MEDITATION EXPLAINED… KIND OF
(This post is written in response/supplement to Anthony Ranaudo’s latest post upon meditation. If you don’t want to read it again, or haven’t yet, it was great. It was great and in it he shared his personal experiences and routine with meditation. Check out his website and post here: http://www.ranaudo-baseball.com/2018/11/06/mentalhealthandmeditation/ )
I read Anthony’s most recent post about mediation—and meditation to him—and three thoughts immediately came to me:
- Proud: In a manner that I hope isn’t condescending, I was extremely proud of Anthony after reading what he wrote. That’s what hit me first. I’m not saying that sitting on some ivory tower, assuming a superiority or greater knowledge of the subject matter or anything, I’m just really proud and supportive. In days where insecurity and judgement pervades social media, taking a leap like he did is just an awesome, awesome thing.
Also, as someone who chose to permanently mark his skin (tattoo) with a portrayal of Buddha, both to further a belief and to get-at yoga instructors, I’m even more proud.
- Science: If there was any reason for me to look down and applaud Anthony, though, it would be because of everything I’ve read and studied about meditation. I don’t want to say erudite, because that would make me sound like a dick, but it (erudite) is a pretty close description—I’ve read, and practiced, a lot. I know now that there truly is something amazing at play when we mindfully meditate. Stuff that is now both measurable and verifiable in science.
Related: Evidence for Mindfulness: A Research Study for the Corporate Skeptic
To expound upon that, both the science to which he was eluding and the personal practices he was explaining—in direct, neurological explanation—would be a really effective thing to do. It was also something I wanted to do. Outside of ink on the arm and well-timed jokes, sounding smart is like the only other arrow I got in the quiver. Aforementioned inked up yoga instructors, and/or bartenders, hopefully respect that.
3. Nancy: Nancy is my Mom. She likes to do two things the most:
- Doubt and discourage whatever it is I’m doing.
- After doing 1, tell me that I’m 28 and single and it’s embarrassing. That’s fair.
I did think of my mom almost instantly, though, when reading Anthony’s post; right after “science.” I thought of her because I knew she would respect much of what I wanted to explain. She, like a lot of other intelligent, successful people I know, are kind of victim to the meditation stigma. They don’t get it because they’ve never really looked into it; or seen substantive data to validate it.
Oh. So you just sit? And do nothing? Hmmm. Seems like something your Father would like.
It makes sense for her to think this way. I don’t judge, or think less of her for that.
Not at all.
She is one of the most caring, smart, driven people I know. Her sentiments, though, on the mindful, meditative approach, mirror that of a lot of other people(s) out there. A lot of pragmatic, quantitatively based people. Without the data, or the proof, they aren’t getting on board. Without the data, they’re not gonna buy it.
That’s fair too.
But… If you read a little further, I got the data.
(Me and Nancy)
When I say data, I mean explanation. Explanation and interpretation of what I’ve read and studied.
If you’ve read any of my previous stuff, you know I don’t cite. It’s a long and arduous thing, and I really just don’t like doing it. If you (reputable magazine/blog publication, or Anthony) want to pay me to do it, I will. But otherwise, just trust me. Trust what I’m saying is legit and is all taken from legitimate sourcing.
What’s to follow is what I felt prompted to write after reading Anthony’s post—compelled to contribute.
After some reflection and consideration, this is what I wanted to write in supplement. It is what I think to be most helpful and informative to anyone intrigued, or moved, by the insight he (Anthony Ranaudo, 29) shared.
THE AMYGDALA, THE FRONTAL CORTEX, A SABER-TOOTH TIGER, AND YOU!
If you’re not a little intrigued by this heading, with a whole lot of something coming at you, I’m not sure what else I have for you. I’m going to relate mindful meditation, and the effects it can have on mind and body, to a saber –toothed tiger.
I’ll begin by referencing the evolution of the brain and body carefully. This isn’t about religion and I don’t want to lose you because you think that. I dig Adam and Eve too.
But the mind, and the human as a whole, has evolved.
You can tell by looking at the nervous system and analyzing basic neurology. Basic neurology is where we so easily discern merit from meditation.
You’ve heard about the “fight or flight” reflex. It’s how early humans survived. It’s how their mind told their body to run. Or chill.
HERE COMES THE TIGER.
HEY, BRO, UM, THOSE BUSHES ARE RUSTLING OVER THERE. YOUR BUDDY STEVE, WHO YOU COLLECT SPEARHEADS WITH, DIED YESTERDAY. THE BIG TIGER GOT HIM. I’M GONNA THROW SOME CORTISOL OUT THERE AND TRY AND HEIGHTEN YOUR SENSES. YOU’RE GONNA BE SUPER ALERT AND JUST KINDA ACT REFLEXIVELY. IT PROBABLY IS A TIGER AND CHANCES ARE THAT SHERYL, WHO IS WASHING YOUR LOIN CLOTHES DOWN BY THE POND, IS TOAST. TIGER GOT HER. I’D DIP IF I WERE YOU. LOOK FOR SOME HIGH GROUND, AND ANGRILY ASSUME EVERYTHING IS A THREAT, REALLY GETTING PRIMAL IN YOUR SITUATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF THINGS. DON’T THINK, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. REACT. SHERYL WAS BASIC.
Sheryl is gone.
So is Steve.
But Cro-Magnon number 1, isn’t. His Amygdala, effectively represented in italics above, made sure of it. The “fight or flight” response of the human nervous system—as part of the Limbic system—subjugated his conscious, active mind, and put him on alert. A threat was recognized and our guy was ready. The tiger got all cocky and sloppy and the amygdala-driven response system reacted.
Senses heightened. Emotional reaction to a stressor. Flight.
That’s how we survived.
That’s how we were, and are, wired.
Yes, are wired. It’s still that way. At the inner core of the human brain and nervous system, upon which all other cognition builds, is the fight-or-flight reaction—more aptly described as coming from the Amygdala. Located within the innermost portion of our brain, the Amygdala is part of the system where brain development began. All mental and cognitive evolution started here. The limbic system is the O.G.. Survival, and a blatant disregard for kind people like Sheryl, came first.
We have advanced, though. That much is obvious. Modern advancement and technology have necessitated it. The brain is expanding and evolving. This evolution is occurring in the outermost portion of the brain, where things like empathy, and reflection, and innovation, and an aggressive decision to dm her roommate, take place. This is where active thinking occurs. It is focused attention.
The amygdala, as we’ve discussed, is not that.
It doesn’t work that way and it’s still in charge.
It’s also reflexive, and engrained. Your body doesn’t care if it is a large, rapturous tiger lurking, or if Dave from accounting is approaching your cubicle trying to peddle girl scout cookies for his daughter for the third time this week. It registers a threat and your limbic system overpowers your active mind.
Fight or flight.
Dave’s daughter’s heart condition is irrelevant.
So… meditation in relation to mental and emotional health?
Mindful meditation is so important to mental and emotional health because it directly strengthens circuitry in the frontal cortex of the brain. Grey matter in the frontal region of the brain actually develops during meditation and focused attention. Various methods of brain imaging have shown this.
Who gives af about the frontal cortex?
You should—I’m also asking myself questions in italics to make it seem like I’m a mad man with a discursive mind and a lot of internal dialogue going on; obv someone who needs to meditate.
This part of the brain—prefrontal cortex—controls your active thought. It is where decision making, expression, and social awareness form. It is important. It is also the part that’s overpowered by the amygdala and fight-or-flight system—as analogized earlier. Think about times when you’ve ever become emotional or stressed because of the way in which someone spoke to you. Times when you overreacted, victim to gut-emotion.
“Hey, Rodney, can you come into my office for a minute.”
“Close the door.”
“I’ve been looking over your numbers this quarter—“
I’m getting fired.
“Work to improve in this area—“
My mom is going to kill me.
“Excited for your future here—“
I think I have to murder my boss.
“Does that sound good Rodney!?!? I believe in you, buddy, and I think you will end the year strong!”
You didn’t hear any of it. Ol’ amygdala saw a tiger sitting across from you and had you thinking worst-case, trying to survive. Your active mind was face down in a toilet, getting a swirlie.
With focused attention, though, composure is possible. An active mind routed in perspective and awareness can recognize instinctual responses. You can maintain your calm, and see things for as they are. You can even welcome certain interactions and challenges, because you have the capacity for perspective.
You are not subject to fight-or-flight.
As noted, focused attention, being mindfully present, strengthens your active mind. A stronger, active mind, quiets the turbulent, reactive unconscious mind. It also recognizes the turbulent, reactive, unconscious mind, which, with more and more focused practice, becomes easier and easier to do.
Meditation, because it’s cool like that, can put a stopper in emotional overreaction.
DON’T COMPLETELY SHIT ON OUR ANCESTRAL NEUROLOGIC BEGINNINGS, THOUGH. IF SOMEONE IS TRYING TO ENTER YOUR HOME HOLDING A CLEAVER OR YOU SEE AN OPEN TIGER CAGE AT A ZOO, I WOULDN’T MEDITATE.
Being mindful means being aware.
Present, and aware.
In my opinion, and those of the many psychologists and social thinkers I’ve read—because I’m legit—following the breath is the most effective, and transcendent way to become aware.
For the realist, needing concrete explanation, like my mom, using your breath as an anchor demands focus. The simple act of noting the intake and exhale, cognizant of sensory sensations of that respiratory and bodily process, constitutes an act of focus. Whether you are sitting in an active meditation and you return to your breath, or you take a minute before throwing the arm around the shoulder at a matinee—maybe grazing boob—for a deep, deep breath, you are grounding yourself in focus.
Focus, pointed in the present, enables awareness.
But why is the breath what’s important? Why focus on that? Is anyone listening to me?
- Again, being mindful means being present and aware. A discursive mind, one running rampant and thinking wildly about things like the past, and the future, and strippers, is not present.
Amidst distraction, when you are trying to mindfully meditate or focus, your breath can be what grounds you. When you breath in, noting the sensation of the intake throughout your body—most notably your nose, throat, and diaphragm—you are enveloped in the calming, connected present; beginning and breathing in connectivity. Then, you pause, noting your body filled with the breath, and you begin a slow exhale, embracing impermanence as you realize you are letting go what you just took in; completely anew.
Following your breath is a cycle of the present. Distraction, and stress, dissipate as you do this, as you are focused. Each moment of our lives, like each breath we take, is an opportunity to begin again. Mindful of the breath, we are cognizant of bodily and connected awareness. That’s really cool. I have a tattoo.
- The vagus system is an interconnected neuronal circuit connecting parts of the brain to parts of the body.
To engage that system of nerves, breathe deeply. And slowly. Tons of studies have documented the connection between deep, belly breathing and the activation, and strengthening, of the Vagus system. Returning to our old friend Mr. Amygdala, the vagus system calms and quiets the automatic nervous system—“fight or flight.” Stress lessens, anxiety wanes, and relaxation is possible.
Before big business meetings, or presentations, I sit in quiet—in my office so I don’t scare people—and center myself into my breath.
Deep breath in. Fill my chest and belly. Stop thinking about the intern. Return to the breath. Slow, controlled, exhale—feeling the breath in transit leaving my body. Calm. Repeat.
Before a first date or, in a corner of a bar sizing up a bartender wearing a napkin, I sit/stand in quiet—eyes open so I don’t scare people—and center myself in my breath.
Deep breath in. Fill my chest and belly. Stop thinking about the amount you’ll have to tip to get her attention. Return to the breath. Slow, controlled, exhale—feeling the breath in transit leaving my body. Calm. Repeat.
Calm and perspective met through the breath is as tangible as it is available.
It’s also true and hopefully resonant.
What I mean is, the breath is about as holistic function as we have access to as a species. I’m not trying to get all deep, and cosmic, and profound—unless you’re into that—but the function of breathing, and really following it, is representative of that cool, omnipresent shit inside of us that we all possess. I promised I wouldn’t get religious, or pick any sides, and I won’t, but regardless of what you believe, the functionality of breathing is a map to the greater energy we all possess. Call it “chi” if you want, or anything else, but our breath, and the opportunity to take in what is around us and exhale right back into the present is a living thing of universality.
Done with that explanatory note.
Sorry for “chi-ing” on you.
I’ve struggled for a very long time with certain modal principles of meditation.
Well, one principle, mainly: the relinquishing of “the self.”
It bothers me.
It bothers me because I enjoy cultivating myself (read that dirty, if you want). I like working toward progress. I like thinking about me and ways in which I can improve. I don’t think that is a selfish thing—even though I am kinda selfish—and I think most great people and figures of our time like to work to on themselves too. I don’t think it can ever be a bad thing, to work on yourself.
In recent months I’ve thought more about this: “relinquishing of the self.” I’ve analyzed personal, “me-centered” thoughts and emotions and how they may be out of line with my growth, and I’ve realized some ish. Some heavy, resonant, dirty, ish. About the “self.” And it’s actually a good thing.
During a static or active mindful meditation, when the mind wanders, we return to our breath. Inevitably, the mind willwander. That’s absolutely ok. If I had a dollar for every time my mind’s focus turned into a flipbook of ex-girlfriends, naked, I wouldn’t ever need to work on my “self”. Because I would be loaded. But again, it’s ok. It’s ok for the mind to wander. It will. Your thoughts, and your automatic nervous system—sup, Amygdala—are there. What is important is the way in which you recognize these thoughts; in non-judgement. You recognize, and then you return to your breath. You regain focus, and you understand these personal, “me-centered” thoughts, as impermanent.
Impermanent, and created by the “self.”
I think I get it.
(Doing the crazy thing again.)
I’m thinking of a time when my mind will be flooded with thoughts and fears. Maybe work related, maybe olive-skinned and brunette related. Maybe both. Either way, I can’t meditate because these thoughts are real and they are pressing.
I will tell myself that.
In time, and with practice, I’ll get better at returning to the breath. I’ll return to the present. I’ll begin to see these thoughts, albeit pressing AF, as originating from the limbic system, based in fear and survival. It’s “fight or flight,” and I will recognize that. Each time I return to my breath, routed in awareness, I will become more detached from this automatic thinking. I will recognize the impermanence; something I see because as the active mind grows, my automatic, original, survival-mode-responses lesson. I am more detached, because these distractions are just thoughts, and as I see them, I control them. I see them as impermanent.
I got it!
A “self” contrived, based in fear and response and something outside of your active mind, ain’t it—I’ll relinquish the eff out of that.
A “self” aware, though, rooted in focus and mindfully present, is straight drip.
Impermanence is how you tell the difference.
THE MORE AND MORE YOU MEDITATE, AND THE MORE YOU CENTER YOURSELF MINDFULLY, CERTAIN THOUGHTS WILL SEEM FLEETING. WHEN YOU RETURN TO THE BREATH, FOCUSING IN NON-JUDGEMENT AND MINDFULNESS, YOU BECOME AWARE OF WHAT IS REAL AND WHAT ISN’T. YOU RECOGNIZE THESE THOUGHTS AND YOU UNDERSTAND THE DISTRACTION.
A perspective is met and you lift the veil.
I have a date this Friday, Nancy.