MEDITATION IS A DEMOLITION JOB
I remember, as a teenager, loving a phrase that described demolition work as “putting back the sky”. “Wow” crooned my impressionable teenage brain “that is cool”.
To this day, I still like that phrase.
SPACE MOVES IN
The image of the sky being put back often occurs to me when I'm meditating. That's what it can feel like. Like I'm putting a whole lot of space back in my mind.
My usually cluttered mind.
And as a space moves in the clutter moves out.
No wonder I'm drawn to sitting on my cushion day after day.
What is this clutter in my head? It's the stories I spin to make sense of my world. Tales I'm constantly embroiling and embellishing, tales I'm editing and highlighting, cutting and pasting, copying and repeating over and over.
Isn't that what we all do?
Golly I hope it's not just me!
IT’S ALL ABOUT ME
The clutter is the product of the “Me” mind that UCLA psychologist Rebecca Gladding refers to as the “Self-referencing” centre. It has an actual location in the brain, situated at the medial pre-frontal cortex (pfc). Its function is to sort out information that relates expressly to you. The stuff we ruminate about.
It’s a pretty well-used centre.
ACT psychologist Dr Russ Harris categorises the concerns of Me mind as:
MEDDLE WITH YOUR HARD WIRING
The beauty of meditation is how it meddles with the self-referencing centre, the medial pfc. ‘Me’ mind. This part of the brain comes pre-packaged; it compels us to think about ourselves over and over.
Says Gladding: “If you were to look at people’s brains before they began a meditation practice, you would likely see strong neural connections within the Me Center and between the Me Center and the bodily sensation/fear centers of the brain.
This over-reliance on the Me Center explains how it is that we often get stuck in repeating loops of thought about our life, mistakes we made, how people feel about us, our bodies”.
Meditation is the one activity that can shrivel the hard-wired ‘me’ centre. What a relief!
Through the act of witnessing, or monitoring, our inner experience (rather than identifying with it) the neural connections that make us habitually self-obsessive are loosened.
And as the Buddhists tell us, less self absorption means less suffering.
As the Me centre recedes, the power of another important brain centre, the Lateral pfc, emerges. Gladding calls it the Assessment Centre because it “allows you to look at things from a more rational, logical and balanced perspective. It is involved in modulating emotional responses and overriding automatic behaviors”.
OBSERVING THE MIND
Russ Harris names the mind that watches the thinking mind “the observing mind”. Observing mind activates when the meditator monitors their mental processes with relaxed attention.
Importantly, the task of monitoring your mind’s activity from the stance of an impartial spectator is what makes meditation significantly different from relaxing or daydreaming.
Some university researchers recently put the meditating brain to the test.
Professor Jim Lagopoulos of Sydney University joined with researchers from a Norwegian University in 2009 to investigate whether there was a difference between meditation and just resting without any specific mental technique. That is, between meditation and being at the mercy of the normal resting state of the brain with its “silent current of thoughts, images and memories”.
Participants were asked to rest, eyes closed, for 20 minutes, and to meditate for another 20 minutes, in random order.
The researchers measured the frequency and location of electrical brain waves using EEG (electroencephalography) as an indication of brain activity and concluded: Yes, there is a definite difference. “Nondirective meditation yields more marked changes in electrical brain wave activity associated with wakeful, relaxed attention, than just resting without any specific mental technique.”
By ‘nondirective’ meditation they mean not pursuing a particular experience or state of mind but cultivating " the ability to tolerate the spontaneous wandering of the mind without getting too much involved. Instead of concentrating on getting away from stressful thought and emotions, you simple let them pass in an effortless way."
The act of (observing) mind watching (thinking) mind in an open, spacious and relaxed way is the crucial point in meditation.
Although from the outside meditation looks like a passive pursuit, the apparent doing nothing of meditation is a definite something. It looks like nothing from the outside- some dude sitting still- but on the inside a lot is happening: demolition work.
PUTTING THE SKY BACK
Doing nothing is what puts the space back in your mind. This hugely beneficial doing-nothing – refraining from controlling the content of the mind but watching thoughts come and go- stimulates regions of the brain that will come to the rescue again and again during the ups and downs of daily life.
It’s a way of getting into the very guts of the brain, clearing out the clutter and putting the space back.
“Sitting every day, for at least 15-30 minutes, makes a huge difference in how you approach life, how personally you take things and how you interact with others. … it creates a sense of calm and centeredness that is indescribable. There really is no substitute.”
copyright Shakti Burke 2017
Lagopoulos et al. Increased Theta and Alpha EEG Activity During Nondirective Meditation. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2009; 15 (11): 1187 DOI: 10.1089/acm.2009.0113
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