Saturday, June 23, 2012

Faith and devotion

I've read before that two very important traits to have on the path to recognizing awareness are faith and devotion. I don't much like those words, as they sound kinda religious, but upon further consideration, they seem to mean, essentially, trust and dedication. As in,

Trust that (continuous) recognition of awareness is in fact the goal to end all goals, and
Dedication to commit oneself to recognizing it.

I really think there's something to that...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Two faces of meditation

There seem to be two different ways in which meditation is commonly approached. It's not a clean divide, but I'll turn them into distinct categories for this post.

1. Psychological / spiritual

It's odd to lump these together, but the scientific study of meditation seems to be largely based in practices that many would consider "spiritual." This includes things like breathing practices and yoga, to calm the body and mind.

I think it commonly looks like this:

I know it's probably obnoxious of me to do so, but I can't help but laugh at pictures like that. Those people are, like, so much more groovy than me. It's like they're making gang signs. Of spirituality.

This is the approach that many are trying to secularize, so that you don't have to wear particular clothing or beads, or have a cool-looking silhouette, or rub a fat man's belly.

2. As an introduction to awareness

Some traditions (particularly the ones that call themselves "non-dual") suggest that meditation is primarily a way of calming your mind just enough to recognize "awareness": the knowing faculty of the mind. It's the thing (or non-thing) by which you experience anything at all. Once you recognize it, the idea is to make that recognition deep and continuous.

Some suggest you do it by invoking various deities. Others say it's as simple as "short moments, repeated many times." I prefer the latter approach. Relax and be cognizant. When everything is gone, what's left is awareness. Even when everything is there, what's underneath, inside, and all around, is awareness. As the recognition of awareness grows, the division between (and the need for) the absence or presence of any particular experience fades away.

Sometimes I feel it's just too simple, and so I think I have to go back to one of the more "complicated" approaches (deities, breathing exercises). But all of the awareness traditions tell you that when it's done right, it does in fact feel "too simple."

Its simplicity is also a trap. If there are no explicit signs to indicate that you're doing it "right," you can easily fall into solipsism or nihilism or some other -ism. Or maybe you think "screw meditation, I'm beyond that," even though you're not beyond anything at all.

So how do you know? I think it's just that when you know, you know. Yeah, that's not helpful, but I'm not really trying to teach anything anyway ;)

In the end, obviously, people should do whatever works best for them. But at some point, if you feel that all this "meditation" stuff is too contrived or spiritual or constrictive, consider that there's another way.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mind wandering and creativity

New research by Schooler and Baird at UCSB builds on previous research suggesting that mind wandering assists creativity. I haven't read the original paper yet, but from its description in the SciAm article, I have a few big questions. First, to recap:

  • Subjects were asked to list unusual uses for usual items.
  • They took a break, which included one of four possible activities:
    1. Resting
    2. A demanding attentional task
    3. An undemanding reaction task "known to elicit mind wandering"
    4. No break
  • Subjects in group 3 were much better than the other groups at listing additional uses for items they saw before the break. They were no better with new items.
    • This suggests that mind wandering is great for stimulating new ideas to problems you're already working on.
Immediate questions:
  • How do we know that the subjects weren't trained meditators, and thus that the undemanding task didn't elicit wandering?
    • Did they measure mind wandering in the subjects and try to correlate it with the improvements? If not, why not suspect that reaction tasks are what boost creativity?
  • Resting is known to elicit mind wandering. Why did this group show no improvement at all?
  • How would a meditating group do? If, say, breathing meditation is not good for creativity, maybe we should be warning people.
Next step, I guess, is reading the paper itself.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Our true nature?

Often we hear that humans are innately both good and bad, with the capacity for kindness as well as selfishness, all in one big human nature soup. But is it really like that?
Imagine an old man (or woman) who has just returned from the mountain top, after many years of dedicated meditation. Is he more likely to want to: 
a) Share universal wisdom in a meaningful way to reduce suffering in the world
b) Stab kittens and puppies and eat all of his dastardly meditative competitors
Okay, those may not be the only two possibilities, and perhaps we're influenced by Hollywood and other cultural influences. But in actuality, I think something very much like (a) is really what usually happens. When we spend time clarifying our minds, compassion scatters selfishness like the sun clearing the clouds.

See Greg Burdulis or Matthieu Ricard as examples. Even a comparatively useless fellow like yours truly had quite a powerful experience of compassion that radically changed my outlook on life and its purpose.

Here's a brief outline of what I discovered (or maybe just decided) (see my other blog for more):
  • Being mean usually happens when we're manifesting an anxiety or insecurity that we're unable to cope with in a healthy way internally.
    • I may be hungry and irritable, but if I can maintain mental clarity, I can quarantine that miasma from other people. And not by suppressing it or otherwise worsening things for me.
    • If I want to make a decision that may slightly harm someone else but benefit me, there's a little voice I have to squash first. That's easier to do if my mind isn't calm.
  • Having a calm, lucid mind exposes all anxieties and insecurities as extraneous. As those melt away, there's progressively less that can hurt me, and thus less to worry about. This happiness-that-cannot-be-stolen frees up a lot of mental room to do other things. In most people who try, the inclination seems to move toward doing nice things and away from doing mean things.
    • Doing "mean" things, to any degree, for any reason, no longer seems to have a purpose.
    • Doing nice things still has the beautiful byproduct of feeling good.
In other words, I think there's a strong argument that compassion is a fundamental component of human nature, while selfishness and malice are adventitious (that is, parasitic). Doing away with compassion requires some brutal conditioning, whereas eliminating selfishness requires only seeing the world as it really is.

There's also a final step here. What does one do with the compassion uncovered from all this practice? In addition to straightforward ways of helping people (volunteering, charity, etc.), there's this big one:
  • Having noticed the turmoil in my own mind that led to all the suffering I caused myself and others, it's reasonable to assume that everyone else is doing it, too. This gives a clear target for compassion: help them understand how beautiful things look from this other perspective.
    • Decreases my need to blame other people. Instead, I'm more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt with their actions.
    • Reduces the need to focus on the "details" of the world: most social problems can be solved by simply enhancing the empathy of the actors. All other strategies are forceful and thus less efficient and less durable.
So get on the train, transform your mind, and join the inevitable compassion revolution. Or keep yelling at stoplights :)

Monday, June 11, 2012

On the neuroscience of meditation

As I collect research on the effects of meditation on the brain, I'm again struck by how weird it is that the neuroscience of it matters to most people. Consider this analogy:
You're hungry. Like, really hungry. And you don't know what to do about it. Then you meet some people who have tried something they call "eating food," and they report that hunger diminishes. And they get big and strong. These are all the things you care about and want for yourself! 
But they only do this in the dark, and they can only describe the mechanism in metaphor ("it's like putting a spoon... to your mouth... but with stuff in it"). You don't fully believe them, so you do some studies and find that, indeed, they're consistently interrupted less during their day by things like hunger pangs. But this could just be some sort of misunderstanding. In your world, photons are the only things that are real, and you haven't seen photonic evidence, dammit!
So you do another study: you shine bright lights on them, and study their shadows while they eat. Lo! You can sort of make out from the shadows that spoons with stuff are being put to mouths. Now that you have real evidence, you decide it's worth learning this mystical skill of "eating." And now you can explain to everyone else why and how eating works: these shadows over here move like this!
When people meditate, they report less stress and sadness, and more happiness and empathy. That sounds pretty good, so we collect evidence. The psychological studies check out: we get exactly the skills that we want from this practice! But that's not enough. When we see blood oxygenation levels fluctuate in the right places -- as suggested by putting brains in magnets and then bouncing radio waves off them -- and infer that this is because those neurons are firing and thus needing more oxygen (fMRI), then we finally believe it. Or when we see that brains "grow" -- even though brain growth is often a symptom of pathology.

If indeed there are lasting behavioral changes, and those are the things we want, it's a bit funny to wait to discover brain correlates before trying the techniques. Of course something changed in the brain. It would be quite surprising indeed if meditators had large behavioral changes and there were no physical correlates. Now that would be a real finding.

Note: I don't mean to make it sound like neuroscience has nothing to offer meditation research. But it is surprising to see just how much it matters to people, particularly when even experts (see last four paragraphs) don't attribute as much meaning to some of the findings as we do.

Monday, June 4, 2012

What meditation is

I think meditation is frequently misinterpreted as a nice way to relax or chill out. Maybe that's all it is for some people, but I think it misses out on the real richness of the practice (besides being hard to do that way -- meditation frequently isn't at all easy!). I'll explain using an example.

When you're late driving somewhere and get stopped by a red light, do you think "stupid light!" and wish it would hurry up and change? Do you recognize that this action is not only useless (it doesn't make the light change faster) but counterproductive (it makes you anxious, whereas you'd presumably rather be happy)? If so, why do you do it? This could be considered an example of a neurosis:
Neurosis is a class of functional mental disorders involving distress but neither delusions nor hallucinations, whereby behavior is not outside socially acceptable norms.
This way of relating to the world may seem natural while we're doing it, but it's anything but healthy. Assuming that it's healthy just because it's normal may be our most fundamental mistake. The above example is just an obvious example of what might be termed "fighting reality." But it turns out that a vast array of negative emotions we feel may be rooted in the same view.

Before practicing meditation, it might not be obvious why fighting pain is a bad thing. When you stub your toe, why not feel "ow, this sucks, this sucks"? Or why not just distract ourselves so that we don't have to face the reality of pain at all? When we learn to face reality head-on, it becomes clear why this approach is far preferable to fighting, ignoring, or clinging to any such experience. And once you see that, you wonder how you ever thought anything else could work.

So yes, the result of adapting to this view may be that you are more relaxed, better at concentrating, kinder, and experience other cognitive and psychological benefits. But relating to the world in a healthy way is a much more profound goal.