A Cumbersome Blog Entry Assembled Slowly Over the Last Few Months in an Effort to Gain a Greater Understanding of Mindfulness Meditation.)
Contrary to the popular myth that we only use a certain percentage of our brain, all areas of that mass in our skull are active. This is not the same as saying we actualize its full potential, though there are ways we can buff the sucker up. As the intelligent and captivating Kelly McGonigal has explained throughout her books and lectures, the mind is much like a muscle, and as in physical training, it grows stronger through exercise. Such brain-training comes in the form of concentration meditation, where we build mental muscle through sets of repetitive actions, or reps — the psychological and neurological analogue to a bicep curl.
Each meditative rep seems to consist of four mental motions: selective attention on a target, distraction in the form of psychological absorption, impartial witnessing through objectification of the distraction and equanimous orientation back to the target. More specifically, you train your mind to selectively fix attention on a single “object” of meditation and hold it there for as long as you can. When you are inevitably distracted by sensations or mentations and fall prey to psychological absorption, your next voluntary motion rests on the eventuality of you catching yourself red-handed and responding by means of shifting to a state of observation without attachment, or “witnessing,” which can be achieved by means of objectifying the distraction and then reorienting your attention back to the target object.
Attention is by its very nature pleasant, as Sam Harris has said. In his defense, a study on mental wellbeing (Killingsworth, 2011) suggests that even if you do not enjoy whatever it is you are doing if you remain attentive, you are happier. In concentration meditation, the literal object of meditation can be nearly anything. It can be a sound, as in chanting a mantra, a verse, an affirmation, a question. It can be an image, such as a sigil, a candle (as in the practice of Trataka), a person (like Haylee), a mandala or perhaps a Hindu yantra. These can be visualizations held in the mind’s eye or may involve staring at an external object or image; it may be the inner voice that repeats the mantra or it may be chanted aloud. It can be part of the body, such as the third eye area or the abdomen.
It can also be an active target, such as observing the flow of thoughts, sensations or feeling tones, or a choreography of movement as found in walking meditation or yoga. Much as hypnotist might first direct you to fix your attention on her finger or a swinging watch before redirecting that focus to her voice, one may first train attention on one object and then move to another, or even a whole prescribed sequence of meditative objects. In vipassana meditation, for instance, it extends across the spectrum of thoughts, emotions, memories, sensations and behaviors. As in death meditation, metta (loving-kindness) meditation, or introspection on things such as birth, death and “shunyata” or emptiness in the Buddhist tradition, you go through a prescribed process in order to cultivate a certain understanding through introspection.
Concentration meditation in its most generalized form (again, in Buddhist tradition) is known as Samatha meditation. The object of attention is typically the breath, in which case it is specifically known as Anapanasati. It seemed to me that Anapanasati meditation was a logical place to begin, so that is what I decided to practice every evening.
Once I start the 30-minute timer on my iPhone, I rest my hands on my legs, sit up as straight as I can, close my eyes and fix attention on the skin around my nostrils. Beginning with a deep inhale and exhale, I then let go to the involuntary process. The key is to maintain focus on the rhythmic sensations of breath — cool going in, warm going out — without exerting deliberate control of the breathing. The first short period of time I tried out this meditation, I adopted the use of counting from one to ten and starting back with one, each number either denoting the in-breath, the out-breath or both. I stopped doing this when I picked up meditation again for a daily practice, preferring to focus exclusively on the sensations. No thought — kind of. So far as I have come to understand it, it is perfectly acceptable to see or hear things in the periphery of your mind while focusing — this does not mean you broke attention, in other words. You simply do not react to these thoughts, emotions or sensations, look directly at them or get carried away by them; instead, you keep them in the background.
One analogy frequently used to describe the experience is leaning back and watching as the clouds pass over the sky, spontaneously arising and growing, coming and going. Alternatively, it can be illustrated by sitting at one side of a river and staring at a tree on the other side, all the while ignoring the passing leaves, twigs, ducks and canoes carried by the current. I have also heard it described it as being akin to walking by a television set on your way to another room to do something important. You don’t sit down before the TV and become absorbed in the program, you don’t allow yourself to become captivated by the sounds and alluring pictures dancing on the screen, but neither do you actively ignore it. You only notice that it is there, that it is on; you only acknowledge it in your peripheral vision as you stroll on by and do not involve yourself with it.
Holding attention on a single object may sound simple enough of an instruction, but in actual practice any focus fails to hold for very long. The rare achievement is typically ruined by one’s reactionary verbal and emotional acknowledgement of the achievement. However it happens, you will become distracted. Nearly every how-to you read or watch will insist it is perfectly natural — and inevitable.
When we are distracted by a rogue thought, emotion, sensation, daydream or memory, we fall into what is known as psychological absorption. Joseph Campbell wrote on how children at play can become so involved in their “as if” fantasies that they become “seized” by them. The deeper the trance, the greater the reduction in our peripheral awareness. Studies suggest that the fantasies with the highest psychological absorbency are structured narratives with a beginning, middle and end. This is easiest to see when reading a book or watching a movie, but it also functions in dreams as much as in daily life, as in the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves as well as the emotions and sensations we experience in association. It seems that this is what is meant when Buddhism describes our typical mode of “waking” consciousness to be akin to a dream state. In any case, while seized or absorbed we forget that an outside exists at all. We are suffering from temporary amnesia regarding anything but that which is happening within the context of the story. In the meantime, sensations are confused with the sensed, interpretations for reality, emotions for unalterable and objective qualities. In other words, the reaction to fantasy as if it were real; indeed, to them it is indistinguishable from reality.
Once absorbed, we are ensnared in a dualistic mind. We are caught between the dual forces that have been called craving and aversion, desire and hatred, association and dissociation, actualization and repression, expression or suppression, engagement or rejection, inhibiting or inhabiting, self or other, subject and object. Take your pick; it’s all pretty much the same. Each are responses arising from absorption, which we might also call the initial false assumption, the ignorance, the blind faith that these sensations or cognitions are both accurate and relevant to us. Before we identify with skin, after all, an itch has no relevance; before we identify with hunger, ordering a pizza seems unnecessary. Before identifying with anger, we can clearly see that saying this or that is a bad idea.
With respect to desire, it is the desire to be (the ego) and the desire to have (possessions), and there are predictable outcomes. We want and don’t get. Or, which is perhaps worse, we get and it either fails to satisfy us at all or fails to satisfy us for long — and then we want more.
When it comes to aversion, this is the drive not to be (the shadow) and not to have. The issue here is that “what you resist, persists.” Rumination is one manifestation of this. It is not the initial unpleasant sensations, thoughts or emotions that are a problem so much as the habit of rumination, of playing the memories of the initial experience over and over in our mind. In addition, the goal to not think, feel, sense, imagine or remember something requires constant reminder of the target you are trying to avoid. It is much like in movies where one character is high up on some mountain or skyscraper, one wrong move away from certain death, and his friend from inside the building or some other zone of safely only offers, “Don’t look down.”
Aversion also has a sort of elasticity. There are sensations we experience and thoughts, emotions, flashbacks and fantasies that spontaneously emerge in the mind which we find frightening, disgusting, embarrassing or immoral. Our reaction is typically to “push” these away, often violently, with dissociation. In my own experience, this “shadow-boxing” is often accompanied by a physical movement, such as shaking the head, and sometimes saying something, perhaps meaningful but often apparently irrelevant, as if to “talk over” the spontaneous mental content or use it as an opposing force to hold myself against as I push the aversive thought away. This reaction gives me but a temporary reprieve, however. Time and time again, this has proven to be not merely ineffective, but counterproductive due to the elastic nature of aversion. When it inevitably snaps back it appears to bear the qualities of the ironic process, the “white bear” effect — where resistance produces an amplified rebound.
This was first revealed through a study headed by Daniel Wegner, PhD, professor of psychology at Harvard. He had two groups, both of whom had a shared task: they were to say aloud whatever it was that came to mind in Beatnick, stream-of-consciousness style. As the first group did this, they were instructed to try and think about a white bear. As the second group did this, they were first instructed to do the opposite — to try and not think about a white bear — and then, later, were told to now try and think about a white bear. The second group thought of a white bear more often than the first, suggesting that aversion to the thought led to an amplified rebound. It was like you were attached to the thought by elastic, and the more you pushed it away, the greater the distance and the longer you maintained it, the more intensely it would snap back at you. Our insipid response to this ineffectiveness is to up the ante. “If it doesn’t work, do it more often, do it harder,” is the philosophy. The harder it snaps back, the more aggressively we push, the more energy we invest in keeping it away, and the more violently it snaps back.
We create release valves to lesson their pressure, letting them out in a “concealing yet revealing” fashions, as if they were the psychological equivalent to yoga pants. Specifically we interact with these denied parts indirectly through projection, where we assign these qualities to others, and express them in sublimated forms such as through psychosomatism, slips of tongue, dreams, fantasies and hallucinations. We dissociate cognitions and sensations we identify as not-self, so it may be true what Jung, Robert Bly and others maintain: these denied parts may arrange themselves into a sort of alter-ego, yin to the ego’s yang, Hulk to it’s David Banner, Jekyll to it’s Hyde. It is subliminal or unconscious, serving as the anti-ego, typically known as the shadow. It may not be singular, however — these parts may exist in isolation or perhaps even congregate, on the basis of similarity in theme, in various isolated clusters.
Craving or aversion both sound unproductive. Absorption, that fundamental ignorance, can lead to a shitstom of multifaceted pain. In meditation you are trying to be mindful, however, you are expecting an inevitable distraction and fall into absorption. Eventually you will realize that you have become a victim of your own imagination, and this brings you to the next step: objectifying the distraction. Witnessing it. Observing the distraction without attachment and with an attitude of equanimous curiosity. In so doing, you have detached or “decentered” from the distraction, you have stopped identifying with it, you have dissolved the unity between your sense of self and the thought and now perceive it as something apart from you. This gives you some distance, permitting you to see thoughts and feelings “objectively”, as mental events rather than facts, with skepticism rather than faith.
It also helps the mind become still. In his YouTube videos RSDTyler often references Eckhart Tolle, specifically the books “The Power of Now” and “The New Earth”, and has ties it in with Herbert Benson’s book, The Relaxation Response. Using one of Tolle’s analogies, he asks you to imagine that you are riding a bicycle and suddenly free your feet and stop pedalling.
This is much like witnessing a thought, sensation and so on. You are essentially cutting off their fuel. As a consequence the tires lose momentum, with the bicycle coasting until it is still, much like the mind becomes when we stop reacting to its content. Our problem as humans is that we keep pedaling away on our bicycle brains. When animals in the wild encounter a threat, such as a predator, they would instinctually react with a short burst of stress — the fight or flight response. This is useful as it gives them the energy and inclination to fight or run for their fucking lives. As soon as they do one or the other and, assuming they survive, are once again safe, they would are fine. No pedaling. Animals permit the emotions to pass through and out of their bodies, and so the stress loses momentum until settling into the usual state of relaxation.
For modern humans, threats have a broader interpretation: social acceptance, rent money, car problems. We become absorbed. We have to keep remembering in order to forget. And we ruminate. The wheels never slow down, much less stop. This, he explains, is the natural background noise of the civilized human, and meditation promotes this natural relaxation response.
What are the benefits of objectifying thoughts, sensations and so on? On his YouTube video regarding meditation, the Actualized.org guy describes how the more success you have in life, the more people will know you and the more criticism you will receive. RSDTyler expresses it by using the analogy of a tree: the higher a tree grows, the more developed the root system has to be to prevent it from falling over. Meditation helps develop that root system. Meditation, through training is to objectify in this way, gives us thicker skin, makes us less emotionally reactive. You are centered in yourself. You don’t soak in critique: similarly, praise rolls off of you like rain. We become more even-keeled as you know you can achieve contentment and inner peace on your own, regardless of the outcome. It makes you less reliant on immediate gratification, more confidence and stability because it is not the end of the world if you do not achieve your goal. You can see the bigger picture. It increases our tolerance of suffering in general.
Rick Hanson explains this as the product of increased awareness, and he articulates the reasons behind this in an interesting way. Imagine that you take spoonful of salt, stir it in a cup of water and drink it. It will, of course, taste horrible. The salt is our suffering, the water our awareness. If you stir the same amount of salt in a large jug, however, and drink it, you will perhaps not taste the salt at all.
Zen Buddhist Bodhin Kjolhede offers another metaphor, describing the typical state of mind as being akin to a shaken snow globe. Meditation trains you to put down the snow globe, letting the swirling, chaotic thoughts, emotions and sensations settle. Still others imagine it as walking through a lake, disturbing the water and kicking up all the sediment as you make your way. Alternatively, image that rather than walking through the lake the surface was riddled with raindrops and attacked by the wind — the result is essentially the same. Once we stand still in the river, once the storm has passed and the mind can settle, it not only offers perceptions of what resides below the surface of the water with crystalline clarity but also reflects the observing awareness at optimal capacity.
Once we have objectified the distraction we practice reorientation back to the breath from a stance of equanimity or self-compassion — if not, we lose objectivity and become absorbed again. In so doing we have completed a single rep in a 20-minute set. Chimes, the ringtone on my iPhone timer, signals the end of the meditation. Sometimes before sleep I listen to a “body scan” YouTube audio of what I think is essentially guided vipassana. Our attention is trained to direct itself at every part of the body one after another, focusing and taking note of the quality of the sensations in the spirit of curiosity.
Along with formal meditation practice there is the more informal practice known as the “STOP” meditation. Throughout the day, you take a moment here and there to Stop whatever it is you may be doing and “drop” or “check in”, as Kabat-Zinn has put it. You do this by taking a few deep, mindful breaths and observing yourself on conceptual, emotional and sensory levels as you do so, then proceed with your regularly scheduled programming. This serves to deliberately bring the mindfulness being cultivated in formal practice into the context of everyday life.
This ability to witness reportedly gives us access to an additional dimension of thought. If the mind is pictured again as a body of water, but in this case an ocean, then witnessing, as Zen Buddhist Bodhin Kjolhede explains, allows us to not just gaze at and through the surface but to plunge beneath the waves, to descend to and ascend from the depths at will. From beneath the waves we can better handle and see complex issues and life decisions or get unwound from our webs of words.
Options expand with this new dimension of mind made available by witnessing. We are typically absorbed in stimuli that elicits our instinctive and conditioned responses of craving and aversion. One with my inner glow, We are no longer a slave to instinctive and conditioned impulses. Rather than become absorbed and react with craving or aversion, we can elect to step out of the story and witness it all from a pleasant, calm state of equanimity. Slowly we can come to identify with the witness behind the mind, to ground ourselves there, to keep the locus of control internalized.
If I know I have equanimity as my baseline regardless of the outcome and that I am ultimately the one in control then I can actually enjoy the present. I can stop running from the past towards the future and just be alive in the here and now.
In addition to the psychological effects of mindfulness meditation, there are, according to Andrew Newberg in the documentary, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, three main changes that occur in the brain in response to meditation. To begin with, there is increased activity in frontal lobes behind forehead during attention. The more activity increases in frontal lobe, the more it decreases in the parietal lobe in the back-top part of brain.
Third, activity increases in the thalamus. As explained by Catherine Kerr, the thalamus rests right below the cortex, serving as our subliminal, somatosensory editing mechanism. The recurrent feedback loop provided by its connections to the cortex create an oscillating “alpha rhythm” that pulses at a rate of ten times per second and varies in accordance with attention. It is this that allows us to carry on a conversation with someone across the table from us in a busy restaurant populated by animated, chattering customers played to the soundtrack of clinking dishes and whirring machine sounds.
Though operating largely on autopilot by default, through mindfulness exercises we can gain control of this editing mechanism. When we learn to pay attention to the body, we are provided with the most immediate and natural forms of feedback not only of the body, but of the mind that it reflects. Though our conscious eye may be largely blind to it, it would appear that the body is not only a source of feedback on the external world, but on the internal one as well. Thoughts and emotions are expressed nonverbally through body language and physiological symptoms. It is your immediate and naturally evolved source of neurofeedback.
Just imagine shaving yourself or applying make-up without the feedback provided by a mirror. Imagine you are suddenly deaf and are expected to tune your guitar, or have gone entirely blind and left to drive you car.
Clear and reliable feedback is imperative for proper adjustment.
We can then adjust our bodies in accordance with that feedback, essentially having in the grips of our attentive awareness the volume controls for our body and mind. Just as you can adjust the position of your body and the quality of its senses, you can adjust the state of your mind and the quality of its contents.
Physical effects on the brain also take place through neuroplasticity, which appears to make the notion of “building mental muscle” even less of a metaphor. As revealed through studies utilizing fMRI and experienced meditators, the prefrontal cortex thickens, the amygdala shrinks, and the connections between the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain — such as the insula, amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex — are drastically altered. To what degree these mental talents are developed and the corresponding brain changes are evident all appear to depend on the hours invested in meditation practice. It doesn’t take too long to see an effect, however; structural brain changes have been evident in the fMRI after a 8-week training course on mindfulness. After the mark of 40 thousand hours of practice (around 1,666 days), the size of the prefrontal cortex decreases, its activity diminishes and baseline brain functions resemble the brain functions of ordinary individuals while in a state of meditation, which is to say that mindfulness has now become the default.
This seems to resonate quite nicely with the Buddhist analogy of the raft. In order to cross a violent river you may need to fashion a raft, but upon getting to the other side, you no longer need it. No use dragging it around with you. It was a system of tools, technically a technology, and it served its purpose. Leave it behind you. Move onward and upward.
Meditation, then, is the raft we need to achieve mindfulness.
– “Mindfulness Starts With the Body: A View From the Brain,” ( TEDx College Hill lecture).
– Learning Self Compassion: An Interview with Kristin Neff
– “Staying in the Now: Mental Health Through Mindfulness,” Dr. Stuart Eisendrath (University of California Television).
– Meditation: Change Your Mind, Change Your Life: Bodhin Kjolhede at TEDxFlourCity
– Professor Mark Williams (Science Oxford Live, March 2012).
– Introduction to Mindful Awareness, Diana Winston (UCLA Health System).
– “What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain?” Tom Ireland, Scientific American, June 12, 2014.
– Attention, Mindfulness and Brain Systems, Philippa Goldin, PhD, Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience, Stanford University.
– Vipassana Meditation and Body Sensation: Eilona Ariel at TEDxJaffa 2013
“Doing Time, Doing Vipassana.”:
– The Dhamma Brothers, Jenny Phillips
– “Introduction to Mindful Awareness,” Diana Winston – UCLA Health System (YouTube).
– “Meditation — A Beginner’s Practical Guide”, RSDTyler (YouTube).
– “Attention, Mindfulness and Brain Systems”, Philippa Goldin, PhD, Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience, Stanford University.