How pliant is your mind? Or, put another way, how obedient is your mind? Are you able to focus on your immediate experience throughout your days? Or do you find your mind wandering through the vast plains of thought, much to your chagrin? If you answered “yes” to the first question, good on you! Keep at it! If you instead answered “yes” to the second question, then feel free to relax, you’re not alone, and, thankfully, there is a cure to untrammeled mind wandering. It’s meditation.
What is the science of meditation? It is the systematic training of attention. In a world filled with distractions, focused attention is becoming more and more rare. This is concerning, because not only our success, but also our happiness, depends on our ability to pay attention to the things which matter. And the present moment is what matters most.
This article will broadly discuss the science of meditation. This article is a very brief, condensed taste of the fascinating and rich subject that is meditation. It’s not meant to be an in-depth, expert treatment on the subject, but more of a sampler. I have written it based on what I’ve learned from reading a few books, attending a couple of meditation courses and my own beginner’s experience with meditation. I make no claim to being an expert on the subject.
If you’ve ever been curious about what goes on in the brain when you meditate, or if you’re aware of the science of meditation and want a brief refresher, this article is for you.
What Is Attention? How Does It Work?
All meditation practices have something in common; they all train attention through the holding of specific conscious intention. But what is attention? And what is intention?
I define attention as experience. This is because we only experience things we give our attention to. This relates to the philosophical exercising of asking “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to experience it, did the tree fall?” (the answer is actually “no” but that’s for another article).
You are consciousness, pure, unclouded, unconditioned consciousness. As consciousness you observe, you experience, you are conscious experience. Or, more accurately: you are.
Attention And Peripheral Awareness
Conscious experience can take two forms, attention and peripheral awareness. Consider yourself right at this moment. You are reading this article on a device. In order to do so you need to attend to the article. At the same time, you are peripherally aware of what is happening all around you; the temperature of the room, the comfort (or lack thereof) of your seated position, the sounds, smells and textures around you. You focus on one thing, while being aware of your surroundings.
As your attention shifts, your focus changes. Whatever was your focus before becomes part of your peripheral awareness and whatever was part of your peripheral awareness becomes your focus.
Say a corgi passes by your window as you’re reading the article and your eyes move to focus on it. You attend to the corgi and the article passes to your peripheral awareness. You become more conscious of the corgi and less conscious of the article. The corgi becomes your experience. All becomes corgi.
Cute and clumsy dogs with comically short legs aside, what was just described is the nature of conscious experience. Attention allows you to focus on an experience with high resolution, while peripheral awareness allows you to experience the context for conscious experience. Both are essential to our survival and both are valuable in their own way.
It’s essential to understand how attention and peripheral awareness works, because together they make up our experience! Isn’t it odd that this essential knowledge is rarely discussed, yet it’s literally life? I wonder what else we’re not told…
Attention Is Selective
There’s one more thing to be said about attention. For this we can do an illustrative experiment:
Take your cellphone out, unlock it and look at the icon on the lower, right-hand corner. Then lock your phone again and put it away. What was the icon?
You know exactly what the icon was. Great.
Now what time did your cellphone show?
Did you even see the time? You probably didn’t.
How is that possible? It was just an inch or two away from where your focus was!
This experiment illustrates an essential bit of ancient and modern wisdom. We can only attend to one thing at a time. Multitasking isn’t real, what people are doing when they “multitask” is rapidly switching attention from one thing to another. And it has been shown that multitasking leads to more mistakes.
Now What Is Intention?
Intention is your will. When “you” intend to move your arm it moves. Our will is a mysterious force which has baffled philosophers and scientists for ages. In the 1960’s a neurosurgeon named Wilder Penfield experimented on epileptic patients on whom he was performing open-brain surgery. Using an electrode he stimulated different parts of the patients’ brains and discovered that he could elicit feelings, fully immersive memories, basic vocalizations and movement of limbs. But he could not stimulate the will, meaning, he couldn’t make people choose.
We are treading on spiritual ground here, so instead of tiptoeing around the matter I’m just going to plow right into it: the mysterious force that is your will is a product of your soul. That’s why it can’t be detected with physical instruments, it is immaterial and spiritual.
It can be argued that Penfield didn’t find the area of the brain responsible for choosing. Of course, faults can be found in any experiment and no results are unassailable by skepticism. If you don’t accept the existence of the soul that’s fine. We can’t be convinced we have a soul, we can only experience it for ourselves. I didn’t accept the existence of the soul until a couple of years ago.
Anyways, back to meditation…
Meditation Is Training Attention By Holding Specific Intentions
Accepting or not the existence of the soul holds no bearing on understanding the basic mechanism which is at work when we meditate.
When we meditate we are simply focusing our attention on a meditation object. This can be anything, but the most effective object to start with is the breath. The breath is perfect because it’s always happening, we can always observe it. Also, it’s the only process necessary for life which we can do both consciously and unconsciously.
You are now breathing consciously.
Your brain (and body) is constantly changing. Up to a few decades ago it was believed we were born with a certain number of neurons and that as we got older we progressively lost more and more neurons until we became senile vegetables.
We now know that through processes called neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, the brain both makes new neurons and new connections between neurons until the day we die. The rates of neurons and connections made decrease as we age, but that’s unavoidable. Decay and death are certainties of life. You just decayed a little more as you read this. Decay, decay and more decay…
The Brain Is Always Changing
The brain is plastic, malleable, it is constantly changing in response to our internal and external experience.
When we meditate we systematically direct some of the changes occurring within our brain. By holding the intention to focus on the meditation object (whatever it is) we train our attention to follow our will.
This is fascinating! Because we are using our will, that immaterial, spiritual entity to effect change in the material world. That’s what makes the brain so mysterious, the fact that it exists at the interface between the immaterial and the material and science currently has no idea what to make of that. This is why we need a new type of science, a spiritual science, which acknowledges the existence of a spiritual dimension. Like Nikola Tesla said:
“The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”
How Attention Is Trained When We Meditate
So how does meditation train attention through intention? It’s remarkably simple to understand the basic mechanism.
So you’re sitting with your eyes closed, meditating. You’re focusing on the breath; how the air enters through your nostrils, cooling their inner surface, inflating your belly, then leaving your body at a warmer temperature than it was when it entered. You are experiencing this, because your attention is focused on it.
Then a thought comes in. You remembered you have a project due at school/work and your attention focuses on that thought and the following thoughts which it conjured up. Your attention gets caught up in the stream, despite your intention to keep it on the breath. Soon you’ve gone through your entire to-do list and are thinking about how good it feels to rub your bear feet on a sandy beach to the sound of crashing waves.
Then It Happens…
You have the “Aha!” moment. You remember you’re meditating. You remember your intention to keep your attention on the breath. The mind offered a thought which captured your attention and drew you away from your intention, causing you to forget it. But you remembered. Hurrah! You then gently guide your attention back to the breath and continue observing it.
That remembering has a name, its called “spontaneous introspective awareness.” It is THE crucial moment in a meditation practice.
Think about it. Your intention to focus on the breath was originally overpowered by the wandering mind. You were pulled into thought land. Then you went “Aha! My mind is wandering” and guided your attention away from thought land and back to the breath. At that moment, you are developing the awareness of your inner experience. You become aware your mind is wandering. And with that awareness you can now direct your attention according to your intention: you refocus on the breath.
You train your mind to follow your will (soul).
Since the brain is plastic and is constantly rearranging itself in response to internal and external experiences, every time you realize your mind is wandering and you redirect your attention to the meditation object, you are rearranging your brain. You are changing your brain’s tendency to follow one habit of mind, mind wandering, to another habit of mind, stable attention.
Some of this came from the excellent book “The Mind Illuminated” by John Yates.
Why This Is Important – Every Human Needs To Know This
There is an adage that goes “Where focus goes energy flows.”
What we focus on expands. What we focus on we get more of. Unless we experience something, it doesn’t happen. Our consciousness creates the universe. This is the way the universe works, according to quantum mechanics, and scientists are finally beginning to get on board with the fact.
This idea has been kicking around since the 1920s and it deeply troubled Einstein who famously stated: “Do you really believe the moon is not there when you’re not looking at it?”
Turns out it isn’t.
Or, to quote Seth Lloyd, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT: “Who deserves to trust their intuition more than Einstein? And Einstein’s intuition told him, like everybody’s intuition tells them, that things are really there when you’re not looking at them. Well, he was wrong. That intuition was incorrect.”
You can watch this video for a great presentation on the subject by Inspiring Philosophy:
Consciousness Creates Our Universe
What we pay attention to creates our reality.
Can you appreciate the implications of this?
When we can’t direct our attention, when it’s caught by thoughts, devices or drama, we are surrendering our power to create our experience according to our intention.
When we struggle and strive and fight it’s because we don’t realize that is where we are placing our focus, so that is what we’re creating for ourselves. Whatever our attention focuses on will eventually manifest itself in the material world. That’s why the untrained mind does us more harm than any enemy ever could. Or as the Buddha says:
“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”
So many of us work so hard, stressing and worrying about the rewards of our work or our status in life. We’ve been taught to force our way through life, pushing and toiling for a day which never comes. I know I was. Read this article so you can see what I’m talking about. I was unaware that by allowing my mind to be pulled around by thoughts I was shooting myself in the foot when it came to creating the life I wanted.
If I had known how attention creates our experience, I would have saved myself much anguish. But that anguish is what taught me. To tame the mind or live as its slave, in permanent dissatisfaction with the present moment.
Instead, it’s possible to relax, to exist in the present moment joyfully and peacefully, while directing our focus where we want. This way our energy flows towards it and eventually, what we intend (desire) expresses itself. When we rush and force things we only stress ourselves out.
The Universe Has Your Back, If You Allow It
We can relax, let go and allow our attention to work its magic and create the circumstances we desire. As you exist, at peace with the present, choosing from the heart and creating to serve, your life circumstances starts falling into place. Force and striving become unnecessary.
The world really needs more healthy, joyful and relaxed people. You can train your attention no matter where you are. By doing so you can focus on the good things in life while learning from the bad things. I constantly tell myself: “Focus on the good, learn from the bad, accept them both.” (both “good” and “bad” are illusions, which is why accepting them both frees us from them)
It starts with training your attention. Because once you can choose what to pay attention to, you choose what to experience, literally.
And the universe surrenders to you. Or as my Persian friend Amir related to me with a saying in Farsi:
“When we play our own music, the universe dances to our tune.”
To our wealth and success.