Here and Now. How Meditation Actually Helps the Thinking Process
There is a remarkable paradox in modern times. Although science has already accumulated a lot of knowledge about various mental processes, we still know little about their basis: consciousness. Therefore, the interest of scientists in meditation is more than understandable: it is a well-structured and proven tool for studying the self and the mind, which has been tested for thousands of years.
In the previous article, we already told you that meditation is not a specific technique but rather a general name for all the many practices aimed at exploring consciousness. Now we propose to get to the bottom and understand better how exactly meditation helps us in this exploration. In writing this piece, we learned from one of the latest scientific studies on the subject, published in 2021: From many to (n)one: Meditation and the plasticity of the predictive mind. In turn, this research was based on data on the meditation neurophysiology and the free energy principle of Carl Friston: the famous neurophysiologist. A new term was born from the results of the study: UMF (Unified Meditation Framework). Let’s learn in simple terms what scientists have told the world and how to apply this knowledge in practice!
The Nature of Predictive Mind
Every day our mind projects tens of thousands of thoughts, most of which we cannot concentrate on for more than a few seconds. The number of thoughts we reproduce greatly exceeds the “memory capacity” of our attention.
And the essential nature of our thoughts is prediction. The brain constantly processes the mass of incoming information that comes in through the eyes, ears, nose, and skin. And each time, the brain asks itself: “The last time I was in a similar situation, what did I do?”. This brain feature turns light into visual objects, chemicals into smells and tastes, and sounds into words. Similarly, we project sensations within the body. Both pain and energy rise are a combination of what is happening in the brain and what is happening in the guts and muscles.
The wandering mind is the constant deep predictive processing in the brain, where we continually think about ourselves and others, about the past or the future. This way, we form fears, anxieties, and expectations.
It turns out that in an attempt to serve us well, our mind sometimes, on the contrary, becomes our enemy. Personal experience, sealed in the subconscious mind, forms incorrect predictions. And an abundance of thought processes literally clogs our working memory and prevents us from arriving at really important decisions.
The main thing that meditation teaches us is to manage all of these unconscious processes. It reduces attention to the “here and now,” trimming and stopping the predictions at multiple brain information processing levels. Concentrative meditation techniques help reach this state by focusing on one object at the present moment. Mindfulness meditation allows mental processes to proceed without evaluations, predictions, and projections.
The Unified Meditation Framework offers three general types of meditation, each of which impacts the brain differently. We will talk about these differences in detail in the next chapter.
The so-called Enlightenment, to which meditation should lead sooner or later, is literally “stopping the mind.” Scientifically speaking, it stops the downward control processes of the brain’s projections and expectations. But the brain’s work does not really stop: it continues to operate on refining and compressing reality. All of its processing power is focused on the “here and now”, — and this leads to changes in existing mental models, their simplification and refinement, and the creation of new connections and perspectives. It can be compared to focusing the sun’s rays with a magnifying glass at one point. The brain is no longer wasting energy on predictions. Instead, it redistributes its power toward the present moment. And this allows for a major change in the state of mind.
How does this work on different levels? Let’s highlight three points:
Dissolution of the ego. Meditation allows you to temporarily free yourself from a sense of self. And this means that at the same time, you are released from a series of predictive thoughts, which are based on evaluations, fears, and personal relationships. Through meditation, you are temporarily left with only sensory experiences that don’t necessarily turn into thoughts and emotions.
Managing the sense of time. By suppressing projections into the past and the future, we compress time into the present moment. It either slows down or ceases to be felt altogether.
Accuracy of decision making. Reduced activity of the body and mind leads to the minimization of prediction errors. There are fewer hypotheses, meaning it will be easier for you to analyze and choose.
In essence, the effect of meditation to increase the chances of insight is similar to the effect of restricting calories to increase the body’s efficiency. In both cases, the “input stream” (food or sensory data) is restricted so that the mechanism that continues its work receives an additional resource. This is the kind of ascesis that works to help, not hurt.
The Universal Approach To Meditation
Within the Unified Meditation Framework, there are three general types of meditation, working in different but consecutive ways:
Focused attention (FA)
The practice of object-oriented observation. All the attention is narrowed to a concentration on a single object. The practitioner focuses on a particular aspect of the “here and now,” leaving everything else outside of consciousness. In terms of predictive processing, UMF suggests that FA meditation increases the accuracy of analyzing the particular source of sensory experience in the present moment.
Open monitoring (OM)
During OM, you don’t need to focus on a specific object of feeling. Instead, you allow everything that appears in your experience (sensations, thoughts, feelings, other states of mind) to come and go without judgment or evaluation. As one grows in calm unbiased observation, the meditator can begin to experience a kind of “pure” perception. Thus, we might say that unbiased experience is the natural state of the brain’s predictive system.
Non-dual meditation (ND)
The most complex type of meditation, which you must come to with a prepared mind. This practice aims to cause a shift in how you perceive concepts of “self/others” and “subject/object.” ND emphasizes the importance of not trying to control, direct, or alter consciousness in any way. It allows you to temporarily end the separation of the observer (self) from the objects of awareness (environment). The UMF method assumes that ND meditation produces a state of awareness without background or foreground of experience. Any mental activity that relies on active deduction disappears, including self-awareness-related ones.
The UMF method suggests that a consistent transition from focused attention practices to non-dual meditation allows for effective optimization of mental processes.
Thus, the FA brings the practitioner out of the “narrative self” into a more experiential and embodied way of being. Then, by dropping out of the experience of the present moment (including bodily sensations) during OM, the practitioner enters a state where the content of the experience is viewed without evaluation. During OM, certain discoveries or insights about the nature and behavior of generative patterns may occur. Finally, the distinction between subject and object disappears through ND practices, and the possibility of the entire experience of self-awareness is revealed.
In the long run, regular meditation significantly improves cognitive abilities, a better understanding of oneself, and a sustained sense of well-being.
Time to take responsibility for your mind!
As we already know, our brains make decisions and create predictions based on already existing experiences. You can’t change your past, but right now, with some effort, you can change the way your brain anticipates the future. Your actions plant the seeds in your brain so that it will produce better reactions and thoughts.
Inite is a simple tool for effective daily meditation. The app keeps track of the most important conditions: silence and no phone in hand. And the rewards you receive for your meditations and insights motivate you to practice daily.
Although you may not be able to change your behavior at the most crucial moment, there is a good chance that you can change it before that moment arrives. Meditation and self-development are opportunities to correct your automatic behavior patterns and to gain more control over your future actions and experiences!
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