On becoming disconnected from oneself in meditation

I often receive questions by email. Although I’ll sometimes reply directly to them, it strikes me that the best use of my time is to share my responses publicly, so that others might benefit.

Here’s the question, which came from someone who I’ll call Josh.

For a while now, I have been meditating and my body has remained tense – as I am usually quite tense – but my mind relaxes, but in a negative way; it is as if I begin to mentally and emotionally feel numbed out and lost. I would like to be able to meditate on the tension, on emotions, on really anything that’s going on within me, but I end up frustrated and confused because I feel that sense of numbed out and unable to reconnect. I wanted to ask if this is as at all common and if you had any suggestions on how to reconnect and deepen the practice regarding this issue.

Decades ago, when I was first starting to practice meditation, I’d occasionally hear warnings from my teachers about how certain approaches to practice could result in emotional “alienation.” The founder of the tradition in which I practice had come back to the UK from India, and came across (or heard about) a few individuals who had become disconnected from their own experience to the extent that they were “robotic.” One of the things they’d been doing, apparently, was “noting,” which means adding a silent mental note, describing what’s going on in one’s experience.

Noting in this way can be a valuable practice, helping us to be more mindful and clear. But in the case of these people, the mental experience of noting became a replacement for the actual physical experience that was being described. While saying “arm lifting, arm lifting” and “sipping tea, sipping tea,” the thoughts, rather than the actual physical experiences, had become the focus of attention. And having become disconnected from the body, emotional disconnection would follow. Apparently some people became hospitalized as a result of this emotional disconnection, which we now call “depersonalization.”

Despite having heard warnings about the danger of this, I never actually came across anyone who seemed to have suffered in this way. But in recent years (probably because on the internet you can find anything) I’ve heard several people say that this, or something very similar to it, has happened to them. The Brown University psychiatry researcher, Willoughby Britton, has started a project to document and study this and other troubling phenomena that may arise in meditation.

I don’t know if this depersonalization is exactly what’s happened with Josh. Most people who write to me about their meditation practice forget to mention what kind of meditation practice they’re actually doing, but probably he’s doing some form of mindfulness practice. He may not be doing “noting,” however.

But, mindfulness practice isn’t enough. The warnings I’ve referred to were in the context of emphasizing how important lovingkindness (metta), compassion, and other more emotion-based forms of meditation are. The Buddha himself taught a wide range or practices, and encouraged an all-round path of moral and emotional development.

The Triratna tradition in which I practice stresses the importance of balancing mindfulness practice with metta practice. I suggest to my students (as it was suggested to me) that practice consist of alternating metta meditation with mindfulness practice. One suggestion is to do these practices on alternate days, making sure that you don’t skip one of them because you find it more challenging. It may, however, be acceptable to focus on one practice more intensively if it’s genuinely needed. For example when you’re exceptionally distracted, you might focus more on mindfulness for a few days, or if you’re in a chronic bad mood or tend to be very critical you might want to do much more metta practice for a while—perhaps even for weeks or months.

There are other practices that are useful as well. Kalyana mitrata (spiritual friendship) is a valuable way to connect with others on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Devotional practice can also awaken the heart. Physical exercise and the enjoyment of the arts are also ways that we can stay in touch with our emotions.

One thing to beware of is long periods of intensive practice that involve only mindfulness. Some people do fine with that, but if there’s a tendency to lose touch with the emotions, then it would be best not to be too “gung-ho” about practice, and to be gentle with oneself.

My advice to Josh would be to stop whatever practice he’s currently doing and to take up lovingkindness and compassion practice. I’d suggest focusing exclusively on those for at least six months. If possible he should connect with a sangha (a flesh and bones one rather than an online one) on a regular basis. A sangha that encourages discussion and friendship would be more valuable than one in which people merely sit together but don’t socialize or even communicate much. And the other things I’ve suggested—physical exercise and enjoyment of the arts—are something I’d also strongly encourage. Retreats focusing on lovingkindness and compassion might also be helpful.

Fortunately what Josh describes isn’t common. And I’m fairly sure that the approach I’ve described will be helpful. I’ve taught thousands of people to meditate and so far I’ve never heard of this kind of depersonalization happening to anyone I’ve known.

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Inquiry and naming: Practices to dispel the trance

Sometimes, when our carefully constructed lives seem to be falling apart – when we get a divorce, lose a business, or are laid off, for example – we can torture and berate ourselves with stories about how we’re failures, what we could have done better, how no one cares about us. Yet, this response of course only digs us deeper into what I call “the trance of unworthiness.”

Distracted by our judgments, we are unable to recognize the raw pain of our emotions. In order to begin the process of waking up, we need to deepen our attention and touch our real experience.

One tool of mindfulness that can cut through our numbing trance is inquiry. As we ask ourselves questions about our experience, our attention gets engaged. We might begin by scanning our body, noticing what we are feeling, especially in the throat, chest, abdomen and stomach, and then asking “What wants my attention right now?” or “What is asking for acceptance?” Then we attend with genuine interest and care, listening to our heart, body and mind.

Inquiry is not a kind of analytic digging—we are not trying to figure out “Why do I feel this sadness?” This would only stir up more thoughts. In contrast to the approach of Western psychology, in which we might delve into further stories in order to understand what caused a current situation, the intention of inquiry is to awaken to our experience exactly as it is in this present moment. While inquiry may expose judgments and thoughts about what we feel is wrong, it focuses on our immediate feelings and sensations.

It’s important to approach inquiry with a genuine attitude of unconditional friendliness. If I were to ask myself what wants attention with even the slightest aversion, I would only deepen my self-judgment. It may take some practice to learn how to question ourselves with the same kindness and care we would show to a troubled friend.

Naming or noting is another tool of traditional mindfulness practice that we can apply when we’re lost. Mental noting, like inquiry, helps us recognize with care and gentleness the passing flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations. If I am feeling anxious and disconnected before giving a talk, for example, I often pause, ask myself what is happening or what wants my attention. With a soft mental whisper I’ll name what I’m aware of: “afraid, afraid, tight, tight.” If I notice myself anxiously assuming that my talk will be boring and fall flat, I simply continue naming: “story about blowing it, fear of rejection,” then, “judging, judging.” If instead of noting I try to ignore this undercurrent of fear, I carry it into my talk and end up speaking in an unnatural and insincere way. The simple action of having named the anxiety building before my talk opens my awareness. Anxiety may still be present, but the care and wakefulness I cultivate through noting allows me to feel more at home with myself.

Like inquiry, noting is an opportunity to communicate unconditional friendliness to our inner life. If fear arises and we pounce on it with a name, “Fear! Gotcha!” we’re only creating more tension. Naming an experience is not an attempt to nail a unpleasant experience or make it go away. Rather, it is a soft and gentle way of saying, “I see you, fear, anger, etc.” This attitude of Radical Acceptance makes it safe for the frightened and vulnerable parts of our being to let themselves be known.

The practices of inquiry and noting are actually ways to wake us up to the fact that we are suffering. Caught up in our stories, we can effectively deny the truth of our experience. I sometimes spend days being impatient and judgmental towards myself before I stop and pay attention to the feelings and beliefs that have been disconnecting me from my heart. When I do pause and look at what’s happening, I realize that I’ve been caught up in the suffering of anxiety and self-doubt.

I have worked with many clients and students who reach a critical gateway when they finally register just how much pain they are in. This juncture is very different from feeling self-pity or complaining about our lives. It is different from focusing on how many problems we have. Rather, seeing and feeling the degree of suffering we are living with reconnects us to our heart.

Recognizing that we are suffering is freeing—self-judgment falls away and we can regard ourselves with kindness. When we offer to ourselves the same quality of unconditional friendliness that we would offer to a friend, we stop denying our suffering. And, most importantly, as we figuratively sit beside ourselves and inquire, listen and name our experience, we can begin to open our heart in tenderness for the suffering before us.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

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Being mindful of pain, and the paradox of mindfulness

Candle flame

Meditation offers us a powerful paradox: that becoming more mindful of our pain reduces the amount of pain we experience.

The use of meditation techniques to treat chronic pain is becoming increasingly common, largely as a result of the pioneering work in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction started by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s scientifically validated work has touched the lives of tens of thousands of people and helped to establish meditation as a highly respected tool in the treatment of chronic pain, stress, and depression.

Some people initially find the idea of using meditation to deal with pain incongruous. After all, isn’t meditation about developing greater awareness? And wouldn’t that mean becoming more aware of the pain itself in an almost masochistic kind of way and therefore experiencing greater suffering? For others, who think about meditation as a technique for “tuning out” and turning attention away from the body, meditative techniques can be seen as a welcome, if almost unattainable, form of escapism.

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In fact, meditation is neither masochistic nor escapist. In meditation we do in fact become more aware of ourselves, but what is most important is that we become aware of and change the way that we relate to our pain. It is that change in relationship that makes meditation a potent tool in pain management.

So what is this change in the way that we relate to pain, and how does it have the effect of helping us to deal more effectively with it, or even to reduce the level of pain we experience? The quality we cultivate through meditation practice is mindfulness. Mindfulness is much more than simply being aware. We can be aware of pain without being at all mindful of it. Mindfulness is a particular kind of awareness, which is purposeful, focused, curious, and rooted in our moment-by-moment experience.

With mindfulness we purposefully observe our experience as it takes place, including any pain that may be present. The mind naturally tends to see pain as being a “thing,” and to give it a degree of solidity, permanence, and coherence that it doesn’t in fact have. In mindfulness meditation we train ourselves to see the many different sensations that we collectively label as “pain.” We may even gently make mental notes of the most prominent sensations that we notice. For example we may note the presence of “tingling,” “pulsing,” “throbbing,” “heat,” “cold,” “aching,” “tightness,” etc. When we let go of the rather crude label “pain” in this way and instead note what is actually present, we can find that each individual sensation is easier to bear. Sometimes we notice that there is no pain present, or that the sensations that we’re experiencing are neutral or even pleasurable.

Additionally, in exercising curiosity about our pain we are also gaining another important benefit in the form of the quality of acceptance. The mind, quite understandably, tends to see pain as something that is undesirable and therefore to be pushed away. This pushing away shows in the body as physical tension in and around the area of pain, causing additional discomfort and even intensifying the original pain. It’s as if, having accidentally touched a hot stove, we were to react by trying to push the stove away. In doing so we would of course simply intensify our pain. So, in mindfulness meditation an attitude of curiosity allows us to let go of our resistance and to see the pain for what it is: an ever-changing variety of interwoven sensations. Much of our resistance to pain is mental rather than physical. When we experience pain the mind can, like the body, try to push it away. We experience desire for the pain just to go away. We crave its absence. Unfortunately, as we all know, wishing that something were so does not make it so, and our frustrated desires do nothing but add mental suffering to our physical distress.

In mindfulness meditation we observe more than just any pain that may happen to be present. We become aware of the whole physical body, emotions, and thoughts, and of how each of these interacts with the others. One thing we can then begin to see is that although pain is present in our experience it isn’t the whole of our experience. Mindfulness gives us a sense of the physical and mental “landscape” within which our pain is experienced, and which helps to give a sense of perspective to our experience of it. At times of stress it may seem as if pain is the only thing that we experience, but this comes about because we have a kind of mental “zoom lens” that is closely focused on the pain. Change that zoom lens for a wide-angle lens and the pain seems much smaller and therefore more manageable.

Without mindfulness, our experiences tend to proliferate in an unhelpful way. We may experience physical pain, and this leads to thoughts such as “This is never going to end,” “This is just going to get worse,” “I can’t bear this,” or “I must be a bad person to deserve all this pain.” In turn, these thoughts lead to anxiety, despondency or anger, because we tend to believe the stories we think when we are unmindful, and this adds further to our suffering. The practice of mindfulness includes becoming aware of our thoughts and seeing that our thoughts are indeed just thoughts and are not facts.

Thoughts are not facts. This can be a revolutionary discovery, and also a liberating one. When we learn to see thoughts as just another experience coming and going against the background of our overall physical and mental experience, we free ourselves from the kind of runaway thinking that is so characteristic of stress. We can see thoughts like “I can’t stand this” coming into being, realize that they are thoughts rather than facts, and instead of indulging in them and encouraging them we simply note them and let go of them.

Finally, mindfulness can help by reminding us that pain is not “the enemy.” Pain is the body’s naturally evolved way of letting us know that something needs attention, and can play a vital role in maintaining physical well-being. It’s easy to see how important pain is when we consider what life would be without it. There are medical conditions in which people can’t experience pain, and those people find that life is very hard indeed. Imagine, for example, trying to warm yourself at a fire without being able to tell when your skin was overheating: serious burns would be a distinct possibility. So we can see that pain is an essential part of being human. Of course when pain goes on for a long time, or when it’s particularly intense, it can be hard to remember that it evolved as a helpful function, and it’s easy to see it as an enemy. The meditative approaches outlined above help us to develop acceptance of our pain, but an even more powerful aspect of mindfulness that allows us to accept our pain is the quality of lovingkindness.

Mindfulness has a quality of appreciation and welcoming that can radically transform our relationship to difficult experiences. Buddhist meditation techniques can be used, for example, to cultivate an attitude of lovingkindness towards those people that we find difficult and towards whom we experience aversion, anger, and even hatred. Millions of practitioners over thousands of years have found that the cultivation of lovingkindness leads to the lessening of conflicts and the growth of love and appreciation for those who were previously enemies. Lovingkindness transforms our relationships.

The development of lovingkindness can also be used internally, by cultivating lovingkindness for painful experiences (or self-compassion) so that we can accept them as a part of life. Wishing our pain well can be a powerfully healing experience in which we let go of inner tensions and barriers on a deep level and come to see that our pain is a part of us, and a part of us moreover that is greatly in need of cherishing and love.

But do these approaches actually have medical benefits? Do they reduce pain, or do they simply allow us to handle our pain better? Clinical studies are unequivocal in demonstrating that the practice of mindfulness meditation both increases the ability to deal with the effects of pain and reduces pain overall. A study published in General Hospital Psychiatry followed 51 chronic pain patients who had not improved with traditional medical care. The dominant pain categories were low back, neck and shoulder, headache, facial pain, angina pectoris, noncoronary chest pain, and GI pain. After a 10-week program of meditation, 65% of the patients showed a reduction in pain of greater than 33%, and half of the patients showed a reduction in pain levels of more than 50%. It should be remembered that these were patients whose pain had shown no improvement with traditional medical care. In other words people with the most difficult cases of chronic pain still showed dramatic improvements in their condition.

A more recent study, at the University of Montreal, shows that Zen meditators were better able to detect painful stimuli than non-meditators, but that the sensations weren’t processed by the brain as “pain.”

The practice of mindfulness is particularly effective because it “decouples” the physical sensations of pain from mental and emotional processes that heighten suffering. Pain comes to be seen as “just another sensation” and the fear of pain is significantly reduced. The development of mindfulness, as Buddhists have known for 2,500 years, brings about mental and emotional freedom and a decrease in suffering.

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Research: Naming negative emotions makes them weaker

naming emotionsWired Magazine reports on research that’s of relevance to meditators — especially those that use the vipassana technique of “noting,” where we name the most prominent aspect of our experience, saying inwardly, for example, “anger, anger” when we recognize that that emotion is present.

Meditation generally, and the technique of noting in particular, helps us to stand back from our emotions and to recognize that they are transitory events passing though our consciousness. Without this ability to stand back from our emotions we can easily become engulfed by them and we identify totally with them. Instead of experiencing anger we simply are angry.

It’s akin to flying in an airplane. When the plane is inside a cloud this is similar to being engulfed in an emotion. Everything you can see is cloud; everything you experience is filtered through the emotion. When the plane rises above the cloud you can see it from the outside; you can sense not only the emotion but also aspects of yourself outside of the emotion, including your relation to the emotion itself. The emotion is therefore weaker and has less of a hold over us.

Perhaps all those blog posts you wrote about your breakup really did have a purpose.

Naming feelings takes some of the emotional impact out of them by engaging a brain region that aids self-control, according to new research.

In a clever series of experiments, UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman found that labeling a picture of someone who looked angry as “angry” reduced the negative emotional feelings that most people feel when viewing such a photograph.

“Putting feelings into words activates this region that’s capable of producing emotional regulatory outcomes, which could explain why putting feelings into words dampens them down,” Lieberman said in a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences annual meeting on Saturday.

While plenty of psychological treatments have involved talking about one’s feelings, Lieberman’s work is some of the first to demonstrate the underlying neural basis for the therapeutic nature of talking something out. The research is based on the idea that engaging a part of the brain that aids in self-control, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, helps put a damper on feelings, no matter how you get that part of the brain involved.

First, the researchers had subjects view photographs of men and women with some positive and some negative facial expressions. The negative facial expressions tended to stimulate activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with processing emotions.

The researchers had the subjects play a simple game while looking at the photos. If the photo was of a woman (and 80 percent of the pictures were) they pressed the “go” button, but if the picture was of a man, they didn’t press the button — their brain had to intervene to inhibit the motor response of pressing the button. Simply exerting self-control over the motor function by not pressing the button led to reduced negative emotional response. The idea is that the self-control area of the prefrontal cortex turns on and helps all forms of self-control. They call this “inhibitory spillover.”

In the next set of studies, they had one set of people label the photos with simple gender-name matching — match Seth to the picture of a man, not Sarah. Another group was asked to name the emotions on the faces of the people in the pictures. The subjects who named the emotions experienced less negative emotion associated with negative images. By focusing on the emotions in the pictures to label them, the subjects engaged that piece of the prefrontal cortex and “down regulated” their intensity.

It’s important to note that the regulatory effect didn’t come from increased self-awareness about one’s relationship to the emotion. The more tightly regulated emotional response was practically a side effect of the cognitive task of labeling the emotion in the face. The researchers postulate that the same principle is at work when you talk about your feelings: it’s the bare fact of labeling your emotions that counts, not whatever conclusions you draw in the course of verbal expression (or poetry writing).

It’s possible that these techniques could be used to treat fear-based conditions from arachnophobia (fear of spiders) to zemmiphobia (fear of the great mole rat).

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D.H. Lawrence: “Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.”

D.H. Lawrence

Thought, I love thought.
But not the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas.
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of consciousness,
Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.
D.H. Lawrence

Often beginners to meditation think of thought as “the enemy.” They want to stop thinking altogether, to “have their minds go blank” (as if the mind would be blank without words running through it). This is a misunderstanding, but it’s a reasonable one, which is no doubt why it’s so common. After all, who isn’t oppressed by the sheer quantity and the nature of their thoughts?

Thought runs wild. It’s relentless, seemingly tireless. Trying to suppress thought is like a crazy game of whack-a-mole. If you try to force a thought out of your mind it pops up behind you.

Thought is obsessive. It grabs hold of a topic and gnaws away at it like a dog worrying a bone. You can take the bone away from the dog a hundred times, but the next time you look the dog’s in action again.

Thought is like water. Try to hold it back and it’ll find a way through. If you try really hard to dam thought back it simply increases in pressure until it bursts through your barriers.

Thought is like lightning over a dry forest. Thought ignites our emotions, sparking envy, doubt, ill will, longing, and fear. And as we try to beat out the flames of one unwanted and destructive emotion sparks fly up to start new fires.

Thought does, undoubtedly, cause us problems.

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But thought can also play a useful role in meditation. Thought can be channeled and can become a tool to help our meditation practice go deeper. To take the most obvious examples, in the Metta Bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice we use thoughts like “May all beings be well, happy, and free from suffering” in order to awaken an attitude of care, kindness, and concern from ourselves and others. In mantra meditation we repeat a phrase that evokes the qualities of the enlightened mind. And it can also be useful to do what the Insight Meditation tradition calls “noting” where we label the sensation, emotion, or process that’s most prominent in our experience. For example we can say “anger, anger” when that emotion is present. Or we can say “pulsing” or “burning” when pain is present. In all these examples thought is consciously used as a way to help the mind develop positive qualities such as lovingkindness, compassion, and mindfulness.

But Lawrence’s quote suggests that thought itself can be a form of meditation. What he’s talking about of course is not the random stream of images and words that so often wells up in the mind. And as he points out he’s not even talking about “the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas” — as usually happens when we’re thinking about work, or our schedule, or about politics. Lawrence is talking about something much more profound, which is reaching into the depths of our being and tapping into an inner source of wisdom. He’s talking about learning from life and from self-observation. He’s talking about reflection and contemplation.

So how do we do this? How do we learn to reflect and to contemplate? How do we learn to use the very act of thinking as a form of meditation?

There isn’t room in this short article to fully explore this, but here are a few suggestions.

1. We need to set aside time for reflection and contemplation. Genuine thought, of the kind D. H. Lawrence is praising in his poem, requires a combination of mental stillness and time, and this can’t be achieved in the odd moment of repose in a busy schedule. We need to set aside time for just sitting, or perhaps even better, for walking.

2. We need to cultivate the habit of silence. If we’re always living on the surface of our minds, as we do when we’re engaged non-stop in chatter, we’ll find it hard to go deeper. Real reflection emerges from inner silence. So we need, at least sometimes, to “unplug” ourselves from stimulation — from the TV, the iPod, the newspaper, the radio. And we can look for opportunities to experience silence more profoundly by spending time alone. We need to learn to be comfortable with silence, which is another way of saying that we need to learn to be comfortable with ourselves.

3. We need to adopt an attitude of wonder, which in turn involves letting go of the assumption that we already have the answers. Much of the time we see not-knowing as a sign of failure, as something to be avoided. In fact, admitting that we don’t know, and being comfortable with the discomfort of not-knowing, is the start of wisdom. It’s only when we let go of the assumption that we have all the answers that we’ll look more deeply.

4. We need to be self-critical and “test of statements on the touchstone of consciousness.” Much of the time we’re happy with the first answer that pops into our head when we ask ourselves a question. But “first thought” is not always “best thought.” Our first thoughts are often conventional thoughts, or “the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas.” They’re still valuable however, because they can act as a springboard to more authentic reflection if we are prepared to question them and to look for their flaws (as well as whatever truths they may contain).

5. Genuine reflection involves “man [i.e. a person of whatever gender] in his wholeness.” Contemplation involves not just discursive thinking (in the head, as it were) but the testing of our thoughts in the heart. The litmus test of genuine reflection is whether it leads ultimately not only to greater understanding, but also to greater happiness and compassion. Now reflection may make us uncomfortable. For example we may come to realize that there’s something profoundly wrong with the way we’re living our lives, and this is something that is bound to promote a sense of unease at the very least. But even with discomfort such as that there is also a sense that we are on the right track. We can feel in our heart that there is something real and true about the conclusions that are welling up into consciousness. And this is the fruit of the genuinely reflective live — the sense of a life well-lived.

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