quick draft notes from secular meditation meetup: neurofeedback, dichotomies, ambiguity, uncertainty, grit

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I had the first meetup yesterday for long-term meditators with a naturalist worldview. People had the opportunity to bring up questions, curiosities, and issues in their practice and also to go off on wild and interesting conversational tangents.

I created this meetup because I want to spend time with other long-term meditators, but I also wanted to continue collecting as much cheap data as I possibly can on what meditators are going through, what they care about, and so forth.

Some hasty, minimally-edited notes:

At the meetup, there were a few minor themes and two major themes.

state-chasing vs all states

One minor theme was “state-chasing” or “event-chasing” vs cultivating a healthy relationship with all states and events as they arise. Surely this is a false-dichotomy and a straw, but it can still be a useful distinction. I should probably unpack this more later, but for now it’s worth noting that both intervention and willingness/surrender have their places, and it’s not easy to optimally weave these two strategies together without one strategy kind of clobbering the other. But I think you need both for dramatically synergistic results. Anyway, I was able to recognize this distinction from Ken Wilber’s writing as well as some Tibetan texts.

away or towards

Another minor theme was another dichotomy: On the one hand was “running away,” “protecting,” “medicating,” “fixing,” “healing.” On the other hand was, “growth,” “curiosity,” “striving,” “mystery,” etc. It seemed to be that people were drawn to meditation for the former and that their practice evolved more towards the latter, into something with a more ambiguous and exploratory goal.

starting and stopping and restarting

Another minor theme was that we all had the experience of starting and stopping a regular meditation practice with gaps on the order of days, weeks, and months. And, upon resumption, wondering, “This is great; why wasn’t I doing this the whole time?” It’s not clear what drives this (though one can easily guess a bunch of stuff, perhaps more on this later), whether it’s optimal, etc.

The two major themes were a) guided meditation vs self-directed meditation and b) objective feedback vs subjective feedback.

Guided meditation vs self-directed meditation

So, first, guided meditation versus self-directed meditation. Guided meditation refers to being walked through a series of experiential suggestions via audio recording. And each meditation session usually uses that same recording. In contrast, I’ll define “self-directed” meditation as meditating without any temporally structured external inputs. This latter thing is what I typically think of as just “meditation.”

I’ll note that even “self-directed” meditation is usually done with a tacit or explicit protocol. Even if you don’t have a protocol somewhere in the back of your head, you still have a tacit sense of “what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.” I personally find it difficult to meditate without some explicitness. I go to great lengths to have a book or a document that I use as a touchstone for my practice, which I annotate or laboriously rethink and rewrite from time to time.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using guided meditation. I do think though that there’s tremendous value in slowly, slowly, slowly cultivating endogenous structure and stability over time. Meditation can teach you (or, say, your pre-conscious neural activity) to self-settle, to self-recombobulate, to maintain inner coherence in the face of confusing, ill-structured, ill-understood, unexpected, intense external (and internal) input. I think it’s possible to gain tremendous resilience, which may or may not be externally evident as a sort of unflappable, eventually non-smug, understated self-assurance even amidst a complete clusterfuck. This happens prior to conscious deliberateness. If not simply never breaking, you might feel like you’re helping to put yourself back together, and you are. But, you’re sort of teaching yourself, your brain is teaching itself, to self-assemble, to self-put-itself-back-together, to re-stabilize after surprise, insult, inner conclusions, etc. A mind that is its own center, its own source of stability, is a pretty awesome thing to have. Or so I claim.

As a final note to this topic, the usual caveat applies: with great power comes great responsibility, and in this case the power is self-stabilization and the responsibility is remaining open to external input, to being moved, whether in beliefs about the world or in emotional intimacy. It doesn’t have to be a dichotomy—actively, flexibly metabolizing the world while remaining coherent, as something coherent, is a skill to cultivate. Part of this is learning to allow change to occur not-entirely-within the domain of comprehensibility and understanding, how to let go of old truths whether or not you have new ones yet, as well as how to bend instead of breaking, and so forth.

Objective feedback

Another topic came up is the value and pitfalls of objective feedback, for example relative power in your beta band, alpha band, theta, etc. I understand the strong desire to have concrete feedback. And I know how demoralizing and exhausting it can be to have no idea what you’re doing, whether it’s working, or why you’re doing it. I suspect this is one of the reasons why people don’t start meditating and why people stop.

Ultimate and Intermediate Feedback

If you go the “traditional” route, it is indeed a looooooong road to anything resembling ease and flow and reduced second-guessing, though of course there are traditional strategies to “stay the course.” They don’t work very well if you don’t buy into the dogma, though: For example, reviewing the benefits of enlightenment, the drawbacks of not getting enlightened, the rarity of having the opportunity to get enlightened… Yeah, not too helpful for the skeptical meditator.

Of course, as a skeptical meditator, you can look for intermediate claims and descriptions and navigate with those, but that doesn’t help with the long-term why. Ingram offers a summary of the traditional maps, and Ingram offers strategies for gamification, too. (Find the pdf link on the link page.) One redeeming feature of new agey stuff is that it does do a better job of emphasizing immediate benefits than the traditional stuff, albeit at the steep expense of intermediate and long-term benefits.

But let’s get back to “doing it right,” “don’t know if it’s working.” Changes and effects of meditation do become more subtle over time as your brain gets used to meditating. One strategy to get a better feel for what’s going on is to stop meditating for a week, start meditating again, and it’s often very apparent when you start again about what direction the meditation practice is pushing you in.

Quantitative Feedback

One impulse at the meetup was to get a quantitative EEG recording done and to see if it’s changing over time. Another possibility is to get a noisy home EEG system. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Now, of course, depending on the brain area and what you’re measuring, I acknowledge that using neurofeedback to teach someone to change brain activity (whether with EEG or real-time fMRI) can have direct subjective and behavioral consequences. You can find interesting examples in the literature.

But, I would make a distinction between “brain” vs “mind.” Yeah, they’re the same thing, but you can have big changes in brain activity with minimal changes in subjective experience. And you can have big changes in subjective experience with minimal (obvious) changes in brain activity. So, if you want objective feedback, you’ll need to be linking that objective feedback to subjective experience anyway, if you’re looking for any impact on your life at all. So, I wonder if it’s maybe better to stick with subjective feedback in the first place and cut out the middle person so to speak.

And, it seems like objective measures can lack finesse: I want people to get to the point of being artists of their experience and artists of their meditation practice, making fine-grained corrections and changes in accordance with their individual values across time. I do believe there’s no limit to how rich, intricate, deep, complex, and practical it can get, and I want to nudge people towards that. Boiling things down to a few charts may be anathema to that goal.  So that’s a value judgment on my part. Of course picking your objective measures or having someone else pick them is a value judgment too.

I do acknowledge that neurofeedback and EEG could be used as “training wheels” or to get someone in the ballpark so that they can go from the objective feedback and find and isolate the subjective correlate and train that. So if people are interested in playing with that sort of stuff, they should go for it.

Further, I know communities have sprung up around binaural beats and probably home EEG systems too, experimenting with how to get various subjective effects. I’ll call this “augmented meditation” or something. I personally prefer the endogenous stuff, but this is totally a valid path, too, and if I see useful tools and faster progress in that world, I’ll steal it.

***

And, finally, I do realize it’s easy to fool oneself. I do understand people want to raise their confidence that they’re getting a return on investment.

And on the other hand, part of the benefit of meditation is learning how to navigate under conditions of uncertainty, under conditions of subtle, ambiguous feedback. So I don’t want to short-circuit that, either.

So, I think at minimum, I want to make beginners aware of all these issues, so that they can make less agonized choices about whether to stick with meditation or not. And, at maximum, I want to find ways to give meditators better feedback so they can be more confident of their progress, while not denying those meditators the advantages of learning to persist under ambiguity and uncertainty.

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