So what are the essential aspects that make meditation meditation? In my opinion, the essence of meditation is that it is a psychological practice which makes the unconscious conscious and which improves life. What does it mean to improve life? For the purposes of this book, let’s call it something that makes you happier, healthier, and more effective.
When you use meditation to become more aware of what you’re feeling, the unconscious or semi-conscious flavors of emotional experience begin to come into focus. Your own motivations and drives become clearer. Not just in a conceptual way, but in a way you can physically detect, moment by moment, throughout your day. This is the essence of emotional intelligence, and it is life changing.
What Is Mindfulness?
In short, mindfulness is a type of meditation, a subset of meditation. Specifically, mindfulness means paying attention to your present-moment sensory experience in a nonjudgmental manner.
Now that we know what mindfulness means, we can upgrade our definition of meditation to specifically address mindfulness meditation. Our new, improved definition that we’ll be using goes as follows: mindfulness meditation is a psychological technique that involves paying attention to your present-moment sensory experience in a nonjudgmental manner, and which makes the unconscious conscious for the purpose of improving your life.
In short, the human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. There are many ways of feeling better, but one of the most powerful is simply to concentrate on what you are doing in the moment. Concentrating on what you are doing is, of course, the essence of mindfulness practice. As you sit more and more, you’ll probably notice that you’re feeling better more often.
labeling is a great ally in meditation and is a standard feature of mindfulness practice. Distracted thoughts pull your attention away from the object of your meditation, but labeling helps to focus your attention on it. So even though you’re technically creating extra words in your head, these words are helping you to remain mindful.
The labels also tend to fill up the mental talk channel with calm, neutral words, rather than agitated, unpleasant words, which also enhances the effects of meditation.
The basic instructions are:
Let’s look at how to label correctly and how to avoid the most common pitfalls.
The secret to being able to stay sitting when you feel like you just can’t stay sitting is this: meditate on the reaction that’s trying to catapult you out of your seat. That is, if you’re feeling upset, see if you can find where that upset is manifesting in your body. It might be a strong feeling of tension in your belly, or a sharp tightness in your throat. Focus your awareness on that spot, investigating it in detail. At the same time, try to be as accepting of it as possible. With practice, meditating on the reaction to the meditation can significantly deepen your meditation, as well as keep you seated for the allotted time.
The Three Elements
No matter what meditation technique you’re using, it will probably be composed of some ratio of these three core elements. Concentration means being able to train your attention on whatever object you choose, and sustain it there over time. Sensory clarity means having a lot of resolution of the details of whatever object you’re focusing on. Acceptance means having an attitude of openness, curiosity, and nonjudgment with whatever is happening in the moment.
The Meditation Algorithm
This algorithm assumes that you’ve already sat down, relaxed, and gotten all set to meditate. It also assumes that you know which meditation technique you’re going to practice. Once you are ready to actually meditate, the practice is expressed by this algorithm:
Beyond High Hopes
A few simple brain hacks can nudge your meditation tendency over the line to a sustainable, lifelong practice. Here are seven methods that do just that:
Make a Contract with Yourself: Write up a contract with yourself, explicitly committing to meditate every day. Then sign it. Put this contract in a place where you can see it. You will actually begin to change your beliefs and actions to come into line with this written commitment.
Make a Calendar: Draw a checkbox each day, and label it with something like “15 minutes of meditation.” Post this calendar prominently, in a place where you see it all the time, and put a large X in the box after you sit.
Social Pressure: Never underestimate the power of social or peer pressure. It magnifies the effect of consistency theory because we especially want to appear consistent to others. When you commit in public to doing something, you will make bigger efforts to do what you said you would.
Sit with a Group
Make It Hard to Fail: Don’t make it necessary for you to go to extremes to get your practice done; instead do everything possible to make it easy to keep going. By reducing the number of reasons to stop sitting, you’ll be increasing your likelihood of success with meditation.
Work with a Meditation Coach
Once a Week, Consciously List the Goals and Benefits of Mediation Practice: I recommend journaling about why you’re meditating (the reasons may change over time) and what concrete benefits you’ve gotten from meditation recently.
Meditation in Life
With a little bit of adaptability, you can gain valuable and effective meditation practice while watching the clock hands crawl at the DMV. Do simple (and safe) meditation exercises while you’re stuck in traffic or waiting at the airport. Every formerly wasted moment can become a part of your mindfulness training regimen. Here are some possibilities:
Breathe — This standard-issue meditation practice has a lot going for it, including the fact that you can do it almost continuously while going about your business. Just tune into the body sensations associated with the act of breathing, while continuing to breathe normally.
Feel Your Emotions — Meditating on emotional body sensations is a little more challenging, but has several advantages that make it worth the effort. You contact the place in your body where it feels like an emotion is happening. For example, if you are happy, you might feel your face lighting up in a smile, or an uplifting feeling in your chest. Continuous contact with emotions in the body keeps you aware of how you’re feeling moment by moment—something that many of us could use more of.
Listen — Most people imagine that mindfulness means only focusing inwardly, but you can just as easily focus on external sensory events. For example, it’s relaxing and stimulating to open your ears and listen to the sounds around you without judgment. The trick here is to not focus on any particular sound, but to hear everything together at once. It’s a sound bath that is ever changing and ever fresh.
Driving — This is another externally focused practice that you can do while in the car. It combines the listening practice above with intentional seeing. Not only do you listen to what’s going on around you, you also concentrate on the visual activity of driving. You pay close attention to the relevant details of the road, the signage, the movement of the other cars around you, and so forth.
If I had to choose just one thing out of this whole book, a single practice to give someone to most improve their life, it would be the practice of acceptance. In my opinion, acceptance has the most power to positively impact your sense of wellbeing. You can practice acceptance as part of meditation and also as you walk around in daily life.
In the context of meditation practice, you can think of two kinds of acceptance. Acceptance One is experienced in the body as some degree of physical relaxation. Your body is not tensing against an experience, whether physical or mental. Acceptance Two is experienced in the mind, as a lack of psychological resistance. Psychological resistance could take the form of certain types of mental talk (“This sucks. This shouldn’t be happening. I’ve got to get out of here.”) or certain types of mental images (such as pictures of escaping, hurting what’s hurting you, and so forth).
It’s fortunate that there are two different types of acceptance available, because it gives you two different routes into the experience of acceptance. Even if your mind is filled with negative, difficult thoughts, you can often at least get your body to relax (Acceptance One). On the other hand, if your body is tensing up against something (usually pain, but also in disgust about something, etc.) you can find some acceptance in your thoughts about the object (Acceptance Two). Usually, if you can fire up one form of acceptance even a bit, the other one will eventually start coming online also.
P x R = S, or “pain times resistance equals suffering.” This means that your level of suffering from pain is dependent upon how much you can let go of resisting it. In other words, relief from pain is all about how much you can accept the pain. Don’t resist it, and you suffer much, much less. Japanese author Haruki Murakami has a famous quote, which sums up the situation nicely, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Remember that by “accept” I don’t mean that you believe that you deserve the pain, or that it’s a good thing, or that you shouldn’t palliate it given the chance. It’s about relaxing and letting go of all resistance to the pain, whether that resistance is mental or physical. Let the pain be there, don’t try to fight it. You may be surprised how effective this is.
Reach Out with Your Feelings
From an evolutionary perspective of Darwin’s Dharma, emotions evolved to help us survive and thrive, and they do this by motivating and directing our behaviors. That is, they act like a guidance system for the human organism.
This way of looking at emotions is so useful that there is a short mnemonic I want you to use whenever you’re trying to understand an emotion that you’re experiencing: just say to yourself “guidance system.” It forces you to look at an emotion for what it really is: an evolved response. In this sense, there’s no such thing as a positive or negative emotion. They are all positive emotions, because they are part of the evolved human guidance system trying to get you to behave in a survival-enhancing manner.
The “guidance system” model isn’t there to justify you doing whatever you feel like, or to follow every urge. Instead of saying that emotions are right, I’m saying that emotions are natural responses—not to be suppressed or denied, not something to feel guilty or ashamed about.
Seeing emotions in their evolutionary context can really help you to understand how to work with them in your daily life. For example, a guidance system is useless if it is stuck on one setting. Imagine a compass needle that couldn’t turn, or a maps app that only told you to turn right at every intersection. You need both north and south, right and left, as well as straight ahead, for a guidance system to function. The same thing is true of your emotional guidance system. It won’t work unless it has both a positive and a negative with which to motivate and direct you. Do this; don’t do that. In other words, both pleasant and unpleasant emotions are absolutely necessary if the system is going to function. Having a clear understanding that both positive and negative feelings are natural, adaptive, and useful will go a long way toward engendering a sense of acceptance toward them.
This is bad news, if you were under the impression that—if you just made all the right decisions—someday you’d feel good all the time. It’s impossible to be permanently happy because the system always corrects itself. No matter how far you push the needle away from zero into the realm of super happiness, your biology will adjust and make that place the new zero. It’s a self-adjusting, homeostatic system, and its tendency to return to a set-point is called “hedonic adaptation,” or the “hedonic treadmill.”
Emotions are central to decision-making. As much as we might like to imagine that we are calm and Spock-like in our choices, this is almost never the actual case. Although economic theory likes to assert that human beings are rational actors, studies have shown repeatedly that we are anything but. Somewhere under the hood, our emotional body sensations are playing a key role in every decision we make.
Neuroscientist and author Antonio Damasio calls one idea about how this works the “Somatic Marker Hypothesis,” or SMH. To understand the SMH, you first have to understand that emotions are primarily somatic events—that is, we know we’re having an emotion because we feel it in our body.
Emotions may be orchestrated deep in the unconscious mind, but it is upon the soma—the feeling body—that their symphony is played out. In short: emotions are mainly embodied events.
You wouldn’t actually want to feel happy all of the time. If emotions comprise a guidance system, a sort of compass to find your way in life, feeling only constant euphoria would be like sticking a huge magnet to the side of the compass. You would lose all ability to tell direction. Every decision would seem just wonderful, and you would soon end up deep in a ditch. Evolution has “figured this out” and created a system that constantly resets our emotional baseline to zero, whatever our circumstances. That way, we always have a useful and functional emotional guidance system at work in our lives.
By cultivating this space between stimulus and response, you gain something every human being ever born has wanted: the ability to choose whether to respond to an emotional urge or not. The emotions haven’t changed; you’re not submerging yourself in some numbing sea of bliss. Instead, you feel everything very keenly, but have the ability to not act on it if you don’t want to.
Coping with Too Much Feeling
There are two basic strategies for working with overwhelming emotions in the body: focus on a neutral spot in the body, or focus on something external.
Focus on a Neutral Spot: Although emotional sensations can arise anywhere in the body, they are much more likely to arise in the belly, chest, throat, or face. These are the emotional hotspots in the body, the regions where emotional sensations can get huge. That means that other areas are much less likely to host gigantic emotional sensations, which turns out to be a useful and convenient thing. You can meditate on those emotionally “cold” spots, such as your hands and feet, and stay in touch with your body. As long as you’re in touch with your body, you won’t be completely dissociated. You’ll be anchored in the sensations, rather than checked out into a dream-like state.
Focus on Something External: When the body is too emotionally hot, a second good idea is to meditate on something outside the body. External sights and sounds are powerful meditation objects, especially when they are interesting, beautiful, or compelling in some way.
Meditation and Meaning
Psychologist Martin Seligman, a founder of the positive psychology movement, created a five-part definition of “flourishing,” dubbed PERMA, and posits these five qualities:
This formulation represents a more fully considered and powerful view of wellbeing than the simplistic phrase “being happy.”
Mindfulness is an excellent, concrete practice you can work with to find what is meaningful to you. The key is to remember that emotions are not in your head, they are embodied experiences. We may think of meaning as being mental or conceptual, but it is through the feelings in your body that you discover where meaning exists for you. What tugs at your heart.
As you meditate on body sensations, you eventually get better at knowing what you’re feeling. This is not only true in the sense of resolving unclarity about feelings, but also in the sense of becoming able to detect feelings at subtler levels. It’s possible to almost know “in advance” what you’re going to feel about something. This is not literal prediction, but rather you’re able to detect the faint stirrings of emotion about a topic or experience far sooner than you would have been able to previously. It almost feels like a kind of radar or early warning system for feelings. The normal everyday word for this capacity is intuition. It’s about becoming clearer about your own gut feelings. Intuition is not magic. It is eminently trainable and can be cultivated on purpose, using meditation.
Many of us have a list of things we can rattle off at will if somebody asks us about what we love or what we think is important. But when did you make that list, and when was the last time you checked to see if it was still true? Do you really feel that passionately about the things you did ten years ago? Did you ever really care about it, or did it just seem like the right thing to care about? The only way to know is to think about it and feel what happens in your body. If the feeling of excitement, energy, or a tingling sensation is there, that is the sign that you still find this important. If not—or if you actually feel some subtle deflation, let down, or even negative feelings—maybe your interest in it is taking a momentary break, or you’ve moved on to other things. Give yourself the room to change, grow, and discover new interests. There’s no law that what is meaningful to you has to stay the same from day to day, year to year.
Concentration and Flow
In between anxiety when the task is too hard, and boredom when it’s too easy, there is a Goldilocks zone for the flow state; a condition of a task that is just right. If you’re involved in doing something that falls into your Goldilocks zone, what we might call the “flow channel,” then flow can take place. The secret, then, to good concentration (according to Csikszentmihalyi) is to learn how to make any task you are doing just the right level of difficulty for you.
Meditation can expand the Goldilocks zone for achieving a flow state. Because meditation functions as training in concentration, it gets harder and harder to get either bored or anxious. Remember that the formula for concentration is simply to bring your attention back to a focus object repeatedly. That is both the essence and the totality of concentration practice. Having iterated through this in meditation for a while, you can focus pleasurably on things you would’ve otherwise found really boring, and also on things that are hard enough to have put you off before.
Concentration is the opposite of distraction. Distraction dilutes brainpower, frazzles the nerves, and results in non-optimum outcomes. You end up stressed out and spun around, and don’t even get the satisfaction of a job well done.
The cure is to do one thing at a time. That’s it in a nutshell. Do just what you’re doing and don’t do anything else. It’s that else that causes so much trouble. Here are some types of distraction-causing things that you can easily remove in order to get more focused:
Shut off all other input - Shut off everything that is not related to what you’re doing. No music, no videos, no movies, no Internet, no texting. Unless you need it for work (or whatever it is you’re doing), turn it off until you are ready to give it 100 percent of your attention. Having media on in the background actually uses up a large portion of the neurons that could otherwise be employed on the task at hand. Think: one thing at a time.
If you need to use the Internet, block out all other web activities — Do not check Twitter or Facebook—close those tabs—and shut off any alerts, badges, or other ways apps have of grabbing your attention. Do not click on any links or bookmarks that do not take you directly to a site relevant to the task you are doing. Many writing programs now include a full screen mode that blocks out all other windows, which is really helpful to create focus.
Tame your phone — The smartphone is there to serve you, not the other way around. Unless you really need to be contacted, keep it off or at least silent. Stop checking it and most importantly switch off as many notices, badges, and alerts as you possibly can. Do not even look at it except to make a necessary call, or to check work email. If you can leave it turned off in another room while you get some work done, or focus on a quiet evening with your significant other, all the better. Decide what your phone is actually for, and use it only for that purpose.
Keep non-essential talk to a minimum — When you are trying to focus on a task, gabbing with others is just another form of irrelevant throughput. Cooperatively working toward a common goal with people we like is one of life’s most satisfying activities, but listening to a coworker dump about their bad date isn’t helping you finish your next task. Without being rude, just keep moving things toward silent, efficient completion. If, on the other hand, it is time to talk with your coworker, give speaking and listening your full attention. Of course, try to do this without being uptight or controlling. There are polite ways to let people know that you are busy.
Remember that these tips don’t just count for work. If you’re playing a game, play the game. If you’re making love, make love. If you’re walking in nature, just walk and enjoy.
Learning to Listen
The first step in learning to listen is to learn to be quiet. Make a friend of silence.
Try this experiment: When talking with someone, play a mental game of waiting one full second before responding to anything they have said. That’s it, just one second of silence, no matter what you’re talking about. This is a long, long time in a normal conversation. Don’t think about what you are going to say, think about what the other person has just said. Give it one long, delicious second of your full concentrated, attention. Then respond, saying whatever it is you have to say. Make sure to maintain eye contact so that they know you’re listening to what they’re saying and considering it.
The secret is to begin investigating more and more minute levels of detail in sensation. To increase the resolution of your senses, so to speak. In the realm of the body, this means to get even more curious about the fine details of body sensations. There are several ways to work on cultivating this.
For one, I’ve often noticed that people tend to think of body sensations as being flat, two-dimensional. But, since the body is a three-dimensional object, body sensations are not typically flat, but instead are 3D. That means they can have a very complex morphology, which is interesting to explore.
Another aspect of body sensation that can increase your sensory clarity is the fact that it isn’t always solid or stable. Many sensations feel as if they are the same, moment to moment. They don’t seem to be changing or moving very much at all. But certain sensations are not so steady. They can be getting stronger or weaker, larger or smaller. They can move around, from location to location, or alter their shape and 3D morphology. So as you’re meditating on a sensation, notice if it, or any little part of it, is changing in any way.
A third way to increase sensory clarity is to investigate areas of the body that you don’t normally investigate. If you were to keep a list of body regions that you have contacted in meditation, you would discover that there are some spots that for whatever reason you never contact. How about the upper palate of your mouth? The back of your ear? The inside line of the spine? Inside your joints? Take the path less traveled. Seek out and find the out of the way places that you have never previously meditated upon, and bring them online.
A fourth method for going deeper into sensation is to act like a microscope. Get curious and look at sensations on as fine a scale as you can. If you’re used to golf ball-sized sensation units, try feeling marble-sized ones. If you marble-sized sensations are easy for you to contact, see if you can begin feeling into sensations that are pea-sized. What about sensations the size of a grain of sand?
A variation on this is attempting to feel more and more subtle sensations. It’s possible to get stuck only feeling sensations that are intense or “loud.” So get curious about contacting sensations that are very subtle or “light.”
There is a fifth method that works in a very different way to boost sensory clarity. Rather than upping the resolution, it works by making fine distinctions between types of sensations. For example, you can distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant sensations, two very basic categories that provide a lot of insight into your experience. But it’s possible to get nerdier than that. Try distinguishing between “textures” of sensation: smooth, rough, sharp, mushy, bumpy, goopy, tingly, stinging, and so on. Or note the difference between sensations that are moving and those that are still.
The Brain’s Screensaver
Scientists have discovered that there is a brain network associated with mind wandering, and have named it the default mode network (DMN), since mind wandering seems to be our default setting. We experience it subjectively as a stream of memories, plans, and fantasies, mostly centered around ourselves and our personal concerns. Mark Twain’s snarky remark; “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened,” serves as a perfect description of DMN activity. For most of us the DMN is the nexus of negative, self-referential anxiety and depression.
Default mode network activity is roughly the opposite of a flow state. In a flow state, you begin to lose your sense of self in a task; most thought is self-referential in the DMN. A flow state is intrinsically rewarding and serene, whereas mind wandering typically leaves you feeling bad. The essence of a flow state is concentrated activity; the DMN turns on when you are not focused on any activity. In fact, DMN activity is so closely associated with not paying attention that scientists found that they could use it to predict people making a mistake on a concentration task almost thirty seconds in advance—just by measuring an increase in DMN activity.
Brewer studies the DMN extensively, and has found (along with others) that the less effort you expend in meditation, the more powerfully you switch off the DMN and the easier it is to enter a flow state. Although all meditation practices seek to bring us into the present moment, there is a case to be made that the more effortless a practice is, the more effective it is at focusing us in the Now and inducing a flow state. Effortlessness may be key, and it turns out that there are meditation practices specifically designed to exploit this fact.
So far in this book we’ve been working with a sort of concentration called “focused attention,” meaning that you put your awareness on one spot and try to keep it there. If it moves from that focus object, you bring it back. But there is a second kind of attention in which you don’t try to control which object you’re paying attention to at all. You allow your attention to wander wherever it likes. This second kind of attention is called “open awareness,” or “choiceless awareness.” The most important feature of open awareness is that it feels effortless.
It sometimes helps to frame the Focus on Now practice as a strong acceptance meditation, because to sit and allow almost anything to unfold in meditation is a deeply accepting stance to take. Everything that arises, everything that occurs in your senses is fine. Everything. You’re just going to stay with it, no matter what it is.