Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Science of Mind: Sensation and the Imagination

“Buddhist teachings are not a religion, they are a science of mind.
-- The Dalai Lama

I’ve been meditating ever since I followed my high school girl friend into a Transcendental Mediation seminar when I was 17. I was a convert in the worst way, meditating rebelliously even before football games in the locker room, determined to prove its value, even while my teammates snickered at the drool that came out of my mouth. I’ve dropped the practice and picked it up at least a dozen times. I’ve dabbled in an embarrassing number of meditation and spiritual practices, studied scores of sacred texts and sat with an opened notebook before religious scholars, charlatans, poets, and gurus. I’ve hiked through empty deserts, up to sacred mountains, and across the globe to holy shrines hoping to stumble upon some formula to concentrate my mind and ground my spirit. I’ve been determined but stubborn in my belief that science could not give me any help on my path to understand this ancient practice. I was wrong.
Meditation or the practice of mindfulness, which to me transcends religious doctrines, cultures, and historical periods, is a practice as old as our ancestors staring at fire. It’s a technique to study the very source of what's going on inside our mind and body. I’ve come to learn mindfulness or meditation is essentially an on-going experiment in observing our mind in action. Like scientists, when we sit and close our eyes, we learn to use the tool of observation on our own mind, feeling and observing sensations, thoughts, ideas, emotions. These responses of our body are real living phenomena and by studying them we cultivate a respect for and appreciation of not only the infinite potential that exists inside us but also in all life itself. Heady stuff, but there it is, going on right inside and all you have to do is sit there and close your eyes and watch and explore.
But, mindfulness is not so simple, either. Or it’s so simple that we have a hard time trusting it. Boredom tricks us into believing that nothing really is going on worth the time it takes and the pain that comes from facing our narrow and juvenile obsessions and fears. (I once tried to meditate at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, hoping I could stay for a month. But I could only last 8 days, as all I wanted to do was break the rules and argue with the monks over why they smoked and didn't recycle!, like some spoiled American not-it-all fifteen year old, which of course I once was.) I’ve experienced emotions of deep sorrow, humiliation and terror, making me long for any form of escape from what I'd felt or witnessed. Only recently have I realized that mindfulness practice is really not a discovery of ideas and values but a way to develop a mature mind by using and exploring how it works, particularly via the imagination.
Sometimes I wonder if what really is at work in science and in any cultivated study is not the actual information or understanding that is achieved, but the very skill or awareness that comes from years of exploring sensation, emotion, curiosity and the imagination. Indeed, this is the guiding principle in the Bhagavad Gita:
“With no desire for success,
no anxiety about failure,
indifferent to results, he burns up
his actions in the fire of wisdom.”

For some time, I have taken this attitude of scientific observation to another step. As a writer and teacher of writing, I’ve experimented with recording what happens in my meditations in a journal. It only takes a few minutes. It’s similar to recording dreams, in that I’ve noticed that by recording my observations, my ability to hold my focus and observe more keenly actually increases.
I’ve asked my writing and yoga students to experiment with this as well. I tell them to simply record as best they can, sensations in their body, the quality and feeling of their breath, the emotions that come, and of course, the thoughts. The point is not to philosophize or explain or use the exercise to ramble about ideas about meditation or feelings, but simply note down as descriptively as possible what they experience. (This becomes the interesting challenge: how to describe a sensation or an emotion or thought as a real living thing?)
One of the things I’ve noticed in my experiments and writing down my observations is that the very act of focusing and the purposeful effort at observing the responses of my body naturally calms and quiets the mind. This is of course nothing new and neurobiologists understood and proved this years ago; it’s called biofeedback. (It’s interesting how much was going on in the 70’s and then dropped and now is being picked up again, isn’t it?)
Another thing I’ve noticed is that focusing on a sensation I begin to sense a feeling of heat in this part of my body. I also sense the feeling widening or deepening, beginning with the surface or some interior place and then moving outward or sinking into the inner body. I feel very subtle sensations where I did not know I could actually consciously feel or reach. It’s similar to the way memory works, one surface memory opens out or connects another more subtle memory, and memory by memory, suddenly a whole new landscape of the past opens up you've completely uncovered from your unconscious. A key to both, I believe, is the imagination.
Neuroscientists call the use of the imagination part of the brain’s organic process of integration as it coordinates various activities and processes related to a given action. Whatever is happening, I’m struck by the way my mind leaps to a symbolic image or idea as I try to stay focused on a sensation or observe my body as an emotion arises or a thought spins out. What is so interesting to me is that as I try to hold on to a feeling sensation of these phenomena (instead analyzing them and placing some meaning for they are), my imagination is energized and engaged with an intensity I seldom experience outside of meditation. Perhaps it’s there working all the time, but I’m just not aware of it. But this is just the point: being aware of how the mind works, including the imagination, enhances our use of it as well as its flexibility and its health.
You may say, so what? Well, consider this. The real revolutionary idea we are just beginning to swallow from the rapid advances in neurobiology is that, unlike what we thought before, we DO have a great deal of influence over the development and health of our brain. And, guess what? like our third grade art teacher told us, using the imagination is not just playing but opening our minds.

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