Counteracting Our Mind’s Deceptive Ways in Meditation

The Case For Careful Self-Monitoring

We constantly intend many things in life, but all too often what turns out does not correspond to what we intended. We then blame factors outside our control, rather than noticing that we undermine our own intentions. How so? A very simple mechanism plays a predominant role: We forget to self-monitor, assuming that once an intention has run out of the gate, the stars are properly aligned for all concerned neurofirings to shoot in the same direction as they do the intention’s bidding. This could not be more wrong! Just because we intend something, does not mean that our actions actually follow what we intend at all. There is a whole world between intention and execution, a chaotic sizzling of myriad contradictory neurofirings with their own agenda and unconscious intentions that undermine our original intentions. For survival purposes, the brain is infinitely creative in the construction of useful and not so useful illusions we fall prey to. These illusions are then embedded in seemingly seamless narratives that depict a distorted reality we believe in, not noticing the many inbuilt gaps we remain completely unaware of. In short, making sure that an intention comes to fruition as the corresponding intended action, is an art, the art of self-monitoring. Most meditation failures my students seek my help for have their roots in a lack of self-monitoring.

Here are two vignettes I recently encountered with my students:

Lydia, as I will call her, reported that she experienced anxiety, whenever she was paying attention to her breath, which is why she did not pursue this practice. She wondered how to deal with that. In my presence, I invited her to close her eyes and focus her attention on the somatic sensations accompanying the breathing in the belly. I then asked her, whether the focus of her attention is now on the sensations in the belly, and she confirmed it was. Next, I asked her to describe the sensations she was witnessing within the focus of her attention, and her response was ‘very strong heartbeat and thoughts about how unpleasant the meditation is’. Her anxiety, as seemingly predicted by her original complaint, was fairly high.

Peter, as I will call my second student, sent me an email with regards to a meditation he was supposed to practice, in which the focus of attention is also in the somatic sensations accompanying the breathing in the belly. He wrote: “The challenge I have by keeping the focus on the pelvis is boredom and restlessness.  Can I instead focus my attention on a candle to ward off boredom?”

Before you read on, take a break and reflect on these two vignettes. Ask yourself how you would help these two students, and where the problem might lie. Imagine being one of those students and what your problem might be.

In both cases, the mind is playing tricks on them, and they don’t notice it. Completely unaware, they either think seeing a reality they are actually not seeing, or blatantly disregard cardinal rules of mindfulness they are theoretically well aware of. The result is as Shakespeare would say ‘what you see is not what you see’, a sort of unconscious lying to oneself, which leads to believing the mind’s distorted constructions, not noticing that these beliefs are just constructions of the mind, and finally mistaking these beliefs for reality and truth. It is a good thing that these two students reached out to examine their challenge, because, without an experienced teacher, their meditation attempts would understandably falter and never lead anywhere.

Lydia’s predicament is that she thought her attention is in the somatic sensations in the belly, when in fact her response to my second question made it very clear that her attention was in the region of the heart and even far away from somatic sensations in cognitive stories about meditation, not in the somatic sensations of the belly. In other words, her attention was not endogenous, meaning intentionally aimed at a chosen focus, but exogenous, meaning captured by whatever her organism was preoccupied with. Since anxiety was one of her challenges, she unwittingly fed it by not noticing that she was maintaining the same dysregulated monkey mind that caused her anxiety and she struggled within her everyday life. The moment I helped her realize what was happening, and she really started to focus on the belly sensations, not only did it become clear that intentionally taking charge of one’s attention is hard work, but her anxiety temporarily lifted.

Peter is an experienced meditation student, and he is very familiar with one of the fundamental principles of mindfulness – that we turn towards pain and discomfort rather than avoid it. Somehow, in that situation, his mind did not make the connection and gave him the impression that it would be a good idea to find an easier focus of attention. First of all, since the candle has more appeal to his curiosity, by switching to the candle he would weaken endogenous attention in favor of the exogenous attention of the monkey mind. Second, his idea of ‘warding off’ would strengthen the repressive forces of the mind, which contribute to getting us in trouble in the first place. Third, he would dismiss boredom and restlessness as experiences and mental states not worthy of exploration, thus perpetuating the suffering caused by what is hidden behind these mental states. It is therefore of utmost importance he sticks with the original instructions and makes sure that he faces and works through whatever challenges arise, rather than avoid them.

In my experience, most students who give up on mindfulness meditation or cannot penetrate all the way ‘down’ to the transcendental dimension of existence and our Being, fail to do so, because they are not solid in their use of meditation tools, nor do they recognize the myriad ways our awe-inspiring human mind, embodied in the most complex object in the known universe, our brain, can so easily and massively fool us. Precision in our way of observing and mastery of our meditation tools are essential on our mindsight journey. The human capacity for self-deception is limitless, and if we are not steadily on the look-out for the next mind trap, and cultivate a healthy skepticism for anything we believe we see, we suffer, cause suffering for others and get hopelessly lost in the swamp of our own ignorance.

Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.


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