Theory and practice of meditation

by Craig_Heldreth5 min read22nd Dec 20109 comments


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This is a (slightly revised) concatenation of three of my blog posts which I wrote after reading:

Understanding vipassana meditation by Luke Grecki in October 2010. The originals may be seen here (part I), here (part II) and here (part III).

I posted some comments myself in the original thread, but after giving it some thought I have decided to write a little more systematically on the topic.

There are three parts: one theory part and one part each on descriptions of the two techniques in my current practice.

Part I, a theory

I have been meditating daily for over thirteen years and did it sporadically for fifteen years or so prior to that. My menu of tried protocols is wide: vipassana, zen, transcendental, Gurdjieff self-remembering, Jung active-imagination, Erickson self-hypnosis, Loyola spiritual exercises, and probably a couple others I have totally forgotten about. The common thread through all of these techniques is mental health benefit, or spiritual benefit, or stress relief through calming mental processes. It is a purging of obsession and compulsion and anxiety and worry. Don Juan advises Carlos Castaneda the way to become a sorcerer is to learn to make one's mind perfectly still. (Castaneda's regimen may be the only one that I have heard about that I have not tried--I have seen people under the influence of deliriants and that is definitely not for me.)

There is modern scientific research in support of this, most notably in the work of the psychologist Albert Ellis and the psychiatrist Aaron Beck. Their therapy techniques are based upon the idea that our problems of mental life are twofold: first there are the human stressors which plague all of us to one extent or another--family problems, relationship problems, money problems, diseases--what Zorba called the full catastrophe; second there is the stuff which we tell ourselves on top of these typical and normal human stressors.

"This always happens to me."

"Nobody loves me."

"I am a freak; I am a loser; &c."

We could make a very long list. Ellis and Beck say you may be unable to eliminate the family problems and whatnot at the source of your grief, but you surely can quit telling yourself the exaggerated and goofy crap you pile up on top of it. Their experience (and a large amount of subsequent clinical experience) is that modifying the self-descriptions will benefit mental health. This can involve work, and sometimes a lot of it. This is the scientific research behind the psychobabble in the self-help books regarding being a friend to your self.

Meditation provides the ancient path towards quieting these activities of our minds which can be such a burden. There are two basic techniques: a technique of concentration and a technique of emptying. In the technique of concentration you focus your awareness as completely as possible on one stimulus. It can be listening to a mantra as in the example of the hare krishnas or the transcendental meditation. It can be staring at a mandala or a crystal ball or a blue vase or a saucer of ink. It can be saying a rosary. In the technique of emptying you focus your awareness as completely as possible on the minimum possible field of concentration; this is usually the breath. You simply follow only your breathing as purely as possible for a period of a few minutes. A hybrid of the two is use of the minimum possible sense stimulus, the mantra Aum.

In this attention to nothing, or attention to as little as possible, time and space is provided for the mental burdens of anxiety and such to run their course and escape from our attention center. This is the process by which meditation leads to better mental health. This apparently is not the intent the innovators who developed these procedures were going for, however. They were aiming at something much more profound.

If you participate in meditation practice for a very long time (like, thousands and thousands of hours), you may have an opportunity to attain a state of being where you are connected link-pow-one-with-the-universe. Samadhi. You attain Samadhi, and presumably you never again need care about all the girls thinking you are too short.

Part II, my (shorter) daily practice

This is adapted from a self-hypnosis relaxation script I obtained from the book Mind-Body Therapy: Methods of Ideodynamic Healing in Hypnosis, by Ernest Rossi and David Cheek. I call my variation the homunculus meditation. The name is taken from a neuroscience figure, a homunculus, which is made by inflating anatomical parts in proportion to the amount of the somatic sensory cortex which are involved in our sense of touch for the particular anatomical part.

The script is very simple. You sit quietly in a relaxing posture and invite yourself to sequentially relax different portions of your body. There are thousands and thousands of terms which pertain to various anatomical structures, so you cannot name them all in one single meditation (or self-hypnosis) session. The ones I routinely use are (in order): eyes, optic nerves, visual cortex, cerebral cortex, limbic lobes, hindbrain, throat, spine, median nerves, fingertips, (back up to) limbic lobes, hindbrain, throat, spine, sciatic nerves, toe tips, foot soles, ankles, calves, ankles, shins, ankles, fibulas, knees, hamstrings, knees, quadriceps, knees, femurs, glans, testicles, anus, lumbars, navel, seventh thoracic vertebrae, nipples, seventh cervical vertebrae, shoulders, elbows, thumbs, index fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers, little fingers, elbows, wrists, thumbs, index fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers, little fingers, wrists, fingertips, wrists, elbows, shoulders, seventh cervical vertebrae, nipples, seventh thoracic vertebrae, navel, lumbars, anus, testicles, glans, testicles, anus, lumbars, navel, seventh thoracic vertebrae, nipples, seventh cervical vertebrae, spine, throat, tongue, palate, gums, lips, nostrils, nasal cavities, sinuses, eyes, temples, ears, eustachian tubes, ears, temples, eyes, forehead.

On average this takes about twenty minutes to work all the way down and back up through these features of my anatomy. There are three additional important details:

1.) In the Rossi-Cheek recipe they instruct us to instruct ourselves "Relax eyes, &c." There is an old philosophical conundrum here regarding who is talking to who when we are talking to ourselves. When you sink a long basket and you say to yourself "Good shot!", who is talking to who there? There is some implicit dissociative model like perhaps Freud's--and perhaps it is your superego talking to your ego, or something similar to that. Anyway, what I do instead of commanding myself to relax, is to invite myself to relax. I substitute "I may relax my eyes, &c." for the literal instruction provided in the Rossi-Cheek recipe.

2.) A few of these invitations are repeated, sometimes over and over. Roughly, I devote the proportion of the session along the proportions in the homunculus diagram, hence my name of homunculus meditation. I invite my fingers and my lips and my tongue to relax far more than I invite any other portion of my anatomy to do so.

3.) The other weighting is toward the eyes and ears; a large fraction of our brain is allocated to the processing of visual and audio sense information. By concentrating on the parts of the body that involve the largest brain fractions, the given twenty minutes (or whatever) of meditation can have the largest total brain footprint! That is one theory.

I have been using this meditation (or one close to it) on a nearly daily basis since 1997, since I first read Rossi and Cheek's book. I will be using it for the foreseeable future.

Part III, my (longer and at least) weekly practice

This one takes me about forty minutes.

Step one is to sit still in a comfortable position with eyes closed. Breathe slowly and count, one count for each breath to one hundred. For each breath, I visualize a sphere which looks like, or almost like a billiard ball, with the number of the breath inside the little white circle area (like on a standard billiard ball that is numbered one to eight.) The spheres alternate on an interval of ten in color and in spatial position. This sequence is patterned after a common representation of the Kabbalah Tree of Life.

1, 11, 21, 31, &c are a white sphere on the crown of my head;
2, 12, 22, 32, &c are a gray sphere on my right shoulder;
3, 13, 23, 33, &c are a black sphere on my left shoulder;
4, 14, 24, &c are a blue sphere on my right elbow;
5, 15, 25, &c are a red sphere on my left elbow;
6, 16, 26 &c are a yellow sphere on my crotch;
7, 17, 27, &c are a green sphere on my right fingertips;
8, 18, 28, &c are an orange sphere on my left fingertips;
9, 19, 29, &c are a purple sphere between my knees;
10, 20, &c are a brown sphere between my feet.

I used to play a lot of billiards so visualizing billiard balls is quite easy for me. A million other things do cross my mind during this forty or so minutes of meditation, but I try and hold my attention as closely as possible to my breath and to the billiard ball images. After, I make notes of: how many minutes (37 - 51 is the range in recent memory); if I lost count at any point (if I lose the count, I just guess where I was and continue from there--this is an excellent marker for me on how well I am attending to the meditation); if I had a hiccup or a cough or a saliva swallow or a saliva drool (I prefer not to, and sometimes I will stop meditating if any of these occur.)

Sometimes I will try and extend this to an even longer meditation. About once a month I will go for 200 breaths, and about once a year I will go for 300. 300 breaths is the longest I have ever gone. If I am going for a long meditation, I always stop if I lose count or if I hiccup or if I drool or if anything is not perfect.

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