Friday, January 29, 2016

Meditation as a brain training

Brain games are popular in the digital world but what about analog, non-digital ways of training the brain and shaping it in ways we might desire?

Every time we practice something for real OR by doing it in our mind our brain assigns more neural connections to help us with that activity. It's like walking a path. Every time you walk that path it gets a little more permanent and a little wider. Driving, swimming, playing an instrument, speaking a foreign language etc all become better and easier with consistent regular practice. The brain says "aha! this person is serious about this thing. It's not just some one time event. I'll do some rewiring behind the scenes to make it easier."

We once believed that the brain only assisted babies and children this way but these days we know about neuroplasticity. Even adults can nudge their brains into rewiring. This has been especially good news for stroke sufferers, giving hope where there was little before.

So aside from doing things like playing a musical instrument what else could we get the brain to help us with:

  • quelling the constant chatter in our mind as it chews over past events and consider for the future. This is useful when it helps us learn from the past or plan for the future. It's not so good when it bogs us in a quagmire of regret and fears.
  • enhancing our skills to understand others, to put ourselves in their shoes, to empathize with their struggles and their pain as well as their achievements and their joy. Building our emotional intelligence may increase compassion and reduce jealousy. Making the world a better place for not just us but also those who might otherwise suffer or incur our discontent.
  • distancing ourselves from our inclinations to rage when that rage cannot improve our circumstances. 
  • mindfully participating in life with full awareness, being in the moment without judging our circumstances. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, give a richer experience of life, provide emotional perspective etc but more than anything it cures of that great plague that's afflicting post-modern humanity, multitasking. Burnt your lunch lately? I just did. Try to split yourself between two tasks such as writing and cooking and it is likely only one will be done well, the one you are focusing on.
  • understanding the nature of our very mind, the illusion of the constructed self (our habits and the labels we have given ourselves), even enlightenment.
I was reading The emotional life of the brain. The author, Richard Davidson, mentioned how they had gotten the help of a seasoned meditator to help with their initial experiments. They got him to switch between different meditation states to see what might show on their equipment. It occurred to me that this could be the equivalent of a kind of meditation gym. Yoga practitioners practice asanas, different physical poses. Why not also use different meditational asanas.

The Tibetans have gifted us with a number of these mental postures: 
  • Calm meditation, being with the breath. This is thought to calm the default mode network of the brain which is involved in mental chatter.
  • Concentration meditation. Focusing one's attention on an object, real or imagined.
  • Reflection on the flimsy nature of what we call self (our collection of beliefs, habits and self labels), our branding.
  • Devotion, such as to a teacher or someone who inspires us
  • Compassion (Tonglen)
  • Mindfulness, being in the moment
  • Resting in stillness, silence and spaciousness aka Dzogchen (variously pronounced dzochen or tsochen)
To these you can add practices inspired by recent neuroscience which shows that while we feel with the right side of the brain we give meaning to our emotions with the left. Unfortunately many of us can get trapped in right-brained states such as depression. By using facial experiences, visualizations and vocalizations we can reconnect with our analytical left side of the brain an gain some perspective on what we are feeling.

So here's my simple meditation gym - I may refine it over time.

  • Get yourself in a comfortable position. Seated usually helps with staying awake as do things like keeping your eyes very slightly open.
  • Take a few deep breaths to oxygenate the body. If you know any pranayama or the Tibetan nine breaths do that.
  • Take a moment to mentally catalog the sensations in your body. Any tension, tingling, agitation or relaxation. Don't do anything with it. Just observe it. Imagine you are your own scientist. You are going to observe and note any changes your meditation practice causes in you. You may wish to keep a journal. This first body scan is your benchmark. No you haven't got a control group but lets not get carried away.
  • Think of someone, something or somewhere that you enjoy. Smile. Voice your like, saying something like "I like xxx", whatever xxx is. You've just lit up areas in the left front portion of your brain. (yes I am being simplistic here. In truth anything we do uses a number of areas of our brain but predominantly the activity is here.). Buddhists might complain that by focusing on a conditioned like we are only strengthening an arbitrary attachment. It is not the aim of this step to untangle you from your attachments and aversions, only to shift you into left front of brain thinking. Facial expressions, vocalizations (including chants and affirmations) or considering the meaning of something will all get you to the left, touching your logical and often more positive side. You need the right side too but many people get trapped there and we are laying down a neural pathway to help us to switch.
  • Scan your body for any changes.
  • Now imagine someone you know and like reasonably well but someone who is also doing it tough (you can try this step with strangers and people you don't like later but lets take baby steps first). Take a moment to consider this person; their habits of response to life, their struggles, their frustrations, their pain and suffering. Imagine yourself as this person, living their life. What does it feel like. How do you feel about them now? Imagine you are sending that person all the care and attention you are feeling right now? How do you feel in your mind, your chest, your belly?
  • Do a quick body scan. Note any changes.
  • If this last step has left you feeling sad repeat the smile step we started with.
  • Now think of someone you greatly admire. Someone who has helped you in your life. Imagine them in as much detail as you can and imagine you are sending them gratitude for how they helped you. Even if they are no longer living. If you wish to take this further you can imagine being them, thinking like them, having their wisdom and skills. What does that feel like?
  • Do a quick body scan. Note any changes.
  • Become aware of your breath. If you are feeling dull and sleepy give slightly more focus to your in breath. If you are feeling agitated give slightly more focus to your out breath. Just be with your breathing. If the mind drifts into thinking about other things that's fine, just gently bring it back to the breath. Do this for a couple of minutes. Don't berate yourself if your mind has drifted often. It will but it will get easier. When you become proficient at this step you can watch the mind itself, watching the thoughts, like clouds, drifting through a blue sky.
  • Bring your awareness back to your body and scan it.
  • To finish off we will use a visualization that connects us with the four elements as a way of naturally moving into Dzogchen (still, silent and spacious state of mind). For this one close your eyes fully. Imagine yourself on a high mountain plateau. There's a stiff but refreshing breeze blowing. It's blowing away all the obstacles and impediments in your life. Feel the wind. Be the wind. Be free. Give thanks for that. Come back to your self and go to the lake that's in front of you. Take a plunge in its cleansing waters. Feel all your old habits and pains washing away. Feel how the water surrounds you and nourishes you. Each cell of your being is filled with water. Be glad of that. Feel the water. Be the water. Feel loved and nurtured. Return your awareness to yourself. You've built a small fire to dry off in front of. Feel its warmth penetrating your body, into your very bones. Watch its magical flames. Give thanks for its light. Feel the fire. Be the fire. Be warmed and inspired. Awaken to a spark of joy within your solar plexus. Return your awareness to the body. Become aware of the ground you are sitting on. A mountain that has its roots all the way into the earth. Immovable, solid, stable, supporting you, grounding you. Feel the earth. Be the earth. Feel its still bulwark of strength. Give thanks for that. Return your awareness to your body. Remembering the immovable still strength of the mountain visualize that same stillness within you. Or maybe you focus on your spine, straight and strong like some ancient oak tree. Feel that stillness. Be that stillness. Experience that. Keeping that awareness of stillness focus on your throat. The space in your throat. It's like a vast cavern, deep in the ground of your being. Still, quiet. There's a warm red glow. Experience the silence there. Be the silence. Staying connected with the preceding stillness and silence move your focus to an imaginary space in your heart. Not your physical heart but the sacred heart which you can visualize in the area of your sternum. That bone that divides your ribs. Maybe about four finger widths, more or less, from the top of the sternum will be about the right place. Imagine a cavity under that. For Tibetans that is where your mind resides. Imagine it as a vast clear blue desert sky. Open. Spacious. Empty. Observe that space as if you were looking at a clear blue sky. Connect with that. Be that. As you watch it ask yourself where the mind is that is looking at it. The more you look for that mind all you find is more spaciousness. More emptiness. Spaciousness observing spaciousness. Awareness of awareness. Primordial mind. Experienced dzogchen practitioners will go beyond this to touch the limitless light and love, joy and unconditional acceptance that resides within that space but for now that is enough. For more about this read Tenzin Wangyal's Awakening the luminous mind
  • To finish off you may like to strengthen the neural pathways that are associated with compassion and love by making a wish. For example wishing for the happiness of all sentient beings (humans, dolphins, whales etc and yourself included).
  • Return your awareness to your body and do a scan of your feelings and sensations. Has the mind gym changed anything for you. Make some notes. If you've found it beneficial you might wish to put together your own mind gym and run your mind through it once or twice a day. If you truly want to rewire your brain remember your gym practice needs to be consistent and often.
It all takes time but so does going to a gym for the body. Mind fitness is just as important as body fitness. The ancient mystics knew the two went together.

I didn't include concentration meditation in the above because for beginners the breath as the object is probably enough for most. Experienced meditators who've gotten used to following the breath can do an extra step if they wish, focusing on other objects, something you might place in front of yourself like a candle, a statue or a picture. Or you could visualize and object. This is concentration meditation. It hones the mind's ability to be attentive. Experienced practitioners may also wish to include a step of reflection, using their self as the object of the meditation. Take a moment to consider your ingrained habits of response (both good and bad), your opinions and beliefs, the labels you apply to yourself. They are a product of a lifetime, your upbringing, peer group pressure, your culture, your humanity, your education. How do you label yourself? What is your brand image? Have you ever dared to ask someone else if they see you this way? What would happen if you got alzheimers and lost all your memories or a stroke and your personality and ability to do things you considered you were good at changed over night. What would your self be then? Changeable or unchangeable. Really, do you want to be limited, indeed imprisoned inside what you consider your self to be or would you rather connect with that in you which is infinite, unbounded and connected to what is all. But that is going down the rabbit hole. 

There are lots of books out there on meditation and neuroscience. There are also free online courses such as those on Coursera: 
These are mostly from the buddhist perspective but you will find that other Indian traditions use many of the same techniques. You may wish to explore the non-dualist traditions of Advaita, Ekhart Tolle, Adyashanti etc. Don't be limited by what I have written here. No limits. No labels. You are infinite.