Monday, January 1, 2018

Supplements for Meditation

Besides a reasonable healthy diet, there may be supplements that make sense for a meditator.

As meditation training is a kind of learning, the concepts of neurogenesis (adding brain cells) and neuroplasticity (creating lasting changes) makes sense.  Neuroscientists are not exactly supplement junkies, but they do typically recommend two things over and over:
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Aerobic Exercise
I find it interesting that the Theravada Buddhists include substantial portions of walking meditation on retreats, sometimes 50% of meditation time, as much as 8 hours a day.  I think that much might be overkill, but the general idea gives one at least the incentive to do what the medical establishment already recommends, about 30 minutes a day of moderate activity like walking.

It is fairly common in retreat environments for stimulants to be provided, such as:
  • Tea and Coffee
I'm a bit sensitive to those myself, but if those work for you and you don't overdo it, use them intelligently when you need to.  On the other hand, if you need to sleep, sleep.

Rather than, or in addition to caffeine, I recommend one of the earlier "cognitive enhancing" drugs:
The research on piracetam is somewhat inconclusive with respect to the kind of things it is often tested for, such as cognitive impairment, etc.  I can only point to a small number of advanced meditators that have gone on and off the substance and noticed the difference.  There are other more potent "racetams", but the original is the best studied, probably safest in that regard, and seems to work fine.

My take is that piracetam is helpful in keeping the mind aware and mindful, a literal mindfulness supplement.

It is often suggested that one start off with higher doses of piracetam, around 4.6 grams twice a day, and perhaps gradually tapering down to a maintenance dose of around 2.4 grams once a day, but you could also just start at the maintenance dose if you're more patient.  Your mileage may vary.  I've been satisfied with a modest 0.5 gram per day for many years now.

Even more controversial, and based on even sparser research, it might be worth mentioning perhaps even a:
  • Major Psychedelic
There is a very small amount of research showing that major psychedelics, such as psilocybin and LSD, promote neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.  Perhaps that by itself is not enough to recommend it, and at some point I intend to do a more detailed post about psychedelics and meditation, but for now I would speculate that, if you are comfortable with these substances, a very small microdose, perhaps 1-5% of a dose, taken first thing in the morning on retreat, might not be the worst thing to do.

Of course, better than any supplement would be to make sure you are:
  • Regularly, repeatedly, earnestly engaging in the practice of mindfulness and letting go

Friday, November 3, 2017

Alternative Noting

The kind of noting described so far could be done anywhere, but an alternate or additional form can be used off the cushion, which is to describe actions being performed.  The practice of focusing on the breath is often noted as the "rising" and "falling" (of the diaphragm), or sometimes "in" and "out" if noting the breath at the tip of the nose.

Walking can be noted as stepping, or during slow meditative walks as a sequence of lifting, moving, placing, pressure, etc.  Getting a glass of water, there might be reaching for the cabinet handle, grasping the handle, pulling the handle, reaching for the glass, holding the glass, moving the glass, reaching for the faucet, turning the faucet, moving the glass, filling the glass, reaching for the faucet again, turning the faucet, raising the glass, turning, sipping, tasting, swallowing, etc.

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

If you've gotten this far, you may be interested in some other resources for learning about noting style meditation.

Getting In Touch With Emotions

Realize that when you are having an emotional experience, there may be many things going on.  There could be a primary emotion such as anger.  Easy enough.  But there could also be tensions in the body that are related to the anger.  One of the better habits to cultivate is an ability to quickly scan through the body and notice where there are any tensions.  A lot of that tension can often be let go of immediately, once you are aware of it.  In addition to the emotion of anger, and the body tensions associated with anger, there could also be angry thoughts.  It may be worthwhile to remember these components of body-emotion-thoughts and when one is experiencing any of these that are related to emotions, maybe check out the other parts of the body-emotions-thoughts triad, and see what else can be noticed and let go of.

This is similar to the idea of breaking things down into their component parts.  What is this sensation made of?  Where is it in the body?  Does it stay the same?  Adyashanti once made the analogy of being like a mad scientist, exploring the feelings that you are resisting or fearing.  What is that nasty depression like when you break it down in this way or stop fighting it?  Or that rage or fear?  Plunge into it and first try to just let it be what it is and break it down, again and again.  Be curious, as curiosity is a great tool for maintaining awareness.   What are the basic sensations, where are they in the body, what does that feel like, what are the thoughts, might I be able to let go of some of that?  Could I just let that be without resisting it?

I hesitate to get too deeply into the beliefs underlying these things, because we are trying to break everything down into component parts, and simultaneously we're trying to avoid going into stories and narrative, but I should also mention that on this emotional axis and the body-emotion-mind experiences that are woven there, there is typically a belief, an opinion, an assumption, that underlies the resisted phenomenon.  Letting go of the underlying belief can facilitate the letting go of all the various sensations.  If you are aware enough of your psychology to go down that road, I recommend keeping the concepts to the simplest pointers possible such as "Dad was controlling", and then go right back to noting basic phenomenon.  Nothing to see here, move along - it is just phenomenon like any other.

So the recommendation for things you are resisting is to lightly explore the usual suspects of body, emotion, and mind, investigate a bit without creating a bunch of stories about it, let go of what can be let go of, and ultimately let everything just be with as little resistance as possible.  The background of the meditative path is one of relaxation, which is about letting go of the tensions that we are often unconsciously creating.

Sometimes we may be dealing with something that is more persistent or troublesome emotionally.  This requires more of the same.  The pointer is to work in a very continuous way on feeling, accepting, allowing, acknowledging, opening up to it, making friends with it, holding the space for it, letting it be, letting go.  This aspect of treating everything that comes up in a non-judgmental way, relaxing with it, allowing it, is a very important part of the practice.

Next:  Alternative Noting

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

General Theory

At first the verbal quality of the notes themselves might be relatively primary in awareness.  It's a new task where we have to focus on the words and choose them, and it may take some time to learn to label experience effortlessly.  The underlying goal is to pay attention to what is happening, and there can be more than one thing happening at once.  Just try to label what is more or less predominate, and understand that not everything will get formally noticed.  Try to notice what you can.

As you become familiar with the practice and you've learned a decent palette of notes, it should become as easy as picking out the color red on a palette of primary colors.  As it gets even easier, the goal is to put most of your attention on the object, the actual experiencing of seeing, hearing, feeling, and very little on the mental/verbal note.  Perhaps something like 5% of your attention might be on the note itself.  Noting is a tool, but the goal is to be continuously mindful of the primary objects, the actual seeing, hearing, and feeling.  Almost your full attention should be on the objects, moving from one object to the next, maintaining continuity of mindfulness like stepping from one lily-pad to the next, keeping continuously aware, relaxed, and open.

Notes should typically be kept simple - one word, straight to the point.  We're not trying to go into long descriptions, stories, or concepts, in fact we're trying to avoid that.  All we need is a simple pointer, a placeholder, a checkmark to see that we're doing the main job of mindfulness.  Although we are using a tiny bit of conceptualization in the form of the note, as long as we keep it simple and are well practiced, there is very little conceptual processing, and it can become second nature.

We can also see noting as a process of breaking our experience down into its component parts, seeing what we are made of.  There are a lot of ways to break down our experience, one concept is that it all comes back to the 6 sense doors - the 5 basic senses plus thought.  Everything can be labeled as seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling, and thinking.  While you are meditating, forget your ideas and assumptions about a body or your life, what the room looks like, or what is outside.  Just keep dissecting your experience into little bits, the basic building blocks of your experience.

It is helpful to view all experience, the objects of awareness, as processes happening in the present, here and now.  To that end, notes are often verbs ending in "-ing", the present participle in grammar.  Even when they are not, it is implied, as everything is a process.  For example if we note pressure or angst or relaxation, what we are really noticing is feeling pressure or feeling angst or feeling relaxation.

Absolutely everything can be noted, everything can be put into the note-o-matic experience processor.  If you are having trouble coming up with a note you can always relax and note "this" or "don't know" or "blank" as a catch-all, but in such an instance maybe you could also look a bit deeper, perhaps noting "searching" or "wondering" or perhaps because of that struggle there may be "anxiety" or "frustration" or "grasping", and maybe "resistance" to your frustration.  Don't go crazy searching for the right note, but understand that over time you can become aware of more of what you are experiencing.  Certain relaxed spaces may seem at first to be empty of gross sensation and thought but might be noted as relaxation, peace, tranquility, etc.

Next:  Getting In Touch With Emotions

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

Third Stage - Grasping and Resistance

Once a basic palette of notes is established, most of what we experience is being noted.  But I've left out another important dimension or two.  For all these basic objects of awareness, there is a dimension of whether these things are perceived as "pleasant", "unpleasant", or "neutral".  This gives us some information about how we are built, what our biases are.  This dimension is sometimes based on inherent qualities, and sometimes learned.

This dimension of pleasant and unpleasant is closely related, and almost identical to, another dimension that we might call "grasping" and "resistance".  Usually these will line up, as we will grasp for things that are pleasant and resist what is unpleasant.  But occasionally, for example when long term goals are involved, we might find that these don't line up.  An endurance athlete may learn to love the intense unpleasantness of pushing into the "red zone", knowing that this is how they win.

The dimensions of pleasant/grasping and unpleasant/resistance begin to tell us a lot about our relationship with our experience.  The goal of meditation is to become okay with all experience, and so when we notice that something is unpleasant and we are resisting it, we can actually note the resistance itself, let the resistance just be there like it is, and see if maybe we can let go of some of that.  And if we can't, we let that be okay too.

It becomes very important to note things like grasping and resistance as these are the areas where we really learn to surrender and let things be.

And although we've spun the pleasant side as, well, pleasant, it turns out that if we are desiring or craving something, there can actually be an anxious, furtive, needy quality to the grasping, a sense of lack or want that we may eventually come to see as unpleasant.  People tend to notice this long after dealing with the more typically unpleasant side of things.  Once again, more to let go of.

Noticing "grasping" and "resistance" are a major key to unraveling ourselves.  Other similar words would include craving and aversion, and expansion and contraction.  Use what works.

Next:  General Theory

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

Second Stage - More Detailed Noting

A second stage might be to begin to flesh out the feeling component into basic physical sensations like "pressure" or "tension", as well as basic emotions such as "anger", "joy", "sadness", and "fear", and to flesh out thinking into a few categories like "planning", "wondering", "remembering", or "imagining".

We don't have to get crazy with a million notes, but I will list a few more here for reference.  Pick and choose what works for you.

Feeling physical sensations:  pressure, tension, release, itching, tingling, twitching, pulsing, throbbing, warmness, coolness, softness, hardness.  It doesn't have to be complicated.  99% of the time I find myself using pressure or tension.

Feeling emotional sensations:  Besides the basic emotions of anger, joy, sadness and fear, there can be related subcomponents:

Related to anger: disgust, frustration, annoyance, rage, irritation, aversion.
Related to joy: love, bliss, exhilaration, wonder.
Related to sadness: depression, grief, hopelessness, despair.
Related to fear: anxiety, worry, surprise.

There is also a category of mind states that might not fit neatly into thoughts or feelings, such as amusement, curiosity, compassion, relaxation, tranquility, anticipation, apathy, boredom, etc.

I would say that when I am noting, I am probably using less than 20 notes on a regular basis.  It's just a tool to keep us aware, and it doesn't take tremendous variety to go beyond the benefit of a simple mantra.

Next:  Third Stage - Grasping and Resistance

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

First Stage - Basic Noting

A brief word about posture.  Posture is important only in the sense that we need to be reasonably awake, alert, and free of pain.  From the standpoint of lower back health we might also want to sit in a reasonably healthy posture as long as we're going to be sitting for a while, so some kind of decent upright posture is typically recommended.  On the other hand you could even meditate lying down, but it will be more likely that you might fall asleep.  You don't have to sit on the floor, or on a meditation cushion, or in a lotus position, or with your fingers in a certain position.  Sitting in a chair is fine.

A first stage of noting might be to note all phenomenon, the objects in your awareness, as either "seeing", "hearing", "feeling", "thinking", or if you're having trouble picking a category, perhaps "don't know" or simply "this" to represent whatever you can't quite put a label on.  Try to maintain a pace of around once per second or so, keep to a loose rhythm, and just do it, do it no matter what.  Noting may seem a bit clumsy at first - it is - it has perhaps more of a learning curve than other techniques, but it just takes some practice to get used to it and develop a palette of notes.  Persistence tends to work here, it took me a few months to really feel natural about it.  I persisted because a number of fairly intelligent and reasonable people said that it worked really well for them.

You don't have to note forever and always.  If your meditation gets quiet and stable and you can sit without technique for a while, go ahead.  Just be aware, and if you find yourself wandering, go back to the technique again.

Note what you are aware of regardless of whether there is much of anything there or not.  So if your attention is on the visual component, say the back of your eyelids, you would note "seeing" regardless of whether you are seeing something specific or it is pitch black.  Your attention is on the visual component so you note "seeing".

Noting is typically done silently for practical reasons (group sits, etc.), but noting out loud is actually a powerful and recommended practice.  It is much harder to drift off into thought while noting aloud.  When you can, try using out loud noting when you are having trouble staying aware.

Next:  Second Stage - More Detailed Noting

Table of Contents for How to Meditate