Careful what you feel

A recent report from Yale looked into the influence of your haptic environment on decision making.

‘Haptic’ for the uninitiated means the tactile sensation. Things are judged rough/smooth, heavy/light, hard/soft etc. through your haptic sense.

In one test passers by were asked to judge a job application, presented in a heavy or light clipboard. The people who were given the heavy clipboard viewed the job candidate as more serious and capable, where the lighter clipboarders were seen to be more likely to get along with people.

The aim is not to improve your chances of scoring a good job (though a heavy CV  might be helpful) but to see how much what you feel influences how you perceive.

According to Buddhism, the mind is only consciously aware of one thing at a time. What you put your attention on therefore, contains something of the aggregate of your field of perception.

Lets make this statement a little more accessible.

Advertisers know that when they show you a car, putting a pretty woman beside it makes the car more attractive. You might be judging the car itself, but the pretty girl is weighing in on your impression while you look at it.

So while the conscious mind picks out one thing to focus on, the unconscious is busy factoring your environment into the equation. You literally cannot believe what you think.

The reason this is of interest to a meditator is that Dukkha, suffering, only arises with attention. If your thumb hurts, it only hurts while you are paying attention to it. Otherwise, it is not hurting (or you may argue that it is hurting, but you are not aware of it – which amounts to the same thing). So the conscious mind is where suffering arises and ceases.

But what happens when your attention is not put on anything?

This is the practice of real mindfulness. Sometimes it is called ‘awareness of awareness’ – you feel the mind as it condenses around an object of attention, and ‘bring it back’. You do not let your mind get absorbed in an object from any of the senses. The conscious mind is maintained, without being conscious of anything in particular.

Anyway, the curious part of this research is that even though you are not aware of all your sensory input, it still has a light influence.

In one of the studies participants were asked to judge the worthiness of a prospective employee. Their judgement of whether the candidate would be more stable or not, depended to a large degree on whether the participant was sitting in a hard or a soft chair.

Keeping this in mind, perhaps we have an explanation for why some Christian monks wear itchy robes. It makes their view of the world around them less enticing, and therefore less of a distraction. The most severe was the horse or goat hair shirt, that was sweaty in the summer and cold in the winter. It was a favoured garment of the religious in the 12th century, especially when held in place with a solid iron belt.

One more reason to be a Buddhist 🙂

A garment of rough cloth made from goats’ hair and worn in the form of a shirt or as a girdle around the loins, by way of mortification and penance. The Latin name is said to be derived from Cilicia, where this cloth was made, but the thing itself was probably known and used long before this name was given to it. The sackcloth, for instance, so often mentioned in Holy Scripture as a symbol of mourning and penance, was probably the same thing; and the garment of camels’ hair worn by St. John the Baptist was no doubt somewhat similar. The earliest Scriptural use of the word in its Latin form occurs in the Vulgate version of Psalm 34:13, “Ego autem, cum mihi molesti essent, induebar cilicio.” This is translated hair-cloth in the Douay Bible, and sackcloth in the Anglican Authorized Version and the Book of Common Prayer.

During the early ages of Christianity the use of hair-cloth, as a means of bodily mortification and as an aid to the wearer in resisting temptations of the flesh, became very common, not only amongst the ascetics and those who aspired to the life of perfection, but even amongst ordinary lay people in the world, who made it serve as an unostentatious antidote for the outward luxury and comfort of their lives. St. Jerome, for instance, mentions the hairshirt as being frequently worn under the rich and splendid robes of men in high worldly positions. St. Athanasius, St. John Damascene, Theodoret, and many others also bear testimony to its use in their times. Cassian, however, disapproved of it being used by monks, as if worn outside it was too conspicuous and savoured of vanity and if underneath it hindered the freedom of the body in performing manual labour. St. Benedict does not mention it specifically in his rule, but van Haeften maintains that it was worn by many of the early Benedictines, though not prescribed universally throughout the order.

Later on, it was adopted by most of the religious orders of the Middle Ages, in imitation of the early ascetics, and in order to increase the discomfort caused by its use it was sometimes even made of fine wire. It was not confined to the monks, but continued to be fairly common amongst lay people also. Charlemagne, for instance, was buried in the hairshirt he had worn during life (Martene, “De Ant. Eccl. Rit.”). The same is recorded of St. Thomas of Canterbury. There was also a symbolic use made of hair-cloth. St. Augustine says that in his time candidates for baptism stood with bare feet on hair-cloth during a portion the ceremony (De Symb. ad Catech., ii, 1). Penitents wore it on Ash Wednesday, and in the Sarum Rite a hair-cloth banner was carried in procession at their reconciliation on Maundy Thursday. The altar, too, was sometimes covered with the same material at penitential seasons.

3 replies on “Careful what you feel”

  1. I Thailand it doesn’t make much difference regarding the bare shoulder, but in Europe and US the monks wear shirts underneath that cover both shoulders.
    More of a point is wearing a coat in cold climates – the monks almost never wear a coat, though you can layer up underneath, it can still get cold.

  2. Sorry for being impertinent, but I am curious about Buddhist monk’s robe which covers only one shoulder. When it’s hot, does the covered arm become stuffy? When it’s cold, the uncovered arm should be freezing? So in a way, does it function similarly with hair-cloth, i.e, penitence, except that it’s focused on only one part of the body?
    If this question is too inappropriate, just forget I asked 🙂

  3. This is the practice of real mindfulness. Sometimes it is called ‘awareness of awareness’ – you feel the mind as it condenses around an object of attention, and ‘bring it back’. You do not let your mind get absorbed in an object from any of the senses. The conscious mind is maintained, without being conscious of anything in particular.

    The above statement is intriguing…if there is no consciousness of anything, are there any thoughts? And what of sensations…are there not any sensations? When u say “you feel the mind…and ‘bring it back’, is this not consciously being done…by the “you”? Or is it all just being witnessed by awareness? If so, then what’s the difference between ‘awareness of awareness’ & just letting whatever happens happen??

    Pardon my hopefully not too inappropriate questions!

    Thanks for the article …& your response!!

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