I am always thinking, you know. Thinking crap. How I slipped and fell on that beautiful girl at the party yesterday. What an embarrassment! About what my wife said about me in the morning. How could she? After all that I have done for her in the past week.(One, two , three etc).
Oh, that conference is coming. I haven’t prepared yet. Hey – my tax returns. When am I going to file that? Shit!
Yap, yap, yap- my mind goes on. But so does everybody else’s.
‘Freedom from the self’. Ego is supposed to be the chief obstacle to ‘Nirvana’, according to some Buddhists. A lot of eastern religions exhort that ‘freedom from the self’ is the path to cosmic realisation. The concept of ‘self’ is an illusion that that has to be dispelled.
Various types of meditation have been extensively studied in recent times. In a famous experiment, Jon Kabat-Zinn gave a course in meditation to employees in a company. He divided them into two groups. One group was put on a waiting list. No therapy was given to them. The other group was given a course in meditation for eight weeks. They were also asked to practice at home. The happiness of each group was measured before and after the course. In addition to questionnaire, EEG was also used.
The results were astonishing. The intervention increased the meditation group’s happiness by 20 percentile points. And the results lasted a surprising four months.
In meditation, one sits in a comfortable position and focuses attention on one’s breathing or in chanting a mantra. Or one thinks with compassion about the world or fills their mind with god. There is a recent type called mindfulness meditation where you have to sit and concentrate on your own sensations, external and internal- the present moment. Whenever the mind wanders, you have to gently bring your mind back to the task at hand. There are many variations, but this is the common theme.
Initially one can concentrate only for a few seconds. Slowly, by training, the time spend in true meditation can be increased.
Another recent strategy is ‘mindfulness’. You don’t have to sit down and meditate. It can be practiced anywhere. The idea is to be fully aware of the present moment. Soak in your sensations and experiences in a non-judgemental way. You are not supposed to react to what is observed. You can observe your own thoughts also. Just be aware of them. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the present. Sounds whacky? Teaching mindfulness has been shown to decrease the relapse rate of patients suffering from major depression by 50 percent.
I can think of some other instances when the self ceases to exist and the mind is still. It happens sometimes, when one is painting or writing fiction with full concentration. When I play table tennis with Varghese Paul, my friend in college, with girls watching. I try with all my concentration to beat him. I can recall times when a microsurgery is in progress, and I use all my skill to put that severed finger back in.
Yes- it is when you are in the flow of Czikszentmihalyi. It is when your attention is on the present moment. When the mind’s focus is not on you.
When you focus attention the lateral prefrontal cortex is acting. Simultaneously it inhibits the medial part, where the stupid negative mental chatter is going on. It clamps down overthinking.
In meditation and mindfulness technique, you are actively training yourself to direct your attention elsewhere. It is away from the self and destructive rumination. In short, they are not passive relaxation techniques, but active exercises that train our executive higher brain regions to have more control on our own mind.
And the focus is outwards. Away from the self. This is one crucial finding. Selfishly focussing on one’s own happiness becomes counterproductive. This is why the intrinsic goals are better if they are directed towards the outside world and other people. The happiest people have their goals in how to serve society or to better the world with their skills. Sounds naive and preachy, doesn’t it? But that is the surprising conclusion that we reach.