This is part of The Daily Meditation Experiment, where I am practicing one school of meditation per week(ish) to understand the overall structure & effects of each.
Meditation Method: The Flame & The Void (Mushin Meditation)
The nerdiest of all meditation styles I’m trying in this experiment, The Flame & The Void comes from The Wheel of Time fantasy novel series by Robert Jordan. It is very alike to Mushin Meditation practiced by martial artists (a state of flow where the body moves on instinct and training instead of thought and planning), and to Mindfulness Meditatation.
Characters who use The Flame & The Void in the books experience a complete focus on the present moment & what they are doing in it, while being completely detached from anything else (including physical pain, fear, etc). One mark of this is to be able to be aware of physical pain and yet detached from it as if it were “happening to someone else”.
“I imagine a flame, and then I push everything into it. Hate, fear, nervousness. Everything. When they’re all consumed, there’s an emptiness, a void, inside my head. I am in the middle of it, but I’m a part of whatever I am concentrating on, too.” – Rand Al’Thor, The Dragon Reborn
How it’s done:
- Imagine a flame.
- Feed every thought, emotion, & feeling that comes to you into this flame.
- It may help to take a visual representation of the thing and feed that into the flame.
- When everything is gone, let the flame go and surround yourself in the Void of emotion and thought that is left.
- Go back to step 2 if the void disappears.
- Take the actions you need/want to take, unaffected by thoughts or emotions.
I practiced The Flame & The Void in many different scenarios, some extremely uncomfortable or even painful:
With my hand in ice-cold water, on a bumpy and uncomfortable bus, in bed going to sleep. I would also do miniature meditations when I needed to deal with something like emotional turmoil, boredom, or getting my eyebrows plucked (I’ve got a unibrow by default. Gotta keep that thing tamed).
Ice water was the most painful, and therefore most indicative of success in trying to distance myself from physical pain. I was able to hold my hand in ice water for 3 full minutes, the maximum I’m sure I can go without causing myself harm (chosen by following in the footsteps of Mythbusters in their Pain Tolerance experiment).
Most people can’t do this, and I know I would have given up in the first minute if not for this meditation.
Throughout the three minutes, I had a few solid moments where I was completely successful in not caring about the pain, and a few where it hurt intensely and the only way I was able to keep my hand in the water was to just continually feed that pain into the flame as fast as it was hitting me.
I practiced The Flame & The Void meditation from July 20th to August 2nd. In those 13 days, I achieved a full meditated session for 9 days. Not excellent, but not bad.
The Flame & The Void is my favorite meditation so far. It holds all the benefits of mindfulness meditation and has the additional benefit of being way easier to dive into from day one.
Focusing on the steps of this meditation (feeding thoughts & emotions into a flame, and then maintaining a shield-like void around one’s self) is much easier than focusing only my breath, making it a more immediately effective method of eliminating everything from my mind.
However, it’s not as relaxing as other meditation methods. Instead of being calming it is more hardening. I don’t feel relaxed during or after meditating; I feel focused. I feel the strain of maintaining the void.
I did experience the same problem as in every other meditation method: having thoughts insidiously bubble up from ‘inside’ my mind. However, with the void, I created an interesting solution: By imagining the Void where my mind is, thougths are able to bubble up from my mind and emerge inside the Void. However, if I move the Void to above and in front of me, it is no longer connected to the rest of my body and is less susceptable to these thoughts. This is definitely a placebo effect…but it works.
A few things to note:
- The Flame & The Void doesn’t solve emotional issues. It just helps you ignore them. Sometimes this is exactly what they need, as emotion can often move faster than thought and will usually do more harm than good when negative. However, if the cause of the negative emotion is serious, I would recommend dealing with it, not using this meditation to continually operate despite it.
- A few people raised concerns of me harming myself while distancing myself from physical pain. There is definitely a risk, especially to those adept at assuming the void, that you will ignore pain and so allow yourself to be damaged where one would usually withdraw from the pain and so avoid damage. This quote from a reddit conversation about the Void illustraties my thoughts on it: “If I have a cut on my leg then it is the cut which threatens my survival not the pain, the pain is only a message.” – /u/thai_tong. There are times where you will want to take an action despite physical pain. This meditation will help with that. But, of course, you should go about finding a way to solve the problem that is causing you pain as soon as you can. But going about solving your problem doesn’t always immediately remove the pain. For example, a close friend of mine recently had a kidney stone. It was so painful that she was given intravenious morphine on multiple occassions. However, that pain was not useful to her. What if she could have used The Flame & The Void to help endure the pain, or even completely distance herself from it?
- Drastically increased ability to tolerate discomfort, both physical & emotional.
- Ability to almost instinctually begin meditating whenever I find myself in an uncomfortable situation.
- Ability to have near complete focus on the moment & what I have devoted it to when I use The Flame & The Void while doing anything.
- Increased ability to clear my mind.
- Increased ability to stoically do what I have devoted a given time to, even if it is not enjoyable.
- I become more emotionally ‘cold’ when I am using The Flame & The Void.
In the novels, experts in The Flame & The Void are able to enter the Void immediately, without having to bother with the flame at all. This, it seems, is exactly what one would achieve with adeptness in mindfulness meditation. Except I think I could achieve this state much faster with The Flame & The Void.
This shares many similarities with mindfulness meditation, the main difference being that this is easier and mindfulness meditation is more calming. I can see myself practicing both styles in my life, using The Flame & The Void for work & sangfroid in-the-moment and mindfulness for training myself to be calm and focused overall.
I’ve gotta say, I really didn’t expect The Flame and The Void to be so impactful. I only tried it out because I’m reading The Wheel of Time novels and thought it would be interesting. Lo and behold, it’s the most effective and easy to learn meditation style yet.
As a beginner in meditation, I would recommend this to any other beginners as an ideal place to learn how to clear your mind and use meditation in day to day life.