muscles you didn’t know you had

[New? Start here:]

[I think this is the last bit of context and background before the next “how to” post]

Meditation helps you find muscles you didn’t know you had. These are “natural” muscles and natural functions, like your breathing–you’re using these muscles thousands of times per day. But, unlike breathing, where you can notice you’re breathing and then deliberately control you’re breathing, lots of people never notice or exercise deliberate control over these “mind muscles.” Or, they do it without noticing or realizing they’re doing it, so they can’t do it systematically and deliberately–and systematic and deliberate use of these “muscles” can be very valuable and meaningful.

These muscles are not just “doing” muscles, but also “not doing” muscles, “getting out of the way” muscles, “zooming in” muscles, “zooming out” muscles, “being still” muscles, “multi-awareness” muscles, “experiential replay” muscles, experiential “listening” muscles, “remembering what you’re doing” muscles, “remembering the right thing at the right time” muscles, “inner pause button” muscles, “having an open mind” muscles, patience muscles, reflective rationality muscles…

Finding these “mind muscles” is a bit like learning to raise that single eyebrow you can’t raise or curl your tongue if you can’t curl your tongue: You feel around in “muscle space” and it just seems like there’s *nothing there* to “flex.” Finding these mind muscles, exercising them so they get stronger, and learning to use them is counterintuitive, and it takes weeks, months, and years.

“Muscles” isn’t *quite* the right term or the right analogy. Sometimes it does literally feel like muscles. But, other times, doing this stuff has a vaguer, more indirect feel, and you might never get complete “fine motor control,” nor would you necessarily want it–coordination of these systems it not something you’d really want to have conscious control over all the time. It’s just like it would be hell to have to consciously breath all the time. But, paying attention to these muscles *sometimes,* and working with them a bit at a time, over time, can make things work better all the rest of the time when you’re *not* paying attention, or, you can get a more consistent wake-up call when it would be *helpful* to pay attention, and that can be a good investment.

It’s not just “mental muscles” that get exercised. You also get improved “inner eyesight.” It’s like you start out with a clumsy flashlight in a dark room, and over months and years you end up with floodlights and laser targeting that can track many targets at once across changes on the order of milliseconds. You see more. At the risk of being too poetic, you’re aware of shimmering fine-structure, nuance, subtlety, and rippling waves of change across many different timescales, from milliseconds to minutes to days. Another analogy: Your inner color vision goes from 16-bit color depth to continuous hyperspectral. But it’s not just colors, it’s qualities, feeling tones, impressions, images, intuitions… I *am* being sort of hyperbolic here, sorry. But it really is kind of like this. This particular line of inner development is one of the things I’m most grateful about. And some of the above nuance is *conceptual*. You can contemplate referentially grounded ideas that you couldn’t contemplate before.

I want to touch briefly, here, on “actual levers” versus “imagined levers.” (I will probably expand on this more in the next actual “how to” post.) There *is* a difference between *meditating* and *imagining you’re meditating*. We want to be pushing and pulling and doing resistance training with *real* phenomenal levers versus *imagined* phenomenal levers. I want to emphasize that *imagined* phenomenal levers can be extremely useful, too. Indirect visualization, nonverbal intention, and verbal expressions of intention can all be very powerful (cf. psychoneuroimmunology) and there’s a lot of that going on in the “additive meditation” which I described in the last “how to” post. It’s GREAT to be able to visualize and intend and let your body take care of exactly what you want without you having to micromanage how it’s happening. Use it! But that’s not the main thing we’re doing here. Intention and inclining towards experiences and qualities (what you want, what you might want, and what you’re curious about) does have its place in the upcoming foreground/background meditation, as a background sense of what you’re doing and why (just like with lots of activities). But, really meditating is pretty discrete, well-defined, and direct, in terms of what you’re actually doing on a moment to moment basis, even if it never *quite* gets to the discreteness and stableness of flexing your index finger and holding it there.

You never really want to be TOO precise and discrete anyway. Your inner life should be flexible, “shimmering,” and symphonic–and you should have a light touch when you interact with it and when you’re practicing interacting with it. When you get rigid and repetitive and heavy-handed is when bad stuff is more likely to happen.


So here’s how things might progress over months and years. (There’s some shorter-term patterns over the first few weeks to monthsr, which I’ll probably describe in the next “how to” post.) I think this is the general progression for most people, though that might be a side-effect of how meditation tends to be taught. A much more authoritative developmental progression can be found in Daniel Ingram’s stuff and Upasaka Culadasa’s stuff. They have different rhetorical and pedagogical goals in each of their explications, though.

The first thing (and the last thing) a lot of meditation teachers will have you focus on is sensory stuff: your sense of touch, sight, sound. Other things might be emotions, inner talk, inner imagery. There’s also taste and smell. Besides everyday complex objects (tree, person, the square root of negative one), sensory impressions are probably the easiest things to attend to. Over time, your sense of these things can become much more refined. This is especially valuable for outer emotional manifestations and corresponding inner feeling, etc.

Using Ingram’s language, I would describe the above stuff as “in phase.” (I’ll explain “out of phase” in a moment.) Slightly subtler stuff that is “in phase,” is interoception (hunger, energy levels, have to pee, emotionally motivated visceral changes, various shades of physiological feels), the finer fringes of proprioception, and much more.

(I just realized I’m using subtle in several ways ways–“faint,” “vague,” and “hard to notice.” They are correlated but not identical.)

Something that is initially hard to notice but very, very obvious once you know what to look for is “nonsymbolic cognition.” An example is complete thoughts, fully developed, where you could express it using many different choices of words, but those words would all point back to the same nonsymbolic object. Nonsymbolic cognition can range from discrete thoughts, as just described, to much fuzzier and vaguer stuff, too. I’ll talk more about nonsymbolic cognition below.

Now let’s talk about “out of phase” stuff. “In phase” stuff is stuff that you can point attention directly at and there it is. “Out of phase” stuff is stuff that sort of disappears when you look directly at it or stuff that shifts as you try to look at it so it’s never where you look. It’s kind of like you need to user “inner peripheral vision” to see out of phase phenomena, though you can get really good at it so it no longer has that awkward, indirect feel. (Analogy: faint stars in the night sky can be seen better if you don’t look directly at them–rod/cone stuff.) “Out of phase” stuff is stuff that you could go your entire life without really getting a good glimpse at, though out of phase stuff still modulates your behavior. A good example of something out of phase is your “sense of self” which has a phenomenal representation in consciousness. “Self sense” is hard to look *at*. It’s usually “behind” whatever you look at, to generate the conscious sense of “you” “looking” “at” “something.” Some aspects of thinking and feeling have this “out of phase” quality.

Arguably on the border between “in phase” and “out of phase” are mental “echoes” and “excerpts,” the phenomenal objects that let you know you just had a particular experience–e.g. a sensory impression, a thought, etc. They are “smaller” markers that you can attend to in order to “replay” the more elaborated memory. It’s kind of like icons on a desktop.

(In most of our waking life, we have an experience which then evokes conceptual maps that ostensibly describe that experience, and then we navigate via those maps with minimal additional direct reference to the actual territory that evoked the map. But, we think we’re navigating via the actual territory when instead we’re navigating via the map that may be a really poor fit for what’s actually going on. There are phenomenal components to this process that can be used to get a better handle on what maps are being deployed and whether the ones you’re using are helping. You also can get better at not slamming in the first map that may or may not fit what’s actually going on. And much more.)

Even more subtle than the “contents” of consciousness, are the *dynamics* of consciousness–passive attentional shifts, “zooms,” deliberate attentional shifts or attentional holding, stuff entering and leaving the phenomenal field, “dimming” and “brightening.” You may also start to see the consciousness “gaps” and “ontological tricks” that consciousness uses to make things appears seamless. I actually don’t have much personal experience with the former, mostly because I’m concerned about side effects of developing this kind of awareness, but consciousness apparently flickers in and out. We’re not aware of it–much like we don’t see darkness when we blink our eyes. There are also ontological tricks which I’m more familiar with, e.g. a passing emotion vs the emotion we attend to and reflect upon aren’t *quite* ontologically the same thing, ditto for passing thoughts and examined thoughts. It mostly makes sense to let this sleight of hand do its thing without paying attention to it too much–it works pretty well. But sometimes it’s worth attending to and exploiting the distinction.

Important point: How to get a feel for everything I’ve described above can be sort of counterintuitive. Often, deliberately rummaging around in your head and looking for this stuff won’t help you see it, if you haven’t already had personal experience of some of it. That’s partially because of the “out of phase” phenomenon. Some of what you’re looking for is never directly where you look. That “peripheral vision” you’ll develop is something I’ll probably explain in much more detail in the “how to” post. I just want to mention this here in case you start “looking around in your head” and you see nothing that looks anything like what I’m talking about. It’s the attentional act of searching around that seems to hide things. Sort of a key heuristic is, “to see new things, pay close attention to precisely what you see right now.” That heuristic pretty much holds true for both a beginning and highly advanced meditator, as far as I can tell. In any case, starting to see these things takes hours inside your head, though sometimes you’re already seeing it and you just haven’t matched the experience to the words I’m using. Don’t let my descriptions mislead you–you might find yourself saying “oh, *that’s* what Mark means, but *I* would use entirely different words to describe this.”


So let’s examine cognition and behavior more closely. The interplay of in-phase and out-of-phase stuff in this section resides somewhere in the latter part of my progression above. But this is all so important that I’m splitting it out, here.

The basic point underlying everything in this section is that perception and meaning are interdependent but separable. Perception conditions meaning-making, and meaning-making conditions what we orient on in the phenomenal field. But you can separate out the phenomenal components of these two aspects of experience, even if you have far less insight into the machinery that *produces* these phenomenal components.

There’s actual three main pieces to the meaning-making process:

1. the referent (territory, the “stuff out there” or “inside” you).
2. the signified (meaning, “what comes to mind, ” Gendlin’s “felt sense,” Hurlburt’s unsymbolized thinking)
3. the signifiers (words, symbols)

(1) is the territory, (2) and (3) are the map.

Semantic saturation is when signifiers become temporarily detached from their signified. Tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is when the signified becomes temporarily detached from it’s signifier. You can of course use signifiers to evoke signifieds without a coordinated referent being present, as is what’s happening while you’re reading this.

We’ll discuss below how you can deliberately separate this stuff out and get quite strategic in your use of symbols, complex nonsymbolic cognition, explication of the nonsymbolic contents of consciousness, and how much more flexibly you can slice up the territory, sometimes in different ways simultaneously, depending on what you’re trying to do.

Objects are achievements. It’s folk ontology all the way up and all the way down. All maps of the territory are wrong, but some are more useful (understatement) than others, depending what you’re trying to do. The real magic happens when you have metamaps and metamaps of metamaps that allow you to navigate by many different maps simultaneously in a coherent way.

“Dog” evokes different signifieds in a dog hater, a dog lover, and a veterinarian. An “atom” means something different to a fifth-grader, a lay-person, and a physicist. These examples are kind of simplistic and suspicious, but it’s like this for EVERYTHING, for all concepts, all meanings, all of it.

Two people, let alone a community of practice, with roughly isomorphic concepts whose concepts also map usefully to the territory is a tremendous achievement. (And potentially really anemic and boring if it’s not life or death territory.) Lived life is situated shifting shades and ad hoc scaffolding of conceptual bridges when you’re coordinating, arguing, talking in real time about real life things, issues, concerns, events, hopes, desires, dreams…

Anyway, let’s take a finer-grained look at meaning-making and meaning-use in action:

Consciousness is filled with a collection of semi-discrete cognitive objects at any particular time. These are usually nonsymbolic “threads” that can be unpacked by attending to them. (A “thread” and an “unpacking” are not ontologically identical. This is a trick consciousness plays.)

Your mind will usually bounce around between a) attending to inner talk that explicates a nonsymbolic object, b) directly referencing a nonsymbolic object, c) attending to a sensory impression or object (person, thing) in the outside world, and more.

So, usually your orienting system automatically picks what will be attended to next. Each time you orient on something, the contents of consciousness changes and what’s latent (just below the consciousness boundary) changes. Sometimes, stuff in consciousness will get crowded out, sometimes stuff will fade over time on its own, sometimes something “spontaneously” arises in consciousness (trigger or reminder), sometimes stuff arises sequentially if you’re writing or thinking deliberately. You’re usually not aware of the dynamic nature of conscious conent. You bounce from attentional object to attentional object, which triggers ever-new configurations of objects in consciousness, possibly elaborations of what you’re attending to or, often, reactionary or “opposing” objects.

Part of not realizing how the contents of consciousness changes is that, typically, your attention system “dims” what you’re not directly attending to, so you’re only aware of precisely what you’re focused on, or maybe a small set of 2-3 different things. So you might bounce back and forth or in a loop around a few different opposing or irreconcilable positions, over and over again.

(You’ll eventually break out of these strange attractors, but why not do it seconds, minutes, or hours earlier? Often there’s plenty of additional useful stuff available in consciousness if you remember to “undim” what else is there. Or you might not have additional useful stuff available already in consciousness, but you can have an object come up that reminds you to make space and search for more positions to bring them into consciousness. Your options for how you cooperatively manage consciousness with your automatic systems is pretty much infinite. Just remember you can deliberately manage only a tiny, tiny fraction of all the work your automatic systems are doing and providing to you. You have to interact strategically with the rest of you while you let go and let the rest of you do a huge chunk of the work.)

(And while all the above is happening, your emotions and physiology are reacting to and influencing the contents of consciousness, too)

Another thing is that lots of stuff in consciousness is only semi-discrete–the edges are vague and fuzzy *in a useful, meaningful way.* Sometimes you can realign your attentional “shroud” or “manifold” to create new objects or thoughts or remembrances that blend properties or structure of objects already in consciousness. You can also attend to nonsymbolic objects and find language that maps to or creates structure in those objects, which allows you to recall them more easily and “turn logical gears” for symbolic reasoning. You can also define a shroud (e.g., ask a question) and ask for a nonsymbolic object or field or stream-of-consciousness language to arise that has structure pertinent to or that fulfills what you asked for. (There’s more space of possibility between “know it immediately” and “don’t know it,” than is usually realized. If you hold onto a nonsymbolic query and patiently wait, or hold on and start linguistically riffing, you’ll usually start getting useful stuff that gets progressively refined.)

Usually you can’t attend to two thoughts simultaneously and also get them to blend (or “chunk”) on the spot. You’ll be holding onto both of them and they’ll be fighting each other, with the attendant emotional reactions. And you’ll need to shake free from one of them and find the other so you’re not bouncing back and forth between them. Sleep can sometimes create a new “thought” that transcends and includes the two opposing positions or at least gives you a handle so you can work with both positions simultaneously while using fewer resources and being able to bring even more on board.


(Tangential brain dump on sleep: adore, live it, love it, use it. Sleep, for me, is one of those rare, truly “magical” phenomena–you wake up with new concepts, categories, ideas, solutions. Sometimes you can get magic to happen while awake, in real time while you’re wrestling with stuff, or if you let your mind wander a bit while taking a break, or on a long walk or nap. But if you’re completely stumped, lots of hard thinking, followed by many sleep cycles in a row seems to be the most reliable and extreme way to SURPRISE yourself and get to where you couldn’t have gotten before. Talking things out with other people can also be a way to SURPRISE yourself, too.)

Similar to “cognition space” there is an interpenetrating space of semi-discrete *behavioral* options that you can feel into. We usually pick the most salient next behavior automatically and/or we think the options in front of us are all there are. But we can call up more. We can blend one or more behavioral options, even seemingly opposing ones, by making them simultaneously salient, and then threading the needle between them or through them in an infinite number of ways. This requires deconvolving *yourself* from your *possibilities,* and then attending to those possibilities and manipulating them and choosing them and enacting them with artistry. You can also more directly surf the outside world and respond “dancingly” or “surfingly” directly to what’s happening in your environment. (This also requires exercise of your “getting out of the way” muscles.) Usually our behavior is a combination of environmentally contingent and cached behavior, but we’re biased towards enacting a limited set of cached, parameterized programs. With practice, it can get easier to respond creatively, effectively, and novelly to the immediate environment. That can be scary and risky, too. Start small, etc. But you can practice acting and responding more “authentically,” and in better ways, that accurately map to what’s really happening, instead of reacting to a pattern match on something vaguely similar that’s happened before but that was different in essential ways. Everything actually happens for the first time and there’s always space for something *new* to happen or to try.


One of the most awesome things with all of this is that you can bring on board multiple perspectives, evidence, arguments for and against, concerns, doubts, desires, inner arguments, still small voices, etc., all at once together in consciousness. (You can do this online, though for huge stuff you’ll probably need paper, distributed cognition, and sleep to help.) You can learn to work simultaneously with wildly different, irreconcilable schema if they both bring value to the table, especially if you don’t have time to reconcile or reduce one to the other, or you practically *can’t* at the level of organization or abstraction that you’re working at. And you can get better and better at stacking, collecting, mediating between, choosing, resolving conflicts, etc., between wildly irreconcilable but wildly useful schema.


Meditation gives you a clearer view of what’s going on inside you. It sensitizes you to content in consciousness and levers in consciousness. Once you can grip those levers you can do “resistance training” to get stronger in ways you wouldn’t have been able to get stronger before. You also get new cognitive and behavioral options which get exercised and refined just by using them.

[Next will probably be a meditation how-to post. After that, we’ll be able to use some of that meditation machinery to do interesting stuff with emotion. And after that…]

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You can find lots of the “muscles” described above, and get better at lots of the cognitive and behavioral stuff above without ever meditating. These books help with that:

[the two books below are more for getting better at working with stuff online, as it happens]

Wile, Daniel. “After the fight.” Using Your Disagreements to Build a Stronger Relationship. The Guilford Press (1995).

Gendlin, Eugene T. Experiencing and the creation of meaning: A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. Northwestern Univ Press, 1962.

[the two books below are more for reflective, offline processing]

Earley, Jay. Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy, 2nd Edition. Pattern System Books, 2012.

Gendlin, Eugene T. Focusing. Bantam Books, 2nd (revised) edition. 1982.

[the book below is more behaviorally oriented]

Gendlin, Eugene T. Focusing-oriented psychotherapy: A manual of the experiential method. Guilford Press, 2012.

[the book and cards below have more of emotional flavor, which you can bring back into the stuff above]

Greenberg, Leslie S. Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings. American Psychological Association, 2002.

Martin, Petra. Mixed Emotions : A tool that helps you make decisions, solve problems, resolve conflicts, and more Cards. 2001.

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[in the comments, please ask me to help you navigate the references–ask me stuff like, “where can i learn more about X” or, especially, “Why is this book on here?”]

How to Think Real Good

Nanananda ((Bhikkhu;). Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought: An Essay on Papañca and Papañca-saññā-saṅkhā. Buddhist Publication Society, 1971.

Lamrimpa, Gen. How to Realize Emptiness. Snow Lion Publications, 2010.
[this was published previously under a different title, too, i think]

Tsongkhapa’s Praise for Dependent Relativity. Wisdom Publications Inc, 2011.

Demmin, Herbert. Ghosts of Consciousness: Thought and the Spiritual Path. Paragon House Publishers, 2003.

Gendlin, Eugene T. Experiencing and the creation of meaning: A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. Northwestern Univ Press, 1962.

Scott, Jim. Maitreya’s Distinguishing Phenomena and Pure Being with Commentary by Mipham. Snow Lion Publications (http://www. snowlionpub. com/), 2004.

Cantwell Smith, Brian. “On the origin of objects.” MIT Press. (1996).

Wilson, Mark. Wandering significance: An essay on conceptual behavior. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Mangan, Bruce. “Sensation’s Ghost.” Psyche 7 (2001): 18.

Hayakawa, S. Samuel Ichiye. Language in thought and action. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. Basic Books, 2008.

Johnson-Laird, Philip N. How we reason. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Williams, Joseph M. “Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace.” (2002).

Katie, Byron. Loving what is: Four questions that can change your life. Random House Digital, Inc., 2003.

Stanovich, Keith. Rationality and the reflective mind. Oxford University Press, USA, 2011.

Burns, David D. When panic attacks: The new, drug-free anxiety therapy that can change your life. Broadway, 2007.

Ihde, Don. Experimental phenomenology: An introduction. SUNY Press, 1986.
Ihde, Don. Experimental Phenomenology: Multistabilities. SUNY Press, 2012.

Carruthers, Mary Jean, and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds. The medieval craft of memory: an anthology of texts and pictures. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Carruthers, Mary. The craft of thought: Meditation, rhetoric, and the making of images, 400-1200. Vol. 34. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. “Waking up from the Boolean dream, or, subcognition as computation.” Metamagical themas: Questing for the essence of mind and pattern (1985): 631-665.

Smolensky, Paul, and Géraldine Legendre. The harmonic mind. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Churchland, Paul M. Plato’s camera. The MIT Press, 2012.

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One thought on “muscles you didn’t know you had

  1. Pingback: how to do foreground/background meditation | Meditation Stuff

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