By Thomas Cornish
Dropping everything and just noticing is an idea that has been spreading as a meme, predominantly in Asia, since the 5th Century BCE. This very simple idea comes under the guise of meditation, mindfulness and vipassana (meaning insight).
It’s a liberating idea. Imagine neither having to take every thought as the absolute truth nor every feeling as accurate. That blundering mistake you made yesterday and that regret as well as stupidity you now feel, only needs to be noticed rather than assigned a judgement. The regret can stay in the previous moment rather than being lugged around into the next. You’ll find that, given enough time to practise vipassana, fervently engaging with the present moment leaves no room for the reveries of the past. And even if you do amble into a cascade of thought and judgement, all that mindfulness says is needed is for you to notice and bring your awareness back to a point of present moment focus; whether that be to the breath or some other bodily sensation.
Mindfulness meditation has taught me that life untangles itself in moments rather than in a very well-constructed slew of cognition and self-narrative. Only the moment, in a sense, is true. The thoughts and feelings that superimpose themselves upon the moment are just the colouring. Certainly, you should be curious of thoughts – where they come from, what they do and where they go — when they crop up in the moment, but you should not be holding them up as bastions of accuracy. This realisation, however, relies on one noticing these thoughts in the first place.
So often we find ourselves in a clouded and messy thought dream, without noticing we are there, until we suddenly jerk back to some essence of the present moment. Mindfulness, then, is like the red pill Morpheus presents Neo in the film The Matrix. Neo has a choice to either take a blue pill and remain in the slumber of a programmed dream, or take the red pill, which will jump him into a dystopian reality of realness. Contrasting to Neo’s situation, we do not need a Morpheus to present us with the red pill, because we already have instant access to it’s contents. I can flicker back to the present whenever I remember to. It’s the remembering, however, that’s the seed in the avocado.
Remembering to remember, in other words, is the hard part to finding your way back to the present moment. I often find myself scrolling down my various social media timelines on my phone; not paying any amount of attention to the data and information presented. I’m literally being the epitome of mindless: this scrolling has no focus – all I’m allowing my mind to do is wander from one daydream onto the next. When I realise this and remember there’s a present moment to attend to, I suddenly fall out of the wandering, as though I was waking-up from a dream. The practise of mindfulness attempts to train your ability to remember to come back to the present moment more often and, thus, unplug from the matrix.
This mindless matrix, or unrestrained chattering of the mind, has been associated with the activation of what is known as the ‘Default Mode Network’ (DMN). This network is comprised of a range of brain areas that appear to work in tandem when a person has no particular goal or focus in mind. This network revs-up when our minds are aimless and without concentration. In fact, this chatter inducing network, that also conjures past and future representations of self, actively attempts to distract our mind’s focus even when in a state of concentration. The DMN, then, is the very thing mindfulness is bidding to tone-down; because, if the DMN loses its iron hold over our neurophysiology, then the apparatus for judgement, worry and regret will lose its potency, making room for present moment experience.
The deceptively simple exercise of coming back to the breath and its encapsulated sensations is the practise needed to relax the DMN. When I meditate, I know I’m up-skilling my metacognitive capacities and strengthening my neuroplastic brain areas associated with attention monitoring. Noticing that I’m thinking about, say, how’ll write this piece, whilst I’ve given myself the goal to focus on the breath, literally has the effect of changing my brain and its activation patterns.
Sara Lazar, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, was one of the first to illuminate the affects of meditation on the brain. Competing with a host of “control” participants (non-meditators), her group found that mindfulness meditators had greater cortical thickness in brain areas – such as the insula and various prefrontal areas– known to contribute to internal regulation. Within ten years of her 2005 research being published, several studies were published that seemly confirmed the original finding. Research is still ongoing and findings regarding meditation remain contentious, yet the main thrust of Lazar’s work still appears factual: a mindful brain is different from non-meditators brain in not just their emergent experience, but in their governing neurophysiology, as well.
Mindfulness also demonstrates certain psychological benefits for those who choose to practise. Meditation, with the goal of invoking mindfulness, has particularly benefited those suffering from depression, anxiety and pain. In 2016 a meta-analysis (a review of a compilation of related studies) was published, with its salient finding being that mindfulness, in combination with other traditional cognitive therapies, was an effective countermeasure to patients’ relapse back into depression. Zindel Segar, of the Johns Teasdale group, found the best outcomes were from those once depressed patients who demonstrated an ableness to “decentre” themselves from the mind’s narrative, judgements and moods. These patients simply realised that their thoughts and feelings could be observed without having to identify their selves with them. They didn’t have to be consumed by a mood or thought, instead, just as mindfulness practise teaches, they could just let them come and then go, in all their glorious impermanence.
It is not the scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness that sustains my practise, though. Of course, they do act as an extra incentive. It is, rather, the goal of vippasana that engrains my motivation to continue my daily meditation practise.
Vippasana is the Bali for insight. Insight, in this context, means cultivating an awareness of the contents of consciousness; illusions and all. Noticing the nature of the mind and realising, as I did, that thoughts think themselves is liberating. We have no additional control over our thoughts and when they do as well as when they do not appear in consciousness. Instead, they simply come and go with a seeming will of their own. Once this fact of the mind is realised, another epiphany presents itself: we do not need to be subsumed by them. This is the insight that mindfulness practise can cultivate an experiential understanding of, and I practise daily so I can remember to remember that thoughts, feelings and judgements are not to be confused with things that are permanent to awareness or ourselves.