Meditation and Mindfulness have become catch-all words with unclear definitions. If one is practicing body-based therapies such Yoga which combine breath control and adoption of specific body positions, we term it meditation. If one is practicing present moment awareness, we call it mindfulness. In Yoga, we also maintain present moment awareness while controlling breath and maintaining body position: is that mindfulness as well ?. What do we call the practice of breath control, attention control and Vipassana that Buddhist monks practice? Meditation ? Mindfulness, Buddhism? Buddhist Meditation ?. I have been practicing brainwave hemispheric synchronization since I was 23 years old. My teachers claimed it was meditation as well, the only difference was that I was using brainwaves control to achieve particular states. So, I started calling it brainwave meditation. I soon realized that I was doing various kinds of meditation, sometimes, I was using brainwave drivers that would relax me, at other times, the focus was better attention and yet at other times, I was doing meditation to sleep easily. Is meditation and mindfulness only to relax and unwind; can we use it to improve performance?
As one can see, there is a lot of confusion in this field and no one is trying to clear this confusion. The water is muddied and I took upon myself to undo the muddiness for my own academic interest. It seems we have clubbed together many activities under one word. Due to the integrated nature of the various activities, we are unable to clearly delineate one activity from another.
Before I can make the case for an integrated definition of meditation, I need to explain the concept of “Viable Systems”. Viable systems are interconnected systems which tend to achieve a particular, stable state in time. Viable systems can be disturbed by external disturbance, but, in absence of internal instability or external disturbance, they go back to their original state. Viable systems maintain equilibrium unless the change can be sustained. Let us jump right into an analogy.
Using the figure above (Self Organizing System), assume there is a plate which is resting on a flat floor. A ball is rolled on the system by a human and then the plate and ball is left on its own. In no time, the ball will come to a state of rest. If we repeat this exercise 1000 times to ensure that there is statistical significance, we will find that around 97% of the time, the ball will settle at the same point on the plate. If we repeat the exercise 10,000 times, the statistical possibility of the ball resting at the same place will keep on increasing and in some cases can reach 99% accuracy. Over millions of throws, the accuracy rate will keep increasing.
This ball seems to have a preferred point of rest i.e if all conditions are same, the ball likes to rest at the same point. If the position is disturbed by rolling the ball, the ball tends to (direction) arrive at the preferred point of rest. Let us go a step further and call all the components i.e. (ball, plate, floor and the person who keeps disturbing the state of the ball) as a system. Clearly, this system has some tendencies (direction) and end point (preferred state of rest). If things are disturbed in some way, the system adapts momentarily and then attempts to find its way back to preferred home.
Such a system is called a Self-Organizing System. My assertion is that humans are Self-Organizing systems. We all have come across someone in our life who always remains happy i.e happiness is their preferred state of rest. When this person becomes unhappy due to external events, pretty soon, the person becomes happy again. Using the same example, if we know someone who is always unhappy, they tend to find their way back to unhappiness in no time. Those who are always short of money i.e remain in poverty will return back to poverty even if they get an extra bonus or earn a lottery. These people are not doing things on purpose, they are achieving these preferred states of rest unconsciously.
Point 1 – Systems have a tendency to come to preferred states of rest. Preferred states of rest may be good or bad. Components of the system work together to arrive at a point of rest. Co-operation by all components is needed to achieve a particular result. Poverty, Happiness, Unhappiness can be an unconsciously preferred state of rest for some and they maintain it. [/highlight]
Now, let us discuss the human mind-body system. A point of special note here. I have over-simplified the system here and unlike the plate-ball system, the human mind-body system does not have clear delineation. Basis this, some components may be a subset of other components while some may be the superset of components. This illustration is to provide a general overview of the interconnected mind-body system.
As you can see in the above figure (The Interconnected Mind-Body System), we have various component systems which make up the whole mind-body system. Our physiology (body and its various groups, skin etc) is a system that closely interacts with the overall state of mind-body (represented in neurochemical and psychophysiological patterns). These systems are directly or indirectly connected with the neurology (brain), the sensory system (eyes, ears, nose, skin receptors etc.) as well as another system called Attention Switching Network. The state of the overall system can be measured from central or peripheral feedback systems like blood pressure, GSR (Galvanic Skin Response), HRV (Heart Rate Variability), Heart Beat, Pulse and even our body temperature.
If one component system is not working properly, it is always due to a problem within the sub-system itself or it may due to a problem in how other systems are cooperating with it. Let me explain further. When we have a fever, our overall immune system is signaling that something is going wrong. The high body temperature is a symptom, not the cause, the cause is something else, flu or pneumonia or inflammation. Using the same analogy, if our breathing rate is very fast, we are either anxious or fearful due to something. If we are anxious, our attention weakens and we become more easily distracted. The anxiety starts affecting other parts of the system. Basis the above examples, the causes of the symptoms are not simple and straightforward. In addition, the symptoms (like anxiety) can become a cause of other symptoms (Attention Problems).
Using the analogy from the viable systems above, we can say that the interconnected mind-body system is a Viable System. We can also go ahead and say that the big viable system (Mind-Body System) is made up of smaller viable systems (neurology, physiology, attention switching system etc.) which work with each other cooperatively. A negative symptom is a sign that there is some deficiency in the overall system or the component parts are not cooperating with each other. Using the viable systems analogy further, we can say that human mind-body system has unconscious tendencies to arrive at a preferred state of rest (happiness, unhappiness, anxiety, anger etc).
Can one change the preferred states of rest from let’s say anger to calm states or from anxiety to joy state? Of course, we can, but, we need to transcend two challenges :
- We should become aware of our current state (Anger) and then be aware of the desired state (Joy). Without this differential awareness, we will not want to change at all. It sounds simple, but, most of the population is not aware of their current state. They are living in many blind spots.
- Assuming we have transcended the first problem, we have a second problem to fix. The interconnected mind-body system should be willing to cooperate with us to change its state. This should also be easy, right ?. This is more challenging than the first problem. Our mind-body system is super resistant to change. It has learned the current state over many years. If asked to change after 30 years of being in a particular state, it considers it a survival threat and refuses to cooperate. Our unconscious system needs a lot of cajoling to get it work with us.
- We have yet another problem. The mind-body is an interconnected system made of independent components which have chosen to cooperate with each other. Even if the majority of the components have agreed to work with us to change the state, some of the components may have been exiled and out of touch with the mainstream components. These components may resist working as a team and pull up surprises for us as we move ahead.
[highlight]Point 2 – Our mind-body system is a Viable System which has a tendency to come to a preferred state of rest. As with the ball plate system, the various components of our mind-body system have learned over time to cooperate with each other. Whenever they go out of sync with each other, it shows up in our behavior as well as central and peripheral feedback systems. The system is collectively resistant to change. The stronger the input/intervention for change, the stronger it is likely to resist. There are some exiled parts that may be estranged from the complete system and may refuse to work with us. We also need to become aware of our current preferred state as well as the desired preferred state. Without this awareness, there cannot be any change.[/highlight]
Why do people meditate?
Unless one is a researcher in meditation or a journalist who writes about the benefits of meditation, most of us want to meditate so that we can achieve a calm state of mind, relieve our anxiety, worries, and stress. Sometimes, we will pray and meditate, at other times, we will choose to simply control our breathing rate and depth and yet at other times, we may get into various body positions as a part of Yoga.
The above paragraph implies that we are trying to change our state from current state to the desired state. We are trying to become calmer, happier and more joyful. On this basis, we can say that meditation is a process by which we can use some interventions that suit our preference and beliefs (Yoga, Mindfulness, Prayer, even exercising and driving etc) to achieve a better state than we find ourselves in right now. It is also implied that there is a differential awareness that we are not in the desired state and want to change our current state.We can now come up with a more effective definition of meditation. We will address mindfulnesses separately. Meditation is the process of becoming aware of our current unconscious preferred states and choosing to use interventions or process which suit our intellectual understanding and beliefs to arrive at our consciously desired preferred mind-body states.
Meditation is the process of becoming aware of our current unconscious preferred state and choosing various interventions or process which suit our intellectual understanding and beliefs to arrive at our consciously desired preferred states by the way of making changes to our interconnected mind-body system.
We do still have one problem area that we will discuss later in detail when we discuss side-effects of these processes. The problem is that we are trying to use conscious actions to change mind-body states which are controlled by our unconscious or subconscious. For those who have not experienced the heavy pushback that our unconscious mind can throw at us, below is an analogy which shows that this is not a simple problem.
Creating Change – Assume we have a close friend whom we want to change. He/she eats too much, does not exercise and does take care of his/her body. She also gets irritated at small issues and then sulks for long periods. We want him/her to change due to our closeness and bonding, but, it can get really challenging. On few occasions, we take this friend to the gym with us so that they can try to exercise, at other times, we give them self-help books so that that they calm down and change their behavior. It does not seem to be working. Sometimes, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Our friend appears to change and we become happy that things are starting to move in the right direction. Soon, we find out that the light we saw at the end of the tunnel was the light of an oncoming training with nowhere to hide. It so happened that our friend got irritated with our constant nagging and afraid of losing us, appeared to show that he/she is changing, however, is using sophisticated deception on us. When we find out, we get angry but cannot do anything more.
If one has tried to change a friend, a sibling, a spouse, child, a boss or employee, the above example may have played out many times in our life. Now take all that frustration of dealing with resistance with our near and dear one and multiply it by 50,000 times. The resulting situation is how our unconscious mind responds when we try to change it. We may be able to change it using brute force, but, it can be extremely taxing on us in terms of time, money and happiness.
Point 3 – Creating a change in our unconscious system’s preferred state of rest can be very challenging and we can expect to experience moderate to significant resistance. On other occasions, we may get an impression that change is happening, but, our unconscious mind may be playing tricks on us.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a specialized form of meditative practice which involves shifting our awareness to the present moment awareness. Some claim that it is the more effective than other meditative practices and is a superior intervention process. To create an even better understanding of mindfulness, I will have to explain some other concepts so that it is easier to make sense of this supposedly superior process.
Human Nervous System – This is a basic primer in Human Nervous System and Attention Systems, which will enable a better understanding of meditative mindfulness. Our nervous system can be divided into three types. Somatic Nervous System (SoNS), Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and Sensory Nervous System (SeNS).We will focus on ANS as
We will focus on ANS as the working of ANS is key to understanding “Tone” i.e our aggregate level of the neuro-psycho-physiologica
Theis the part of the peripheral nervous system that handles voluntary control of body movements. It contains all the neurons connected with skeletal muscles and skin. The is the part of the peripheral nervous system that acts as an involuntary control system (below the level of our consciousness) and controls visceral functions – .
ANS can be further divided into SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System) and PSNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System).
The balance between PSNS and SNS creates our tone which is the overall neuro-psycho-physiologica
Point 4 – The Nervous System is a key part of our interconnected mind-body system and can be divided into Central and Peripheral System. ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) is a part of the peripheral nervous system and can be further divided into Para-Sympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) and Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The two independent systems SNS and PSNS work with each other to maintain our overall state and tone based on the context in which we are operating. During sleeping, our PSNS should be dominant over SNS and help us fully relax and rejuvenate.
Attention Types and Switching Systems
There are varieties of Attention systems which switch from one type to another type on a frequent basis. We have two main types of attention mechanisms “Central Attention” (CA) and “Peripheral Attention (PA)”. PA is also called awareness. There are fundamental differences in which CA (Attention) and PA (Awareness) operate. They always work together in conjunction with each other. Understanding the attention switching mechanisms is the key to understanding mindfulness.
CA (Attention) and PA (Awareness) have two sub-types. Do note that the line of demarcation is not so black and white as shown in this graphic. The complete attention system cocktail is a mix of attention and awareness. It is also a mix of volitional attention i.e what we want to pay attention to and involuntary awareness i.e what our ANS streams involuntarily into our consciousness. We have two types of static systems with various awareness modes based on various sensory modes (external/internal) as well as width (narrow/broad). In this matrix below, Top Left is a therapeutic zone, Center Right, and Bottom Right are Performance Zones.
Attention Type and Width
The Dynamic Nature of Attention Switching Mechanisms
There is one more component of we need to discuss before we can explain mindfulness i.e dynamic nature of the attention system. Contrary to the popular myth, attention systems do not have black and white delineation and are not static in nature. They keep shifting from past to present to future. We must also note that all the attention systems and types are always active. One of the attention systems or types is dominant over other and shapes the overall attention system mechanism. It seems like a cocktail of various drinks where one drink flavor is dominant and we have to make some effort to find the other ingredients.
We have a predictive brain that uses previous experiences to predict what is likely to happen in the future as well as how should we respond to a current event. When the predictive brain is working well, it shifts from idling to processing past memories, predicts the future or calculates a current response, then, goes back to idle state. However, at times, it may get stuck in the past processing or future assessment and may not find its way back. If we are stuck in anger or hurt due to a hurtful incident with someone, the attention system keeps worrying/ruminating about the incident. Sometimes, we are worried about the events of the following day or something that is likely to happen in the future. Our attention system gets stuck in negative future prediction in this case.
Our overall attention system is an integrated mechanism which switches to combinations of static modes (width and type) and dynamic modes (past, present and future processing). As a matter of fact, the complete attention switching mechanism works like a car shift gear (as shown below). Based on the activity we are performing, our unconscious mind keeps switching between various attention modes. There is a central feedback system called EEG which measures the functional activity of the brain and provides us an indication what is going on inside the brain. As the gear system moves from left to the right on shift gear mechanism, the brainwaves move from slow to fast. When no activity is being done and the brain is in standby mode, the brain should come to the Idle state. When we are powering down, the brain gears should ideally switch from Idle to Relax to Sleep.
Except when the brain in Sleep Mode and Idle Mode, the brain can be carrying out past processing ( to recall, for hindsight and for insights) or could be in the future processing mode (for planning and for foresight). It should then come back to idle state and eventually power down so that our system can rejuvenate. Let us recap so that we are not lost in complexity.
Point 4 – We have an Attention Switching System which has a static attribute (Type and Width). Type attribute is the object of focus (Internal or External) while Width is about span (Narrow or Broad). We also have a dynamic attribute of attention system based on the processing activity (past focussed, present focused or future focussed). Our attention mechanism works like a car shift gear system in which it can move from various stages (Sleep to Peak Experience). As the gear mechanism moves from left to the right side of the gear shift mechanism, there is an indicative feedback in our brainwaves which can be measured using EEG kits. The brainwaves move from slow brainwaves to faster brainwaves as we shift gears from sleep mode to peak experiences.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness has got to do with the Attention Switching Mechanism. Before we can specifically define mindfulness in better terms, let us go through some existing definitions of Mindfulness.
As per, famous teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose,in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
The second well-known model of Mindfulness is the Liverpool Mindfulness Model. In this model, Attention is considered a core central process. Awareness is considered peripheral attention. Once we are able to combine Attention and Awareness with a certain mental perspective, we have the non-judging awareness. The non-judging awareness is the ability to maintain awareness of the various mental states without being caught (out) by them.
There is new term in both these well-established definitions “Non-Judgemental“. What is this “non-judgment” ? It seems to be another big word like meditation with no clear definition. Now that time has to come to cross this bridge as well, we will cross this one with the same fervor as before.
When we think of an event in the past, perceive a current activity and even when we think of what is likely to happen in the future, we feel a certain reaction in our mind-body. We can feel anger, fear or joy and within no time, we go down the rabbit hole moving from one worry to another, from one fear to another. Irrespective of how it all started, within no time, we are jumping from one reaction to another, building response cascades like falling from on stair to the next and then to the next (Cascade is a succession of stages, processes, operations, or units). If we can become aware of our cascades and stop responding to them while they are building up, we just experienced non-judgment. A better word is “conscious control”, but we will use non-judgment for now. The best non-judgement process is when we do not allow the cascade to start at all by refusing to respond to an event with thoughts, feelings, and actions. We can now define mindfulness in a more clearer manner.
Mindfulness is the act of maintaining internally focussed, broad awareness while remaining in the present moment time marker and maintaining superior non-judgment in the process. Irrespective of what we are told, mindfulness is not a natural state of mind. Natural states are shown in the gearbox analogy above. Hence, when we practice mindfulness, we create a new gear position for the gear shift mechanism (as shown in the picture below). When we practice mindfulness, we create a new shift gear position marked as “M”.
The Sweet Spot is marked on the Type/Width of the Attention Matrix.
Mindfulness states are not natural, they have been invented by our ancestors who hypothesized many spiritual and health and benefits of mindfulness. Some cultures believe that practicing mindfulness can free them from re-incarnation as our past creates our future. If we do not allow the past to process, the future will not develop by default and we can design our future. Others believe that mindfulness improves mental health in the high-stress free environment in which have found ourselves. Neuroscientists believe that we can improve the functioning of our “Default Network” benefitting from the inherent neuroplasticity in our brain. Either way, meditation, and mindfulness have become a global phenomenon with apparently significant benefits.
I will now enter the “No-Go” zone and talk about the side-effects of meditation and mindfulness. Ask anyone and they will laugh when the word meditation and mindfulness is used alongside negative side-effects. Irrespective, my premise is that there can be significant short-term negative side-effects and in some cases debilitating side effects for a person.
Negative Side Effects of Mindfulness and Meditation
Adopting a new thing too fast or in larger quantities always has side effects. I have been an EEG meditator since I was 23 years old. For no apparent reason, I found myself at the intersection of Buddhist Psychology, Machine Learning, Theoretical Neuroscience, Complex Systems and Control Systems early in my life. I jokingly call myself the ancient wanderer monk trapped in a contemporary straitjacket. No wonder, my screen name is Wikimonk.
EEG or Electroencephalograph is a device used to measure the functional aspects of our brain by measuring our brainwaves. In other methods, we can measure the structural aspects of our brain using fMRI, SPECT etc. I had the knowledge and access to an early version EEG kit with a manual MS Excel-based qEEG software. qEEG is quantitative EEG in which we can measure before and after patterns and even measure against a normative database of normal people. I used to measure my own EEG patterns and sometimes of my friends. Within no time, I was moving within a circle where rookie and advanced meditators regularly interacted with each other. I was the only one who was using EEG kits, so I was considered an outlaw of sorts. I was doing something different which did not resonate with those following other spiritual practices. Being an engineer with avid interest (but poor grades) in control systems, I always intuitively saw the mind-body system as an interconnected control system. Due to my inability to stay awake in my class, my on job learning was a better teacher than classroom where I first hand experienced the potential disasters due to the gradual destabilization and occasionally rapid stabilization of interconnected control systems.
I am also a “Professional Pessimist” in a sense that my interests and work activities revolve around constantly searching for things that have the potential to go wrong and create risk mitigation plans for them. To rephrase, my job is to convert my “Professional Pessimism” to “Professional Optimism”. Those who see or saw the first stage of my work thought I was too bearish but, those who were fortunate to see the second stage of my work were awestruck with the benefits of using my approach. Soon, I had a small following of people who understood my full lifecycle approach to any subject. Within no time, I was deeply engrossed in understanding the negative side effects of meditation and mindfulness which was being validated by subjects who experienced the side effects and were willing to discuss with me. I discovered significant negative side-effects of the double M (Meditation & Mindfulness), but, no one talked about it. Even today, no one talks about it.
I will be shortly writing a more detailed post on the dark underbelly of meditation and mindfulness, but here is a small list of the many side effects :
- Meditation is a process of using one or more variable (breath control, body positions etc) to arrive at a new preferred state mostly calm or joy. Overdoing the process of meditation can create ripple effects within the unconscious system potentially destabilizing the complete system gradually or rapidly. Such destabilization can have a debilitating effect on the person, his/her social and professional life and the risks outweigh the benefits. An incremental approach is much better as it allows one to stop any further intervention, till the stable stabilizes.
- Recent research into Mind-Skin connection has shown that there is a link between our mental state and the biofeedback from our skin. According to clinical psychologist and psychodermatology expert Dr. Ted A. Grossbart and cited in this Harvard Medical School publication, at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, people who visit clinicians for a skin condition often have a related psychological problem that can affect the way they respond to medical treatment. Based on my experiences with those who practice meditation and mindfulness, there is strong evidence that high-stress levels are linked to skin problems. A destabilized mind-body interconnected system will also show up as a symptom of our skin health. Using regular measurements before and after using GSR meter (Galvanic Skin Response) meter, we are finding a strong correlation between mind-body-skin system. Side effects can be severe eczema, dermatitis (skin inflammation), pruritis (itching), psoriasis (skin scaling and redness), rosacea (skin flushing and eruption), vitiligo (the loss of pigmentation in the skin) and in some cases chronic hair-pulling (trichotillomania.
- In meditation, once we control one or more variables, the other components try to make adjustments to cope with the new inputs. Sometimes, the person may become skilled at controlling one variable but may lose control of the connected variables. Using an example, let us take a subject who experiences high anxiety and practices meditation or mindfulness to become less anxious or calmer. Anxiety is an emergent property of the system i.e. the core of anxiety is an imbalance in SNS and PSNS and could be even more deeper i.e dissociated early childhood experiences. As soon as the subject starts practicing mindfulness or meditation, there is a great likelihood that the dissociated experiences will surface in the consciousness and they will have to be resolved. I have seen real cases where individuals become more irritable when they are unable to resolve the negative experiences. In atleast two cases, I have first hand experienced individuals going into a clinical depression. To put this in a better perspective, let me use an analogy of a new driver driving a high-speed car on the highway. As soon as he/she pushes the gas pedal, the car starts moving ahead. If the person is not holding the steering wheel to control the direction of the movement, the car will move in its direction and the joy ride will end up in the crash. Similarly, in meditative practices, if we do not become skilled at resolving and addressing the other interconnected parts, some sort of accident is likely to take place. Meditation should always be combined with insightful psycho-therapy or insightful analysis of deep-rooted patterns.
- There are also potential negative side effects of mindfulness. Mindfulness is essentially a practice of tweaking our Attention Control, Attention Switching, and Response Modulation functions. Mindfulness can be a wonderful mental state to achieve, however, one should be able to shift out of that state and move to other states as required by our daily lives. Unless one is a monk who wakes up and lives his/her life around meditative and spiritual practices daily, we need to be able to shift gears constantly on daily basis. I have experienced this first hand myself and also seen it happening to other people. Mindfulness may reduce stress and improve a sense of calm, but, there is a danger of a person getting stuck in the mindfulness gear or unable to quickly shift gears when required. The focus levels and performance levels of such individuals are likely to significantly drop and they can become unproductive burdens to the family, society, and business. The negative side effects of mindfulness are that the cognition-system, the memory system, and the attention switching system can drop in optimal functioning and create problems where one is unable to effectively function in daily life. Unfortunately, as discussed in this article on depression, the unfortunate souls who find themselves suffering this debilitating health issue exactly behave like those who practice stuck mindfulness, though the reasons of their mental issues/mental states are different.
- Meditation and Mindfulness as practiced today essentially slows down our brainwaves. Unless one is actively balancing relaxation and therapeutic mindfulness with performance-enhancing attention and focus developing exercises, one may persistently themselves stuck in slow brainwaves. This can lead to a major disturbance in the sleep patterns as the mind-body system assesses slow brainwaves as constantly in a state of rest and reduce the sleep time and quality required to rejuvenate. Persistent slow brainwaves (as in Depression) may lead to insomnia problems.
- Finally, I would like to advise those who suffer from any kind of mental affliction to avoid listening to pop psychology to use meditation and mindfulness to solve all your problems. Unless combined with effective psychotherapy and neurological interventions, singularly practicing meditation or mindfulness may have negative side effects in the long term for individuals.
I have tried most of the meditative and mindfulness methods and did not find any single method that integrated body, mind, psychology, and neurology. This led to a creation of a very powerful integrated process which has been named “Sensate Processes”. If one is getting involved in any kind of spiritual or mindfulness activity, please incorporate the multi-dimensional aspects of other intervention processes prior starting your journey.