Mindfulness and the complexity of Meditation.

Contrary to common views, meditation is not only not simple, but also not easy – just check the Abhidhamma for example, the core of Buddhist psychology, if you don’t believe me. ‘Just’ paying attention to the breath, for example – sounds easy enough. What’s so difficult about that? Well, having taught and accompanied hundreds of students very closely on their path, I can tell you that the easiest of instruction becomes for most people a major challenge. My first meditation teacher, the Zen master Karlfried Graf Duerckheim, once told me years ago that it took him twenty years to begin to understand and be able to get out of the way of his breath. Many traditions have refined the exploration of the mind to the umpteenth degree, and there is no escaping the infinite complexity of reality we encounter once we dive deeply into the embodied mind.

An instruction may sound simple: “Bring your attention to the somatic sensations of the movement of your breath in the region of your lower belly”, and yet there is no shortage of complexities and complications that arise as soon as the instruction is heard. Despite hearing those exact words, many simply don’t actually do what the instruction says – for example, they think about the breath or begin to create images of the breath instead. They may focus on the breath, but without the required attitude of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. They try to focus, but soon lose it and end up lost in some non-conscious la-la-land. They cannot withstand the many experience intrusions of the wide field of awareness as time passes and don’t know what to do with the myriads of challenges the mind throws their way. In week 9 of our 12-week mindfulness meditation courses, in which we teach in detail method, technique, and scientific evidence for what we do, one participant commented that she did not enjoy paying attention to her breath, that she didn’t practice it, and that by the way, she couldn’t understand the point of doing such a thing. As a teacher, you wonder what tortuous complexities imprison this person’s mind to the point of almost complete obliviousness to weeks of teaching. Yes, this is an extreme example, but I could go on and on giving you more of those examples unfolding on more or less subtle levels of energy flow, eventually leading to the person’s giving up on the practice.

Meditating, or more broadly speaking developing mindsight (a term coined by Daniel Siegel to describe the ability to clearly see one’s own and other people’s minds), is one of the most difficult journeys you’ll ever undertake – complex, difficult, and challenging. These days, in our era of easy soundbites we mistake for knowledge, frivolously facile simplicity we mistake for reality, and easily available quick fixes that mask the fundamental rot at the core of our being, nobody wants to hear about challenge and difficulty. We want instant quick fixes, we want things to be easy without having to invest our whole being into it. Apps and the internet facilitate that illusion – myriads of free guided meditations giving you the impression you won’t have to sweat it: ‘Bite-sized meditations for busy schedules’, ‘It only takes a few minutes to change your life’, ‘Download your free one-minute meditation guide!’, etc. These may be solid nets to catch the unsuspecting fish who has never heard of mindfulness. But in the end, that’s only the beginning of a long and arduous journey, not the destination as many people erroneously believe. The drop-out rate of people beginning to explore mindfulness and eventually giving up is impressive, and that’s a pity. Superficial curiosity and infatuation are easy, but walking through the mud of a lifelong conditioned mind is a different story.

Meditation must not only be practiced but also studied. As in all endeavors that entail the discoveries of a new discipline, in meditation we encounter things, energy flows, realities, and phenomena for which we had no words and words for which we have no experience to match. Words for new discoveries need to be coined and learned. To competently use our tools we have to know them intimately and master their use. As opposed to centuries ago, when all that was available to understand reality was self-exploration, sensory examination, literature, religion, and philosophy, we now have science that completes our picture of reality. The theory and practice of meditation are now unthinkable without scientific knowledge, which has deeply enriched our comprehension of who we may be, the universe, and reality at large.

For some students who are new to this, the necessity of having to engage the conceptual mind can feel ‘theoretical’, unsure as to how it relates to the direct experience of meditation practice. The 2-part article entitled ‘Find Your Answers In Your Speech‘ tries to address this dilemma by showing how seemingly innocuous questions posed by a student in an email entail all the answers the student is looking for if only we can learn to look beyond appearances, hear with the third ear and read between the lines of our cherished stories.

At the core of mastering the art of navigating life’s difficulties with flexibility, tenacity, and resilience like an elegant dance, and to live life being ‘free and easy in the marketplace’ as they say in Zen, is the capacity to regulate our energy flow. But do we have access to that capacity?

The organism that we are (not the body that we have) is always self-regulating on its own without ‘your’ permission or participation, I am happy to say. If evolution had relied on ‘your’ judgment to ensure survival, humanity would have never evolved past the earthworm stage. However, evolution bestowed on us our human consciousness, the capacity to think about how we think about our world, and with it the power to bungle everything up by choosing unwise actions against nature’s well established ‘wisdom’ of many tens of thousands of years, thereby interfering with our health and sanity. The main reason for that lies in our algorithmic nature resulting in a degree of automatism so extensive we can barely fathom. Way over 90% of what we believe to be free, conscious decisions in our lives, from what car we buy to what mate we chose, are in fact automatically decided for us by this organism that we are, only leaving us with the illusion to have been in control. Creating messes is not only easy but unfortunately for the most part our default setting, ironically captured in the Bible, which tells us that it only takes about 10 pages to get ourselves into such unspeakable messes, then roughly 1342 pages to get out of them. Evolution is ruthless in its drive and insistence on survival, and as the genie of consciousness has now escaped the bottle, never to be put back again, we can botch things up as much as we want – our organism will always ensure survival at all costs. But survival is not thriving. Live we will, one way or another, and our organism will regulate energy flow one way or another, with, without or despite our unwise participation; the result will always be the survival of as many human specimens as possible under ever worse conditions until the ecosystem that sustains us collapses under our ignorant stewardship. The earth and evolution don’t care one bit as our species may disappear like an afterthought into the dustbin of history, an interesting cosmic experiment gone wrong.

The sapiens curse is what I just described, our inherited ability to interfere with nature and the organism’s spontaneous regulation without the necessary experience to do so, or possessing a powerful consciousness we allow to be largely ruled by conditioned automatic reflexes we are completely unaware of. Luckily (although not necessarily accessible enough to save our species), our consciousness and the brain/body connected to it also harbor a gold mine, physically manifest as the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC), psychologically as the capacity to be mindful and develop mindsight, which can expand the notion of regulation to a whole new level. This is where mindfulness meditation comes in. But here is the rub: For millennia experienced teachers in this field have known how difficult it is. Buddha said that you must want liberation more than a drowning man wants air to be successful. Jesus talked about the many who are called (everybody wants to feel better and stop suffering …) and the few who are chosen (… but few actually have the stamina to embark on this arduous path). More recently
Dr. Moskowitz put it in the acronym ‘MIRROR’:

There can be no doubt that this is hard work, promising more ‘blood, tears, toil and sweat’ than a walk in the park. Why? The answer is quite simple: Because we are wired for autopilot, not to command wisdom on our destiny. To thrive in our age beyond the dangers of lurking predators behind the bushes means something profoundly new for the human species – namely the complex task of harnessing the power of our MPC to steer our algorithm into new directions never before trodden, the capacity to resist certain automatisms and replace them with wise and skillful action. This is a 1000-year journey requiring 10 years, 10 thousand hours of intensely motivated inquiry, research, practice, and implementation.

Copyright © 2018 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

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