Meditation Los Angeles

Category: neuroscience

Turning Down the Posterior Cingulate or Blah blah blah

Successfully back to 20 minutes of meditation. It had been 10 minutes for a while. And pretty regularly. I was inspired to add 2 minutes to the length of each of my sessions by the example of one of my “friends” on the insight meditation app.

Also, some interesting research from Judson Brewer re the posterior cingulate and how it’s implicated (and mostly not implicated) in flow states. It seems that turning off the blah blah blah part of the mind is healthy.

And no, that doesn’t mean regressing into a blissful narcissistic cocoon. Worth a look:



You’ve heard the 10,000 hours theory? Most likely from Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers. Gladwell didn’t make up the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to attain expertise, he borrowed it from someone else (I understand that’s true with most of his work, actually, to a fault), a Swedish psychologist by the name of K. Anders Ericsson who literally wrote the book on the topic, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (2006).

I’m not a huge fan of the theory, though there’s something to it. As Paul McCartney supposedly pointed out, there were a lot of bands that put in 10,000 hours in Hamburg and a lot of them got nowhere. It’s safe to say that 10,000 hours may be a necessary, but obviously not sufficient condition for mastery.

As a meditator with relatively limited time, I hope there’s a more efficient path, too. I’m willing to put in the time — but I want to make sure it’s quality time. Because those 10,000 hours, if you spend an hour a day, come out to 27 years. If you spend a 40 hour week into your chosen vocation, you can expect to amass those hours in 4.8 years. So you can see that even somewhere in between is hugely ambitious. And even then, necessary but not sufficient. No guarantees.

That’s why I’m excited by the work of some of the neuroscientists studying meditation. Names like Judson Brewer, David Vago, and Gary Weber are analyzing the neurology of meditation and deducing its component parts. Theoretically, this research could lead to more efficient meditation. What would that mean? In the case of Vago, the model of mindfulness he’s working with is that mindfulness practice fosters and enhances self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence.

More from these jokers, if you’re interested, can be found via podcast and transcript at David Vago (BG262), Judson Brewer (BG259), Gary Weber (BG260). It might sound like I’m affiliated with them or something, but really, I’m not. I just happen to think that they’re doing exciting work. Anyone who sits on a cushion an hour a day should hear what they have to say about what such activity can lead to. They are mapping uncharted territory.

I got to 34 minutes of sitting this morning, before a little boy requested some cream for his sunburn. I was present for him.

Slowing Down the Dilution of Mindfulness

About 30 minutes into his interview with Buddhist Geeks [BG 262], David Vago, an instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who has held the position of Senior Research Coordinator for the Mind & Life Institute, downloads some very interesting thoughts on the integration of the popular conception of mindfulness and Buddhist thought and the scientific view of mindfulness.

He makes some interesting points both on a practical and more profound level, about the role of these scientists.

[I’ve transcribed a quote below.]

He notes, I think quite correctly, that as the popular culture absorbs mindfulness it tends to simplify (my word) and trivialize (his word). He notes that scientists breaking down mindfulness practice and analyzing its component parts helps to slow down what is essentially a dilution of mindfulness practices and ideas that occurs with the widening popular appeal that happens as mindfulness practices move into prisons, hospitals, and other secular settings.

He notes that the scientists try to keep in mind the contributions of the 2500-year-old model that predates the now increasingly prevalent (and more easily 25 year-old-model put forth by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

From the interview, the scientific work is:

really helping to create a framework for all popular culture to fall behind instead of just being a diluted self-help practice mindfulness is going to be incorporated into every aspect of society, and that not only includes attention training but it includes the ethical components, compassion practice, metta practice, lovingkindness those are really critical to building empathic skills and prosocial behavior. And the Dalai Lama’s behind this…and he’s really about spreading joy and compassion.

The way we conceptualize the healthcare system is going to change dramatically. Instead of thinking about meditation as an alternative method of healthcare we’re just realizing now that mindfulness practice is just good medicine and so now as we incorporate mindfulness into healthcare we’re going to have a framework for everyone to use these practices to actually improve their daily life to reduce suffering, reduce biases, to sustain a healthy mind and that’s what happening.

The framework we’re using is self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence. The transcendence part of this is dissolving the distinction between self and other, and that is going to be critical in solving the problems we’re having in the world. A lot of these problems are based on having our big house with a big fence, leave me alone, I’m by myself this is my unit, this is not yours. Creating these distinctions between self and other, and what we’re realizing is that meditation practice is dissolving these distinctions. That’s a critical component that we don’t always emphasize but I think it’s the one that’s going to be transformative for society.

What’s It Like to Turn Off Your Self?

I like this guy’s mix of science background and generally down-to-earth quality. He claims he’s actually succeeded in stopping his thoughts. I mentioned him before — listened to the podcast of his interview at Buddhist Geeks, which is worth a listen. This is good, too. You can see he’s a regular guy, sipping his ice tea with slice of orange, enjoying a few laughs and a thoughtful discussion about, among other things, what neuroscientists call the neural Default Mode Network, which is seems to be strongly associated with the activity of thinking about one’s self.

Gary was able to shut his default mode network off, it seems. He no longer has that self-narrative of thoughts. He is still able to function, however. He can read and make memories — they are just no longer oriented in terms of self. He’s able to function in a professional setting where he’s required to digest new material, but says he just goes the the meeting “empty.” And when a question is asked he just waits to see what comes up.

About how dismantling the self was one of the focal points of his spiritual practice — of which there are several. It was during a yoga pose that his thoughts simply stopped. He makes some interesting points about self and where it comes from, how it may have evolved out of language — the necessity of having a subject and an object… And he talks about two important aspects of self — self in time and self and other.

On one level this seems so cool. But the rational part of me needs to step back for a moment. He turned off his thoughts. Obviously, he’s doing okay. He’s not a vegetable. He functions at a high level. But what happens next week? Next year? It’s just very new territory, it seems to me.

I really recommend you watch the video, if you have any kind of interest in this sort of thing. It seems to me he’s achieved what is sometimes referred to as a continuous non-dual state. He’s got a mystical consciousness. I like how he politely disagreed with the idea of “After the Ecstasy the Laundry.” His ecstasy continues.

He also has a website and blog where he talks about some of this stuff.