic for the evening. She was then working at an athletic research institute and one of her research subjects was the plateau phenomenon in the oxygen consumption of athletes during so called maximal exercise.
“Then you could be our teacher for this evening,” said Ralph who was working as an IT analyst in an investment bank.
“I am not sure if you guys would like to hear me coaching for rest of the evening how to consume more oxygen during your work out.” Linda teased back.
“John, what plateau are you referring to?” asked Paul, a new graduate student from the same university of John.
“Most of us in this room are practicing meditation. Before we started we all heard of a lot stories about meditation so that we all started with high expectations.” John explained, “We all enjoyed some progresses right after we started our practice. But after several years of practice, we might face the same situation that the progress has become very slow or even stopped. This is what I called the plateau phenomenon here since it is very like the plateau phenomenon in athletic training, which is the research topic of Linda.”
“This is a very good topic.” Jack said to John, “In fact I was just about to call you to discuss this issue because I had the same stagnant feeling recently.”
John about to say something but Ralph cut in, “I think we are all roughly at the same stage since we all started our meditation practice around the same time, and that’s why we are facing the similar problem now.”
“That’s right.” Linda commented, “In fact this plateau phenomenon is very common in the nature not only with human learning or improvement process. It is a universal issue.”
“I think you are referring to the research work you are doing in your company. Am I right Miss scientist?” Ralph said.
“Not only that.” Linda replied and then asked, “Have you guys heard an old oriental saying that ‘when the good grows by one yard, the evil would grows by ten yards’?”
“This the first time I heard of it, but it sounded very profound to me.” Jack said.
“I heard of that before.” John said, “I guess it might be the first time for most of the guys here to hear it. Why don’t you explain it to everyone?”
“Sure.” Linda said, “Its practical meaning in real life is that sometimes you need to spend ten times more efforts to make some progress in life.”
“Why do you say ‘sometimes’?” asked Paul.
“Good question.” Linda explained, “It is because life in general is not always dynamically the same. Sometimes it is a linear and gradually varying process and sometimes it is a nonlinear uneven process. The plateau picture John just drew is an example of the nonlinear process.”
Linda paused and had a sip of juice and then continued to say, “Most of the natural processes we learned from our high school or college science class are linear processes in the sense that the resistance to the processes are increasing in proportion to certain measure of the progress. But as a naturally linear process develops into certain stage it will become a nonlinear process, and from then on the resistance to the process would increase much faster than the progress of the process.”
Linda picked up a Sharpie and drew a spring and a curve on the white board alongside with John’s drawing. She explained, “For example, when we start to press on a spring, the resistance force would increase in proportion to the deformation of the spring, this relationship is represented in the straight part of this curve. But when the spring is pressed very dense, then further pressing on the spring would cause the resistance to increase tremendously las shown in this nonlinear part of the curve.”
Linda continued to say, “As another example, if we drive a car on the highway, we might sense that as the speed is increased to certain level, the wind force that acts on the car would increase very fast compared to when we drive slowly.”
“The examples you just mentioned are all natural processes, which is easy to understand because of the natural law of physics applies.” Paul asked, “How do you explain ‘the evil grows by ten yards when the good grows by one yard’ in social processes?”
“This is also a good question because even though the social processes share the similar pattern in terms of the good versus the rival in the nature, the mechanism to realize it might be quite different. One mechanism to have greater negative force than positive forces is that normally there are more chances to destroy than to construct. ” Linda raised the glass in her hand and said, “For example, I might drop this glass on the floor to break it, or I might smash it with a stone, or I might destroy it by freezing it first and then pour in boiling water. You guys might come up many other ways to help me to destroy this glass. But it only takes one specific approach to make it as it is right now.”
Linda continued to say, “When we were kids, we might all heard some grownups told us that it is very easy to learn bad things than to build up a good quality. The reason behind this is the same as the glass example I just mentioned: there are more negative choices than positive choices in general.”
“That’s a great insight and I never thought in that way even though personally I know that it is much easier to be bad than to be good,” said Jack.
“That is just one mechanism among many.” Linda replied, “Another mechanism that causes the resistance to the good increases much faster at certain stage is the difference between human subjective expectation and the real world objective process.”
Linda further explained, “We might all have experienced that trying to make something perfect would cost much greater efforts than making something just good enough. This is because that we always think that removing the tiny part of imperfection from the body of a system should be easy since we have already come all the way to build that whole body. But in fact, there are a few reasons that would cause the effort of getting perfect to be much greater than expected or even make it impossible to accomplish.”
Linda paused a second and then continued, “One of the reasons is that once we try to make things perfect, we normally come into the range of the natural nonlinear processes as I just discussed a moment earlier for many specific aspects of the whole system, and thus the effort could be much greater than dealing with the linear processes.”
Linda looked around the room and found that everyone in the room was attracted by her presentation. She felt very encouraged and continued to say, “Another reason is that any system has its core and its outer skirt which connects to outside world. When we build the main body of a system we mainly deal with its core. But when we try to make a perfect finish, we might need to deal a lot with its connections to the rest of the world, which would increase the dimension of the task and thus greatly increase the difficulty of the task.”
Linda then told her audience, “That’s all I can tell about that old oriental saying of ‘when the good grows by one yard, the evil would grows by ten yards’. In fact, the original version of this saying was presented in a religious context, which means something supernaturally. But I don’t have any idea what it is since I am a natural scientist.”
“Very well done and the issue is excellently explained,” complimented Jack.
“Where did you learn all these?” asked Paul.
“Hey pal, don’t forget that everyone in this saloon is a philosopher.” Ralph said to Paul.
“Actually I did a lot study on the issue for my research project at my company,” replied Linda.
“Thanks Linda for the excellent presentation.” John said, “I like to add one more point to what we just learned from Linda.”
“Please. I have talked a lot. Now it should be your turn.” Linda said.
“Linda just educated us about the universal nonlinear pattern of greater difficulty when we try to do things better than normal.” John said, “What I am going to add is a mechanism that could cause the plateau effect in our meditation practice. I’ve learned this from my own experience through meditation practice.”
“I can’t wait to hear that,” said Jack.
“Through several years of meditation practice, I have enjoyed a lot personal changes.” John said, “For example, my mind is much more disciplined compared to before, I could enjoy higher concentration of mind when I needed, previously complicated issues become much easier to me, and in general I could enjoy greater wisdom which is important for me as a philosopher.”
“That sounds great,” complimented Paul.
“That’s not all.” John continued to say, “I could enjoy a peaceful mind whenever I want.”
“That is admirable.” Paul said, “How to have a peaceful mind is always a big issue to me.”
“Well, I might exaggerate a bit by saying ‘whenever’. But at least for most of the time I could make that happen even though that kind of status would not last very long.” John said, “Besides, I can enjoy some mind-body harmony I never could before. For example, when I felt bodily uncomfortable several years before, the only way to handle it might be going to see a doctor, but now I could quite well adjust my own inner energy with my mind so that I could recover from certain unhealthy status.”
“That’s amazing. So you don’t need to go to see a doctor?” asked Paul.
“Of course I need when the issue is serious. But at least I could have one more alternative besides seeing a doctor when the problem is not serious.” John then continued to say, “The main point here is not seeing a doctor or not when I am sick. The main point is that my mind could communicate to my body in a way most people could not make sense of and thus I could enjoy a better relationship between my mind and body during everyday life, not necessarily when I am sick.”
“Be very honestly. That sounds very amazing to me.” Paul complimented from heart and then he asked, “What is the plateau issue with your personal improvement?”
“The plateau effect is most noticeable in my ability to battle the original targets that I started to practice meditation for.” John said, “Most guys in this room know that I started meditation a couple years ago to fight stress and fatigue. After a few years of practice, even though I have enjoyed all the benefits I mentioned and even more, I am still suffering stress and fatigue and all the relevant symptoms from time to time.”
“Why is that?” asked Paul.
“That puzzled me as well for quite a while until I figured it out recently when I came across an ancient saying that a ship would rise with the tide,” replied John.
“What is the connection between your issue with this old idiom?” asked Paul.
“Through all the mental discipline exercises, mainly the meditation practice, I actually have gained greater power than ever before to mobilize and utilize both mental and bodily energy to serve any of my intellectual goals.” John said, “As a result, I could achieve more in my work and in daily life at the cost of spending more out of the limited energy even though I might have lifted the bar of that limit a bit through meditation and other exercises.”
“That’s an important enlightenment for the reason of plateau phenomenon in mental trainings like meditation.” Linda said, “I have heard a lot people complain that they could not achieve more in overall quality as they would like through mental trainings like meditation. And John just tells us that it is indeed an issue of management of power once we have acquired more of it.”
“Yes.” John added, “Practicing meditation could be very good for reducing stress and fixing fatigue problem, and it also increases our ability of using our own mental and bodily energy as a result of increased mind-body harmony. This should be a double bonus.”
“I would say so,” said Paul.
“However, there is one problem that meditation could not change for us, which is one of the fundamental natural laws in our 4-dimensional space-time, the thermodynamics second law,” said John.
“Why does the thermodynamics second law have anything to do here?” Paul asked with confusion.
“Even though meditation deals with our mind and some people are suggesting that meditation might provide a way to connect to the spiritual world, it is still a natural process like any other natural process such as eating and talking.” John explained, “I am not sure about whether or how meditation could help to connect to supernatural world, as long as it is still a natural process it would follow the natural laws.”
“That I agree.” Paul asked, “But why do you think the thermodynamics second law instead of any other law matters most?”
“I mentioned the thermodynamics second law because it matters most for the issue we are discussing here.” John explained, “The thermodynamics second law tells that none of natural processes could reduce the chaotic degree of a system without a cost of increasing the chaotic degree of another system.”
“John, I think you need to explain it in simpler language,” said Jack.
“Sure.” John continued to explain, “Even though meditation could help to battle stress, it does not mean that no matter how we spend our mental power we won’t get any stress. In fact, since our effort of using mental power could change the outside world or our life for good, then it must cost some increase of chaotic degree within ourselves, which is the stress.”
“What John tells us is that the two good things that meditation could bring to us, reducing the stress and increasing the ability of using mental power, are not always working together with each other.” Linda explained, “Even though reducing stress could help to increase the ability of using mental power, but higher ability of using mental power could cause higher or even much higher stress which would counteract the other good from practicing meditation, and could possibly cause more severe stress problem.”
“Thanks Linda for the help.” John said, “What I would like to say was exactly the same as Linda just explained.”
“The problem is that as long as we have higher ability to use our own mental or bodily power we would use it anyway and ignore the cost of doing it,” added Linda.
“Human beings are abusive creatures in terms of using our power to succeed. We are good at aiming, planning, acting, and profiting, but weak at self-controlling.” Ralph commented.
“Precisely.” John added, “Not only we are weak at curbing our own power to act with our own personal energy and resources, the whole social set up is meant to drive every single person to act up to his or her own limit.”
“That’s also the cause of the global financial crises we have been experiencing these years.” Ralph commented, “The whole world is like a gigantic machine, and every unit of this machine is only tuned to achieve more without much discipline to curb its potential. Banks, corporations, governments, individuals are all driven to achieve their maximum profits at whatever costs. As a result, at personal level we are having issues like John and most of us are facing to today, and at society or global level we are having all kinds of crises because of this single purposed global operation.”
“Then how should we deal with this kind problem?” asked Paul.
“Knowing the problem indeed is already the first step towards dealing with the problem. That’s why we need to think more in our life and that’s why we have this saloon to share our thoughts.” John continued to say, “As ordinary people we might not have any power to change the way the whole world operates. But we do have the freedom to help ourselves to counteract the negative effect of the abusive human nature.”
“We act under the influence of our mind, no matter conscious mind or unconscious mind. Therefore, we need to form a mental force within ourselves in order to deal with any issue including the issue of changing ourselves.” Linda said, “Now since we are aware of this abusive nature in human civilization, we could manage accordingly so that we would not simply be dragged along by the abusive force within us and around us.”
“That’s correct.” John added, “For example, before I knew this issue I thought that I could simply count on meditation to fix my stress problem. Now I realized that I could not win the battle against stress if I don’t use my energy in a smart way.”
“Congratulation, John.” Jack said, “I can see that you are moving up in your self-improvement again.”
“Well, that is only what I wish. At least I would make efforts to improve myself in that aspect.” John replied, “But I am not sure how good I could be in achieving that since it will largely depend on how I could handle the external influence from the social power upon my life, not just my own will of doing things.”
Door bell ringed. Linda went to answer the door and it was Jessica.
“Hi Jess, you are too late and missed some good part of the meeting,” said Linda.
“That’s too bad. I was stuck in the terrible traffic on the high way.” Jessica complained.
“Don’t worry, we will tell you what was discussed.” Jack said and handed over the chocolates, “Have some chocolates first. John brought them back from Europe.”
They briefed what was discussed to Jess.
When Jessica heard about the plateau issue she said, “I don’t have that problem.”
“Are you sure?” asked Linda.
“I think I got what I want from meditation practice.” Jess said, “As most of you know, I had that incessant humming issue and then I started to practice meditation to help me to get my mind more disciplined as John suggested. It worked quite well. Besides, I am healthier, and feeling more energetic and spiritually much stronger than ever before for the past a few years.”
“I think Jess made an excellent point. In some sense, the so called plateau phenomenon is quite a subjective thing.” Ralph made a comment and then asked John, “What do you think?”
“Well, I would say it is both a subjective issue and an objective issue.” John explained, “Obviously the abusive cause behind the plateau phenomenon as we just discussed is almost as objective as the thermodynamics second law. But on the hand, as Jess just described, if you don’t expect much you would not feel disappointed. Since you are content with your current status then you won’t sense any plateau issue.”
“I think this comes back to the issue of living a simple life again,” said Jack.
“Yes, simple and content life could solve lot problems.” John said, “But since we are socially connected and dependent creature, whether we could live a simple and content life is not always determined by ourselves.”
“I 100% agree with you, John.” Linda said. “I like to say something about that plateau,” said Jack.
“Please,” said John.
“Even though we know that there is a limit to our human improvement, we don’t really know where the limit exactly is. We might encounter a lot of plateaus in life, but it does not mean we could not overcome any of them. I have heard so many stories that people overcome some plateaus in life.” Jack said.
He picked up a Sharpie and drew picture on the white board alongside the ones John and Linda just drew.
“Instead of having one single plateau like John just drew, in fact, we should have a series of gradually ascending plateaus like this.” He continued to explain, “We might finally face to the ultimate limit of human beings, but before coming across that final limit we cannot say that any plateau is the final point.”
Everyone in the room agreed with Jack.
The saloon meeting lasted for another few hours until midnight. When the guests left John’s house, they all felt that they were already on top of a new plateau.