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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Humanist Meditation 101 (part 3 of 3)

(cc) Mitchell Joyce (HckySo),
In the last two posts (begin at Part 1), I discussed the purpose of meditation, physical position, meditation aides, body scanning, and focusing. Today I will conclude with notes on going deeper, immediate after effects, and long-term effects...

Going Deeper

Even though a wandering mind and the need to correct its focus back to breathing is to be expected, it is a fact that over time you will become better able to keep your attention on your breath without any other thoughts arising and for longer periods of time between mental wanderings. This increase in ability is noticeable within sessions, but also continues from session to session if you practice meditation regularly.

With that increased ability to maintain attention, comes other effects during the time you are in a meditation session. These include: greater environmental awareness, loss of body, and consciousness detachment.

The first, and easiest to see, is greater environmental awareness. During a meditation you come to notice all of the little and subtle sounds and sensations around you – the clock ticking, birds, cars driving by, the wind, people talking in the distance, and so on. The fact of this awareness as you progress may seem contradictory since these things can be distractions which cause you to have to reset your focus back on your breath. While that is true, it is also true that before you were meditating many of these things would have gone completely unnoticed by you. The reason you notice them during your session is a sign that your mind is becoming still. Throw a pebble into a stormy ocean and its effects are lost, but in a still pond its ripple effects are significant. While the perception of these previously unnoticed things is indeed another set of thoughts to be set aside so focus can be returned to the breath, they are also a sign of progress because a still mind is one of the aims of meditation.

The second effect you may experience during a session may take some practice, perhaps over several sessions, before you start to get glimpses of it. Loss of body is, of course, a figurative description. But the general sensation will be a lack of perception of the body; it’s little aches, itches, tiny movements, etc. This will bring about a feeling of detachment from the body, but is simply the result of an extreme focus. Nevertheless, this feeling – when it happens – is a sign of improvement in your technique.

The tricky thing about loss of body, is that it is not only rare at first, but tends to be very brief. If one is consciously focused on trying to have a loss of body experience, then it is impossible, as the experience results from a lack of conceptual thinking. Once the experience happens, it often ends quickly. Usually, as soon as a person begins to notice that they are experiencing a loss of body sensation, the noticing of it causes the mind to put a label on it, and turn the experience into a mental object. The moment you think, “I’m having a loss of body experience!” you have now lost your focus. Before, you had begun to enter a state of experience without language and labels and without distinctions between things. But calling your mind to think of the loss of body experience creates a distinction between it and other experiences, and between you and your environment. Inevitably, all of the usual concepts flood back into your consciousness. The mind looks to see if the body is there and, of course, it is. Your mind begins ‘checking the mailbox’ to see if any messages (sensations) from the body have arrived – which, of course, they have.

But like everything else, the mind improves over time. With continuous practice, these experiences become more frequent, easier to enter, and last longer.

Another experience you may have during mediation might be called consciousness detachment. We, as persons, are made up of many functions and properties (aggregates) which, working together in complex relationships, yield an overall impression of ‘self’ which we think of as ‘us’. These include memory, emotions, logical ability, selection capabilities, perceptions, and more. But if we were to slowly imagine these properties peeling away, and if we were to look at them individually, there is no one property we could convincingly identify as ‘us’. We are, rather, a function of all of these activities. Another one of these aggregates is consciousness. This is not so much awareness of certain information (such as awareness of our surroundings or of the contents of our thoughts). Rather, this is the actual first-person experience of ‘likeness’ – i.e., what it is ‘like’ to be an experiencing being. One might imagine simpler animals or insects having this feeling of what it is like to be them, without the sophistication of integrated memories of any complexity. Some consciousness philosophers and neurologists call this sensation qualia.

After a person leaves behind all other sensations of body, their surroundings, and other tangible thoughts, their minds enter another state. Here they experience that consciousness in a completely detached form, without the usual accompanying thoughts, feelings, opinions, judgments, memories, labels, sensations, concerns, and other impressions. They simply ‘exist’. Here it is said one can experience the universe ‘as it really is’ bereft of our usual framing of it.

Immediate After Effects

What short-term after effects can one expect from a quality meditation session? The most basic effect is a relaxed and low-stress state, usually accompanied by a sense of patience, contentment, and pleasantness. In addition to these, the mind will be much more focused, controllable, and deliberative. If one were to watch a speaker just after, for example, it would be easier to focus on the speaker for an extended period, while all other distractions would be easily set aside. If one were to engage in some kind of mental task, they would likely be more effective at it, in a heightened state of concentration.

This ‘laser focus’ usually disperses over time. As the day’s activities carry on, the mind has to handle more things simultaneously and attention can become diffused. Certain things have a great tendency to diffuse attention quickly. One of the best examples of this is listening to, or watching, media such as music or television.

Importantly, you have a degree of choice in how quickly or slowly your attention becomes diffused, based on your intent. If you purposely begin filling your mind with a number of ruminations and concerns, you can diffuse your attention more quickly than if you try to remain mindful and in a semi-meditative-like calm after your session.

Longer Term Effects

Longer term effects are usually enhanced when meditation is combined with a solid philosophic foundation. Most of the skills developed in meditation relate to specific philosophic principles and can be used to live these principles more skillfully in life. If meditation were only about the experience during a session, and only about greater focus and stress relief, then it would not have the profound place in spiritual practice that it has had for thousands of years. The general concept of meditation is that, while it may begin as specific sessions, we eventually learn to expand meditative mindfulness into the rest of our lives, thoughts, and actions.

For instance, the first of the deeper effects mentioned earlier, still mind, is something that can be taken into our lives as we live out our day. Beyond that, the ability to notice subtle things that comes from a still mind, can alert us to disruptions and the like arising in our minds before they have the ability to consume us. It may also make us more aware of subtleties in the behavior of others, enhancing our ability to act toward them with empathy.

Having experiences of separation from our bodies and consciousness detachment can create a sensation of oneness with the universe. The ability to enter into such states can create a greater tendency to see things from more of a universal viewpoint than from the viewpoint of our shallow self centered perspective. Some neuroscientists study the physiological effects of meditation on the brain, and these studies have so far lent credence to the notion these changes are more than mere placebo effect. In meditation, we have an integrated practice-philosophy which involves active alteration of our neural architecture, along with mental habits and abilities which facilitate greater application of wisdom teachings, and greater integration of them into our natural responses.

It is in this manner that mindfulness is increased, which can then interject into our normal judgment centers, and better monitor our own thoughts and feelings about things, rather than allow them to consume us mindlessly.


  1. Thanks for the posts on meditation. It's much too easy to find descriptions of the practice that make wild promises or glom supernatural mysticism along with it. I'm anxious to give a try.

  2. Your ability to get the most meaningful information across clearly and concisely while avoiding less useful "fluff" is impressive. This was a perfect article for a beginner, thank you.

  3. Thanks much Marc! Happy meditating :)