There was a good comment on Reddit recently that offered the least confusing explanation of (insight?) meditation I’ve ever heard. It sort of made a few things click for me. I’m quoting it in part, but you might also want to read the whole thing:
Meditation is basically a training method for your mind. When certain things happen to you, your mind generates a certain response whether it be happiness, frustration, anger ect. The way your mind has been inculcated is the path of least resistance and the path it wants to take, and will take unless you know how to mitigate it. Meditation teaches you how and makes it easier to override the process. Who is doing the overriding of this process? Well, that’s the million dollar question. But I digress.
So here’s what I’m getting at: if meditation is too easy, you’re doing something wrong. You might be getting yourself really relaxed, but is it possible that’s all you’re doing? Not saying it is. I don’t know, just throwing some ideas out there and it’s up to you to see if any seem to fit your situation.
But as you meditate, your mind wants to grab onto the thoughts and not your breath. The course of least resistance is away from your breath and back into whatever thoughts are vying for your attention. Every time you go back to the breath, you train or teach yourself even, to take the opposite of the path of least resistance. This is coupled with the fact that half the time when you meditate, your mind says, “I’m tired. Stop concentrating on the breath and just kick back and let a guided meditation do most of the work.” But every time this comes up you learn to drop it by returning to the breath and not listening to the thought no matter how loud and powerful it can get.
When you first start meditating you have this thought and then come back to the breath. But there’s still a trace of this thought floating around in your mind and eventually it pulls you in again. As soon as you realize your back in that thought again, you turn your awareness back to the breath and away from the thought. But then it pulls you in again. And then you drop it again. You do this over and over and over. But as you practice you get better and better and faster and faster at recognizing it. You start to figure out how to do it most efficiently and quickly, seeing and dropping thoughts before they even become thoughts at all.
After doing this hour after hour, you gain a skill. One day you realize that you don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to use this skill. I can’t really explain how it’s done, but it’s just something you learn from continually focusing, coming back to, and holding your attention on the breath. It’s like if you ever do a lot of push-ups, eventually you will realize, “I can flex my pecs.” You couldn’t flex them before, and you don’t really know how you learned to do it, but now you can just do it.
I wish I knew more about exactly what was going on. One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is subjective temporal granularity.
I first started wondering about this when I realized I could test my subjective temporal granularity through experiment. The partiuclar method was to tap my finger up and down very quickly at different rates, and notice at what rates it was possible to think something like “Yes, my finger is in the up position at this exact moment” versus those rates at which I only had an undifferentiated awareness of rhythmic tapping.
(give me some credit, I also did it with blinking eyes to ensure it had nothing to do with nerve lag, and I used more of a nonverbal “now” rather than that whole long quoted sentence which would probably take me forever to think.)
My consistent finding is that I seem to have subjective temporal granularity on the scale of about a quarter-second.
There’s a slightly different form of granularity in that if I try to tap my finger as quickly as possible I get about ten per second, and furthermore I can count these ten and feel pretty sure I got it right. I think what I’m doing here is counting ten intentions to move, rather than the movements, which I can’t actually perceive. But this seems more motor and less related to consciousness.
Experienced meditators claim that when they’re meditating the world occurs in “vibrations”, individual pulses of sensation that occur a couple of times a second. Some meditation practices involve “raising your vibrations” – a phrase which along with its counterpart “good vibes” has long since passed into a byword for New Age gobbledygook – but which originally just meant “increasing the speed at which sensory input seems to pulse.”
I myself have never been very good at detecting these vibrations. Every so often I think I have them, but then I start worrying that I’m actually noting my eye saccades, or the flow of blood through my head, and then I lose them anyway.
But it seems like vibrations might be related to subjective temporal granularity? And maybe meditation is a way of making your subjective temporal granularity finer, so that it can pick up the process of constructing thoughts instead of just the finished thought itself? And that this allows you to intervene in the construction of thoughts, rather than having them just be brute objects which shove their way into your head?
Note that the term “meditation” really covers quite a lot of different things: I’d say that it’s an umbrella term covering a bunch of somewhat-similar methods for rewiring your brain, and there are several ways in which you can rewire your brain. What you’ve described sounds roughly right for mindfulness/vipassana meditation, but e.g. loving-kindness meditation or samatha jhana meditation are quite different.
Even with vipassana, there really seem to be a bunch of different things going on. But the way the brain seems to work is that it first gets some raw sensory input, which then get processed, and at some processing stage the data an emotional interpretative layer gets applied on top of to that data – the latest bill that the mailman has delivered isn’t seen just as a piece of paper, but as an active source of anxiety. By teaching you to observe your mind and mental processes better, mindfulness helps one to see that interpretative layer as just that: as an extra layer of information that’s just there to help the system make decisions, and nothing more. It’s something that you can observe and help you make decisions, but it doesn’t need to cause you any suffering.
Also, this seems to tune down the activity of your default-mode network, reducing its constant mental commentary on everything – which I would interpret as that interpretative layer becoming less prominent in your thoughts as you began to give it less attention, except that mindfulness actually involves giving it more attention. There’s probably some complex process going on which makes the “more/less attention” dichotomy too simplistic.
Vibrations do seem to be related to subjective temporal granularity: my current understanding is that by increasing your temporal granularity, you’ll eventually come to observe your mental processes with sufficient granularity that you can actually observe part of the process by which the interpretative layer is applied on your raw sensations. Given that one would assume this to normally take place rather early in the processing hierarchy, considerably before conscious awareness, it seems likely that something else besides just increasing your temporal granularity is taking place: you’re somehow also making earlier processing stages available for conscious access. (Possibly related to the way that savants also seem to have access to earlier processing stages.) I guess that when you spend enough time just focusing and observing on your mental processes, you’re gradually building new neural connections to those parts of your brain which aren’t usually connected to the global neuronal workspace and making them accessible to conscious observation. Apparently, as you reveal more and more early processing stages, you can eventually uncover processes like the ones that build a feeling of a persisting self, and to some extent also see those as nothing but tools which the system uses.
That would also help explain the reports of the Dark Night and things like meditation-induced mental illness: one’s mind didn’t actually develop to have access to that information, and once it suddenly does have access to enough of it, the flow of that data begins to interfere with normal processing until you can retrain your brain to handle it.
What do you mean when you say “reports of the Dark Night?”
The claim is that vipassana meditation will eventually take you to the “Dark Night”, a stage which is experienced as strongly unpleasant and where “our dark stuff tends to come bubbling up to the surface with a volume and intensity that we may never have known before”, and which may also be accompanied by other forms of mental illness. This is achieved after making sufficient progress in meditation, and will continue until the practicioner makes enough progress to make it go away. See descriptions here and here.
I can do that by imagining hearing a percussion line in my head, in which one beat in 4 is accented, and one in 16 is strongly so.
Which implies that maybe chunking is at issue — Scott counts in English, and English numbers starts getting longer after ten. Scott what happens if you count with letters instead — is it still J per second?
The least confusing explanation of meditation I’ve ever read was the one in “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha” (I was even about to recommend it but then I noticed you already know of it). The book distinguishes between concentration meditation which is about keeping your attention on the meditation focus perceived as a continuous entity and insight meditation which is about trying to see ‘inside’ the meditation focus and perceive it as being made from discrete experience pulses.
In that sense, the comment seems to be talking about concentration meditation. But if you read it as talking about insight meditation then maybe my sense of fairly unambiguous understanding I got from reading MCTB isn’t as well-founded as I’ve thought.
And if I’m already commenting, I might go off on a bit of a tangent. A quote from the Reddit comment:
I believe the question isn’t that difficult and the answer is “no one”. There’s no central decision-making (or experience-having) homunculus. Some descriptions of Buddhism make this idea look like the central mysterious truth that’s supposed to be deeply comprehended through insight meditation. But I think I understand it quite well despite never experiencing ‘enlightenment’ and that it’s possible to understand through good, old fashioned reductionist analytical thinking. I’m reading Dennet’s ‘Consciousness Explained’ right now and the central idea of the book seems to be rather close to the way I’ve been interpreting Buddhist ideas about non-existence of self for some time now. (Which doesn’t really mean that much as it seems impossible to ever tell for sure whether I’m interpreting Buddhism correctly.)
Anyway, I wonder if there are other people who have the feeling that they have managed to successfully disbelieve in an essential self and consider it a pretty cool shift of perspective that nevertheless wasn’t accompanied by any indescribable mystical fireworks.
Would a meditation instructor be able to teach me how to get an earworm out of my head? Whenever I try to stop thinking, my brain starts playing back some song or other, on a loop. (One time, I got a bit of music so thoroughly stuck in my head that it crossed over to auditory hallucination – I literally felt that I was actually hearing the tune rather than imagining it.)
There are two important aspects to meditation: One Aspect is the overriding, the other aspect is beeing aware of thoughts and feelings:
Beeing aware, and accepting the thought/feeling without distracting yourself or trying to make it go away. Often, acknowledging a bad thought that has been troubling you for days, and beeing willing to feel the bad feelings it entails, is enough to dissolve this thought.
Pj Eby has some very interesting Ideas on this effect- which are too long to quote and to complicated to summarize, so I give just a teaser and the link:
“Thus, Zen advises that you fully perceive your reactions — and then let them go. It seems to me that the process of perceiving allows your subconscious to determine that its message was received, allowing it to go on to its next task. Letting the reaction go, on the other hand, keeps your conscious mind free to observe — and perhaps occasionally step in to untangle something”
All this sounds very speculative. Yes, when people meditate they notice/experience certain things and try to explain what’s happening in terms of their brain, but it isn’t clear at all that whether these explanations have any truth to them. More science, please.
I can’t say I know the answers here. But one speculative thought:
I wonder if these “individual pulses of sensation that occur a couple of times a second” could be correlated with EEG readings. I.e., maybe if you’re really good at calming your default network, your brain can be ‘quiet’ enough for subharmonics of alpha/beta/theta/delta waves to directly manifest in subjective experience.
“If I try to tap my finger as quickly as possible I get about ten per second, and furthermore I can count these ten and feel pretty sure I got it right. I think what I’m doing here is counting ten intentions to move, rather than the movements, which I can’t actually perceive. But this seems more motor and less related to consciousness.”
What if someone else taps on you? What’s the fastest you can count then?
(The “intention to move” is no longer in you.)
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Here’s the analogy that comes out of the Reddit comment:
Pushups are to meditation as flexing is to turning off your thoughts.
This analogy is wrong and I’ll walk you through why. Your body does pushups, making your body more physically aware of your pecs, allowing your body to control and flex your pecs. Let’s use the same format to explain meditation. Your mind meditates, making your mind more mentally aware of your thoughts, allowing your mind to control and turn off your thoughts.
The difference is your pecs are attached to your body whereas your thoughts are a consequence of your mind. Saying that turning off your thoughts is a skill of the mind is a mental concept itself. When you meditate with the goal to turn off your thoughts, the experience is one created by the mind. Why is it so easy to snap out of it? To lose it? Because your mind is telling itself something and can distract itself by telling itself something else. You’ve tricked it by concentrating on the breath, but it’s always there, waiting.
What the analogy hits on is that meditation is a process. But to what end? One understanding is that meditation gets you closer to achieving peace, silence, tranquility. Through experience and learning, you’ve been taught a standard definition of these mental concepts, believing your thoughts to be the roadblock to their realization. So logically, if you turn your thoughts off, you’ll achieve them.
Another way to look at it is that the process and the goal are one and the same. The moment you decide to search for peace, you already have it. Your mind has already gone there. But, just as with thinking the mind must meditate to turn itself off, you believe that you must search for peace to find it. Peace, silence, tranquility, though, are inherently personal, subjective mental concepts. By wanting them, by thinking about searching for them, you already have them. Your mind has already made the decision and therefore it is now possible.
What you’re doing in your search process is simply breaking down external, learned meanings of peace, silence and tranquility. The fallacy is in approaching your mind’s inner working in a logical way. What created that logic in the first place? Who decided that peace requires a search? Telling the mind to turn itself off is a thought that originates in the mind. It is not logical in and of itself.
Meditation is simply a process of finding yourself. What’s unfortunate in that statement is that our analytical minds will treat “finding yourself” as a goal. But it’s a process also, isn’t it? The closer analogy is one you’ve heard before about happiness. You can’t find happiness, you must become the person that is happy.
The reason you eventually feel you can turn off your thoughts without meditation is because it was possible the moment you conceived it. The moment you believed you could turn your thoughts off is the moment you could do it. You created a wall to climb by deciding (or being told) to concentrate on your breath to get there. But now that you’re here, is the wall still there when you look back? It’s not a puzzle of logic. Go to the origin of the logic. It’s a state of mind. Of being. If meditation has a purpose, it’s one of simply being.
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I think there is something to this. What I call “raising the level of vibrations” is when my perception of the now expands to include very high frequency events. Hearing every individual tone in the drops of water falling from a stream; Hearing every note and tambre in a piece of complex music (I’m a musician). It’s as if the “now” expands towards infinity and one can perceive many things that were previously invisible.