My reflections on beginning a meditative practice, broadly defined, in 2.2019
Gonna find out
“Any spiritual or ethical concerns about destructive emotions as ‘something to get rid of’ should thus be somewhat redressed by the discovery of this pristine dimension which is ours from the origin, utterly beyond good and evil. The gnosis of Dzogchen, being entirely beyond judgment, shows a new dimension to our existence. It shows that humankind is not forever stained by an indelible mark nor doomed by any external entity; quite on the contrary, humankind’s innermost essence is originally pure and contains the infinite potentiality for total realization.”—Costantino M. Albini
Richard also notes that “Abhidharma links emotion to thought patterns, indicating that whereas destructive emotions are seen as leading to bias in thinking, positive emotions are mainly seen as affecting the way we perceive and relate to things.” Matthieu Richard
On the Buddhist conviction in the human capacity to overcome destructive emotions and achieve genuine happiness, “In the beginning nothing comes, in the middle nothing stays, in the end nothing goes.”— Tibetan hermit MilarepaFirst Sessions
At first, I begin with an unguided sit. I have been thinking about the importance of simply taking time for closing my eyes while awake. To be a being not focused on the pure present (environment), but still alert, attentional. To navigate puddles interior as opposed to the cobwebs and cracks of Quincy street.
There is so much movement. It’s exhilarating, in a sense, to see how much is whirring inside me. It makes me feel I’m producing cognitive heat, at all times, even when I’m calm, when I’m sitting still. This isn’t a terrible surprise, of course. The brain does so much in the background, and rarely does this work need to encounter the attentional spotlight. Perhaps it doesn’t want to.
There’s an early division which I notice in my introspection, and which is made more stark in my writing, between the I that is calm and the I that hears the whirring. Between the ‘it’ which doesn’t need to be seen and the ‘it’ that sees. And this is one of the first reasons I wanted to meditate—to lily pad hop from self to self, to see if there is space between, to see if I can keep feet spread and still solid on separated grounds, separated selves.
And my breath is so cold I feel it traveling through me, the expansion and the heat of it. I wonder if this would be a good tool for meditating. I wonder if meditating is about finding good tools. I wonder about searching as craving. I wonder about craving as yearning. Then I get cold again, and I feel the tip of my nose start to change, somehow sharper in the frost, and I am brought back to my breath by force. I have no time to wonder about differences between being led to breath and being pushed there, because I am here and I am cold and that’s about what I can muster. Here, there’s no question about posture—stay balanced or fall—and a heightened awareness is a prerequisite for having arrived on top intact. The swaying is the wind, the creaking is the living thing holding me, the spreading leaves the time and systems immense, which collect and redistribute the heat and the breath which pulls the tree upward from the earth to get a cold tree nose, and there is no more progress for me to make or make up making (up is air). A very tangible panpsychism. I breathe here until I shiver, and I open my eyes to see my path from the barn, more curved than I remember, and I think that awareness is much easier in the snow.
On the train home. My chest is so tight, perhaps it’s the caffeine. It doesn’t make breathing difficult, but it makes noticing my breath a bit unpleasant. An embodied anxiety—noticing a physical sensation to then notice an underlying emotion which had been contained, before, in the shallowness of a breath and now has to be dealt with as an object of attention. A question in the neurosciences that has always fascinated me is how we can find avenues for introspection that let us see ourselves in ways expanded outside the alert, focused spotlight with which we usually ‘work’. Who’s to say that work on the self is a job best done with explicit attention? Don’t we compose ourselves largely in the implicit associations that form our memories, integrate our days with days past, define salience and current concerns? Is the body where we store those things which we would rather not, or cannot, focus on with our mind’s eye? If so, we could use the body as an access point, as a way to see and even alleviate underlying affect. We could soothe the body to soothe the mind. Or perhaps it’s like a boil, lanced in the form of soreness and tightness and then a release which must be dealt with.
With daily meditation I feel myself getting stronger in a sense, pulling myself back to breath a bit faster, a bit earlier in the onset of inattention. Yet I wonder how much work can be done through the body, through that kind of singular focus, and how much work has to be done as explication of the sensations we discover when we bring our attention to a space we usually don’t focus on (breath) to notice ways in which a heretofore invisible emotional space (low grade anxiety) is affecting a somewhat more but still barely supraliminal physical sensation (tightness).
What the Living Do
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of. It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking, I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve, I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning. What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it. But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: I am living. I remember you.
"I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done?"
Thinking about Thinking about Nothing
Prof. Jonathan Schooler articulated a 3 part model of attention to me a few months back.
Essentially a collection of unarticulated/unarticulable cognition like temperature regulation, of conscious and articulable but unarticulated thought composing implicit cognition, and of explicitly articulated thought with the attentional fovea.
What worries me here is my relationship to the ineffable. The attentional spotlight, shed internally, changes what it illuminates. And do pre-conscious thoughts disappear when they are seen? Do they stop having implicit influences? Is that beneficial? As meditation exercises metacognitive muscles and aims the newfound force inwards, how much can/should we control the parts of ourselves which are built to work in the shadows? This reminds me of another poem, Meditation at Lagunitas, by Robert Hass. What you lose by articulating things.
“All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.”
Keeping this in mind, how clearly can I self-assess during my meditation? And if not at all, how do I know how I’m doing?
I meditated in the sauna and wondered if any part of me could possibly still be under 150 degrees and thought…well, there must be, but I sure can’t feel that part of me.
I’m reading work by a psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk on embodied emotion, specifically storage of emotional pain as physical pain, and wondering about setting up personal protocols for how to understand and address different kinds of hurt. How to know what is surfacing, and what is stored. How to go into myself by going into my body.
Noting thoughts is very hard, noticing sensations very easy. I think this is, as simply as it sounds, because I can ‘point’ at my body with my thoughts in a way that is inconceivable when trying to locate my mind-wandering generated musings. Pointing at things makes them ‘distanced’ from my first person experience of them, makes them clearer and more manageable. The act of pointing is an act of othering, just othering internal. I wonder if, like the MBSR experts in the post above, meditation offers a route to simply becoming a better pointer, pointing deeper and more specifically. And once you can point at everything, then perhaps you become content-less, an action and not a thought, a seeing and not a sight.
If I’m sounding strange, I blame the sauna.
I had a weird and wonderful meditation experience this morning. I was sitting after a shower—this helps me because I’m relaxed, and I can feel every bit of my skin as it cools down from the hot water—and was about 8 minutes in. I have personal ‘tells’ for when I’m really starting to meditate. I’m not exactly sure what I mean by ‘really’, but it’s where things get interesting, where my breath becomes effortlessly the center of my attention, and where I feel much more like I am my breath than I am observing breath. My main tell is that it feels like my head is rotating clockwise, just a bit. Anyways, 8 minutes in, things had begun rotating. Then suddenly I felt a point of pressure and sharp pain a bit above my nose where I was observing my breath. I had a kind of ‘double consciousness’ of this pressure, in my rotated imagined head and in my ‘real’ centered head. And a few seconds after, I noticed this as the very early buildup to a sneeze. Unmistakeable in daily life, this just seemed earlier, and somewhat silly. I just asked myself why I should sneeze in response to a pressure and pain buildup? And just from asking the question, the sneeze didn’t come. Instead the pressure moved up into my forehead, and dissipated there. It was lovely—I asked why I should sneeze in response to this feeling, and the asking yielded no clear answer, and the question seemed to redirect the pressure, and no sneeze. Something typically so automatic became an object of reflection and redirection.
Since I read this phrase years ago in a tiny bookstore in the desert of the Texas panhandle, it just keeps being useful. So often we build things to be inside of them—but so rarely can we predict where we will stay, where we will be called to. The idea of a successful architecture for travelers in one you can walk away from, one that keeps the concept of home alive in your mind, but doesn’t imprison your practically or symbolically. The challenge is how to build something which is always welcoming and healthy, but does not need to be tended to all the time. So what is the traveler’s architecture of the mind? How do I build a foundation for myself, a moral and emotional foundation, that I can then walk away from and trust to stay standing?
So much of the work of meditation is done off the cushion. We change our mind while we pay attention, so that our mind is of a different kind when we are not looking. We must build for when we are not there. This is a difficult dialogue, domesticating the semi conscious and unconscious wandering mind, because we’re not full speaking with ourselves and we’re not fully present when the foundations we build get tested to the greatest extent.
My main takeaway from the Ibram X Kendi reading is the fundamental role of context in forming our views, from the explicit to implicit. Kendi says the historical figures he analyzes were not hateful or ignorant, that “historical context produced these people, who produced these racist ideas”. This got me thinking about agency and context, perspective and personhood.
How much is the creation of ideas and morals a justification for ongoing action, as Kendi purports? And how much is action born of ideas? And how do we tell the difference.
I’m reading, at the same time, about misattribution of arousal—the idea that much of emotion can be explained and in turn manipulated by the idea that the brain looks for environmental cues to explain bodily cues, i.e. an increased heart rate from some sugar spike makes an experimenter look more attractive to a subject, who has interpreted an increased heart rate as an increase in attraction. This effect falls into the 2nd category of the tripartite model of attention listed above—supraliminal but not metacognitive. This is an area of implicit cognition which holds great sway over our views and actions, but is often not subject to our cognitive control.
It’s very difficult, very murky, trying to decide where our actions come from. And it’s not at all clear that the right answers are in fact subject to our introspection, if we could only look. So I wonder, in the context of Kendi’s writing, if looking inside in meditation is not enough. If in fact we must constantly look outside as well, to our context, to see causality and the environmental effects of our thinking. And this must mean meditating as we walk through the world, taking attention ‘off the cushion’. And this must mean being very forgiving to ourselves, for the bits and bobs of culture and cognition we eat up in our wanderings in the world, conscious or not, willing or not.
Luckily my reading in neuro (embodied cognition, prenoetic determinants of action, and thought constructed in action and environment) are lining up beautifully with my reading in Buddhism (Beyond the Breath). The notion that sensations simply ‘are’ and are perceived as ever evolving, while thoughts inherently are true or false, are static and bordered. And the idea that to surrender to change, sensations are an easier fit because of all this. I’ll articulate this more clearly when it feels more clear, but I have a good sense of being on the precipice of understanding why interoception feels so much more grounded, consistent and continuous than my fragmented introspection, and how I can put that difference to use...
I’m deep into a hugely helpful meditation book mentioned earlier, called Beyond the Breath, which advocates a body-scanning based practice. It offers meditation as a cure for what ails us: frayed nerves, rampant materialism, and epidemic cynicism. Everything changes, all is motion, nothing stands still. And yet moments of happiness are so often moments in which we want nothing to change. These seem at odds. Until you accept the radical state of becoming and unbecoming, the constant passage of time and entropy. Then the fluidity seems natural, necessary. And the unnatural urge seems to be the static one, the ‘making nouns out of verbs’ as Mark Epstein says. The problem is not the change, the problem is the want. And as much as you want stasis, it cannot come. This is dukkha, this is suffering, this is death and decay. And rebirth of course, growth and spring and the return.
I have a sense, purely anecdotal, that the difficulty my peers have with engaging in organized religion is primarily an uneasiness about power, a sense that those at the top of a hierarchy, however progressive and engaged, had to sacrifice some moral ground to get there. That a religion can’t be honest and good while it has a set order of enlightenment and signifiers of progress along that road to that light. I think this is a sort of fear of being someone else’s tool as much as it is a fear of where following paths might lead us. And when I read back in this blog, or read my marginalia in Beyond the Breath, I cringe seeing myself reusing new age-y terminology or phrases I picked up at the beautiful Rubin Museum…because I have some sense that Buddhism is different, that awareness is about an expansion of the self as opposed to an expansion of the faith. And of course this is both true and not true, but it’s curious to me that I give so much leeway to an awareness practice, in terms of not being critical of its rote rituals in the way I am critical of rote rituals in Judaism…i.e. thinking that they should be relegated to a different time. I have a sense that the best thing to do is forego criticism, and engage with everything, and yet this also seems like the area where I should be most discerning. What I’m really wondering about is the notion of paths and rules, both personal and universal, across spiritual gradients. The rules in Buddhism seem so natural, I rarely noticed them, until taking this class and seeing how awareness is taught, skill by skill. And I’m wondering why I decided not to see them. My meditation today was quick and on the floor of my room and had me falling asleep but I was glad to sit on a Sunday when the sky is clear at least until the monday horizon.
I’ve been reading about Reinforcement Learning (the neural computation kind, not the machine learning kind) and thinking through the concept of unlearning. In reading Resisting Reduction I was struck by how much reductionism has become an automatic urge in me, that notions of true and concrete are synonymous. And I understand it takes a great deal of time and effort to unlearn a fact, let alone unlearn an ontology, and complicate notions of concreteness, facts, authority and systems observable in isolation which are necessary to a reductionist narrative. But what is unlearning? Is it replacing an existing system? Undermining it? Creating parallels and reinforcing those further? And how can one unlearn a way to learn, if unlearning is in and of itself a choice about how to move forward as a fact finder and pattern matcher in the world?
Either strategy, learning or unlearning, reductionism or emergentism, for me are basically the same except that they build towards different ends. Mapping all mechanisms leads to some comfortable world where I sit in a rocking chair and understand all the physics of my movement and biology of my digestion and how bits assemble and I am wholly satisfied with being a knowing creature. The thing to get to, here, is a big bucket of facts which the world sits in. Committing to the humility of admitting the ‘unmappability’ and inescapable interconnectedness of the self and world in self adaptive feedback looped systems— I and I — leads to me on a porch in a rocking chair, satisfied with the ever changing substance around me, the reality of my continuity with it. Here there is no bucket, and I know that, and I have no urge to sit in a bucket with some facts that I made up.
And I call this second one unlearning, though of course it is learning. And I consider it harder, because it involves a personality shift and a perceptual shift as well as an education. Learning, it seems, I am optimized for by years of college deconstruction and middle school chemistry kits. Sitting with Nainoa in class was personally disturbing because it made this training so apparent—and it made it apparent in the bluntest way that there was as much to learn in other systems of knowing, and some brought you closer to your body and your watery world than others. Yet this is not really a choice I can make now. Which brings me back to reinforcement, and the fact that RL studies are always done with a hidden authority figure (Skinner and disciples), and it is a real pickle that I am not an effective authority figure for myself. Skinner is absent in my mind. I can, again, do what I want but not want what I want. And knowledge acquisition, and its chosen forms, are wants that change what wants we want. How to sit in unlearning, how to take seriously the knowledge of water with no scorn, is a shift like a knot untying itself only to realize the knot is holding it together—Freud’s metaphor not mine. Anyways. A pickle.
The need to stop running, and the need to distract myself from this need, feels superficially similar to the need to stop meditating. I will feel myself swell with excuses before sitting— need to shower, clean, write, knees hurt—and it’s barely me saying these things. And of course I wonder what it is that I am avoiding — the boredom, or the introspection, or the ‘unproductive’ time—and what level of I is avoiding these things (tripartite model described above).
When I run I put on music, to zone out. But I am running, in part, to get in touch with my body. I turn away because when I do look inward while running, and check in with myself, things hurt. But I want to run, so I set myself up to make it hard to look inwards when I decide to. Which is decidedly un-introspective. Perhaps this is the same voice, telling me to put on music, as the voice telling me I am too busy to sit. Perhaps interoception and introspection are not so different. Beyond the Breath and The Body Keeps the Score would suggest deep parallels between the two. Something to think about, the ways in which I avoid myself, even as I set up activities which in retrospect I pat myself on the back for as important/reflective.
This paper presents a simple behavioral measure of mindfulness, where improved performance is tied to reduced mind-wandering, better mood, increased mindfulness. It also is a distinct measure from sustained attention and working memory, both of which function as confounds when measuring mindfulness. It also is a can be trained to improve the above things. It’ssssss breath counting!
Isn’t it strange that something so simple can index such a specific facet of cognition so directly? Mindfulness, a certain quality of attention, tied to a specific type of self-perception. Perhaps it would be the same to count your heartbeats, count your eyeblinks. count your steps, but my intuition tells me no. Breath is full body, breath is life, breath is a connection to our outer and inner worlds, breath is so tightly tied to our level of awareness in terms of affecting brain and body rhythm…
I have found I meditate best when I am exhausted, when I am so tired as to be completely calm. I do not fall asleep while meditating, cannot nod off while sitting up, so the blurry blanket of semi lucidity settles over my hearing and my thoughts and I sit so much more easily with the rhythm of my breath…
Here is a snippet of what I watched to train my breath counting, a bit of stimuli from the Richie Davidson study recently published and linked above.
I had my most meditative experience of the year getting a flat tire yesterday. I have no doubt that my practice had a deep impact on me as I watched my car sink to the right. I was simply curious. Almost entirely non-reactive. I thought “huh, this is something that upsets people. But I’m sure it will work out”. I poked around a bit and checked on damage, I slowly ate a banana, and then I called AAA. And got a tow from the most amazing, generous dude in Cambridge. My friend who came to check on me noticed how smiley I was and—she doesn’t know about our Awareness class—said ‘woah if you look like that after getting a flat you must really be enlightened’. I won’t let it get to my head. There was this flood of what I can only call perspective—how lovely a day it was to be stuck outside, how much worse it would be to get a flat on the highway, how curious this is as a common human experience I’ve never gotten to share before…and I felt it automatically, with no effortful awareness or effortful non-reactivity.
Honestly it was profoundly weird.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the SRHI, a Habit index listed here, as I build my meditation practice slowly. Tomás showed it to me, and it does one of my favorite kinds of brain science mental gymnastics—it takes a concept that is familiar in popular parlance, i.e. habit, and breaks it down into substructures which have independent construct validity and can be individually trained. If you are forming a habit, it says, it must be practiced frequently, automatically, and must be incorporated into your identity. If you are failing to form a habit, you can investigate your score on these subscales to see where to put in extra work. I have found incorporation of practice into my identity, though I feel a bit uncomfortable as something of a voyeur in the meditation world. I have not found practice to feel automatic, ever. It is effort. And I’m not sure where the trait ‘off the cushion’ as opposed to the act of practice fits in here in terms of habit formation. Can you form the habit of being a different person with different character? Is that just growing up? Or is that really what habits do, as Ghandi said (or maybe just as the internet says Ghandi said), habits to values to identity…
On reflecting! If we’re not careful we will make some metacognitive strange loops.
The practice of trying to maintain a practice has, first and foremost, let me practice practice.
I used the semester to shame myself into experiencing what I had previously only studied as fact and mechanism. Meditation day to day is personal, and difficult, and irreducible to questionnaires, even ones with great construct validity and interrater reliability ;)
I came away with a few practices. I’m working out almost every day—this as a way to make my body feel full, fully inhabited. And as a way to make it fun to inhabit, positive to be mindful of.
I’m sitting, probably 3 times a week, for at least 10 minutes. And now 30 minutes doesn’t feel hard. And now a silent retreat is totally exciting, not just scary.
I’m ending all my showers with a shock of cold, full body, big deep breaths. This was meant as a way to start my after-shower-sit, to make noting practice easier and be sure that every inch of me still had feelings to check in on. Even on the days I don’t sit, I do this cold dive. It’s made me start the days with eyes more open.
I’m doing my commute without headphones. One takeaway for me has been the importance of boredom. What am I avoiding when I am avoiding it? What reflections am I missing? Do I want to be always productive, always entertained, or do I want to wander internally?
Sitting has made me feel boredom as a centering state, as a way to watch my mind from a spectator’s position and wander with it. So now I wander on my commute, and on the way back, instead of keeping myself always online (in a distracted way) and engaged (in a half-present manner).