In the last post I promised this time around I would to get into how your mind is like the CPU of a computer, how meditation is like cranking up the MHz of that CPU, and what you can do with that extra brain power. I will also cover some of the reasons we feel stress, and the causal connection between meditation and reduction of stress that’s been observed in millions of people.
The Mind Model
According to Dr. John Yates, your Mind is made up of two major categories of mind systems: conscious, and subconscious. Each of these in turn, is made up of various sub-minds. At the subconscious level, these sub-minds are responsible for various tasks such as mixing the images from your two eyes, or sounds from your two ears together. For example, in the case of the ears, you don’t normally hear two separate sounds coming from each. What you hear instead is a sound, with an infusion of “directionality”. In other words, you can tell which direction the sound came from, only using the microseconds of latency between when a sound hits each ear.
Each of these sub-minds ultimately send the information they’ve processed up to the conscious level for evaluation. The best metaphor I’ve come up with for this layer is that of a boardroom table. Imagine that in each seat sits the head of a department of your Mind. One for your visual cortex, auditory, discriminating mind (the story teller), etc. Each of these department heads has information that they wish to share with the group, so they can come to some sort of decision. The trick is that only one department head can talk at a time, or else they have to start over.
Every moment in your Mind (or Mind Moment), one of these department heads shares information with the others. Sometimes it’s a visual object, a sound, a thought, or other times it’s a binding moment. A binding moment is a type which can take a collection of previous moments to stitch them together in a summary of sorts. This string of moments in fact becomes the story of YOU. Who you are (or rather, think you are). In this model, the very act of these sub-minds sharing information, then making decisions based on that information (by “voting”) is what we consider your Consciousness.
This process of Consciousness happens many times per second – and this is where it’s similar to that of a computer CPU. Even though only one event, or moment can be evaluated at a time, it happens so fast that it appears that you can do many things at once. Computers can only do one calculation at a time, but can do many millions of them per second. This allows them to appear to “multi-task”.
What is Stress anyways?
Making use of the Mind Model we discussed above, it becomes relatively straightforward. For simplicities sake, let’s just say that the average human has 100 Mind Moments per second. I just made that number up, so please don’t quote me on it. Given the way the human body works, we can also easily accept that it tries to minimize the use of resources given the level of activity in the body, and some other requirements.
You can see this at work if you compare someone with an active lifestyle, and someone who sits at a desk and on a couch most of the time. A person who is active will have more strength and energy available at any given time, and can call upon that spare capacity in times of need. A person who has not used their body, or done any training, will find it difficult to rise to a challenging physical task, should the need arise.
Back to the Mind Model. Your boardroom table can evaluate and act upon about 100 moments per second. For this example, this is an untrained mind that is tuned to a basic day to day level of activity. Generally, most daily happenings will require 70 – 90 moments per second, or 70 – 90% capacity. Generally, things are OK. Sometimes though….things get difficult.
Imagine for example that you’re having troubles at home, your partner and you are fighting at the moment. Pretty much through the entire day you find yourself dwelling on that issue, replaying what has happened again and again, trying to find a way out. In addition to this, your boss is really getting down on your case, and telling you to smarten up. One more thing to think about on top of everything else. Shit.
Each of these issues you are dwelling on start to take up more and more Mind Moments. Let’s just say that each of them takes up 10 moments per second at various times throughout the day. At times when your baseline is at 70%, this seems ok. Adding them all together you end up at 90% – not ideal, but workable. The real challenge happens when you go over 100%. You get a little jittery. Your mind feels scattered. It gets hard to keep your thoughts straight, and all you want is a (smoke|drink|tv|stress relief etc).
What is happening here is all your department heads start to get frustrated that their messages aren’t getting out there. So they start to shout at each-other, and messages get lost. Parts of your consciousness get lost. You are getting lost inside your own mind. This is the feeling of Stress.
Exercise for the Mind
When you go to the gym, you are building muscles that can handle situations that require out of the ordinary amounts of strength and/or endurance. When you meditate, you are building up your Mind so you can handle situations that require out of the ordinary amounts of Mind Moments. For more details on exactly how that works, go here, where I explain the mechanics.
The most basic form of meditation is very, very simple. But also very difficult. The simplicity is in the method, and instructions. The difficulty is in establishing a regular practice, sticking with it, and ensuring that you don’t get frustrated. If you haven’t read my article on The One Mistake Nearly Everyone Makes During Meditation, please check it out now. This article will save you a lot of wasted time, and frustration.
- Find somewhere quiet. It can be dark, or light, but it’s best with the least amounts of distractions possible.
- Choose to sit on a chair, or cross-legged. It really doesn’t matter which you choose. The only requirement is that your spine is straight, and you’re not leaning against something.
- Either close your eyes, or leave them open a crack.
- Begin relaxing by engaging in a body scan. This involves thinking about your toes. Try to see if you can feel a tingle in them. As you feel the tingle, see if you notice it as you move attention up the legs, thighs, pelvis, abdomen, heart, shoulders, arms, hands, throat, face, ears, nose, forehead, and crown. If you can’t feel a tingle yet, don’t worry, it is also fine to just think about these parts even if you feel no actual sensation.
- Once the body scan is complete, you should be in a more ‘present’ or ‘arrived’ state.
- Gently shift your focus, and attention to the breath. Start paying attention to the sensations at the tip of the nose. What does it feel like to have the breath move in the nose? What does it feel like between breaths? And now with the breath moving out, how different is that from it moving in?
- Do not control the breath. This is not a deep breathing practice, it is an awareness practice. The point of this is to simply observe something mundane, to see if we can really zoom into to and get a clear picture of is in “HD” or “Hi-Res”.
- If you lose your focus, then realize you’ve lost your focus, thank yourself for noticing. Then gently move the focus back to the breath.
- As you continue you will perhaps start to notice the sensations change. Perhaps the breath no longer feels smooth and continuous. Perhaps it now feels pulsy / jumpy. This is fine.
Increasing the Mind’s capacity
The practice above amps up your Mind’s capacity for processing sensory information (including thoughts). Remember how we imagined before that you had only 100 Mind Moments per second? Well after a number of weeks of daily practice, that number will increase. For arguments sake let’s say it’s gone up to 125.
In the previous example your partner and boss problems are each taking up 10 additional Mind Moments above your baseline. When things get stressful is when you hit that 90 + 10 + 10 mark, and go over the normal 100 (up to 110 in this case). However, now that you’ve been meditating for a few weeks, your max is now 125. So when you go up to 110, it’s no problem. Every department head gets a chance to have their say, and no one starts shouting. You. Don’t. Get. Stressed. Neat how that works?
Reducing the Mind’s waste
But that’s not all. The act of meditating ALSO helps you process much of the background noise in your life. When you sit still for a long time, you tend to get distracted by thoughts. While this isn’t necessarily the stated goal of meditation in most advertisements, it does have an interesting effect. It actually helps you process those things that keep popping up in your mind. They pretty much keep coming up because you haven’t yet dealt with them. So meditation not only increases the number of Mind Moments available to you, it ALSO reduces the baseline Mind Moments that take up some of that capacity.
Let’s look at our boss / partner example again. Now that you’ve been meditating, we’ve already said your max is now 125. In addition to this, your new baseline has moved from 70 down to 50!!! So now you have 75 Mind Moments in spare capacity, instead of just 30 that you started with!
Now, don’t get caught up in the numbers themselves, they are just illustrating the concepts for you. I can assure you, however, that these concepts are solid, and I have directly experienced them myself, as well as my students.
Why would I want to meditate?
The next time someone asks you that question, or you ask it yourself, remember this:
- Your Mind has limited capacity to deal with day to day problems
- Your Mind’s capacity gets used up by background thoughts and ruminations
- Meditation increases that capacity
- Meditation also reduces the background thoughts and ruminations
I hope this has been a good explanation for you, as well as a short tutorial on how to meditate and not have it suck. Please let me know if you have any questions!