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Neurology and meditation

If you have a scientific inclination, then these guys seem to be doing a good job of explaining the neuroscience behind meditation. Although it seems to me that neurology is still quite a basic medical science, but they seem to know that too.

You might also be interested in Richard Davidson who put some monks into an MRI machine and derived some interesting results. He's also affiliated with the Center for investigating healthy minds.

Here is my take on things:

What is meditation?

Put simply, meditation is training the mind to see experience as it really is. It is a fundamental looking into ourselves.

In practical terms, there are numerous meditation techniques but there are essentially two main methods of meditation - mindfulness ( leading to vipassana) and samadhi (concentration). Mindfulness is cultivating awareness and samadhi is cultivating tranquility, although you can't really do one without the other. The goal of each technique is to generate a steadiness of mind from which phenomena can be observed. Mindfulness leads to momentary concentration, while samadhi leads to access and then absorption concentration. In both cases the mind becomes calm, steady and focused - this altered mind state is a primary source of interest because our everyday mind is now longer running the show.At this point, we can now be said to be meditating rather than attempting to meditate.

Understanding meditation

Meditation techniques were developed over 2000 years ago when there was no science as we would know it today. However, ancient meditators discovered that meditation led to many different insights - namely that it is possible to transcend the limited self view, that it is possible to be free, and that the mind can be released. Neuroscience, then, is attempting to describe these different insights in the modern scientfic way - this chemical leads to this mental state, these brainwaves lead to this state of consciousness.

Answering the big question

The big question is "who am I?" Neurology wants to know scientifically and we want to know because that's the way we are. Experienced meditators know that there is no real answer because it is a loaded question. This is why we get answers like "I am thus" from ancient times. Perhaps the real question is "how do we work?" and hopefully neuroscience will help explain this so we can derive social and health benefits from it in the future. Perhaps we will learn to transcend some of our more primitive impulses.

Trends in neuroscience

There's a lot of interest in the impact of meditative techniques on the mind. Studies have shown that the brain can be altered by using meditation for as little as two weeks. This ability for the brain to be altered by experience is known as neuroplasticity. There's also interest in how the mind influences the health of the body - do people who meditate heal more quickly? Does the way we think influence our genes? - epigenetics might come up with some answers to this. There's certainly a lot of exciting things to look forward to as mainstream science uncovers more and more benefits from the wonder of meditation.


Lightfoot said…
I have received a copy of Buddha's brain by Rick Hanson and this is an excellent look at Buddhism and the the functioning of the brain. I highly recommend this.
Lightfoot said…
Another, more detailed book, is Zen and the brain by James Austin. This has some very detailed medical discussions of different mental states and also has more accessible personal experiences. It's from the Zen traditional so it relates to Zen experiences rather than Vipassana ones.

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1. Put a splash of oil in a saucepan or casserole dish.
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A standard view of the Jhana states (what happens when we meditate)

Here is a diagram of the Jhana states as they are generally explained. The first row consists of the Jhanic factors (I have compressed the first two, applied and sustained thought, into one called "Settled mind" to make the diagram more consistent). The second row are the first four Jhanas, and the bottom row are the formless states of mind. (If you click the image, it gets bigger).

So then, how do we use this kind of information as we meditate. Well, I spent many years wondering about various experiences that occurred during meditation and only when I discovered this information was I able to get a sense of the whole map. This was helpful.

Generally, I like to use these states not as a list of achievable things but as a conceptual map of what is possible with the mind. As you meditate, it can be useful to incline the mind towards contentment and wide open space rather than simply counting 10 breaths. Even though the depth of the actualized Jhana states is tremendously profo…

A nice exercise in whole body awareness

It all starts with the body. Your body is your greatest asset.

Take a seat somewhere. Go inside your body and take a relaxing breath. Become aware of your body. Start at the feet and then expand from there. Sense your awareness of the body growing - become aware of the feet and legs; then feet, legs and torso; then feet, legs, torso, arms and hands. Have a sense of energy growing through the body.

Finally, as you breathe, hold your entire body in awareness - feet, legs, torso, arms, hands and head. Feel into a sense of openness and clarity. Notice any blockages in the flow of openness. Then enjoy three or more clear breaths. Nothing outside the present moment, you and your body.

During the day: try it standing up, or in everyday situations. Notice what undermines your attempts to do the practice.

Quick fix: attempt one full body breath before you begin your next task. Do it as often as you can.

How do I fix myself with mindfulness

This appears to be a common pattern. We do our mindfulness course expecting to be transformed, we feel a bit better on the course, a week after the course we find that nothing has changed. There's also the case of people who have been doing meditation for ages and yet they still feel as depressed and angry as they did when they started.

So then, what is going on?

The mind is a tricky beast. It is used to taking action and seeing immediate results. Mindfulness is more subtle than this. It is about seeing the relationship between body, feelings, mind and thoughts and how they come and go. There is no explicit result to be found, just an on going relationship with the thing that is us. However, the longer we observe ourselves the more likely we are to see wisdom arising. That is to say, we begin to see what is beneficial and what is harmful to us. We begin to take responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness - we are no longer simply victims of circumstance. We know what we nee…

Bare attention and clear comprehension

Here are two key cconcepts that you might like to immerse yourself in once you've been meditating for a while. It's a way of breaking down mindfulness a little bit and is onward leading.

Firstly, we might ask ourselves: what is mindfulness?

There are lots of mindfulness experts out there nowadays who could help with this but generally speaking it is: paying attention to something without effort. You could call this bare attention or choiceless awareness or open awareness. We hear a sound, a sound is heard - it takes no effort. It arises and passes away.

Bare attention is a skill that requires practice. The more we practice, the easier it becomes to stay with bare attention. If we do lots of body scans the mind will relax and this will happen naturally: we fall into a state of: in one ear and out of the other.

So, let's say we have been sitting in a state of bare attention for 10 minutes or so - it's pretty cool, relaxing, and we're grooving along quite nicely in …

What is mindfulness?

I like to have a crack at this every now and again because my appreciation of it seems to change as the years go by. This time I'll do it through a series of questions.

How do I know I'm being mindful?
The simplest way to do this is to label your experience as it happens. Keep it casual. Pay attention to what is going on and give it a label - sitting, seeing, thinking, feet, pressure, breathing. If you are able to label what is happening then you know what is happening. This knowing is mindfulness.
Is that it?
That's the beginning. Once you know what is going on you can begin to explore experience and what your mind is doing. This gives you some space around experience and this gap is where the freedom happens. This space separates out the details of your life from what you really are.
Why does it come and go?
The mind is a complex instrument that is rapidly switching between different modes of operation (for want of a better phrase). Mindfulness is not a mission critical thi…