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EVERYDAY MEDITATION PODCAST: EPISODE #209

Listen to "Ep 209 - I, Me, Mine and the Brain" on Spreaker.

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.

Listen to "Ep 206 - Full Hum Sa Kriya Practice" on Spreaker.

I'd love to hear about your experience -- and help out with any questions you have.

Click on the bar below to get in touch!

Practicing with you,
esther

EVERYDAY MEDITATION PODCAST: EPISODE #202

Listen to "Ep 202 - Meditation and - WED" on Spreaker.

What’s this episode about?
Meditation may be able to help you develop your sense of self... or perhaps it's just one sense of self.

How?

By developing your sense of self as distinct from attachment (ragas) and aversion (dvesha) — from the monkey mind.

Because without these, we seem to be left with just JOY, PEACE, and LOVE

A decade ago, I would have scoffed at this idea. JOY, PEACE, and LOVE, pssht.

Mostly because I identified solely with my personal, internal stress, anguish, and fear (but not my internal joys).

For example, it was critically important that I not be late ever. Or that I fit in with what the other girls were wearing — and yet I never truly wanted to fit in….

I didn’t now that there was any other way, I didn’t believe that I could solve all of my problems in my head.

I thought I had to change from the outside to change what I was feeling on the inside. Classic teenage angst (and I’m really not the angsty type).

So why would I listen to suggestions otherwise? Suggestions that I could be happy if I just looked inside?

Because I was a teenager —and a stubborn one at that. I thought I had all the answers.

And that’s ok... if it wears off! And usually we do grow out of some of our lack of self awareness, but just as often teenage neuroses follow into adulthood in one way or another. By then, we don’t realize how and where we’re still acting like a foolish, stubborn teenager.

This “teenage” behavior lines up with what Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson call the “stickiness” of our “self” thoughts.

“Stickiness seems to reflect the dynamics of the emotional circuitry of the brain, including the amygdala and the nucleus acumbens*. These regions very likely underlie what traditional texts see as the root causes of suffering —attachment and aversion — where the mind becomes fixated on wanting something that seems rewarding or on getting rid of something unpleasant” (Altered Traits, p 162-163. *Brain regions. The amygdala scans for danger, among other things, and the nucleus accumbens seems to be part of our reward system.).

We’re stuck — in our minds — to our own attachments and aversions. Attachments and aversions themselves aren’t a problem. They don’t create suffering. Being stuck creates an experience of suffering.

And eventually, I sought or stumbled onto a different way of thinking about and doing things — a way to get a little less stuck in my own “self” thoughts.

Meditation has been a big part of my path away from stickiness.

How?

Well, my teachers didn’t draw me in by saying “Here: To be happy, simply abandon everything you’ve ever relied on to make sense of your experience in the world.” That’s for sure.

I never would have shown up for the first class!

Instead, they said “Try to visualize a light and focus on it… and then on “nothing” if you can.”

That’s it. Furthermore they added: “If focusing is hard, that’s OK. It’s 100% OK. When your mind wanders, just nudge your attention back, gently and without judgment.”

Those last two elements were key for me. No judgment?! No “I’m doing this wrong, I suck”?! I just gotta show up and try a little?!

I was kinda hooked — I loved this thing I couldn’t fail at!

And then the brain started changing. Changes that made it possible to pause and reflect and “step outside” myself.

“Such a step outside of the self, technically speaking, suggests weakening activation of the default circuitry that binds together the mosaic of memories, thoughts, impulses, and other semi-independent mental processes into the cohesive sense of 'me' and 'mine’” (Altered Traits, p 154-155).

There is very little research looking at this particular effect from meditation, so the guys that know more than I are offering a possible interpretation of what evidence they do have, rather than drawing a conclusion. But I assume that what they suggest happens generally with meditation, happened to me, too.

And those are just the changes that happened pretty much automatically! They laid the groundwork for active reflection and deciding what to do with what you observe and learn about yourself.

What can I do with that?

The joyous thing for me is that it’s not a process you need to rush —in fact, I think that would get in the way. You just show up, meditate, and trust that the rest will unfold in the time it should. You could be a little more proactive about it, simply by making reflection a part of your meditation process, but more than that really depends on you and what kind of learner you are.

For some it helps having a structure like yoga or mindfulness to steer you in your reflection, but it doesn’t seem necessary to change your brain and feel the effects. Take for example, Dan Harris, the news anchor who started meditating after a breakdown and when it changed his life, he wrote a book about it: 10% Happier, in which he chronicles his initial journey into meditation. Adding meditation into his day seemed to initiate some big changes in his mind, which led to positive changes in his actions and interactions. And greater ability to act from principle rather than fear. If I recall correctly, he didn’t actively seek out change other than to add meditation. That’s often the way the story goes.

See, meditation, gives us a stronger sense of the “I” that feels JOY, PEACE, and LOVE.

And next I’ll walk through some of the brain changes we know about that might help explain what happens when this JOY, PEACE, and LOVE “I" is strong, and the nagging, agonizing “I” fades away — or at least learns to take a back seat when asked.

 

Ready to practice a meditation now?

Below is the week's "full practice" episode. Click here to listen to the "how to practice" instructions.

Listen to "Ep 199 - Full Arohan Awarohan Kriya Practice" on Spreaker.

I'd love to hear about your experience -- and help out with any questions you have.

Practicing with you,
esther

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