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Intentional Preferential Awareness for
Our human body/brain (what John C. Lilly called "the human biocomputer") consists of networks of nerves that transform external and internal happenings (the physical world, social events, bodily processes) into virtual psychological representations of these happenings.
We are taught what these representations "mean" by the cultural, subcultural and family groups with which we are in contact. In fact, "meaning" itself is a culturally-created construct.
The problem begins when we take these virtual, brain-mediated representations, and the meanings assigned to these representations, to be Reality itself, thus mistaking the map for the territory.
When we assign to these meanings a secondary meaning of "new situation" or "requiring an immediate response," the nervous system becomes more highly activated in order to motivate and energize us to generate new or enact immediate responses. We experience this on a continuum from a positive experience of feeling "energized" to a negative experience of feeling "stressed."
When we assign to these meanings a secondary meaning of "threatening something we value" (such as our body, personality, family member, social status, material possessions, travel duration, place in the hot dog line, etc.), the physiological "fight or flight" response is activated. This includes an associated psychological experience of irritability/anger or nervousness/anxiety/fear, both which helped our distant pre-human and human ancestors kill or run away from other dangerous organisms and live long enough to become our ancestors.
While the fight or flight response has its uses, many of us have the good fortune of living in physical and social environments that do not often create a need, or perceived need, for us to kill or run away from our fellows. So although useful in some uncommon situations such as a home invasion, fight or flight is usually a false alarm that is damaging to our physical and psychological health, and may have adverse social consequences as well.
One way to solve a problem is to inquire into its component causes, and then target these for change.
The processes of stress, nervousness, anxiety and fear have two psychological components: cognitive content and cognitive process.
Cognitive content is meaning itself (e.g., "If I lose my job, I won't be able to pay my bills, I'll lose my house and car, I won't have any money for food, and I'll end up dying of starvation in a box on the street, which would be bad). Cognitive content is for the most part learned from cultural, subcultural and family groups.
Cognitive process is the frequency, duration and intensity of awareness of the cognitive content (e.g., thinking about the above daily but briefly in the background of awareness, versus thinking about it "all the time" in the forefront of awareness). Cognitive process may be learned (our mis-educational system rewards constant thinking, as does the media).
However, overthinking and repetitive cognitive content (physiologically, simply the excessive involuntary firing of memory-encoded neurons) may also be hard wired as in the case of obsessive compulsive disorder with or without associated compulsions.
OCD without compulsions (e.g., constantly worrying "what if I throw my baby out the window?," being terrified by this thought and having absolutely no desire or intent to do it) is known as OCD Pure "O," and often remains undiagnosed or misdiagnosed due to doctors and psychologists not knowing about it. The fact is that clients who have obsessive thoughts of doing something bad, and are terrified by these thoughts, are the last people who would ever do that thing. The people likely to do bad things aren't sitting around terrified by the repeated thought "what if I do xyz," they are sitting around wanting to do xyz and planning it.
If you are now thinking "but what if I actually do want to do xyz which terrifies me," or "how can I be sure I don't really want to do it?" or "but what if I'm not terrified enough by wondering if I want to do it?," you have OCD pure O and you WON'T do it. Just make sure you get assessed for OCD Pure "O," and get cognitive behavioral exposure and response prevention therapy, from me or elsewhere, and possibly a medication consultation with a psychiatrist. The clue that one has OCD Pure "O" is obsessions including words involving uncertainty such as "what if?," "how can I be sure that," especially when others think that the concern is unfounded.
A common trigger of stress and anxiety is the mixture of cognitive content and cognitive process known as "worry." The content of worry is "something bad in the future." The process of worry is frequent, lasting for an unhelpful amount of time, and being in the forefront of consciousness to the extent of superceding more adaptive objects of awareness.
(Don't Settle for Freud's "Ordinary Unhappiness")
Positive Psychology / Self-Actualization: Once the mind is not focused on things that trigger negative emotions, the negative emotions tend to disappear. And what arises? Not just the absence of negativity but actual positivity.
Transpersonal Psychology / Self-Realization: Beyond the "ordinary happiness" that arises once both "neurotic" (excessive, irrational thinking-based) unhappiness and ordinary (situational and temporary) unhappiness are conquered, once the mind is not focused on things at all, but is allowed to just Be, something else arises more and more frequently. Calm before, during and after the storm. Joy. Objectless Love. In spiritual terms, Oneness, Peace Surpassing Understanding, Being-Consciousness-Bliss.
Stress and anxiety can be reduced by intervening at the above levels of cognitive content and process.
Irrational negative cognitive content can be made more rational by means of cognitive restructuring, the cognitive behavioral therapeutic technique in which (1) thoughts that are causing negative emotion are identified, (2) evidence is generated for their elements of truth and falsehood, and (3) a more rational thought is generated on the basis of the evidence. When the habitual negative thought arises in the future, it is challenged with the rational alternative thought, and eventually the rational alternative becomes habitual replacing the formerly irrational cognitive content.
Dysfunctional cognitive process (also known as worrying, overthinking, thinking all the time, racing thoughts, obsessing, ruminating, dwelling), is most effectively corrected by what I am calling Psychological Meditation, Meditation in the Psychological Tradition, or Awareness Management Training.
Psychological Meditation teaches the brain to control the thought process as efficiently as it controls the movement of the limbs. A hand is a useful tool for picking up a cup of coffee but when it isn't needed for something important it is best kept still. Similarly, the mind is a useful tool for a lot of things, but when it isn't needed for something important it too is best kept still.
It never ceases to amaze me that in the 13 years in which we are held captive in the K-12 "educational" system, plus sometimes 4 years of university and sometimes an additional 2 to 6 years of graduate training (for a total of 13 to 23 years of supposed "learning") a few minutes is rarely if ever spared to teach us that the mind is capable of being stilled and how to do it. To the credit of some school systems, mindfulness is now being taught to some school children. However the rest of us discover this human potential by accident or not at all.
What Isn't "Meditation"
Most of us who have been meditating for a while have at one time or another fallen into the trap of equating meditation with the arbitrary spiritual or religious trappings in which we first encountered it, be that Buddhist, Hindu/Yogic, Taoist, Jewish Kabbalistic, Christian Contemplative, Sufi Islamic, etc. (but usually Buddhist or Hindu Yogic, as meditation is a component of their common "exoteric" practice, rather than embedded in esoteric or secret teachings as in Western traditions).
The truth is that meditation is like sugar. If someone comes up to you and hands you a chocolate cake and says "this is sugar," and someone else comes up to you and hands you cotton candy and says "this is sugar," and someone else comes up to you and hands you a pineapple and says "this is sugar," you would probably roll your eyes and say to them something to the tune of "No, that's a chocolate cake, that's cotton candy, and that's a pineapple." Similarly, Zen Buddhist meditation, Hindu Kundalini meditation, Taoist Microcosmic Orbit meditation, Jewish Kabbalistic meditation, Christian contemplative meditation, Sufi Islamic meditation and Western Mystery Tradition pathworking meditation are forms of meditation but not "meditation" itself. They are Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Jewish, Christian, Sufi and Western Mystery Tradition practices that have meditation as a component.
This is not in any way to knock religion, spirituality or religious or spiritual meditation. I have studied, practiced and benefited in various ways from each of the above systems. I personally believe in a number of religous and spiritual teachings and at times engage in various religious and spiritually-related practices. But the most important thing that I have learned from the multitude of meditational systems is what they have in common.
If you wanted to learn to read, and the only local place to learn to read was in a Zen center, Hindu temple, church or synagogue that used their own religious texts to teach you to read, it would make sense to go there to learn to read, but it would be incorrect to identify the skill and benefits of reading with that particular religion, or to adopt the philosophies and practices of that religion out of a belief that these constitute "true" reading. The same goes for meditation in the above traditions, unless of course you are sincerely interested in practicing these, which can be a beautiful thing.
So What Is "Meditation"?
Meditation is Intentional Preferential Awareness
for Psychological Transformation
There are numerous definitions of meditation and scholarly articles enumerating these. Rather than enter that maze, I believe that it is in a way a form of respect to the entirety of meditative systems to define meditation as that which they have in common.
All systems of meditation aim at what is defined by Patanjali as Yoga itself: Stopping thinking and thoughts (translations vary, but this is the gist. Here is Swami Vivekananda's translation and explanations of the Yoga Sutras, and here is I.K. Taimni's translation and commentaries, each slightly different translation of yoga in Sutra 2). It may come as a surprise that you can do true yoga anywhere, anytime, without even moving your body. Because meditation is true yoga. No downward dog necessary.
If stilling the mind is the common aim, the common method boils down to: Intentional Preferential Awareness for Psychological Transformation.
This definition contains cognitive behaviors (intention and preference), a non-activity (awareness), and a motivation/goal/outcome of the practice (psychological transformation).
This psychological outcome is itself the cause of the three goals people variously have for meditation (wellness, well being or self-realization), some or all of which may result from meditation whether or not they were known about, desired or intended.
It is useful to conceptualize and practice the "awareness" aspect of this definition of meditation as passive awareness of what is, "being aware of" rather than "paying attention to," "concentrating on" or "focusing on."
The definition contains both the cognitive behaviors of "intention" and "preference," which is partially redundant in the sense that intention includes preference. However, preferential awareness feels volitionally "lighter" than intentional awareness. Moving away from thinking by being preferentially aware of seeing, hearing and the feeling of the body in space just seems less effortful than being "intentionally" aware of these. However, preferential awareness does not necessarily include intention, as "preference" can simply involve including and excluding. The automatic, often non-volitional act of worrying could be considered "preferential awareness" of conditioned automatic negative thinking to the exclusion of awareness of other sensory input (e.g., some combination of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and exteroceptive/proprioceptive/nocioceptive sensation). So while the definition could be shortened to "Intentional Awareness for Psychological Transformation," as intention includes preference, and it could possibly be shortened to "Preferential awareness for Psychological Transformation" in as much as the goal of Psychological Transformation implies intention, the benefits of including both intention and preference appear to me, at least at this moment, to outweigh the slight semantic redundancy.
I define meditation as involving awareness rather than attention, focus or concentration for the following reasons. Your eyes are currently open and in front of you is a screen with words. You are seeing the screen without expending any effort, because your eyes are open and the screen is in front of them. You do not need to "pay attention to" the screen, or "focus on" the screen or "concentrate on" the screen to be aware of it. You really don't have to do anything to be aware of what is right here and impinging sensorially on your sense organs other than to be "preferentially aware" of it as opposed to being lost in thoughts or preferentially aware of information impinging on other senses. Meditation is fundamentally a non-doing, in order to experience what is being obscured by too much doing. "Paying attention," "concentrating," "focusing" can easily degenerate into just more egoic doing, which is part of the problem. Awareness, passively being, and being aware of what already is, is the meditational solution.
The "intentional" and "preferential" aspects of this definition of meditation refer to the unavoidable and paradoxical necessity of doing to undo ("doing without a sense of doership" in Hindu lingo), thinking to stop thinking ("thinking nonthinking" in Zenmaster Dogen's Buddhist terms). Intentional and preferential awareness of one thing does involve thinking (intending and preferring) and doing (switching from intentional awareness or unintentional conditioned preferential awareness of another thing). However, these are transformational modalities of thinking and doing and not inconsistent with the meditational goal of gaining the ability to bring thinking and nonthinking, and the "doing" of thinking and nonthinking, under voluntary control.
I have included the goal "psychological transformation" as part
of the definition so that the definition would preclude intentional preferential awareness of things and for purposes unrelated to what is generally considered meditation. Being intentionally and preferentially aware of planting a flower with no goal whatsoever other than to plant a flower would certainly be considered "meditative," but I would not consider it "meditation" unless it is accompanied at some level of consciousness by a motivation for psychological transformation.
Similarly, smoking a cigarette is very "meditative" without being "meditation." In fact, the meditative elements of smoking may be even more important than the nicotine in maintaining the behavior. Think about it. What does smoking involve? Intentional preferential awareness of breathing, the sight of fire and smoke, the smell of burning tobacco, the taste of tobacco, the sensation of breathing, and the awareness of the repetetive movements of the hand, lips and diaphragm. Add to this the relative absence of thought, as awareness has been driven to so many sensory modalities that little cognitive availability remains for awareness of thinking. Finally, the behavior is often positively reinforced by the pleasure of standing outside looking out at space and negatively reinforced by the removal of boredom or stress caused by the tasks that are being avoided. While the addictive properties of nicotine account for the withdrawal symptoms that occur when one stops smoking, and smoking is to that extent maintained by negative reinforcement (the removal of the discomfort caused by not smoking), it is possible that meditative components of smoking play an important role as well. This may be why one of the most effective ways to stop smoking includes mindfulness techniques.
My definition of meditation breaks down to some extent in as much as being intentionally and preferentially aware of doing something bad, such as purposely squashing a ladybug, even if accompanied in some twisted way by a motivation for psychological transformation (e.g., to study one's reactions to do doing something evil), could not be excluded on purely semantic grounds. However, everyone knows that in this universe purposely squashing a ladybug is not meditation, and it would seem clumsy to specifically include such exceptions in the definition (e.g., "Intentional Preferential Awareness of Non-Evil Things for Psychological Transformation).
The purpose/effect of "psychological transformation" in the definition ties in with the Four Psychologies (click here) as it can cause the goal of each of these: wellness, well-being and self-realization/transcendence.
Wellness is the goal of Psychologies 1.0 and 2.0, Preventive and Curative Psychology.
Well Being is the goal of Psychology 3.0, Positive Psychology.
Self-Realization or transcendence is the ultimate goal in a variety of meditational systems, which may be considered Psychology 4.0, Transpersonal, Transformational, Transcendental Psychology.
Types of Meditation
There exist various taxonomies of meditation (click here to enter the maze). Perhaps the most common and broadest distinction is that between such as "concentrative" and "open awareness" meditation. A given meditational system may employ each of these for specific purposes, sometimes in sequence, such as Zen which may begin a sit with breath counting (concentrative meditation) to still the mind, similar to swabbing alcohol on the skin prior to administering an injection, followed by "just sitting," relinquishing control of the mind and just being aware of what arises as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, sensing and thinking. "Mindfulness" is considered to be an integration of the two (click here)
I distinguish three main types of meditation, from a psychological point of view, and in order of departure from the problem (Thinking) and proximity to the solution (Being), may be considered as:
(1) Intentional preferential awareness of an object of the senses (e..g, the feeling of the breath, circulation of the chi energy around the microcosmic orbit, movement of the kundalini energy through the chakras) or of the mind (e.g., the mental sound of a mantra, a prayer, a thought), or of some combination of objects of the senses (e.g., seeing, hearing and movement when walking, known as walking meditation or mindfulness of walking; seeing, hearing and feeling when washing the dishes; or any combination of sense impressions during any activity whatsoever). This type of meditation is identical with what is termed "mindfulness" despite the common misunderstanding of mindfulness in activity as different from mindfulness in silent stillness/sensory deprivation (the most common form of sitting meditation).
(2) Intentional preferential awareness of the subject (awareness itself, or the simple sense of being, which amounts to awareness itself). Subject awareness can be found in practices including Zen Buddhist meditation (Shikantaza, Just Sitting), Tibetan Buddhist meditation (Self-Liberation Through Seeing With Naked Awareness), and Nondual Hindu meditation (Advaita Vedanta). Adyashanti's "True Meditation" is of this type.
(3) Self-enquiry into the nature of the subject of which one is aware in (2) above. This is known in India as "atma-vichara," popularized in recent times by the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), published as "Who Am I" (Click here for the original 1902 version published in 1931. I personally find this original version more concise and useful. Click here for a later, more elaborated version).
Here is the text Ramana's Self-Enquiry, but it is important to understand that although most of his recorded teachings contain a lot of philosophical, spiritual and religious content, this was in response to the state of mind of the individuals who came to him for guidance, and their formulation of questions in philosophical, spiritual and religious terms. He would usually begin by meeting them where they were, so to speak, gradually leading them back from their conceptual jungles to his purely psychological technique of enquiring into the root of the experience of "I," emphasizing that no spiritual or religious practices are necessary. He was famous for his use of what came to be known as his "brahmastra" or cosmic sword, sooner or later asking his questioners, regardless of their questions, something to the extent of "Who wants to know," as in the following:
Questioner: "From where did the knower and his misperceptions come?"
Ramana: "Who is asking the question?"
Questioner: "I am."
Ramana: "Find out that 'I' and all your doubts will be solved. Just as in a dream a false knowledge, knower and known, rise up, in the waking state the same process operates. In both states in knowing this 'I' you know everything and nothing remains to be known. In deep sleep, knower, knowledge and known are absent. In the same way, at the time of experiencing the real 'I' they will not exist. Whatever you see happening in the waking state happens only to the knower, and since the knower is unreal, nothing in fact ever happens." (in Be As You Are, by David Godman, p. 112).
Ramana's technique, in brief, is as follows (the following are not direct quotations of Ramana): When aware of any experience (i.e., seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, physically sensing or thinking/imagining) ask yourself "Who is having this experience?" The answer will naturally be "I am." Then ask yourself , or more precisely just wonder nonverbally, "But Who Am I?" Kind of like if you had amnesia and you were trying to remember who you really are. This might also be likened to trying to remember a word that is on the tip of your tongue, or what you just walked into the room to get. You don't continuously repeat "what was that word, what was that word?" or "why did I come in here? why did I come in here?" Rather, you in a way clear your mind with an intention of remembering, somewhat confident from past experience that the remembering/realization will eventually arise of itself, not as something new, but as something that was already there but hidden from conscious awareness.
The "I" in "Who Am I" is the experienced self, but this is not considered to be the True Self. This is because the object of experience cannot be the subject of experience. "I see the wall" has 3 elements: a subject, contact, and an object. The seer, seeing and seen. If I see the wall, I am not the wall. I am the subject, aware of an object. We all know this. But we rarely if ever take this to it's logical conclusion. If I am aware of my thoughts, emotions, sensations, and body, these are objects of which "I" am the subject. I can't be them. This means, contrary to popular belief, that "I" am not my body, nor am "I" the content or process of the mind of which I am aware. To the extent that I am aware of an "I" that sees the wall, that "I" can't be me. Because I am aware of it. I am the subject, aware of it, the "I that sees the wall," which is therefore an object of consciousness.
But if "I" am not the body or mind, Who Am I? What Am I? What is the source of this experienced "I" that has sensory and cognitive experiences of the world, body and mind? This is Self-Enquiry, "'I' Diving," "the backward step," "turning the light around," the Greek "Gnothi Seauton" (know thyself), and the answer can not be found intellectually. We can only humble ourselves by sincerely asking the question, with the determination of a drowning person seeking the surface of the water, sincerely wondering about Who or What we really are.
Ramana Maharshi said "The only enquiry leading to Self-realisation is seeking the source of the 'I' with in-turned mind and without uttering the word 'I'." (in The Collected Works, p. 80).
Seeking the source of the "I." Seeking the source of seeking itself and of the impulse, at this moment, to seek. Asking, in effect, or more precisely wondering nonverbally, "What is the Matrix?"
Eventually, enquiring as to the source something that we don't understand (the ego) causes another thing that we don't understand (awakening) to happen, making us aware of still another thing that we don't understand (the True Self) but which rings Truer than our prior experience, Truer than true. In Christan terminology, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matthew, 7:7-8).
Similarly, in Talk 197 from Talks with Ramana Maharshi, he tells a questioner: "You need not eliminate the wrong ‘I’. How can ‘I’ eliminate itself? All that you need do is to find out its origin and abide there. Your efforts can extend only thus far. Then the Beyond will take care of itself. You are helpless there. No effort can reach it".
Zen Buddhism has an identical form of meditation, known as koan practice, in which one deeply inquires into such paradoxes as "Who is seeing?," "Who is hearing?," etc., progressing to enquiring still further into "Who Am I?," "What is This?," "What is the Object Corresponding with I?" (These were my own koans. My Zen Master then turned me on to Nisargadatta, and I then found Ramana and realized that the deeper you go into all of these systems the more you realize they are saying the same thing and that this could be distilled from its particular spiritual and religious content. Herbert Benson psychologized Hindu mantra meditation, Jon Kabat Zinn psychologized Buddhist mindfulness meditation, and I find it useful to psychologize Self-Inquiry in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions as well).
The three types of meditation do not need to be practiced in any particular sequence, but what Ramana found is that some people had difficulty jumping right into Self-Enquiry. Therefore, some may find it easier to master one before attempting the next. This is because when one's current habit is to be lost in awareness of thinking (as an object of awareness), it may be easiest to transition to awareness of a different object, the only remaining ones being sensory objects (that which is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or physically felt), rather than trying to jump right into subject awareness.
Once one's default mode is multisensory awareness rather than thinking, it is easier to spot the subject, the "I" that is aware of the senses. This "I" may at first mistaken to be the mind or body.
Finally aware of this false "I," one can wonder what this "I" really is, what is its source. For example when the word "I" is voiced in the mind, from whence does the sound arise before it is mentally voiced? And when the impulse to mentally voice it arises, from whence does this impulse arise? This ultimate meditative practice of self-enquiry consists of abiding in "I"-ness and inquiring into the source of this "I"-ness.
Ramana Maharshi explains the superiority of Self-Enquiry to meditation on objects as follows:
"Reality is simply the loss of the ego. Destroy the ego by seeking its identity. Because the ego is no entity it will automatically vanishh and reality will shine forth by itself. This is the direct method. Whereas all other methods are done only retaining the ego. In those paths there arise so many doubts and the eternal question remains to be tackled finally. But in this method the final question is the only one and it is raised from the very beginning. No sadhanas [spiritual practices] are necessary for engaging in this quest. There is no greater mystery than this - viz., ourselves being the reality we seek to gain reality. We think that there is something hiding our reality and that it must be destroyed before the reality is gained. It is ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will yourself laugh at your past efforts. That which will be on the day you laugh is also here and now." (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 17th May, 1947).
At the beginning, the "intentional preferential" qualities of meditation involves a certain amount of thinking and volition, in order to remember to "do" meditation when one realizes that one is currently mindlessly aware of the habitual contents of awareness (and that one is in whatever emotional state these are triggering, e.g., low mood, anxiety, anger, mental dullness, etc.).
However, over time, the meditative state itself becomes one's default mode of awareness, and then thinking itself requires intentional preferential awareness of the content of thought. Rather than constantly and mindlessly swinging our legs when sitting and then purposely stilling them in order to stand up and walk, we have learned to keep them still when sitting, and then purposely move them in order to stand up and walk. So can it be with the mind.
We are all performing the "intentional preferential" part of my definition of meditating (being intentionally and preferentially aware of one thing or another) all of our waking (and for some of us, lucid dreaming) hours. Only, all of us are sometimes and some of us are almost always choosing as objects things that are useless at best (repetitive TV news stories, repetitive TV new stories) and often harmful (obsessive worry/anger thoughts, the taste of junk food, the feeling of inhaling a cigarette). Often we are preferentially aware without being intentionally aware, as when we realize we have been worrying, without having intended to worry.
Psychological meditation is merely doing what we already spend our lives doing (being aware of stuff), but with a goal of psychological transformation, giving intentional and preferential awareness to:
(1) neutral objects (the feeling of the air entering and leaving the nose during sitting breath awareness meditation, or intentional preferential awareness in silent stillness; the sight of the sink, the sound of the water, the feel of the silverware when washing dishes during during mindfulness, or intentional preferential awareness in activity);
(2) the subject itself, the "I" (awareness of awareness, the simple sense of being);
or (3) the sense that there is something beyond the "I" awareness, a "ground of being," and verbally or nonverbally wondering what That Is (Self-enquiry).
But this is only to repeat what has already been said. That's because there's not much more to say. It's really as easy as 1-2-3. As the Zen Master said, there's really Nothing to it . . .