Mindful learning ensures our ability to expand our horizons
The Mindsight Intensive, an in-depth meditation program I teach for people interested in making mindfulness a way of life, is very detailed and elaborate. We take the process of meditation under the microscope and learn to dive deeply into the complexities of the mind, the body, the brain, non-dual awareness, and spirituality, as we familiarize ourselves with the many connections between them all. It feels like entering and exploring a vast,
uninhibited uninhabited, and an unknown jungle full of unexplored mysteries (my typo suggests a sense of unfettered freedom that comes with exploring untouched wilderness). This is not a romantic place by any means, but ‘home’ nonetheless, more of an exhilarating, at times dangerous and challenging place, in which survival is unlikely unless we have good maps, a good compass, and a backpack full of food and tools to face whatever comes our way. Such (and much more) is the mind, the emergent property of the brain, the most complex object in the known universe. Without solid meditation tools, we get hopelessly lost in the vast expanse of the mind, which has the capacity to endlessly fool us. If we don’t want to lose our way, these tools need to be learned, practiced, and made available to our consciousness at a moment’s notice, and for that much needs to be memorized.
A student in the Mindsight Intensive sent me an email with several questions. It was an interesting email because this student had not noticed that the answers were implicitly enfolded in her questions, yet inaccessible to her due to certain blocks and blind spots. We will be discussing this email in this blog, but before we do that, let’s step back for a moment.
There is meditation proper with all its tools and complexities, and then there are the preliminary attitudes and reflections that form the necessary psychological background and holding environment, ensuring we maintain the right orientation that allows us to make optimal use of meditation and its permeation in everyday life. It is the latter we will be focusing on here, as it became clear that our student was not able to embody the principles involved in these so important preliminary reflections.
Remember that meditation is all about regulation, which I briefly discuss within its evolutionary context in another blog soon to be posted. What is the essence of regulation? Two aspects define regulation: Monitoring and modifying energy flow. You can use other terms if you want: Sensing and shaping or tracking and transforming energy flow. Regulation = monitoring (sensing, tracking) + modifying (shaping, transforming) energy flow. Even though it is by no means easily accessible, thanks to our middle prefrontal cortex (MPC) we inherently possess the capacity to monitor and then modify our energy flow, both for good and for bad. We can ignore this capacity to our peril, or harness its power for great benefit through training. First, we learn to monitor how energy flows as we first find out what’s actually going on. This affords us a wider, new, and more encompassing perspective, from which we can then modify the energy flow in such a way as to ensure greater harmony in how it flows. This is how we achieve a greater degree of organismic integration. In what follows I am going to shift things around and start with a short overview of some preliminary attitudinal techniques that allow us to modify energy flow first before we then explore in part 2 how to monitor energy flow by analyzing the email I received in greater detail.
As you walk through life examining the way you create your reality, these are a few useful daily reflections to keep in mind. For easier recall, each reflection comes with an image, a metaphor that evokes what we need to pay attention to:
- The examination and integration of your mind occur at a SNAIL‘s pace: Slowly, like Nomads meandering Attentively through the unknown with an Inventive spirit that can Languorously contemplate. Sloppy meandering rather than pursuing a goal on a straight line is what best defines how we proceed when we are attuned to the organism’s rhythms. The unfolding of the universe through who we are is an ever-creative process calling to our inventive nature.
It moves at the glacial pace of a SLOTH: Slowly, Languorously, requiring an Open, Tenacious and Humble attitude.
There are no shortcuts to the activation of neuroplasticity. It takes effort, time, patience, and tenacity to develop habits of integration as I discussed in my blog ‘Noticing Improvement‘. You have to constantly remember that you don’t see the grass grow when you are sitting on your lawn in your backyard, even though it is growing. You only notice after the fact when several weeks have passed how it has grown, particularly when you come back after a holiday. So embrace and enjoy the slow pace. There is no room for impatience, soundbites, and quick fixes.
We know from research (Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell) how much intense practice time it takes to fully activate neuroplasticity, how much toil and sweat is required to take what amounts to the road less travel by: 1 hour of practice/day for 10,000 hours or 10 years, metaphorically embarking on a 1000-year journey. This is why despite the current hype about mindfulness, most people aren’t able to manage to embody it in a deep and consistent way.
When Jesus said ‘Many are called, but few are chosen’, I hear the reality that everybody desires to suffer less, but not many are prepared to invest the effort and time it takes to rewire the brain so thoroughly as to fully embody it. That’s what I see in my practice, as I have the privilege to work so intimately with people over long periods of years.
- It is extremely hard work indeed.
Not only did Buddha announce that you must want liberation from suffering more than a drowning person wants air, but Michael Moskowitz also coined the acronym MIRROR to describe the characteristic attributes we need on this journey.
Strong Motivation as manifested by an active attitude is essential as pain is to be seen as a motivator and opportunity to engage attention. This also requires clear Intention to muster the necessary effort to focus the mind, as opposed to trying to get rid of pain, a futile attitude that can only lead to defeat and capitulation. Relentlessness then, is the name of the game, implying an intense and unrelenting focus in every possible moment throughout the day and night. We then discover the principle or Reliability, the fact that both our brain and our pain are our friends, not our enemies. Pain is an alarm, an honored guest loaded with precious information to invite in for tea. As an alarm, we then need to learn to either fix what causes the alarm to go off, or fix the alarm itself if it goes off without good reason anymore. And so we discover how pain is by far not a calamity, but an opportunity to deepen our mastery of our tools instead. The goal we need to focus on shall therefore never be to mask, distract from, or even get rid of pain (although the latter of course has some validity in acute pain states), but the Restoration normal organismic function instead. Indeed, the Fellowes shredder mascot on the box of our office shredder embodies quite nicely the determination necessary for success:
- Science can also come to our rescue when we get stuck and on the verge of giving up practice, because it seems ‘too hard’, ‘too boring’ or ‘we have too many more important things to do’.
M&M stands for Marshmallows and Molecules. The famous marshmallow study with children shows that the ability to delay gratification for the purpose of paying attention in childhood (called ‘response flexibility’), is predictive of health later in life. Being able to steadily pay attention to our experiences for long periods of time has an integrative effect on the brain and a stabilizing effect on the mind. Moreover, mindful attention affects the body’s physiology deeply, all the way down to the molecular level as it influences the processes inside our cells.
- The central maneuver to learn is to observe our experiences without having to act on any of it. Daniel Siegel coined the acronym YODA for ‘You Observe and Decouple Automaticity’.
Because we have a nervous system, we can’t help experiencing sensations of craving, aversion and indifference. However, most of us are not even aware of these sensations, because we immediately and automatically move to acting on them by grasping for what we crave, avoiding what we experience aversion for and ignoring what feels indifferent. All we then notice is that we eat too much, can’t take elevators, or feel numb, but we are out of touch with the step before that. What’s important to realize here is that the first set of three, craving, aversion and indifference are unavoidable, but the ensuing actions of grasping, avoiding and ignoring are not. YODA allows us to separate the two and stay close to the unavoidable experiences without acting on them. This opens up fundamentally new spaces of inquiry that allow us to gain deep insight and a large perspective, from which we can then respond with wisdom rather than ignorantly react. The present moment becomes accessible to us and stress decreases as we gain access to states of calmness, as I explained in my blog The Present Moment And The Mindsight Suite.
- When students struggle with attentional stability and feel plagued by ruminations, very often a crucial aspect of mindful attention is missing. Mindful attention is not just concentration, the aiming and sustaining of attention. Concentration is centered in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the chalkboard of the mind, a part of the brain that is outside the MPC. Alone, it is vulnerable to the effects of emotional regulation, and thus easily distracted by emotions. Mindful attention is very different. You could say it is concentration with a twist, or concentration on steroids. The twist is a receptive attitude within our capacity for reflection that accompanies concentration and originates in the MPC. Mindful attention thus links the DLPFC with the MPC and entails both concentration and a particular attitude of receptive openness called COAL (Acronym coined by Daniel Siegel).
COAL refers to Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance and Love, the kind of attitude a mother spontaneously demonstrates toward her baby, even when it is cranky.
Curiosity is best defined as beginner’s mind, the ability to wonder like a child about every little detail of your everyday life and to be passionately involved in taking in, exploring, and soaking in the fabric of life itself. Openness means not setting any limits to or not excluding anything from what we allow to arise in our awareness. Acceptance brings the equal intensity of attention to what we find pleasant and enjoyable as it does to what we find unpleasant or painful. Love is the orientation that naturally emerges as we embody curiosity, openness, and acceptance. The result of COAL is equanimity and compassion. Without the attitude of COAL, our attempts at paying attention are like driving a car without tires. There is no resilience and equanimity to soften the blows of inner suffering as they assail us like arrows while we try to concentrate.
- Our left brain is the emissary that has usurped the right brain master’s power. We are prisoners of the left brain and its virtual reality, mostly out of touch with the body and its primordial energy flow. We forget we are embodied, and that no insight can ever come from a disembodied state. This is why all true meditation has to go through the body and discover its deep nature as emptiness. At our Mindfulness Centre I developed an approach called Dynamic Mindfulness, which insists on grounding ourselves in somatic awareness as the basis for all further meditative inquiry. Our organism’s neuroprocessing is such that the more complex processing in the cortex (cognition) is dependent on the body, but the body not on cognition. Yes, cognition affects the body of course, but the body will always do what it does, no matter what we think, while what we think is profoundly determined by what’s going on in the body. Awareness of embodiment is key!
- You may not have noticed it yet, but have a closer look: You’ll realize how much of your life and your decisions you base on what you think you know. Science now tells us that we are complex algorithms, and that probably over 95% of all our decisions, including all the important ones, are not taken by ‘us’, but automatically by our organism without us even knowing how. We are like icebergs that are mostly hidden under the water surface.It is therefore so important to become transparent to the vast non-conscious reality we are embedded in. An awareness that we are more zombie-like than we can ever imagine will help us become receptive to the vast ‘wisdom’ of the universe and our organism we have not the faintest idea of. As Eagleman writes: “Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control….The conscious mind is not at the center of the action in the brain; instead, it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity” (Incognito). That kind of conscious sensibility will open you up to become receptive to these vast unknown forces that determine your life, and instead of unconsciously resisting them and causing chaos and rigidity, you then have a chance to let them inspire you to move in unexpected new directions.
- Beginner’s mind (see COAL above) comes from a particular way of engaging in learning. Ellen Langer researched the principles of mindful learning that ensure our ability to expand our horizons. To remember these principles I coined the mnemonic PeNoCoCa, which to my ears started to sound like Pina Colada, evoking the most delicious one I ever had in the Dominican Republic: It was served inside a hollowed pineapple, into which fresh coconut milk was mixed with the finely pureed pineapple content and of course a good shot of spirit. I had no image for PeNoCoCa, but lets go for one of a Pina Colada just for the inebriated fun of it:
Remembering that Pina Colada helps me savor PeNoCoCa, here is another good mind brew that helps us on the path: Always view a situation from several Perspectives, recognize the Novelty in the information presented to you in different situations, attend to the Context in which the information is perceived and create new Categories through which the information may be understood. If something has no name, we tend not to recognize its existence, and when we explore new territory, as we always do in mindfulness, we discover realities never seen before, for which we need names in order to communicate and recognize.
- ‘Panta rei’ (Latin: Everything flows) is the reality we discover through deep inquiry.
Impermanence, uncertainty, and non-substantiality are the three fundamental truths of existence we always resist.
- Last but not least, MEMORIZE your tools. Otherwise, you are like a surgeon in the operating room, not knowing how to use your tools, or like an explorer in the jungle without backpack and necessities. I see this all the time, people believing they are meditating, meanwhile, they cannot tell me where their attention is and what they exactly experience. Or they think they are doing one thing, when in fact something completely different is happening. In such circumstances of lack of clarity, meditation will not go far and people end up giving up. I always stress the difference between a good meditation that ensures deep rewiring, and a bad meditation which wastes your time: It is not about whether your experiences while meditating are pleasant or not, painful or not, difficult or not; remember that mindfulness is about being free and easy in the market place, about diminishing suffering independent of circumstance. No, a good meditation is one during which you master the use of your tools. When you don’t, your mind continues to look like this:Not much useful can come from such disorganized and cluttered a mind. Paraphrasing Buddha, your unexamined mind is your worst enemy, your examined mind, your best friend. And to examine it, you must master your examination tools.
To be continued in part 2.
Copyright © 2018 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.