What Meditation/Mindfulness Does for Me – Quiet Stuff – Part 1
Charles T. Tart
“Subtle is significant” – Shinzen Young
Recently a meditation teacher colleague of mine asked me what practicing meditation did for me. Uncharacteristically, I was at a loss for words. Since I’m not a masochist, and I spend 15 to 30 or more minutes most days practicing some kind of meditation, it must be doing something for me that I value. Continuing to think about it, I think it does a variety of things but they are “quiet” sorts of things. I think there may be some people trying meditation and mindfulness in its various forms who may think, as I too often did, that I wasn’t getting anywhere with this mindfulness stuff, so I will occasionally write about the quieter effects, to share what I’ve learned and perhaps to encourage some of you.
When I first heard about meditation many years ago, I formed the expectation that it should do incredible things. This seemed a reasonable expectation, as descriptions of meditation and similar spiritual practices often talk of wonderful outcomes. In my reality, though, not much of anything happened when I tried to meditate. But I figured I was new at it and didn’t really know how to proceed. Reinforcing this feeling that I wasn’t getting anywhere with meditation, I received the gift of a variety of a psychedelically induced experiences in a psychiatrist’s studies while in graduate school, so I knew what incredible, mind-blowing experiences were like. I also got a lot of valuable insights and demonstrations into how my mind worked, which were very useful all through my career. Wasn’t that what meditation was supposed to do, give deep insight into Truth?
Many years of trying various forms of meditation followed, without much result. I then tried the Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation, as it was billed as working for anyone. The results were interesting, (see A Psychologists Experience with Transcendental Meditation) but certainly didn’t produce any fantastic experiences for me, and by the mid-70s I had pretty much given up attempting to practice meditation. It struck me that it must require a special talent which some people, like me, didn’t have.
On the other hand practicing increased mindfulness in life, along the lines that G. I. Gurdjieff taught, was very rewarding, and I’ve written about its effects and relations to other psychological understandings in several books (Waking Up, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science). The application of Gurdjieffian mindfulness in everyday life, as I understand it, became my chief growth practice, and is still central today. I’ve also noticed that in half a century of practicing mindfulness in life and eventually a fair amount of various forms of formal meditation, I have changed a lot, but, by and large, it’s quiet change. I can’t say “I sit down to meditate and have these great experiences,” but once in a while I notice that there was this stupid thing I used to automatically do, with appropriate thoughts, emotions, actions and consequences, and, gosh, I haven’t done it in years! It just quietly fell away. So I’m going to take a look at some of this quieter stuff, this more subtle change, and, if it looks interesting, share it, both as a possible contribution to generally understanding meditation and mindfulness and, as I mentioned above, perhaps as an encouragement to other people who are still waiting for fantastic things to happen as they practice, but are perhaps getting impatient and discouraged.
Level of Arousal:
One of the things various forms of meditation –
Besides trying to be more mindful in everyday life, I generally do a form of vipassana (“insight” meditation) each day that I learned from Shinzen Young. There are a variety of ways to practice this, my favorite is focusing on observing flow and change, and gently trying to do so with concentration, clarity and equanimity. When I have some success at this, even for just a few moments, it drops my level of ongoing mental activity/arousal and physical tension. I’d like to say it can drop to zero, even if only for a moment, but it’s pretty rare to hit zero. But it can drop it to a much lower level than I habitually carry through my busy days.
Something I’ve noticed in bringing mindfulness into my everyday life over the years is that when something stimulating or stressful comes along, how much it affects me depends on my level of physical and mental tension at the time it happens. If I’m pretty relaxed, the stimulus might not have much effect, I wouldn’t even call it a stressor. If I’m already fairly stressed or tensed, though, it has a much stronger and usually negative effect. The arousal effect tends to last and only go down slowly, so the next time a stressor comes along it will have even more effects. I’ll sketch that common, everyday life process in the diagram below.
Starting in the lower left of the chart, something of a certain intensity happens that I sense, represented by the downward pointing arrows. If I’m calm when it happens we can think of it simply as a stimulus, but if it’s inherently threatening and/or I’m already in an aroused and defensive state, we could often more accurately call it a stressor. For simplicity, I’ll call all the stimulating events stressors from now on.
Then there’s a reaction – sensorially, mentally , emotionally, bodily – to the stressor, represented by the upward pointing arrows, with the size of the arrow representing the strength of the reaction. That results in raising my overall level of activation, represented by the wiggly line.
So with the first stressor there’s a quick reaction – possibly tightening of muscles, tuning my senses for clearer perception, stress hormone release, mental analysis, wondering whether it is dangerous, possibly bodily preparation for fight or flight. But nothing else happens right away in this case, so I start to calm down. Calming down usually takes a while compared to the immediate response to a stressor. But by the time the next stressor occurs, my initial overall tension level is higher than it was before, so I tend to react more strongly to the second stressor, even though it’s the same intensity, than if it hadn’t been preceded by something that already alerted or stressed me to begin with. My overall activation/arousal level goes up.
Our bodies and minds have a natural, built-in tendency to calm down when our world gets calmer, but calming down generally takes longer than a quick reaction to a stressor. So as you see in the chart, the third stressor is perceived when I am at a higher level of activation and produces an even greater reactive response. After a few of these stressors, I am way over-reacting and I am considerably mentally-emotionally-physically tense.
So if I can take even a moment to come to the present, the here-and-now, even better several seconds or more of being more in the here-and-now, there’s a relatively automatic relaxation of mental tension and physical tension. When I become consciously aware, of my body state, which is the usual immediate consequence of trying to be more here-and-now, and I notice I’m being uselessly tense about something, I automatically relaxed. It’s a silly and useless thing to be unnecessarily tense.
As a concrete example, I had a traumatic history with dental work as a kid and still haven’t completely worked it through. So sometimes my dentist (who is a very nice person!) is working on me and I’ll notice that my arms are tense, almost making fists! But that doesn’t accomplish anything, so I consciously I relax them – but half a minute later I may notice I’m doing it again! But when I’m lost in mental processes (that’s what “ordinary mind” is a great deal of the time, being absorbed, lost in ongoing mental/emotional processes), I may not be aware of what a level of tension I’m carrying along, and it has its consequences.
So let me see if I can sketch what happens to my mental/emotional/physical tension level if I’m present for even a moment every once in a while.
Suppose I’m doing a formal sitting meditation, like vipassana on bodily flow sensations, or staying pretty here and now in life situations by keeping some of my voluntary attention monitoring body sensations, a Gurdjieffian approach. Left alone, that means I am generally pretty calm. There are little fluctuations occasionally, even with a pretty quiet meditation I can suddenly remember I forgot to make an important phone call, for example, should I stop meditating and make it, should I just calm down and make it later, etc. But by and large I am calm, aware of my current environment and body, not striving to do anything in particular. If asked what happened in my meditation, it would be straightforward for me to answer, “Nothing much, really.” Compared to the usual frantic state of my “ordinary mind,” though, I’m doing a lot!
The next chart shows what happens when various stressors come along while I’m being more mindful, more present.
The clear difference is that my reactions to various stimuli is such that they really aren’t the usual “stressors,” my reaction/perception stays pretty much appropriate to the intensity of the stimulus. And I’m not accumulating arousal and stress that increases my reactivity, so at the end of this time period I’m still pretty focused, calm, and equanimous, rather than stressed out and over reactive.
That’s quite an accomplishment when I can also respond when asked about my meditation-mindfulness session, “Nothing special happened.”
I think almost all of us can learn at least this much “skill” in meditation-mindfulness, so it’s worthwhile to keep practicing…
I plan to write more about these quiet aspects of mindfulness and meditation.