Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

yoga as attention: healing our inner divisions

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Even in the most intimate, enduring relationships—such as those we have with our family members or partners—it is clear that even people who largely share the same values and goals have both different histories and different needs. The concepts instilled in each of us throughout our own personal histories shape our individual means of going about achieving those needs, as well as the assumptions that we make about where the other people in our lives stand in relation to our goals. While each member of a married couple, for example, may genuinely want a healthy, happy, balanced relationship with each other, their ways of looking at and interpreting the world will often create confusion and hurt if they feel as though the other person is unwilling or unable to fulfil specific needs or desires. Such impasses often occur due to erroneous attempts to read the other person’s state or predict the other person’s intentions. We refer to such errors as a failure to communicate.

In addition to resentment, these all-too-common situations often engender the desire for the partner to live up to some idea of how they “should” be. Such an attitude does a great disservice to the potential for a richness that can be found in variety; furthermore, it shuts down the ability to recognise to the gifts and insights that can come from individuals with skill sets and perspectives that we don’t have. Steven Covey devotes the first half of his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (the ultimate "dad book," but it really is wonderful) to patterns we can establish in order to maximise our effectiveness as individuals; the second half of the book is about creating new habits which will optimise our relationships with others. When I first read his book in my mid-20s, I was particularly impressed by his “Habit Number 6: Synergise.” In this chapter, Covey shows that it is helpful not only to accept the differences we have with people (that is, to agree to disagree), but to value those differences. He points out that, particularly in situations like business partnerships and romantic relationships in which all parties share a common goal, scratching beneath the surface of our differences—which we usually allow to create friction, or all-out conflict—often reveals genuine assets. None of us can pretend to have the talents or intelligence to respond appropriately and with maximum effectiveness in every situation; nevertheless, our partnerships and relationships in life allow us to collaborate with others in order to augment our own contributions. These possibilities become available to the couple only if they are willing to value the differences between them. 

Now let's consider the new framework that we established last week: the notion of the "self" as a collection of multiple, prediction-driven simulation-generators. What if we were to apply an interpersonal paradigm like Covey's to the relationships amongst the various voices that are often in conflict within ourselves? The ideas of an eternal, unchanging soul which we have inherited from many of the world’s religions—and even the notion of the “inner core” of the individual which is championed by liberal humanism—can actually do more to create conflict than to ameliorate it. Many spiritual and psychotherapeutic systems attempt to return the individual to this essence by cutting off the parts of the self which they do not deem desirable. While it is common to label these less attractive parts of ourselves as “the ego,” they are more likely to be aspects of us which—much like an attention-starved toddler—have begun to act out in order to try to have their needs met. Marginalising these neglected facets of ourselves can create more fragmentation in the psyche, rather than the wholeness which these systems purport to offer. Perhaps instead, we should be seeking to bring even more of ourselves together. There may be things we can learn from certain aspects of our minds, some purpose they might serve which we are not able to acknowledge, let alone honour, when we attempt to dissociate ourselves from them.

Many cognitive scientific views, as well as evolutionary biology, tells us that the “individuals” we think ourselves to be are actually conglomerations of a variety of patterns, modules, and even—in a manner of speaking—organisms. 

Life began in the oceans, with single cells which replicated by creating internal copies of their DNA and subsequently dividing themselves in half. These rudimentary life forms developed an incredibly crude technology for distinguishing harmful chemicals from beneficial chemicals in the surrounding environment. The cells established what we might think of as simple consciousness; they were, in effect, binary information processors which could distinguish between “good” and “bad.” This allowed them to move away from harmful environments or agents, and toward nutritious ones. It seems likely, in fact, that the “behaviours” of attraction and avoidance came first, and that the cells which demonstrated responses that optimised survival and replication developed genetic mutations which, over billions of generations, enabled the life forms to produce their own chemicals which could recognise signals from nearby cells, as well as broadcasting their own. These chemicals, in turn, guided the process of fine-tuning the microbe’s movements with respect to other cells. The process eventually led to the ability for cells to sense the same chemicals being produced by other cells of the same species, leading to communities of bacterial culture. Peter Godfrey-Smith eloquently describes in Other Minds how this process instigated what we might describe as the earliest form of social behaviour. 

For nearly three billion years, life did not progress beyond the single-cell model. More complex life came about as a series of random mutations which prevented the dividing cells from separating entirely. To quote Godfrey-Smith:

Once that transition is under way, the signalling and sensing that connected one organism to another becomes the basis of new interactions which take place within the new forms of life now emerging. Sensing and signalling between organisms gives rise to sensing and signalling within an organism. A cell’s means for sensing the external environment become a means to sense what other cells within the same organism are up to, and what they might be saying. A cell’s environment’ is largely made up of other cells, and the viability of the new, larger organism will depend on coordination between these parts [emphasis MB].

We can apply this directly to how brain cells work. Think of the brain as a set of various modules doing different jobs, then think of the individual cells within those modules having different jobs within the main module. Considering the evolutionary history, it is not too big a stretch to think of each cell as an interdependent agent with its own needs—needs which can be fulfilled only through coordination with the other cells in the brain and throughout the rest of the body.

So how does this work? One mechanism the brain employs is that sometimes, groups of neurons begin to fire at regular, synchronised intervals. Often these groups are formed by cells that are adjacent to each other, but sometimes groups of neurons from quite distant parts of the brain begin to fire together in simultaneous rhythms. When significant numbers of brain cells are synchronised in their firing, electroencephalograms (EEG) can read such activity as “waves." The general activity of brain waves have rather reliable correlations to the various states of consciousness we experience in life. (Even Thompson has written fairly extensively about the various levels of consciousness in his supremely satisfying monograph Waking, Dreaming, Being.) A general outline of the relationship between brain waves and states of consciousness will suffice for our purposes:

Delta waves (0.5-3 Hertz {cycles per second}) are the slowest oscillations in the neural anatomy, and they dominate the brainscape during deep, dreamless sleep. Many people claim that deep sleep is a time when we are distinctly unconscious, as is evidenced by the fact that we do not have any phenomenal (that is to say, perceived) experience during this time. 

Theta waves (4-7 Hz) occur during the phase of sleep known as rapid-eye-movement (REM), when we are dreaming. Scientists have correlated dreaming with faster brain-wave activity than deep sleep—an indication perhaps that faster brain waves can be associated with a greater degree of consciousness. These brain waves are also associated with such meditative practices as Transcendental Meditation (TM), in which the yogi repeats a prescribed mantra over the course of the meditation session.

Alpha waves (8-14 Hz) are present in significant areas of the brain in a number of circumstances, notably in the “hypnagogic” state between waking and sleeping. This is a phase in the sleep-wake cycle which is accompanied by little “mini” dreams which are much more imagistic and less narrative. It is also a time when the nervous system has not yet paralysed the body from the neck down, which happens in order to keep us from acting out our dreams. Before this occurs, the hypnagogic state is often a time when digits or limbs might twitch or flail in response to some of the mini-dream visions that occur on the way toward a deeper sleep phase. Alpha waves also predominate at times of relaxation and with meditative styles such as mindfulness and yoga nidra

Beta waves (15-38 Hz) are associated with physically and mentally active waking life. This range of oscillations occurs at times when we are alert and going through everyday routines.

Gamma waves (38-100 Hz) are the fastest recorded waves in the brain. These oscillations are present during times of intense concentration, focused attention, and in the function of both short- and long-term memory. And it is this particular range of oscillations which are most relevant to our inquiry.

One of the many fascinating things about gamma activity in the brain is that, far more than any of the other four types of brain wave activity, its occurrence often marks a period in which neural networks in far-flung regions of the brain are firing synchronously. The upshot of this is that gamma oscillations correlate with—and may be the means for—a freer flow of communication amongst parts of the brain. Looking at this illustration can show you the differences in cortical activity during the various brain wave types. 

The warmer colours represent a greater concentration of neurons which are active in the given oscillation band, and the cooler colours indicate areas that have remained out of that particular loop. The images show quite clearly that during gamma activity, more neurons in more parts of the brain are firing synchronously. Although the electrical impulses which move from neuron to neuron generally travel incredibly quickly in terms the units of time we tend to perceive in our own experience (about 20-30 meters per second), the phenomenon is far from instantaneous. This is one of the reasons that the synchronised firing of brain cells across such vast regions of the brain fascinates scientists so much—it seems as though neurons which make up quite distant parts of the brain use this synchrony as a way of communicating with each other in a more immediate fashion than usual. Perhaps such moments can effectively create a culture of inclusivity in the brain, in which the system as a whole can embrace the contributory value of multiple networks; more parts of the brain get to play along and receive the attention they desire, rather than simply being ignored.

From the perspective of yoga and meditation, gamma oscillations present further interesting implications. In certain types of meditation, such as the Tibetan Buddhist state of “open presence,” which in practice is analogous to what many understand to be the yogic state of samādhi, gamma oscillations become particularly strong and widespread throughout the brain. Taking evidence from both the EEG analysis and the self-reports of the meditators themselves, it becomes clear that the gamma oscillations gain strength as the meditation progresses, and tends to peak at the time when the meditator experiences the greatest degree of “clarity” in the meditative state. What’s more, when looking at the brains of meditators who have 10,000+ hours of experience in these techniques, both the pre- and post-meditation gamma levels tend to be considerably higher when compared to control participants. These levels of experience also strongly correspond to greater cortical thickness in the brains of the meditators, leading many to the conclusion that meditation itself causes or contributes to these structural changes in the brain, which allow for a greater ease of coordination throughout the cortex. Taken as a whole, it seems fair to surmise that seasoned meditators enjoy greater amounts of communication amongst the various aspects of the brain than does the average person. This may give meditators a fuller phenomenal sense of integration within themselves. 

This brings me back to the thread of attention which I began a few weeks ago. I believe that, if the various forms of yoga throughout the ages have anything in common, it is the process of developing preternatural levels of attention. Rather than quieting the mind, the ultra-attentive gamma wave activity of deep meditative states actually seem to get the various parts of the brain talking to each other even more than usual. Notwithstanding Patañjali’s assertion that samādhi brings stillness to the mind, it is not the cessation of the modifications of consciousness which brings the mind into the present moment. On the contrary, it is the synchronisation and harmonisation of parts of the brain that are often at odds with each other, which gives us a feeling of clarity and wholeness. In other words, in contrast to the Vedantic and Cartesian philosophical strategies of doubting and negating everything possible in order to arrive at a core truth of who we really are, the data shows us that the experience with which deep meditative states provide us is one which we can embrace more and more of our assorted parts. The true essence of yoga lies not in transcendence or isolation, but in integration and synergy.

So what is the role of the rest of the somatic process in this framework? Just as we often attempt to ignore undesirable aspects of our inner lives, we often marginalise and denigrate certain parts of the physical body, leading to unhealthy habits of ignoring the body’s needs. Next week, we’ll have a look at how body-consciousness and physical movement can help us reconceptualise our lives, and experience ourselves and our environment in a genuinely revolutionary way.

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