EVERYDAY MEDITATION PODCAST: EPISODE #209
What’s this episode about?
What's going on in the brain with our "I, me, mine" system when we meditate...
Apparently, the objective of most spiritual systems and their practices is to lessen the "hold" on the self --or as Goleman and Davidson put it: a "lightening of the system that builds our feelings of I, me, mine" (Altered Traits, p 153). Practitioners learn to "step outside the self," to realize "yoga" or god or pure happiness --whatever you recognize it as (whatever experience it is we're even discussing here). And from observing practitioners who've devoted many, many hours to meditation and spiritual practice, they seem to end up with a baseline of positivity and joy.
Sounds pretty good, right? Whether it does or it doesn't, I'm curious about the story going on underneath.
We don't have conclusive evidence, but the little research we do have supports a story that correlates well with the anecdotal tales. The research may not tell the whole story yet, but for now what we have helps a lay person like me to clarify my experience with meditation and my own sense of "self".
Which "self" is that again?
Let's go back to what I mean by "lessen the hold on self" and take a look at some brain activity.
Once upon a time, scientists (and the world) thought brain activity was reflected in our "external" activity: thinking and moving = brain activity. No thought, no movement = no brain activity. Of course, we now know that this isn't at all how the brain works.
Your brain is active all the time, just using different "systems" or "circuitry" at different times for different purposes. So your brain is just as active when you're sleeping as when you're awake -- just different activities are underway.
Similarly, when you're doing something that requires intense focus, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex region in your brain is active (and/or, depending on the nature of the focus, possibly other parts of the prefrontal cortex, where "executive" functions occur).
When our mind wanders, we tend to end up dwelling on issues of self, and activity lights up in the brain "circuitry" that gives us our sense of "I, me, mine" that I was talking about last week. This circuitry is found in the regions known as the "midline of the prefrontal cortex" (mPFC) and the "postcingulate cortex" (PCC) which link to the limbic system, which is responsible for more "automatic" functions and behavior. And this activity is referred to our "default mode".
So, what does that have to do with meditation?
When we're super focused -- on a task or on "nothing" as in meditation -- the "I, me, mine" activity, or the "default mode" activity, is quieted in favor of the activity that creates that focus --in the DLPFC.
In meditation, since our focus on "nothing" is never perfect, we shift back and forth between a focused mind and a wandering mind (activity in the default "I, me, mine" mode). This, it appears in the research, strengthens our ability to make the switch at will --to choose to spend more time not in a state of wandering.
Because it's in the aimless wandering that our "I, me, mine" tends to get stuck ruminating on the worst angle on a situation --or the "blow things out of proportion" angle.
Meditation is the practice of focusing and creating a state of flow, which seems to correlate with the "nothing" and "stillness" that the ISHTA kriyas (what I teach) guide you into. It's a practice of shifting from "I, me, mine" to "focus and flow" --away from "self".
Maybe meditation practice enables the "step outside the self" that yields an experience of pure joy of being -- of being "one" with the collective universe, rather than one individual within the universe. Research and anecdotes suggest this much.
And it all starts with a practice of choosing the switch in focus, a switch in brain mode.
Yes, that's a hard switch to make
Stepping away from "I, me, mine" is not easy. I'm not sure why, but I think it has to do with the apparent fact that our "I, me, mine" system exists in part to promote our individual success in the gene pool. That, in terms of life on earth, is "survival" (at least, that's what the evidence shows).
Social structures have supplanted many "biological urges" and survival isn't the only thing that drives us. Meditation is hard, but not impossible. Barring a medical condition that makes it impossible, everyone can learn to meditate!
At least, it never hurts to try, if you're curious!
Why look, it's a meditation you can practice right now!
Below is the week's "full practice" episode. Click here to listen to the "how to practice" instructions.
I'd love to hear about your experience -- and help out with any questions you have.
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Practicing with you,