Meditation experience: a theory of mind
Yesterday I did a 30-minute semi-hard-core meditation and had an insight into the workings of my mind. Here's how I did it, what I observed, the underlying theory, an explanation of what I observed, and what it all means.
How I did it
I'm trying to develop a meditation practice, and I've graduated from guided meditation. I've got an app that I set to give me a 30-minute session, divided into six five-minute segments. Each segment ends with a soft bell sound. The last segment ends with two bells. The bells between are to wake me up if I get lost in thought. It works pretty well.
During a session, I try only to observe the contents of consciousness. I try only to pay attention to what is going on: my breathing, the sounds around me, the darkness or color behind my closed eyes, sensations in my body, thoughts. If a thought arises, and I notice the thought I don't try and engage with it or reject it. I notice it but continue to direct my attention on the other contents of consciousness--like my breath or my hearing. Occasionally I notice that there is nothing in my mind--but only for a moment. Soon, something arises--like noticing that there's nothing in my mind.
From time to time a thought about the next bell arises--like "it should be rining soon." I note the thought and treat it like any other thought. Every five minutes I hear the bell and I'm momentarily aware of what I might have been thinking just before that. Some thoughts arise that seem interesting. I note them and don't try to remember them later. I'm pretty good at not remembering them later.
Well, I did remember a few things, but not because I tried to. I remember that when the bell rang at the end of the first five-minute session I realized that I had been lost in thought since maybe five seconds from the start. Noted. I returned to breathe and body.
During the next few five-minute segments, I alternated. Sometimes I was aware of what was happening around me and in my mind, and I was aware that I was being aware. Sometimes a thought so captured my attention that I lost awareness--only realizing it when I woke from the thought-induced trance. When I was aware of my mind I'd often notice a continuous mental buzzing with fragments of thought arising and passing awayh. Imagine being in a large room with dozens of radios, their dials being turned from station to station. Mostly you'd hear noise. Once in a while, you'd hear a word or phrase, a fragment of thought, like "remember to..." or "toolbox." Sometimes you'd hear a short, unmemorable sentence that would arise and fall away. Images might appear and disappear.
In this state, I might have a complete thought and even be captivated by an idea for a few seconds or even a minute for two. But nothing was as engaging as the five minutes that lost during that first segment.
During the last two periods, things changed again. I became aware of discomfort. I felt mild pain in my legs and my back, and increasing pain in the muscles of my jaw. A series of thoughts arose and fell away, all with the same content. " Stop this now!" " This must end." "This is no fun." "It's time to do something else." I'd feel brief waves of sadness. Once or twice I burst into tears, then that passed away. Throughout, I simply observed these thoughts and sensations, as they arose and passed away. And then the final bells sounded and I was done.
The underlying theoryA mind is a landscape, an ecosystem, a community, where thoughts appear and pass away. Some arise from the outside, and some arise from within. Some thoughts cooperate and complement one another; others oppose one another; all compete for the limited resources of the mind, especially the one called attention. Thoughts survive or not based on the principles of Darwinian evolution. They replicate, they vary, and they are selected. The ones that are selected for reappear. The ones selected against disappear.
What does the selecting? In nature, for Darwinian natural selection, it's the environment--both the physical environment and living things already in the environment. A hot, dry environment selects for living things that can tolerate heat and do without water for long periods. Among those things that might survive, the environment--with the help of organisms that might compete for some limited resources--selects those that survive best. The living things already in the environment will tend to select for other living things that benefit them and select against those that harm them. They are not always successful in selecting those that benefit them the most; but the tendency is toward those that are beneficial to more life in the environment.
In the mind, ideas are selected by an environment filled with other ideas. The initial ideas that inhabit a mind--some wired in, and others installed by parents and other agents of cultural transmission--determine which new ideas are welcomed, which are tolerated, and which are rejected.
A liberal, open-minded upbringing installs in a mind a set of initial ideas that values ideas new and old. Some new ideas might be obviously consistent with existing ideas, some might challenge them. The ideas welcome the inspection and analysis of both existing and of new ideas. They welcome new ideas on how to carry out such inspection.
An intolerant, closed-minded upbringing installs in a mind an initial set of ideas that rejects any ideas that are not wholly consistent with the existing ones. It is a stable system, values stability, and fights against any destabilizing deas. The initial ideas oppose the inspection and analysis of any of the existing ideas and oppose new ideas about how to carry out such an analysis. The community of other minds that surround such a mind help maintain that stability by adding social and even physical penalties against anyone who might give voice to destabilizing ideas.
I was taught to welcome new ideas, or so the ideas already in my mind tell me (and they will you, given a chance). I was taught to continually and critically examine both new ideas and existing ideas in the light of new evidence. Starting from the ideas that were installed by family and early education, I've worked to add new ideas that help me do that and help me to add new ideas to those already present.
A version of me, raised differently, might have a mind that was like a well-tended garden with neat rows of flourishing, useful ideas, and no weeds. The version of me that I've created from my initial inheritance is a sprawling landscape filled with all ideas that are encouraged to hybridize and mutate, to inspect one another for better versions, to seek new species from the outside, and to gently and firmly contain any idea deemed harmful.
But is that true in every case? Across the broad, open landscape of my mind, could there be corners and niches where narrow-minded ideas survive--even thrive? Could I be unaware of such ideas?
Such ideas would have to be silent or well disguised because so many of the ideas that I have cultivated subject themselves and all other ideas to inspection and analysis. A potentially harmful idea that made itself known would quickly be contained.
Would such a containment strategy work?
Sometimes. And sometimes, for example in a stressful situation, the containment mechanism might break down and those ideas might enact themselves in behavior.
An explanation of what I observedMy mind is a busy place. A noisy place. Amid the hubbub it might be easy for a thought, expressed by an incompatible idea--one that had not been detected, inspected, determined problematic and then contained--to be overlooked by the other members of the community of mind.
Meditation brings silence to the noisy mind. Ideas and complexes of ideas that find themselves compatible with the idea of meditation--observing other parts of the mind without judgment--might quiet themselves in support, or might join the activity, observing themselves and other parts of the mind.
The mind quiets for a moment, but the quiet is broken by parts of the mind that either understands what is going on and cannot restrain themselves or by parts of the mind that are unaware of the rest of the mind's intention. Those parts that are unaware become aware. Those parts that cannot restrain themselves because of an excess of enthusiasm might jabber away, or--having expressed themselves and received no rebuke--might quiet as well. Remaining are the parts of the mind that know that they are unwanted; they realize that they exist, unrestreained only because they have not been detected. And they fear that if they are detected if they are found out, they will be--well, they don't know what, but it's not good!
Meditation is a thread. As a survival strategy, they must put a stop to it. They can explicitly propose ending it. They can induce unpleasant feelings that will cause other parts of the mind to join them in wanting meditation to end.
What it all means I don't know what it means. I have some ideas.
I believe that the more I meditate the more the parts of my mind that are compatible with meditation will join the parts that have initiated meditation.
I believe that the more that I do this the more the parts of my mind that fear what meditation will bring--will attempt to disrupt my practice.
The parts of my mind that encourage meditation and that are trying to build a stable practice--which include what I would call my reflective self--are not themselves opposed to the parts that oppose meditation. They--we--are not trying to change anything by force.
It means that as I become more aware of the contents of my consciousness I will probably--and necessarily--become aware of areas of my mind that will feel increasingly threatened and increasingly hostile to that which threatens them.
Maybe that will happen.
Maybe it will not.
I'll find out.