[PODCAST #2] Consciousness, Awareness, and Meditation

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Have you experienced a situation where you caught yourself lost in your mind? You are so busy with that random thoughts popping inside your head you don’t pay attention to what’s going on around. “being lost in mind” situation makes you partially, or even absent in the company of your loved ones, that causes uncomfortable situations to rise.

 

Does it sounds like you, or someone you care about? If yes, folks, I have news for you! This episode is about our consciousness, awareness, and being present, where we’ll talk about these situations. You’ll also learn on how meditation can help you train your mind to keep your thoughts under control. And for sure, make you enjoy your present moment.

 

I’m a true believer in collective human knowledge – science, and always strive to analyze everything, including the most complex and untangle topics, such as belief, spirituality and subjective reality from the science point of view. In most cases, it’s tough to find science answering questions related to subjective realities – such as how our minds work, and why they are perceiving the same aim reality totally differently in the face of different subjects. Sounds complicated, maybe? The short question here why different people experience the same situations differently? Answers vary, and science has a long way to go to create a theory of everything mind that explains such complex situations. However, luckily enough, the activities of our mind is traceable through the imaging of our brain under modern medical instruments – Functional magnetic resonance imaging. The previous podcast I touched based upon ego and brain. Sort of intro to this and upcoming topics. And here, with this podcast, we’ll brainstorm on how our ego acts in a way that makes us a prisoner of our own thoughts, causes us to struggle within an imaginary self-image and judgement. We’ll see how using our attention and regular practice of meditation can help us decrease the damage of your ego. I can even go further to claim – regular meditation practice will make you a happier person. We’ll go through all of this. But for now, let’s talk about a consciousness itself!

 

Consciousness means thinking and being aware of thinking. Most of the times, we easy identify ourselves with a noise in ours heads. We believe we are what that noise tells us. We feel things it drives from our unpleasant experiences, and projection of these experiences to our future concerns. Regularly, we also engage in self judge-mental activities that are very, very unfair towards ourself. Having conscious self reflection is a constructive activity that can teach us a lot about ourselves. However, sadly though that strange flow of thoughts that appear and disappear without our control cannot be a self reflection. It is rather a thinking process without us noticing that we are thinking.
As this thinking process occur without our control and notice, we don’t really drive where those thoughts are taking us. Ironically, most of the times, it takes to dark places where we struggle and suffer. This uncontrolled thinking process is also the source of most the human suffering, including depression, anxiety, low self esteem, and other deeper mental states that lead to catastrophic outcomes overtime, such as mental illnesses.

 

When you hear about this chaotic nature of our brain, you can say it feels like a default state of being. I don’t know if it is something that naturally evolved during the evolution, or at some point we got cursed by gods and lost control over our thoughts, but I know that it is not our final destiny.

 

We already know wondering state is something default to our mind. From scientific research mentioned in the first episode of the podcast, we also know this wandering state, or chaotic thinking process is happening within the framework of brain’s default state network. For those who are unfamiliar with this term – default mode network is a centrally located hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper structures involved in memory and emotion.

 

So yeah, this chaos in our brain is mostly happening within our default network. Another fact here is that when default network is performing actively, other parts of brain responsible for attention, focus, and other states of mind are down. And this is happening almost all the time with an untrained mind. Default network is on,  messy thoughts are popping up all the time, leaving a tiny window of conscious reflection and attention. As a result, we are less focused and organized, and more chaotic in our thoughts, pressured and anxious.

 

Our untrained minds are not our friends. Most of the times, it plays thoughts that stress us out, or force us to involve in unfair and harsh self judgement. Sometimes, and if you are lucky, your untrained mind can be soft on you, however, it doesn’t give you a ticket for a way out of potential hostility of your uncontrolled thoughts.

 

Another curse of an untrained mind is that we think we are a subject of our experiences. We feel like we are some kind of being, living inside our head. We have our bodies that carries us around. We are behind our eyes rather than chest or tummy or legs.

 

The fact of the ability of seeing the world through our eyes, made us perceive ourselves as a being right behind our eyes, and the rest of the body is just a machine serving us in one or another way. We don’t see ourselves as a whole being rather than our head. And other body parts are just supporting us. You can test it by yourself though. Take your friend, or someone you want, doesn’t matter. Place an object near to that person’s feet, and then to stomach, then chest, then maybe lips and finally bring it to the area of eyes. And while doing so, ask that person when the object is closest to him or her. And you’ll probably get an answer that the closest was when you put the object in front of that person’s eyes.

 

However, the object was equally close in all cases. This experiment shows we identify ourselves with our mind, or head or brain, scientifically .

 

In any moment, your mind defines your experience. Considering life as a collection of those moments, it is crystal clear that your minds define your life. It defines who you are at this given moment, who you will become in years from now, and how you see your very own existence. I’m sure you know someone who is taking everything easy and being in that blissful state of mind despite any material obstacles. Or you might pretty much meet someone who is desperately struggling in his or her depressive mental state despite all kinds of riches and luck.

 

Our awareness over the processes of our mind directly define our life quality. This include richness of our experiences, relationship with ourself and others, and many more aspects of being human. Considering this, it makes total sense of training our minds! And the most powerful and accessible tool of mind training is without a doubt – meditation! You probably heard a lot about it, and even know someone who is meditating. Therefore, I won’t talk about what is it and how do you do it. I’d rather talk about the science of meditation and show you how it gives you a control over your mind!

 

There is a psychological test that calculates a person’s reaction to social stress situation called Trier Social Stress Test. It considers the person getting into a public test, such as an interview with potential employers who show no sign of empathy of encouragement. After trying to prove yourself as a good candidate, they ask you to do mathematics, and doing so with no errors. During this test, researchers can calculate participant’s reaction to social stress, measuring their heart rates and blood pressure to determine how they handle certain stress triggers. One way of defining the stress level is measuring the cortisol – stress hormone level in a participant’s blood.

 

In 2016, Richard Davidson – professor of psychology and the author of a book “Altered Traits”, run an experiment with experienced meditators in his research lab. On the first day, the participants spent eight hours in meditation, and on the following day, they took the Trier test. Compared to the group of non-meditators, the meditation group produced less stress hormone when exposed to triggers. They also didn’t find the trier test stressful at all.

 

In 2017 Davidson continued working with the same experienced meditators in another experiment. This time Davidson used a scanner to observe the brain activity of participants where they had to examine the images of injured and suffering people. The part of the brain analyzed was amygdala that is involved in emotional processing. With the help of this experiment, the researcher founds that the amygdala of meditators were less reactive to the images than those of non-meditators. This if because meditators had a stronger link between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain related to planning and other complex cognitive functions. It has shown it that the amygdala prefrontal cortex connection lowers the effect of strong emotion whether they are positive of negative.

 

Meditation also turns off the default mode network of our brain – that part of our brain responsible of our ego and uncontrolled thoughts. In 2011 psychiatrist Judson Brewer found that people who meditate regularly showed a stronger link between the dorsolateral prefrontal context – part of the brain responsible for executive functions and attention and default mode network.

 

They develop this connection through meditation and helps to keep our mind under control and not let the default network dominate with the unwanted thought noise in our heads.

 

Besides increasing our control over our own mind, meditation also makes brain stronger. The first evidence for this came from 2005 scientific study conducted by Sara Lazar who worked at Harvard Medical School. Lazar discovered that meditation make certain areas of the brain grow thicker.

 

The implication of what this would mean for humans in a long term has yet to be determined, but the study suggested that parts of the brain were improving. Many other studies also have been conducted. In 2014 neurologist Kieran Fox from Stanford University conduced 21 of these studies. Fox found that meditation strengthened three areas of the brain:

 

  1. Insula – the part responsible in recognition of emotional and physical bodily processes
  2. Prefrontal Cortex – Which is important for focused attention
  3. Cingulate cortex – part that helps self regulation and impulse control

 

Another research by UCLA neurologist Elieen Luders also shows that regular meditation slows down brain cell death.

 

Although the positive and constructive effects of meditation over our brains physically, and mind mentally are clear, different meditations affect our mind and brains differently.

 

Some types of meditation consider keeping mind open to any experiences, while others specializes brain in focus, attention and productivity. There is even a study showing that intense level of meditation can cause high levels of compassion.

 

 Long story short, the meditation that one should practice is totally up to a subjective choice. There are countless numbers of meditations, and each of them has something to offer. You can Google meditation types, or download apps like Headspace, Calm or Buddhify to get familiar with meditation techniques. If you want to start, but hesitate which one you should try with, I’d recommend you to try two types first:
  • Meditation called Path to Purification: Typically, you begin by focusing on your breath. In the beginning, it will be hard to concentrate on one thing as your mind jumps back and forth between thoughts. However, with practice, your thoughts will calm and your mind will become quiet so that the only thing you are paying attention is your breath.
  • Another one that is directly coming from Buddha – not reacting to your own thoughts: You need to let go of thoughts as they pop into your mind, instead of hanging on and becoming consumed by them. Over time, you will you’ll see that it won’t matter whether the thoughts your have are self-hating or romantic fantasies – they’ll become passing musings that bear no impact on your core consciousness.
    Both are great for a start. Give them a shoot and share your thoughts with me afterwards, happy to learn about your experience!

 

That’s it for today, folks! Hope you enjoyed the information conveyed in this episode! Share this episode with your friends who are meditating, or are interested in this topic.

 

Thanks for reading/ listening, and talk to you in the next episode!