Stillness Theory and the Commitment of Four Twenties

How much meditation is enough to debunk it?

That question came up at the Painless Poker Clinic, a fictional setting in my book Painless Poker, where a I teach a two-day seminar on, you guessed it, painless poker.

This post is two short excerpts from the book.

Victor slammed his hand down and pulled it back to reveal his bullshit chip. “I’ve about had it with the rope-a-dope. There. That’s my story, Tommy. So here’s your big chance to revise me or whatever. Show me right now how to put the brakes on my thinking.”

“I can’t. Not yet.”

“Why not?”

“Because these aren’t like automobile brakes where you push on a pedal and the car slows down. For slowing your mind, you have to not only be a driver, you have to be a mechanic. You have to know how the brake works, or else it won’t work.”

Victor frowned and took back his chip. I’d been standing a long time and my legs asked me to sit down. Keep going a little longer, I told my body. I erased the board. I felt my feet on the floor, and a mild aching in my knees. I noticed the worn cuff on my shirtsleeve while writing. I will promote this shirt to the camping wardrobe soon. And then these letters were on the board:


“I have a conjecture.” I straightened up for strength. “It’s about stillness, I mean intentional stillness. The conjecture is that every moment of intentionally increased stillness—be it physical stillness or mental stillness—is a moment of decreased unhappiness, and decreased tilt, which is kind of the same thing.”

“Not the most scientifically worded hypothesis,” Alfonzo said, “but I will refrain from flagging you if you can provide falsifying experimentation.”

“I can do that,” I said. “I can devise an experiment that would prove stillness theory wrong. First, do the stillness, and if you do not notice a reduction in your unhappiness, you will have disproven the conjecture that more stillness equals less unhappiness.”

“However,” Alfonzo said. “If the results are positive, that is, if I do notice a reduction in my unhappiness, this would indicate a correlation between stillness and unhappiness, but it would not establish proof of causation. Correct?”

“Correct. However!” I paused and grinned. “You’ll be happier. So there’s that.”

“What quantity of stillness is needed to have a viable sample size?” asked Charlie.

“A lot. I mean, it will seem like a lot. But that’s because you’re used to none. I’d like to put the How much stillness is enough? question on hold until we’ve looked more closely at its effects. Let’s start with—”

“A starving destitute,” said Mick from left field. “Do you really think that somebody whose life is totally fucked can just sit still and everything will be dandy?”

Now we hop to day two at the clinic, when disproving stillness theory comes up again.

“How much meditation is enough?” said Victor.

“And how much is too much?” said Sonny.

“Any amount is enough,” I said, “and no amount is too much.”

“A clever reply,” Alfonzo said, “but yesterday you did promise to specify a sample size sufficient to disprove the theory of stillness.”

“And that I can do,” I said. “Twenty twenty twenty twenty. That would do it.”

“Sounds like a lot,” said Sonny.

“Oh it is,” I said. “If you do 20 minutes sitting, 20 minutes stretching, and 20 minutes reading, for 20 consecutive days—and by sitting I mean sitting straight and attempting to count your breaths in groups of ten the whole time, and by stretching I mean mindful stretches interspersed with moments of stillness while attempting to count or follow your breathing the whole time, and by reading I mean reading about sitting and breathing and stretching—if you do all that, for 20 days straight, then in my opinion your data and conclusions will have statistical heft, and if you notice no reduction in unhappiness, then you will have disproved stillness theory.”

“I am not sufficiently informed to concur or rebut,” Alfonzo said. “But I do appreciate the specificity.”



2019 update: I have a new book out about meditation. It’s called DailynessHow to Sustain a Meditation Practice. You can get it in print, ebook, and audiobook at all the usual places.


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