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In the Wheel of Time series, several characters - especially the protagonist, Rand al'Thor - use a technique they call "the Flame and the Void" in order to improve their concentration. It's used by archers to perfect their aim, by male channellers to find saidin, and it's also a way of ignoring emotions: pouring them into the "flame" while you yourself float without sensation in the "void".

“Remember the flame, lad, and the void.” It was an odd thing Tam had taught him. Concentrate on a single flame and feed all your passions into it—fear, hate, anger—until your mind became empty. Become one with the void, Tam said, and you could do anything.

-- Book 1, The Eye of the World

Does this meditation technique actually work, or is it just something Jordan made up?

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    Related, not dupe (about what the Void actually is in the WoT books). – Rand al'Thor Dec 13 '17 at 18:17
  • Related, not dupe (about possible inspirations for this technique). – Rand al'Thor Dec 13 '17 at 18:18
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    "Does it work?", and "Is it just something Jordan made up?" are not mutually exclusive. (I'm personally much more interested in the later) – Lyndon White Dec 14 '17 at 1:03
  • As also mentioned on one of your links, I remember reading in prehistoric times (on rasfwrj...) that Jordan took inspiration from, shall we say, Taoism – AakashM Dec 14 '17 at 14:25
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Yes!

The Flame and the Void has been tried and tested in real life by someone experimenting with different meditation techniques. Here's his description of how to do it and how successful it was (emphasis mine in all the quotes below):

How it’s done:

  1. Imagine a flame.
  2. Feed every thought, emotion, & feeling that comes to you into this flame.
  3. It may help to take a visual representation of the thing and feed that into the flame.
  4. When everything is gone, let the flame go and surround yourself in the Void of emotion and thought that is left.
  5. Go back to step 2 if the void disappears.
  6. 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.

He describes it as being easier than the other types of meditation he tried, which would make it well-suited for teaching to soldiers or Soldiers who would be too busy learning to fight or channel to bother spending much time on complicated meditation techniques. He also mentions that the Flame and the Void left him feeling emotionally harder and more focused rather than relaxed. This matches the effect it's described to have on Rand in the WoT books, and is again well-suited for use in battle.

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.

[...]

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.

The results discovered by this 'reviewer' of meditation are again consistent with the description of Rand's experience of using the Flame and the Void:

  • 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.

Summary: the Flame and the Void does work as described, and it is a very effective meditation technique for achieving emotional coldness, clearing the mind, and distancing oneself from pain and sensations of all kinds.

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    I guess what some people might be wondering isn’t whether it works, but whether Robert Jordan invented it. It could be an effective meditation technique without ever having existed before the Wheel of Time books. – Adamant Dec 13 '17 at 18:27
  • @Adamant There's an older question about possible inspirations for tFatV - apparently it's similar to a few real-world techniques from Asia. But I'm more interested in its effectiveness than its origins. – Rand al'Thor Dec 13 '17 at 18:29
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    You can go much longer in an ice bath than 3 minutes without harm. Athletes do it all the time, and I did it upwards of 20 minutes at a stretch for achilles rehab. – JohnP Dec 13 '17 at 19:08
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    @Randal'Thor Whether a meditation technique is effective seems like it's off topic for a Science Fiction SE... How it relates to real world attempts at meditation makes sense, since this is related to the writing process and may influence how we understand the story. Whether it or the techniques upon which it is based really work would be like asking whether prayer works or not because it happens to appear in a story about demons or something. And I don't believe such discussions belong here. – jpmc26 Dec 14 '17 at 0:05
  • Would be interested to see if the 'focused, not more relaxed' effect occurs in double blind experiments, where no-one involved has read the books or has any preconceptions as to what the meditation should do. – Scott Dec 14 '17 at 3:44
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Yes, it should actually work... at least for some people.

Meditation in the real world is basically the practice of training yourself to achieve certain desired mental states. Since each mind has its own quirks no single imagery will work for all minds.

The basic technique behind the Flame and the Void is one that has been used for a long time. I learned it in the 80's and used variants of it for years, varying the imagery to achieve the specific effect I was after. Mostly I would feed bad feelings and negative thoughts to flames. If I was just after peace I'd use an image of a night sky or a deep pool... but the technique itself was basically the same:

  1. Imagine a scene with something that you can put your thoughts/emotions/pain/whatever into.
  2. Keep putting the things in the other thing until you run out of things.
  3. Enjoy the lack of things.

OK that's a bit simplified, but it covers the basics.

In general this is the sort of initial clearing-the-mind style of exercise that you hear so much about. Although clearing your mind is mostly impossible you can reduce the noise somewhat. Or, technically speaking, you can train yourself to a specific pattern of mental activity where extraneous thoughts, emotions and so on are suppressed to some degree.

In the context of Jordan's work the Flame and the Void is a technique for clearing extraneous thoughts etc. from your mind so that you can devote more attention and focus to a particular activity. This is based on a real effect that you can potentially gain from meditation. While in the real world you can't do magical things via meditation (regardless of the claims of the new-age woo crowd) what you can do is focus more on what you are naturally able to do. It won't make you capable of super-human feats of skill or anything like that, it just helps you to focus more on what you can do.

In SF&F literature meditation often goes a little further, giving you access to abilities that you normally can't touch. Meditate this way and you'll be able to control the functioning of your internal organs. Do it like this and you can bypass the sensory filters and see/hear/feel things that you normally can't. Choose this method of meditation and you can unlock racial memory or telepathy or... you get the idea.

  • Not limited to SF&F, look into the Wim Hoff method. It allows one to influence their sympathetic nervous system and regulate things like body temperature. – NaturesCreed Dec 20 '17 at 17:07
  • @NaturesCreed I was thinking more about stories where mediation lets you exercise absolute control your endocrine system, control antibody production, etc. Real mind over matter stuff. Yes you can affect certain things about the body with appropriate brain states, but some things run off their own chemical processes without interference by the brain. – Corey Dec 20 '17 at 23:32

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