Wednesday, 17 April 2013

mindfulness and neuroscience

In our culture, which is rich in benefits derived from rational thought and scientific innovations, we often need "proof" that something apparently unrelated to science is actually "true."

(The quotation marks above are a get-round the issues that arise if we pretend that "proof" and "true" are unarguable constants. You could use "evidence gathered from observation and rational thought" but it's a mouthful, and you could use "valid," but enough already with the quibbles.)

It's a generation since an article in the "Scientific American" identified the sort of brain-waves generated by Transcendental Mediation, to more-or-less show that TM makes a difference. (Provided you could afford it!) 

Since then, what we now call neuroscience can observe the brain in action via MMR scans. ('n stuff. I kind of, y'know, like, don't really know what I'm talking about here on the technology, so I'll move on.)

The point for me is that neuroscience can show us the brain, in action, in different states. It can show us the brain doing its normal stuff, dealing with one concept, fantasy, worry, memory etc after another, in that linked way that passes for normal thought. It can show us the concentrated attention that comes from doing a focused task. And it can show us a different state, which is that of meditation, specifically the mindfulness meditation derived from Zen Buddhist techniques.

I'm going to quote heavily from an article I learned of from Kathryn, for which, many thanks. A click on the title above should lead you to the article, but if it doesn't, I've put the URL below. (The article is four years old, so no doubt much more has been done since, but it's a useful summary.)

"This question of ‘I’ needs to be answered experientially. It has to be investigated and directly perceived; thinking and analysis cannot reach an answer. One way this can be done is through meditation, observing the process of experience and discovering that this ‘I’ is nothing more than the very clinging to one thing, then to another; grasping at what is desired, rejecting what is disliked; taking credit, pride, blame and shame; judging self and other; constructing a self-narrative; re-running memories; pre-occupation with future possibilities. This ‘I’ arises only with the thought process, but it happens so habitually that we begin by mistaking it for who we really are. Is there an ‘I’ apart from this clinging to things? What happens if we let go of it?"

The answer seems to be that there is no one thing that is the Self, "I," the ego. "I" am a construct, continually rebuilt, continually changing. 

"On the basis of all this, it has been hypothesised that what is usually happening when we are ‘at rest’ is in fact not rest, but self-referential thinking and processing. Anyone who has ever meditated will have first hand experience of this, because when you start to meditate, you begin to notice how busy the mind is with an endless series of loosely associated thoughts, memories, plans, daydreams and thoughts about these thoughts. " 

This is the stuff we fondly refer to as "I." It's essential, of course, it's part of what our brains do, part of what my mind is. But is isn't a fixed thing; we are continually re-making our sense of self.

"So what happens when we let go of the ‘small self’? Preliminary findings from neuroscience are consistent with what we know from spiritual masters and what we find through experience. There is no thing which is the self. There is a process of thinking and analysis of experience. It is not even continuous: its aura of continuity is, I suspect, part of the image created in the present moment, but the process in fact comes and goes. Through training it is possible to taste a mode of experience without this companion. This habitual tendency can be weakened, and an alternative selfless mode of experience inhabited. The ‘selfing’ process itself can be observed objectively, and its insubstantiality seen."

Meditation, and the mindfulness approach is the simplest way in I've come across. It provides a context for the sense of self; it can create a distance from "me," and this distance creates in turn a greater calm. It can lessen suffering (pain, depression.) It can increase our sense of belonging in this life now, yet ease our anxiety about who we are and why we have to die. 

And I may have gone about before, but: this isn't snake-oil; it's not The Answer to Life; it's not a cult. It fits your life and mine. It's as spiritual or as practical as you want it to be.

And the neuroscientists seem to be telling us that it's, er....obervable, and verifiable.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome, Fran. I'm delighted you could find the time to have a look at these ramblings. And in return, here's at least three cheers for the NDC!