Making Meditation Easier: Controlling Our Internal Chemistry

I have a little niece who recently had a 4th birthday.  Her little brother got a musical birthday card for his birthday earlier in the year, and she really wanted one too. It’s just a greeting card with a little electronic chip in it that plays and small audio sample repeatedly. My wife remembered this and weeks before her birthday found one.  It loops the whistling chorus of Lovin’ Spoonful’s song What A Day For A Daydream.  We decorated it with pictures and sent it off.  Her birthday came and she had a magnificent party and seemed to forget all about wanting this singing card.  My sister didn’t give it to her on her birthday for some reason.  Then just this week I got a call.  My niece was home sick from daycare and she and my sister found and opened the special musical birthday card.  My sister said my niece got so excited she actually blushed and said in a quiet but excited voice, “I got my own singing card!”  She finally got what she wanted, and the result was a noticeable biological change in her metabolism and skin tone caused by the excitement.

Most of us don't get what we want...except Ralphie.

Most of us don’t get what we want…

Most of us don’t get what we want — certainly not all the time.  When we do, we may enjoy it for a while, but then it’s off to find the next thing that we don’t yet have to give us pleasure, excitement, or just keep the blues and difficulties of life away for a little while longer while we continue to seek more permanent satisfaction.

Gaining true satisfaction with life is something not many of us can claim to have done, and one of the reasons I started meditating.  Learning to meditate properly was one of the most difficult things I’ve encountered in my 45 years on the planet.  Sitting still is easy for the first 10-20 minutes, but after that the body starts building tensions — thinking about all the things to do today..this week…and.next week!  The past, likewise becomes a burden:  All  the things I have said, someone else said, things I could have said, should have done differently, and again to the future…what I’ll do next time!  Worrying about all the time lost.  So much to do to make up for lost time!  Ahhh!  I need to get up and go NOW.

Yet, I am here to sit now…and for the next 43 some odd minutes I have left (I set a timer and never look at the clock so I’m never totally sure.  Are any of us ever sure how much time we have left?).

One great meditator once said the way to handle this paradox while sitting is to say to yourself, “Yes these things may all be very important to me, but right now I am meditating.”  I like that notion and have found it helpful in staying put.

The more time I spend meditating and studying the technique, the more I understand the teachings.  I practice Vipassana Meditation under the tutelage of S.N. Goenka. I would not recommend trying this technique without proper guidance as given in 10-day silent retreats offered by Vipassana Research Institute.  Why?  Because they have a training environment and structured schedule to launch a new meditator into working with the best chance at success for continuing, and gaining the benefits of it.  Most people, beginning meditators especially, get frustrated and stop doing the work without gaining anything after their first attempts at sitting for one hour.  The training costs nothing but your time (and a voluntary donation if you are so inclined after completing the course). No one bugs you afterward or tries to convert you to a religion, or sell you anything.

This is the technique, which in its instructions are simple:

  1. Sit with eyes closed for one hour in the morning and one in the evening.
  2. While sitting, methodically scan the body, head to toe, for physical sensations – heat, cold, tingling, prickling, itchiness, sweat, pressure, pulsation, pain, etc.
  3. Recognize with each sensation you experience that it is changing and impermanent.  It may increase or decrease but will eventually pass away in time, just as it arose if you accept it for what it is and relax.  This is the law of nature.
  4. Stay focused, keep the scanning going, and don’t let the mind wander.

And that’s it in a nutshell!  It’s really all there is to it, though it is far easier said than done, which is why proper training is required.  The benefits are many, including the ability to control stress, anger and anxiety along with minimizing or even curing their related physical maladies: Back pain, fatigue, stomach ulcers, migraines, grinding teeth, and sicknesses resulting from general immune deficiency.

What I’ve found is this:  Step 4 — Not letting the mind wander is not just helpful for meditation, it’s vital.  Thoughts will wander, of course, but it’s critical that we come back from the fantasy of the past and future (which is where the mind naturally goes when not focused on the present) as quickly as possible. Since we’re sitting still and can’t do anything about the past or the future, such mental meanderings while meditating actually punish us by causing added stress, making meditation harder, unpleasant, and keep us from progressing.

What I’ve also learned from listening to discourses by Goenkaji, and continue to understand on a deeper level is this form of insight meditation as taught and practiced by Buddha himself is all about monitoring and controlling our own biochemistry. It is how meditation and biology relate to biofeedback. Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of physiological functions with the goal of being able to manipulate them at will.

Here’s how it works: Stress, anger, fear, lust and hatred all generate particular biochemicals.  When we think about the external objects associated with these dark emotions, it generates a little of the biochemical and releases it into our bloodstream. The body reacts to the chemical and generates sensation on the body which we then respond to subconsciously, generating a little more of the chemical.  When we stay fixated on outside objects tied to these emotions we become stuck in a feedback loop of craving and generating more and more of this poison chemical that ultimately makes us feel more and more miserable.  Basically we become addicted to these biochemicals which can, in time, destroy both the mind as well as the body.

So why would anyone persist in craving about something they hate?  This is what took me a long time to understand.  We do so not because we want to hate, but because we want resolution, self-serving justice, and to ultimately prevent or instantiate once and for all time the things we most want changed in our lives.  The same is true for things we like and want but can not have as well as those things we despise and want eradicated.  Simply put, we react strongly to things that we identify with strongly, and things we allow to affect us strongly, but can’t control.

Since control over the things we hate (or want) is not usually attainable, at least not permanently, we who are more obsessive and egotistical will fixate on and fantasize about situations we dislike in order to come up with ways to achieve our goals of either attaining or dismantling the objects of our attention. This is true during meditation and while driving down the road, doing dishes, shopping or going about various things in daily life.  It is also where the biochemicals come in to play. The idea of getting what we want, and the end to things we don’t want stimulates this chemical reaction in the body.These chemicals give us initial pleasure in that they are the result of us feeling as if we were attaining what is desired at very that moment.  This is the dark side of fantasy.

As we fantasize about getting what we want, we get a high feeling.  Then as the high fades, we realize we aren’t where we thought we were while fantasizing.  In response to that we feel a low feeling — lower than where we started.  We then seek more of the chemical that made us feel good, so we might fantasize again – easy to do when you can do nothing but sit with eyes closed:  Rewriting past experiences in our minds (to our satisfaction this time!) and getting excited about things we haven’t done yet.  As with most addictions, we require more and more of the chemical each time to reach the desired effect, to maintain the high longer, and put off the inevitable crash.  So we keep going back to the outside object with greater and greater focus and intensity in order to get a bigger payload of the biochemical each time.  Thus the endless cycle of misery continues.

But there is a way out.  Mental discipline prevents us from going there in meditation – with the goal of not going there in day-to-day life. When we monitor ourselves against mental wanderings while meditating we are, in effect, monitoring ourselves in order to prevent this particular kind of biochemical flow from starting.  It starts because of the things that seem important to us are immediately unattainable, so unless we focus on something else personal, like the sensations on our body, as is the prescribed technique, we begin to crave – thus starting the unwanted biochemical feedback cycle again.

Things that seem important are very often things that we don’t already have — no matter how much we may have already.  Rather than taint what we have because of misery for what we want but do not have, our interests are probably better served by staying focused on the present so we can work for what we want. Meditation is, after all, meant to help us to become content in the present so that we can do our best work and make for the best possible future outcomes for ourselves and others.  Otherwise, as the song goes, “you may be daydreaming for a thousand years”…and never get any closer to true happiness and contentment.

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