Tuesday, April 30, 2013

scattered thoughts about mindfulness meditation

This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. —Yoda
I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.  —Blaise Pascal
SERENITY NOW! —Frank Costanza
I recently began a habit of private mindfulness/insight meditation...solely for the reported benefits to psychological well-being. I'm certainly not purposely pursuing the "insight" or "wisdom" that religious faiths claim to offer. Neither do I assume that age and/or foreignness are proofs of accuracy and/or usefulness. Hence I've only studied two well-known introductions which have a reputation for succinct instructions, customized for contemporary English speakers, rather than supernatural teachings or extraneous concepts: Mindfulness in Plain English and Wherever You Go There You Are.

Yet, for my picky taste, even these contained some occasional comments that were too religious or ethnocentric. I realize the authors' predicament: they're attempting to bridge radically different cultural contexts. Since they portray the source culture's ideas and values as solutions, they can hardly be blamed when they portray some of the destination culture's ideas and values as one-sided problems. They didn't invent the simplistic split into perfect-opposite stereotypes of "Western" and "Eastern", so they can hardly be blamed for invoking it. They're purposely avoiding the foreign words and metaphors in the source culture, so they (mostly Kabat-Zinn) can hardly be blamed for resorting now and then to the typical set of clich├ęs: "psychic", "universe",  "quantum", "inner vision", "soul", "contemplation", "Mother Nature", "mind states", "liberation", "dimension", "expansion", "holistic", "fullness", "deep", "Other", "oneness", "reductionist", "being" (a present participle of "be" in opposition to "doing"). And "energy" as a respectable code word for "mana", which happens to be one of my recurring peeves. They're communicating techniques that were originally embedded in larger viewpoints, so they can hardly be blamed for lapsing into short lectures about the supporting themes of those viewpoints. I know they're trying. I sound like tourists who complain about the strangeness of a setting that they themselves chose to visit.

However, my disbelief in such abstract descriptions doesn't force disbelief in the basic action of mindfulness meditation or of its rewards. (It's one type out of many, but for the remainder of this entry I'll call it "meditation" for short.) I simply employ alternative descriptions that match the best ideas I have about reality—namely, that minds don't have independent existence but are computations of brains. Therefore I consider meditation as a particular activity of my brain matter. As with any pattern of brain activity, repetitions of the pattern train or reinforce it. This will adjust the relative sensitivity of competing brain paths, i.e. learning. On some minor level my brain will function differently, regardless of whether I (or anyone else) label the difference as "freeing my mind". I suspect that a more testable label is "reprogramming my thalamus".

Specifically, my current understanding of meditation is summarized by three interlocking factors: attention, attitude, awareness. In the more-natural mode of the brain, awareness of a notable object produces an associated reaction. That reaction is a shift of attitude into general categories such as attraction or aversion, or pleasure or pain, or affection or aggression. Then that attitude commands attention and narrows or focuses it further, thereby sacrificing everything else in awareness. While the brain is in this mode, appetites and desires of varying sophistication steal attention again and again. Numerous popular metaphors express the cumulative effect: lesser impulse control, greater tunnel vision, egocentrism/selfishness, never-ending search for novelties, failure to see the Big Picture, disregard for long-term consequences, and so on. The defining characteristic of this mode is the hastiness by which perception proceeds from the earlier stage of wider, raw, objective awareness into the later stage of limited, oversimplified, and biased viewpoints.

Unlike this mode, a brain in meditation prolongs the initial stage of greater awareness, minimizes natural demands to deflect attention, and denies the dictates of normal attitudes or instincts. The method is to select a neutral and effortless target and keep it foremost in attention. Each and every time that the meditator notices that their attention wandered, they experience it nonchalantly and disengage from those thoughts. Then they redirect attention back. I followed the authors' advice to meditate on my breath, although I found it easier to sense the slight motions of my chest than air passing through my nostrils.

Indeed, something else the authors make clear is that the chosen target isn't the underlying motivation. The goal is the entire process of experiencing the distractions and then practicing detached reactions to the distractions. Meditation is the development of a skill. As such, the resulting knowledge is in tacit form. Knowledge about the target is much less important than the target's role as a baseline or standard for the task of recognizing distractions. And the more often that distractions are seen and treated as potential ideas instead of irresistible usurpers of all attention, the easier it is for the meditator to maintain sober awareness and carry out voluntary choices with full context, especially under stressful conditions.

In other words, an attitude of detachment is part of meditation. But I needed to rethink some of my misconceptions in order to appreciate it. In this realm, detachment certainly isn't for eliminating all emotions toward everything. To the contrary, the authors eagerly recommend careful cultivation of friendliness and compassion. Neither does it imply permanent isolation and deprivation. Desires don't stop, including generous desires to improve reality and to behave excellently. Detachment is a new style of informed interaction with things and also ideas about things. It's weighing the range of possible motives and ends. Detachment prevents personal preferences from constricting and coloring the flow of information. In so doing it enables more objectivity.

Clearly, the strategy of detachment is less exotic than sometimes thought. It's similar to the sentiment of the saying, "Think twice." It's the consolation of keeping a diary. It's why someone gives themselves time to "cool off" first before continuing a discussion. It's part of the "talking cure" that permits the talker to convert trauma into a verbal form and confront it symbolically. It's visualizing a feared scenario to become desensitized to it. It's avoiding a temptation not by forcibly fleeing it, which gives it too much respect, but by letting the unfulfilled temptation sit and beg until it resigns and fades. The coping mechanisms of many beliefs, faith-based or not, resemble the attitude of detachment.

Nevertheless, the achievement of detachment is much more subtle in meditation. As many ways as there are to think, detachment drops momentarily, attention drifts away from the target altogether, and the lapse itself doesn't enter awareness until the brain has completed a short detour. For instance, I've discovered a few inexpert traps, so I can offer some inexpert commentary and tips—none of which are original, complete, or applicable to everyone.
  • lofty expectations: One obvious problem with lofty expectations is predictable disappointment when the expectations aren't met in a short amount of time, which could prompt the hasty decision to quit. But a more sneaky side-effect is an intrusive attitude of anxious expectation. Waiting in suspense for something unusual to happen is a distraction. 
  • harsh self-evaluation: Along with lofty expectations for quick payoffs, strict expectations for oneself are also distractions. It's worth reiterating that meditation is about increasing awareness of whatever happens now. If the present task is gently keeping the chosen target in attention, then it's incorrect to fill the present with excessive attention on the failure in the previous moment. The past has passed. It's not necessary to systematically judge "progress". Each moment is another chance, and each chance cannot be either retried nor taken ahead of time. The same truism applies to evaluating the session as a whole. The rest of a session isn't "ruined" by the prior part of it. Paying too much attention to self-frustration is sacrificing the present to pay useless homage to the past.
  • forced/labored breathing: Attention to breathing isn't a breathing exercise. A few deep breaths can help initiate calm before starting or restore it after an external interruption, but most of the time breathing should be perceived not consciously ordered. Similarly, close attention to breathing doesn't include thoughts such as images or sounds that are somehow related to breathing. In this case, the target of attention isn't an elaborately constructed daydream of the current meditation session, or the noise of the air movements, or analyses of the respiratory system. The target is, well, the natural sensation of breathing. It's not meant to be puzzling.
  • searching: The urge to search for interesting phenomena is incompatible with the relaxed attitude of meditation. According to the old analogy, active investigation is like striding quickly through a stream to find something that sunk to the bottom. Or it's like a questioner whose continual talking interferes with the other speaker's attempts to answer. The searcher's own frantic actions disturb and conceal. Receptiveness is superior to haphazard rechecks.
  • narration: Meditation is nonverbal. During the unprocessed stage of unadorned awareness, everything can only be nonsymbolic and impersonal. The corresponding questions "What does X mean?" or "What does X matter to me?" arise in later stages of interpretation. When words appear in thoughts, that's a signal to once again release attention and restore it to the meditation target. It's true that narration represents some degree of detachment, but it's still not ideal. One important exception is some form of counting to help recapture attention, provided the count doesn't continue for too long.
  • music: Music is infamous for repeating itself involuntarily in humans' attention, whether or not they're meditating. As usual, the response is to note it, not overreact by fixating on it more, and mildly lift the meditation target back into attention. The volume can be turned down, metaphorically. The music might persist as a murmur. Or subside and resume later. Or transition into some other piece of music. In any case, it's not an opportunity to take a break, and it's not an opponent to wrestle into submission. It's one more item of experience. (The meditator's feeling of annoyance about some music is one more item of experience, too.)  
  • boredom/passage of time: Within an unstressed minute, twelve to sixteen breaths commonly occur—approximately four to five seconds for one complete cycle of inhaling, exhaling, and the associated pauses. Breaths are short time periods: 60 or more in five minutes. Observing anything 60 times in succession could produce a feeling of boredom...despite the many unintentional breaks that are sprinkled throughout a beginner's meditation. Again, the root issue is distraction from the chosen target's existence in the present alone. The target isn't all 52 preceding breaths or all 52 following breaths. It's the current breath, no matter its level of uniqueness. In the same way, anxiety about time consumption presumes concern about a wider gap of time, as well as compulsive rescheduling. If the session is happening in a block of time reserved for it ahead of time, perhaps with an alarm to mark the end, then it's fruitless to worry about taking up time for everything else. A schedule with genuine reservations of time should enable the meditator to relax about the passage of time. Anybody can just take reservations. Really, the most important part of the reservation is holding it. That's why someone has reservations: to not run out of a finite quantity like time.
  • body drooping/movement: Meditation and relaxation are symbiotic but not synonymous. Meditative awareness implies constant vigilance. The intent of the customary postures is stillness without rigidity and without drowsiness. Drooping is an indicator that meditation might be changing into partial sleep. In that mode, everything appears less vivid, including the target. On the other hand, moving around too frequently can be a trap. One movement leads to more movements, then more after that. Meditation exposes the sheer variety of habitual superfluous movements such as tilting the head, licking the lips, stretching the back, and so on. Indulging in one invites the others.
  • thought replacement: One primitive form of human self-regulation is passionately striving to think about something else. But that's not meditation (or not this kind). Its characteristic attitude is identified as weightless, quick, nonjudgmental, unassuming, broad-minded, unselfish, serene, positive, open. Paradoxical or not, detachment is acceptance. It's not declaring that everything is good but withholding an impromptu or mindless declaration of whether anything is good or bad. It's watching a thought and then not replacing it forcefully but nimbly returning attention to the target, which never vanished in the meantime. It's realizing that the gamut of the brain's inventive output isn't always accurate or useful. And also that, by introducing sufficient feedback loops via training like meditation, humans can more effectively recognize and circumvent the worst tendencies, if they so choose.

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