Part I: Meditation and the brain
Charlie Palmgren brought this book[i] to my attention. As he pointed out it one of the best descriptions of the working of the Creative Interchange process I’ve read thus far. The book itself contains, as the subtitle points out, conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience; conversations between the two authors: Matthieu Ricard a French Buddhist and Wolf Singer a German neuroscientist.
In this series of columns I’ll paraphrase a lot of paragraphs of this book and add the links I see with the Creative Interchange process. To me, Creative Interchange, is a process of inner transformation – and after reading this book I add – through meditation. I’ve put my comments between vertical brackets and in italic. These series will give you a good insight of the content of the book and I recommend the reader to read and comment this brilliant book oneself.
CHAPTER 1 Meditation and the Brain
A SCIENCE OF MIND
Most of our innate capacities remain dormant unless we do something, through training, for instance, to bring them to an optimal, functional point.
If we transform our way of perceiving things, then we transform the quality of our lives. The form of mind training, known as meditation, brings about this kind of transformation. [This mind training and thus meditation is in my point of view another application of Creative Interchange. A sort of inner crucial dialogue so to speak.]
Nature gave us the possibility to understand our potential for change, no matter how we are now and what we have done. This notion is a powerful source of inspiration for engaging in a process of inner transformation. You may not succeed easily, but at least be encouraged by such an idea; you can put all our energy into such a transformation, which is already in itself a healing process.
The most fundamental aspect of the mind is luminous awareness.
In the freshness of the present moment, the past is gone, the future is not yet born, and if one remains in pure mindfulness and freedom [i.e. inner dialogue the Creative Interchange way], potentially disturbing thoughts arise and go without leaving a trace.
A piece of gold that remains deeply buried in its ore, in a rock or in the mud. The gold does not lose its intrinsic purity, but its value is not actualized. Likewise, to be fully expressed, our human potential needs to meet suitable conditions [That human potential is what Charlie Palmgren calls the intrinsic Worth i.e the intrinsic individual capacity for Creative Interchange].
AWARENESS AND MENTAL CONSTRUCTS
The basic quality of consciousness is called in Buddhism the fundamental luminous nature of mind. It is luminous in the sense that it throws light on the outer world our perceptions and on our inner world through our feelings, thoughts, memories of the past, anticipation of the future, and awareness of the present moment. It is luminous in contrast to an inanimate object, which is completely dark in terms of cognition.
The basic awareness is a quality that can be called basic cognition, pure awareness or the most fundamental nature of mind. There are not two streams of consciousness. It has more to do with various aspects of consciousness: a fundamental aspect, pure awareness, which is always there; and adventitious aspects, the mental constructs, which are always changing. [I call the first sometimes the ‘naked’, uncolored, transparant and non-dual consciousness and the second the ‘clothed’, colored, opaque and dual consciousness]
The mind can be aware of itself without requiring a second mind to do so. One aspect of the mind, the most fundamental aspect of it, pure awareness, can also be awareness of itself without requiring a second observer. [This capacity of the mind is fully used in the so-called Process Awareness Creative Interchange skill]
The point is not to fragment the self but to use the capacity of the mind to observe and to know itself to free oneself from suffering. We actually speak of nondual self-illuminating awareness, which emphasizes this point. There is no need for a dissociation of personality because the mind has the inherent faculty to observe itself, just as a flame does not need a second flame to light itself up. Its own luminosity suffices.
The practical point of all this is that you can look at your thoughts, including strong emotions, from the perspective given by pure mindfulness. Thoughts are manifestations of pure awareness, just like waves that surge from and dissolve back in the ocean. The ocean and waves are not two intrinsically separate things. Usually, we are so taken by the content of thoughts that we fully identify ourselves with our thoughts and are unaware of the fundamental nature of consciousness, pure awareness. Because of that we are easily deluded, and we suffer.
Example of a strong emotion is anger. Anger fills out whole landscape and project its distortion of reality on people and events. If we are able to dissociate from anger and look at it dispassionately with bare mindfulness, then we can see that it is just a bunch of thoughts and not something fearsome. Anger does not carry weapons, it does not burn like a fire or crush someone like a rock, and it is nothing more than a product of our mind.
Instead of ‘being’ the anger and fully identifying with it, we must simply look at anger and keep our bare attention on it. When we do so, what happens? Just as when we cease to add wood on fire, the fire soon dies out: anger cannot sustain itself for long under the gaze of mindfulness. It simply fades away.
WORKING WITH EMOTIONS
Your object of inquiry appears to be the mental apparatus and your analytical tool, introspection. This is an interesting self-referential approach that differs from the Western science of mind because it emphasizes the first-person perspective and collapses, in a sense, the instrument of investigation with its object. The Western approach, while using the first-person perspective for the definition of mental phenomena, clearly favors the third-person perspective for its investigation. I am curious to find out whether the results of analytical introspection match those obtained by cognitive neuroscience.
GRADUAL AND LASTING CHANGES
What really matters is the way the person gradually changes. If, over months and years, someone becomes less impatient, less prone to anger, and less torn apart by hopes and fears, then the method he or she has been using is a valid one. If the person has gradually developed the inner resources to successfully deal with the ups and downs of life, then real progress has occurred.
When you are confronted with someone who criticizes or insults you, if you don’t blow a fuse but know how to deal skillfully with the person while maintaining your inner peace, you will have achieved some genuine emotional balance and inner freedom. You will have become less vulnerable to outer circumstances and your own deluded thoughts.
Practitioners of meditation retain the capacity of being fully aware of something and they succeed in not being carried away by their emotional responses. People who do not practice meditation either do not perceive the stimuli so do not react to it or perceive it and react strongly.
The positive or negative nature of an emotion should be assessed according to its motivation – altruistic or selfish – and its consequences in terms of well-being or suffering.
OUTER AND INNER ENRICHMENT
The mind obviously has the capacity to know and train itself.[if it uses Creative Interchange] People do that all the time without calling it meditation. Meditation [i.e. using willfully – intention and attention – Creative Interchange on one’s own mind ] is simply a more systematic way of doing this with wisdom – that is, with an understanding of the mechanisms of happiness and suffering.
The process requires perseverance. You need to train again and again. With meditation, the effort is aimed at developing not a physical skill but an inner enrichment. I understand that the development of brain functions comes from exposure to the outer world. However, most of the time, our engagement with the world is semi-passive. We are exposed to something and react to it, thus increasing our experience. One could describe this process as an outer enrichment.
In the case of meditation and mind training, the outer environment might change only minimally. In extreme cases, you could be in a simple hermitage in which nothing changes or sitting alone always facing the same scene day after day. So the outer enrichment is almost nil, but the inner enrichment is maximal. You are training your mind all day long with little outer stimulation. Furthermore, such enrichment is not passive, but voluntary, and methodically directed.
When you engage for eight or more hours a day in cultivation certain mental states that you have decided to cultivate and that you have learned to cultivate, you reprogram the brain.
In a sense, you make your brain the object of a sophisticated cognitive process that is turned inward rather than outward the world around you. You apply the cognitive abilities of the brain to studying its own organization and functioning, and you do so in an intentional and focused way [cf. intention and attention], similar to when you attend to events in the outer world and when you organize sensory signals into coherent percepts. You assign value to certain states and you try to increase their prevalence, which probably goes along with a change in synaptic connectivity in much the same way as it occurs with learning processes resulting from interactions with the outer world.
The brain developmental reorganization continues until the age of about 20. The early stages serve the adjustment of sensory and motor functions, and the later phases primarily involves brain systems responsible for social abilities. Once these developmental processes come to an end, the connectivity of the brain becomes fixed, and [according to actual western brain science] and large-scale modifications are no longer possible. The existing synaptic connections remain modifiable, but you can’t grow new long-range connections.
A study of people who have practiced meditation for a long time demonstrates that structural connectivity among different areas of the brain is higher in meditators than in a control group. Hence, there must be another kind of change allowed in the brain.
PROCESSES OF NEURONAL CHANGES
Neuroscience has no difficulty in accepting that a learning process can change behavioral dispositions, even in adults. There is ample evidence of this from reeducation programs, where practice leads to small but incremental behavior modifications. There is also evidence for quite dramatic and sudden changes in cognition, emotional states, and coping strategies. In this case, the same mechanism that support learning – distributed changes in the efficiency of synaptic connections – lead to drastic alterations of global brain states. The reason is that in highly nonlinear, complex systems such as the brain, relatively small changes in the coupling of neurons can lead to phase transitions that can entrain radical alterations of system properties. This can occur in association with traumatic or cathartic experiences. [cf. my personal traumatic and cathartic experience which I call my personal paradigm shifts in my life – see my four Professional lives story on this website)
The training phase in meditation is probably capitalizing on the slow learning related modifications of synaptic efficiency, whereas the fast engagement in a particular meditative state of which experts seem to be capable relies on more dynamic routing strategies.
So far, the results of the studies conducted with trained meditators indicate that they have the faculty to generate clean, powerful, well-defined states of mind, and this faculty is associated with some specific brain patterns. Mental training enables one to generate those states at will and to modulate their intensity, even when confronted with disturbing circumstances, such as strong positive or negative emotional stimuli. Thus, one acquires the faculty to maintain an overall emotional balance that favors inner strength and peace.
The taxonomy of mental states should become more differentiated. If this is the case, then cultures exploiting mental training as a source of knowledge should have a richer vocabulary for mental states than cultures that are more interested in investigating phenomena of the outer world.
Buddhist taxonomy describes 58 main mental events and various subdivisions thereof …
If you look careful at anger, you will see that it contains aspects of clarity, focus en effectiveness that are not harmful in and of themselves. Likewise, desire has an element of bliss that is distinct from attachment; pride has an element of self-confidence that does not lapse into arrogance, and envy entails a drive to act that, in itself, is not yet deluded, as it will later become when the afflictive state of mind of jealousy sets in.
When you are able to preserve a clear state of awareness, you see thoughts arise; you let them pass through your mind, without trying to block or encourage them, and they vanish without creating many waves.
One study with meditators showed that they could maintain their attention at an optimal level for extended periods of time. When I (Matthieu) did this task myself, I noticed that the first few minutes were challenging and required some effort, but once I entered a state of “attentional flow”, it became easier.
This resembles a general strategy that the brain applies when acquiring new skills. In the naïve state, one uses conscious control to perform a task. The task is broken down into a series of subtask that are sequentially executed. This requires attention, takes time and is effortful. Later, after practice, the performance becomes automatized. Usually, the execution of the skilled behavior is then accomplished by different brain structures than those involved in the initial learning and execution of the task. Once this shift has occurred, performance becomes automatic, fast and effortless and no longer requires cognitive control. This type of learning is called procedural learning and requires practice. Such automized skills often safe you in difficult situations because you can access them quickly. They can also of the cope with more variables simultaneously due to parallel processing. Conscious processing is more serialized and therefor takes more time.
Highly advanced meditators appear to acquire a level of skill that enables them to achieve a focused state with less effort; they are so to speak ‘in the flow’. This observation accord with other studies demonstrating that when someone has mastered a task, the cerebral structures put into play during the execution of this task is generally less active than they were when the brain was still in the learning phase.
RELATING TO THE WORLD
Mind training leads to refined understanding of whether a thought or an emotion is afflictive, attuned to reality or based on a completely distorted perception of reality.
Afflictive mental stages begin with self-centeredness, with increasing the gap between self and others, between oneself and the world. They are associated with an exaggerated feeling of self-importance, an inflated self-cherishing, a lack of genuine concern for others, unreasonable hopes and fears, and compulsive grasping toward desirable objects and people. Such states come with a high level of reality distortion. One solidifies outer reality and believes that the good or bad, desirable or undesirable qualities of other things intrinsically belong to them instead of understanding that they are mostly projections of our mind.
The strength of the ego or self-centeredness is the troublemaker. A deep sense of confidence that comes from having gained some knowledge about the inner mechanisms of happiness and suffering, from knowing how to deal with emotions, and thus from having gathered the inner sources to deal with whatever comes your way.[ii] [This makes me think of the concept ‘Inner Security’ of my fourth father Paul de Sauvigny de Blot SJ.[iii]]
HOW YOUNG CAN YOU START TO MEDITATE?
In a traditional Buddhist setting, young children are mostly taught through example. They see their parents and educators behave on the basis of principles of nonviolence towards humans, animals and the environment. One cannot underestimate the strength of emotional contagion, as well as the way of being’s contagion. One’s inner qualities are immensely important on those who share one’s life. One of the most important things is to help children become skilled in identifying their emotions and those of others, and to show them basic ways of dealing with emotional outbursts.
The ties that binds – Bruce Springsteen
In Dutch there is a saying, “Kom tot jezelf,” which means “cut the strings” – the ties that attach you to something, that makes you do what others want, that make you believe what others believe, that makes you be kind because somebody else makes you to be kind. If you get caught in this net of dependencies, than we say that you “lose yourself.” This is why a protective environment that generously grants self-determination is indispensable, as long as the cognitive control mechanisms of children are strong enough to protect them from losing themselves in the face of imposed intrusions and expectations.
[All this makes me of course think of Charlie Palmgren’s concept the Vicious Circle.[iv]]
If you let an emotion, even a strong one, pass through your mind without fueling it, without letting the spiral of thoughts spin out of control, the emotion will not last and will vanish by itself.
ATTENTION AND COGNITIVE CONTROL
It is conceivable that mental practice can do the same thing to the cognitive abilities of the brain and sharpens awareness of one’s own cognitive processes. This does require a substantial amount of cognitive control because the attention has to be directed towards processes originating within the brain. [cf. the duo ‘intention & attention’!]
Because it involves an internal process to decide which of the available sensory signals should have access to consciousness, intraocular suppression is frequently used as a paradigm to investigate the signatures of neuronal activity that are required for any neuronal activity to reach the level of conscious perception. In this context, it is noteworthy that practitioner of meditation can deliberately slow down the alternation rate of binocular rivalry.[v]
You can intentionally activate internal representations, focus your attention on them, and then work on them in much the same way as you process external information. You apply your cognitive abilities to internal events.
For example, you keep a meta-awareness of a particular state that you are trying to develop, such as compassion, and maintain this meditation state moment after moment … keeping your attention focused on particular internal states, which can be emotions or contents of imagination. In essence, it is the same strategy as one applies with the perception of the outer world – except that most of us are far less familiar with focusing attention on inner states.
This fits with the definition of meditation, which is to cultivate a particular state of mind without distraction. Two Asian words are usually translated in English as ‘meditation’: in Sanskrit, bhavana means to cultivate, and in Tibetan, gom means to become familiar with something that has new qualities and insights as well as a new way of being. So meditation cannot be reduced to the usual clichés of emptying the mind and relaxing.[vi]
To fully integrate altruism and compassion in our mind stream, we need to cultivate them over a longer period of time. We need to bring them to our minds and then nurture them, repeat them, preserve them, and enhance them, so that they can gradually fill our mental landscape in a more durable way.
Elements of repetition and perseverance are common to all forms of training. However, the particularity here is that the skills you are developing are fundamental qualities such as compassion, attention, and emotional balance.
Meditation, then, is a highly active, attentive process. By focusing attention on those internal states, you familiarize yourself with them, you get to know them, and this facilitates recall if you want to activate them again.
This must go along with lasting changes at the neuronal level. Any activity in the brain that is occurring under the control of attention is memorized. There are modifications in synaptic transmission, synapses will strengthen or weaken. This in turn will lead to changes in the dynamical state of neuronal assemblies. Thus, through mental training, you create novel states of your mind, and you learn to retrieve them at will.
The inability to process the subsequent images – presented in a rapid succession – is called attentional blink. The idea is that attention, while it is engaged in processing one consciously perceived image, is not available for the processing of the next one. Heleen Slagter and Antoine Lutz have shown that after three months of intensive training in meditation on full awareness, attentional blink was considerably reduced.
Robust and convincing data show that meditation is associated with a special brain state and does have lasting effects on brain functions.
Regarding attentional blink, from an introspective perspective, it would seem that usually the object captures someone’s attention because it goes to the object, sticks to the object, and then disengage from object. There is a moment of thinking, “Oh, I have seen a tiger” or “I have seen that word.” Then it takes some time to let it go. But, if you simply remain in the state of open presence, which is the state that works best to reduce additional blink, you simply witness the image without attaching to it and therefor without having to disengage from it. When the next image flashes, a 20th of a second later, you are still there, ready to perceive it.
So the process of meditation has two effects: You learn to work on your own attentional mechanisms, and then you become an expert in engaging and disengaging attention at will.
Buddhism says that if we don’t engage constantly in the process of attraction and repulsion, this is liberating. From a contemplative perspective, fine tuning one’s introspection toward perspective and mental processes, rather than being powerless against and blindly caught in their automatisms, corresponds to enhancing the quality and power of the mind’s telescope. This allows one to see those processes happening in real time and not be carried away and fooled by them.
People who do better at recognizing very subtle emotions (i.e. micro expressions) are more interested, curious, and open to new experiences. They are also known to be conscientious, reliable, and efficient.
ATTENTION, RUMINATION AND OPEN PRESENCE
One of the great Tibetan masters used to face the palm of his hand outward. Then he would turn his palm inward, commenting: “Now we should look within and pay attention to what is going on in our mind and to the very nature of awareness itself.” This is one of the key points of meditation.[vii]
Rumination is letting your inner chatter go on and on [i.e. the Monkey mind], letting thoughts about the past invade your mind, becoming upset again about past events, endlessly guessing the future, fueling hopes and fears, and being constantly distracted from the present. By doing so, you become increasingly disturbed, self-centered, busy, and preoccupied with your own mental fabrications and eventually depressed. You are not truly paying attention to the present moment and are simply engrossed in your thoughts, going on and on in a vicious circle, feeding your ego and self-centeredness. You are completely lost in inner distraction, in the same way that you can be constantly distracted by ever-changing outer events. This is the opposite of bare attention. Turning your attention inward means to look at pure awareness and dwell without distraction, yet effortlessly, in the freshness of the present moment, without entertaining mental fabrications.
It’s not focused attention on any content – but it’s never distracted either. You open your window of attention – yes, and without any effort. There is neither a mental chatter nor particular focus of attention except resting in pure awareness, rather than focusing on it. I cannot find any better word; it is something that is luminous, clear, and stable, without grasping [It’s pure consciousness i.e. awareness or non colored, crystal clear,’transparant’ consciousness].
MINDFULNESS AND DISTRACTION
As we cultivate attention, we should understand that it is a powerful tool, so it should be applied to something that contributes to freedom from suffering. We can also use effortless attention to simply rest in the natural state of mind, in clear awareness that is imbued with inner peace and makes us less vulnerable to the ups and downs of life. Whatever happens, we will not suffer much emotional disturbance and can enjoy greater stability. Obtaining this pure mindfulness of the present moment has many advantages. We may also use attention to cultivate compassion. If the mind is constantly distracted, even though it looks as if one is meditation, then the mind is powerlessly carried away all over the world like a balloon in the wind. So the increased resolution of your inner telescope, combined with sustained attention, is an indispensable tool to cultivate those human qualities that can be developed through meditation. In the end freedom from suffering becomes a skill.
This process is somehow different from a motor skill such as riding a bike, swimming a certain style or sailing – you have to practice over and over again until you become an expert and the skill comes becomes automatic. This is procedural learning and thus engages procedural memory. You have to practice, and you have to do it in a precise practical way. In the beginning of skill acquisition, practice is very much under control of attention and consciousness, you have to dissect the process into steps, and you need a teacher who tells (and show) you how to do it, or you do it by trial and error, which is less efficient. Having a skilled teacher is very important, especially when engaging in meditation.
Teachers help, they speed up the process, but you have to practice yourself. The neuronal substrate that supports these skills cannot shift instantly into a new state. You have to tune your neural circuits little by little over a long period of time, finally, when the skill is acquired; it becomes less and less dependent on attention and becomes more and more automatized. Imaging driving your car; you don’t invest any attention any more in driving your car through a region in your city that you know well, although you should. You can engage in an attention demanding conversation while you drive and execute a complex sequence of cognitive and executive acts without conscious control.
This can be said about meditation: In the beginning, meditation is contrived and artificial, and gradually becomes natural and effortless [this is exactly the same with the Creative Interchange skills].
CONSOLIDATING LEARNING THROUGH SLEEP
Before falling asleep, if you clearly generate a positive state of mind, filled with compassion or altruism, it is said that this will give a different quality to the whole night. Oppositely, if you go to sleep while harboring anger or jealousy, then you will carry it through the night and poison your sleep.
The cultivation of skills and their consolidation is actually the main work of meditation. A study carried in Madison, Wisconsin, in Giulio Tomoni’s laboratory, in collaboraton with Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson, showed that, among meditators who had completed between 2000 and 10000 hours of practice, the increase of gamma waves was maintained during the deepest phase of sleep, with an intensity proportional to the number of hours previously devoted to meditation.[viii] The fact that these changes persist in these people at rest and during sleep indicates a stable transformation of their habitual mental state, even in the absence of any specific effort, such as a meditation session.[ix]
The brain’s memory is associative; it’s not like computer memory, where you have distinct addresses for distinct contents. In the brain different memories are stored within the same network by different changes in the coupling of neurons. The equivalent of a particular engram is a specific dynamic state of the network, a state characterized by the specific spatiotemporal distribution of active and inactive neurons of the network.
COMPASSION AND ACTION
If you are not caught inside the bubble of self-centeredness and are less involved in relating everything to yourself, then the ego ceases to feel threatened. You become less defensive, feel less fear, and are less obsessed with self-concern. As the deep feeling of insecurity goes away, the barriers that the ego created fall apart. You become more available to others and ready to engage in any action that could be benefit them. In a way, compassion has popped the ego bubble. That’s our interpretation. That’s why those states of compassion and open presence give the strongest gamma waves of all meditation states, more than focused on attention, for instance.
The technical term in Tibetan for the latter meditation translates to “one-pointed focused attention.” Another term to use for this is “open presence”. Of course, these words are approximate. It is quite difficult to put such experiences into words. But it turns out that unconditional compassion produces even higher gamma activation than open presence.
Compassion and altruistic love have a warm, loving, and positive aspect that ‘stand-alone’ empathy for the suffering of the other does not have. The latter can easily lead to empathic distress and burnout. While collaborating with Tania Wolf, we arrived at the idea that burnout was in fact a kind of “empathy fatigue” and not a “compassion fatigue” as people often say.[x]
COMPASSION, MEDITATION, AND BRAIN COHERENCE
We call it fulfillment, wholesomeness, inner peace. That brings us back to what His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says, with a good touch of humor, when he explains that the bodhisattva – the ideal embodiment of altruism and compassion in the Buddhist path – has in fact found the smartest way to fulfill his own wish for happiness. The Dalai Lama adds that when thinking and acting in an altruistic way, it is not at all guaranteed that we will actually benefit others or even please them. When you try to help someone, even with a perfectly pure motivation, they might look at you suspiciously and ask, “Hey, what do you want, what’s the matter with you?” But you are 100% sure to be helping yourself because altruism is the most positive of all mental states. So the Dalai Lama concludes, “The bodhisattva is smarty selfish.” In contrast, the one who only think of himself is “foolishly selfish” because he only brings distress on himself. [That makes me think of an exercise I’ve learned from Charlie Palmgren and what he uses to call ‘The Purpose Game’. During that game (exercise) every person of each dyad playing the game thinks of an action he or she repeatedly do over time, without being forced. She or he has to express the activity and the other person has only one question to ask: “What the purpose of that?”. The first player has to answer authentically to that question, which means, “What’s in for me?” One has to stay with one self while being authentic. The second one questions each answer of the first person: “What is the purpose of that?” This game until the first person repeats in paraphrases his ‘final’ purpose’. Then the roles of the dyad game change, but not the rules of the game, until the second person reaches his ‘final’ purpose. I’ve played that game with hundreds of dyads and every person came to the following ‘final’ purpose: be happy, be content, and be in inner peace and the kind. So the Dalai Lama’s right: we are smartly selfish.]
Many people are literally destroyed by inner conflicts and those go together with a lot of rumination. Yes, and we ignore the nature of the activity patterns representing conflicts and ruminations. Maybe it is a condition where mutually exclusive assemblies compete for prevalence, thereby causing instability, a permanent alternation between metastable state – that are simply called “hope and fear” – if no stable state is reachable, if the internal model of the world that the brain permanently has to update by learning continues to be in disagreement with “reality.” If the brain is striving for stable, coherent states because they represent results and can be used as the basis for future actions, and if pleasant feelings are associated with these consistent states, the one purpose of mental training could be to generate such states in the absence of any practical goals. However, to generate such states right away, detached from any concrete content, may be difficult. This is probably the reason that the meditator initially imagines concrete objects – why you try to focus attention on specific, action-related emotions to evoke positive feelings such as generosity, altruism, and compassion, which are all highly rewarding attitudes.
As opposed to selfish behavior. Exactly. So you use this imagery as a vehicle to generate coherent brain states, and if the contents are pleasant, then a joyful condition is created. Then, once you gain more expertise in controlling brain states, you learn to detach these states from their triggers until they become increasingly free of content and autonomous.
ALTRUISM AND WELL-BEING
Altruism, inner peace, strength and freedom, and genuine happiness grow together like the various parts of a nourishing fruit. Selfishness, animosity, and fear come together as parts from a poisonous plant. The best way to become truly compassionate is out of wisdom, by deeply realizing that others do not want to suffer, just like you, and want to be happy, just as you do. Consequently, you become genuinely concerned with their happiness and suffering. Helping others may sometimes not be “pleasant,” in the sense that you might have to deliberately endure some “unpleasant’ hardship to help someone, but deep within is found a sense of inner peace and courage and a sense of harmony with the interdependence of all things and beings.
To come back to inner conflicts, they are mostly linked with excessive rumination on the past and anxious anticipation of the future, and thus they lead to being tormented by hope and fear.
One can see it as an exaggeration of the otherwise well-adapted and necessary attempt to use past experience to predict the future, an attempt that is likely to not always converge toward a stable solution because the future is not foreseeable. Maybe it is the clinging to the fruitless search for the best possible solution – that is by definition impossible to find – that frustrate the system and causes uneasy feelings.
Hiding in the bubble of self-centeredness to protect oneself reinforces the feeling of insecurity. In fact, within the confined space of self-centeredness, rumination goes wild. Thus one of the purposes of meditation is to break the bubble of ego grasping and let these mental constructs vanish in the open space of freedom. [This makes me think of hiding in the nine-dot space of the Vicious Circle, the space of the demands and expectations we can just cope with. Thus, one of the purposes of meditation could be to break the Vicious Circle of ego surviving.]
When in daily life people experience moments of grace or magic, what happens? All of the sudden, the burden of inner conflict is lifted. It is great to fully enjoy such magical moments, but it is also revealing to understand why they felt so good: pacification of inner conflicts and a better sense of interdependence with everything, rather than fragmenting reality into solid, autonomous entities, a respite from mental toxins. All of these are qualities that can be cultivated through developing wisdom and inner freedom. This practice will lead not to just a few moments of grace but to a lasting state of well-being that we may call genuine happiness. It is a satisfactory state because the feelings of insecurity gradually give way to a deep confidence. i.e. Confidence that you will able to use those skills to deal with the ups and downs of life, sensations, emotions, and so on in a much more optimal way. Your equanimity, which is not indifference, will spare you from being swayed back and forth like mountain grass in the winds by every possible blame and praise, gain and loss, comfort and discomfort, and so on. You can always relate to the depth of inner peace, and the waves at the surface will not appear as threatening as before. [Living Creative Interchange from within will create magical moments and generate inner peace. The confidence Matthieu talks about is the confidence in the Creative Interchange process. The confidence that you will able to create the conditions and use the skills so that you can deal with the tides of life and that you are not steered from the outside, by blame and praise, but from the inside, the inner peace, the inner security through living Creative Interchange.]
COULD FEEDBACK REPLACE MIND TRAINING?
Thus through mental training, you familiarize yourself with states of inner stability, thereby protecting yourself against fruitless ruminations. If these desired states have a characteristic electrographic signature that can be measured and monitored, then we could use bio-feedback to facilitate the learning process required to obtain and maintain these states. It might help to familiarize oneself with these states more quickly. Admittedly, this approach is typical Western aspiration to circumvent cumbersome and time-consuming procedures and look at shortcuts on the way to happiness… [Learning to live Creative Interchange from within surely is cumbersome and time-consuming, that’s why a lot of people who want that search for short-cuts, although they know that is not possible. Western people are still desperately looking for quick fixes…]
Matthieu is convinced that any shortcut will result more in a state of addiction than in a deep change in your way of being, as it is acquired through mind training. The perception of inner peace and fulfillment is a byproduct of having developed an entire cluster of human qualities [through living Creative Interchange from within.]
A meditator would relate alpha waves to mental chatter, the little chaotic conversations that seems to be going on most of the time in the background of our mind.
As mentioned earlier, we should correct the naïve image of meditation that still predominates in the West as sitting somewhere to empty your mind and relax. Of course, an element of relaxation is present, in the sense of getting rid of inner conflict, cultivation inner peace, and freeing one from tensions. Also, an element of emptying your mind can be seen, in the sense of not perpetuating mental fabrications of linear thinking and resting in a state of the clear freshness of the present moment. However, this state is neither “blank” nor dull relaxation. It is a much richer state of vivid awareness. Also, one does not try to prevent the thoughts from arising, which is not possible, but frees them as they arise.
Research done by the neuroscientist Scott Barry Kaufman has indicated that brain states favorable to creativity seems to be mutually exclusive with focused attention. According to him, creativity is born from a fusion of seeming contradictory mental states that can be limpid and messy, wise and crazy, exhilaration and painful, spontaneous and yet arising from sustained training.[xi] [cf. The Polarity exercise in Creative Interchange Mindset Training of Charlie Palmgren.]
ARE THERE LIMITS TO MIND TRAINING?
Understanding the deeper causes of others’ suffering and generating the determination to alleviate them also arises from wisdom and ‘cognitive” compassion. The latter is linked to the comprehension of the more fundamental cause of suffering, which, according to Buddhism, is ignorance – the delusion that distorts reality and gives rise to various mental obscurations and afflictive emotions such as hatred and compulsive desire. So this cognitive aspect of compassion can embrace the infinite number of sentient beings who suffer as a result of ignorance.
MEDITATION AND ACTION
Freeing oneself from the influence of self-centeredness and ego clinging is precisely what makes you more concerned with others and less indifferent toward the world. Meditation is a key process for developing and enhancing altruistic love and compassion.
You need time and concentration to cultivate a skill. While thrust into the often-hectic conditions of the world, you might be too weak to become strong, too weak to help others and even to help yourself. You don’t not have the energy, concentration, and time to train. So this development stage is necessary, even if it does not appear to be immediately useful to others.
The idea is to develop skills in an environment that is conducive to mental training, so that one becomes strong enough to display and maintain genuine altruism and compassion even in the most trying and adverse circumstances, when it is most difficult to remain altruistic. The advantages of spending dedicated time to develop human qualities are obvious. You thus gain inner strength, compassion, and balance before embarking on serving others.
Developing the right motivation is a crucial factor in everything we do. In the Buddhist path, the core motivation of the apprentice bodhisattva is, “May I achieve enlightenment in order to gain the capacity to free all beings from suffering.” If such an aspiration is genuinely present in your mind, then your practice is the best investment you can make for the benefit of others. This is not the result of indifference but of the sound reasoning that you have to prepare yourself and build up the necessary strength to be of use to humanity.
It also makes sense to see that as long as you are still a mess yourself, there’s no point of going around and messing around with other people’s live as well. You need to be skillful in recognizing when you are mature enough to meaningfully help others. Otherwise it is like cutting wheat when it is still green. Nobody benefits from it.
We would not underestimate the power of the transformation of the mind. We all have the potential for change [since we’re all born with the Creative Interchange process and have our intrinsic Worth], and it is such a pity when we neglect to actualize it. It is like coming home empty-handed form an island made of gold. Human life has immense value if we know how to use its relatively short time span to become a better person for one’s own happiness and that of others [and become the Leader we were born to be: “Becoming a Leader Is Becoming Yourself.” – Warren Bennis and Russ S. Moxley.] This requires some effort, but what doesn’t? [as Herman de Coninck – a Flemish poet – once said: “What doesn’t cost effort is mostly not worthy of the effort.”]
So let’s end this first part on a note of hope and encouragement: “Transform yourself to better transform the world.” [quotes of Ghandi, Archimedes, and so on]
[i] M. Ricard and W. Singer, Beyond the Self: conversations between Buddhism and neuroscience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017
[ii] M. Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York, NY. Little, Brown and Company. 2006
[iv] S. Hagan and C. Palmgren, The Chicken conspiracy. Breaking the Cycle of Personal Stress and Organizational Mediocrity. Baltimore. MA: Recovery Communications, Inc. 1998.
[v] O. L. Carter, D. E. Pretl, C. Callistemon, Y. Ungerer, G. B. Liu and J. D. Petigrew, “Meditiation alters perceptual rivalry in Tibetan Buddhist monks,” Current Biology, no. 11 (2005): R412-R413.
[vi] M. Ricard and W. Singer, Beyond the Self: conversations between Buddhism and neuroscience. op.cit. p. 33.
[vii] M. Ricard and W. Singer, Beyond the Self: conversations between Buddhism and neuroscience. op. cit. p 36.
[viii] F. Ferrarelli et al. “Experienced mindfulness meditators exhibit higher parietal-occipital EEG gamma activity during NREM sleep.” PloS One 8 no. 8 (2013): e73417.
[ix] A. Lutz. H. A. Slagter, N. B. Rawlings, A. D. Francis, L. L. Grieschar, & R. J. Davidson, “Mental training enhances attentional stability, neural and behavioral evidence,” Journal of Neuroscience 29 no. 42 (2009): 12418-13427.
[x] O. M. Klimecki, S. Leiberg, M. Ricard, and T. Singer, “Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training.” Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience 9, no. 6 (2014): 873-879.:
[xi] S. B. Kaufman & C. Gregoire, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. New York NY: Targer Perigee, 2015.