Just read this very interesting book on an amazing capacity of the human body and mind. The book is called Freediving by James Nestor. This post is not to be a review of the book though it is highly recommended to many.
What interested me were the thoughts I had while reading it concerning the process of deep awareness and meditation. James Nestor is a noted journalist having published in Outside and many other publications. He writes in this book about some “oddball” athletes/adventurers and researchers (off the beaten path) about their unusual deep explorations of the ocean and the innate human’s capacity to “freedive”.
He began researching FreeDiving as a competition initially. These divers are the ones who use no equipment, taking just one breath of air into their lungs before diving. Now for a short movie segue. If you haven’t seen the 1988 movie (which stands by itself) called Le Grand Bleau (The Big Blue) with one of my favorite film artists (Jean Reno), you must try to watch it. Now back to the book.
Nestor’s research at the beginning looks at what these freediving competitors talk about as the amphibious reflexes of the human body. In his book he states that it is a real phenomenon that science recognize called the mammalian dive reflex or simply the Master Switch of Life. Please read about this sophisticated physiological response that occurs when we stick our face into the water. Many start to describe it in esoteric terms, though the reflex is quite neuro-biologically based.
In the olden days there are stories of pearl and sponge divers taking a gulp of air and then working under 100 feet of ocean pressure for 10-15 minutes. These reports are hundreds of years old and the details and veracity have been lost. There are few traditional divers working this way and seemingly the art/science has not be passed on.
Here is what amazes me about this unusual response. These same pressures experienced at these depths in the ocean, if experienced on land would crush and kill us. The ocean and our relationship to it through “getting wet” just has it’s own rules. So what is true in one setting is not in another. This point is very important to think about when looking at the exploration of the mind.
My mind starts relate these described changes in the “Master Switch of Life” to some but not exactly what happens in meditation.
Meditation and Awareness Training
Let’s say you have been meditating for at least a few years. You have had some “good” moments, maybe even amazing moments. Yet we sometimes plod along in a more haphazard way than we would normally recognize. We often just sit and “try” to watch our breath and mantra let’s say. We do some exercises with the body and breath.
Is there any overall incremental plan of progressing from one milestone to another? Do we even describe what the practical milestones or bench-marks are?
Meditation can mean so many things to so many people. Right now I wish to restrict it to the traditional deep sense of moving towards and experiencing the different levels of Samadhi according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Meditation is not about relaxing and getting quiet. That is all preparation. The preparation is key but it is not the goal.
Meditation has these high states of awareness where true Yogis have developed amazing capacities. Just look at the initial studies of Swami Rama at the Menninger Foundation. He demonstrated autonomic control of the body (and much more) never before thought possible.
In this journey of quieting the body, breath and mind there are also reflexes that are elicited. There is now a lot of scientific discussion of neurological and physiological adaptations. The literature is quite wrapped up in EEG, fMRI and PET scans showing flow and electrical changes with these deep states of meditation.
What are the practical implications and influence on how we are organizing our practices.
A Lack of Program Design for Meditation
Diving in the ocean without equipment elicits these well described changes noted above. Diving into the depths of awareness also elicits physiological changes.
There are changes in blood pressure and heart rate that are well described. The breathing rate slows and the depth of breath can dramatically be increased. The posture relaxes and popularly collapses. There are many other changes including the described brain wave changes from beta to alpha to the deeper states involving theta and delta waves.
How many of us are measuring some simple biometrics to help organize ones process of meditating.
It seems most people start to meditate and continue to meditate in the same way they go out and casually exercise. There is no real design, you just go do it. Maybe you follow some initial program. Are there regular progression in your training program that you follow? Do you monitor your progress or is it all just following the lowest common denominator of one’s habit.
Reading the book “Deep” brought again to my mind this beautiful journey that awaits us all–whether it be the depths of the ocean or of the mind.
Maybe we need to look into how we are practicing and ask if we are truly moving progressively into the depths of the mind. It seems we are settling into habits that make this journey just a casual practice. If there is no rigorous program design with proper progressions and regressions and constant re-evaluations, then how can we experience consistently these depths that are mentioned and offered in the Wisdom Teachings.
Variety of Practice is Not Progression in Practice
OK, now where do we go with our meditations. We are learning different practices and often adding them one after another. When we add something and do not look at our overall sequence of what we are doing and what next we should work on, we fail to progress.
Do we treat our meditation as some magical practice that if we keep doing it we will just get better. Maybe that is true at times. How effective is it?
This is where re-evaluation is key. If we try different practices, how are they helping our core practice. When and how much would we use them? What are the attributes and biometrics that we are monitoring? Often we are just doing different things. We are adding variety without reflecting on how it helps or hinders our program. The level of sophistication that we use to examine whether we do one practice or another is often based on some blanket recommendation.
These recommendations maybe well intentioned. They may be very effective for some, but where are we at at this time and where do we plan on going next week and next month and next year.
Proper Program Design
Take high level sports or movement arts. If we casual approach playing soccer, how good will we become? In the olden days we just focused on playing the game and not on the method of acquiring the necessary attributes and skills for performing at a high level. Whenever a team was notably better, we just assumed the individuals were gifted. Now we know that talent can be highly overrated and skillful training hours are underrated. If you haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, consider it. Many more things in those books are discussed and they are a quick, enjoyable read.
Now we can see that a majority of high level performance is predicated on having the right training program, at the right time with the most skillful coaching available. Do we do this with the majority of our meditation practices.
Again remember that the level of meditation here is based on achieving very high levels of awareness.
I do not think most of our programming supports this goal well at all. Now the general programming does. We just lack many details between where many students of meditation are now and where the goal of liberation is pointing. Our overall goal is defined but the enabling goals to get there are poorly defined.
These intermediate goals must have ways of determining how and by what standard we have reached them.
Biometrics and Re-evaluation
Ok what is the answer. There evidently are answers given by the great Masters and Guides. You can read them in the classic texts like the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali. You can hear them at the feet of a Meditation Master. Is it then only through initiation that the answer becomes evident?
All the rest is preparation as they say. So what is the best preparation. Again the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras state it clearly. It is worth the study of these texts and ancient teachings. In the meantime, our practice can use some additional guides.
Simple measurements of our attributes of the breath and the minds focus can be used. Taking your resting heart rate, resting breathing rate, and how long you keep a focus on the breath through breath counting are easy ways to train and check on the breath and mind at the beginning.
As the breath moves so moves the mind. As the mind moves so moves the breath. Same with the body. They are all inter-related. Their skillful implementation needs specific programming that is not being appreciated by many training programs.
We can use these aspects of the breath and mind to deepen our practice and deepen our meditation. They will help settle and calm the mind. A settled and calm mind then opens up to who we are and where we are and where we going.
Resting Heart Rate
Every morning before rising (you are still in bed lying down after just waking). Simply take your pulse and count it for 1 minute. Simple, yes? If you have trouble taking your pulse, practice with someone who can. In 2 weeks or sooner you will be able easily find it and count it for the minute. Do this for 30 days to get an average of your resting heart rate. Try to keep some log or record of the things of that day and week so you can reflect on the relationships of what was going on at the times of the daily record.
Someone who is well conditioned and in good health will have a resting heart rate of below 60. If you don’t have that it is not important. The relative changes are most important. What is important is that you start paying attention to yourself through physiological measurements. They can give you a surprising bit of information of how you are responding to your life and practice.
Each of these parameters by themselves do not mean a lot. They are to be put into context of your lifestyle. They will just add, not replace your current guidelines.
Once you derive an average, you can see how it changes with different practices, different relationships, different seasons, etc. It is a very fascinating way to create a better understanding of ourselves.
Resting Breath Rate
Again each morning before rising take your breath rate. This rate is the number of breaths in one minute. One breath is both an exhale and an inhale.
Your breathing by now should be belly and/or lower rib cage style of diaphragmatic breathing. Chest breathing noted in the early morning (even in the day) is an indicator of change that needs to be noticed. Upper chest breathing is inefficient and poorly handled by the mind and body.
An average untrained person is often breathing 15-22 breaths per minute. It is quite fast but is a cited average often in the literature.
With simple breath training that average at rest is around 8-12 for beginners. Later 4-6 breaths seem to be common to those who are training and able to manage their lifestyles. 1-3 breaths become more common the more you train and lead a more sattvic lifestyle. The latter will occur in spurts and for short periods. It is difficult to sustain under all conditions until significant changes occur.
Also a lower breath rate doesn’t mean anything by itself.
Performance of any of these parameters will lead to a false sense of superiority and over inflated ego. At the beginning that is normal. Just get over it as soon as you can.
Here is one of the keys in diving into ones own depths. The mind has to learn to settle down and maintain a single focus. It is a very difficult endeavor to make happen. We all can be focused on something we enjoy or are good at. We can even be laser like focused on the opposite. Under high stresses we forget about everything else and only focus on the thrill or agony of that moment.
So it isn’t that the mind cannot focus. It is that the ability to choose a focus that is not a habit and maintain that focus under consistent times and trials that seems to be the key.
Therefore training the mind to stay on a focus is very helpful in this preparation of concentration. If you will the mind to be quiet or still, the habits of the mind are so much stronger and we move into our familiar reveries and mindlessness. We keep repeating this lack of concentration only to try again and again with pretty much the same success. Maybe overtime we get a little better, but at that rate we will dead before we have trained well enough. (And don’t default just to future lives in order to deal someday with a wandering mind. Tomorrow never comes, as they say.)
Breath counting is a very simple and effective way of focusing the mind. These are simple techniques that also are embedded in a training program of cleaning up our emotions and thoughts. The Yoga Sutras and the oral tradition speak of stabilizing the mind by making the breath long, steady and subtle. (Yoga Sutra of Patanjali 1.34: prachchardana-vidhaaranaabhyaam vaa praanasya).
There are many systems for counting the breaths. I have tried many. You must find one that resonates and works for you.
The most effective way for me was to follow my teachers advice (Swami Veda Bharati). He has introduced counting 1-5 and 5-1. (among many others) This means as you:
- exhale you hear the count 0ne
- inhaling you hear the count two
- exhaling you hear three
- inhaling you hear four
- exhaling you hear five—then again
- inhaling you hear five
- exhaling you hear four
- inhaling you hear three
- exhaling you hear two
- inhaling you hear one
You continue this same pattern for a prescribed time or number of breaths. I like this pattern and it’s rhythm.
At the beginning, I would lose count as my mind wandered. Then I would have to start over again, egads. It took awhile. In fact, I dropped the practice after just a week, long ago when I first started it. It just didn’t work. Then I tried another counting practice. The same thing happened, so that I got to try lots of different ways of counting. This was long ago but still very familiar.
None of them worked. Hmmmm, what was my problem? I’m a little slow here and finally figured out the common denominator was myself. That is why it took so long because I was looking for a solution outside of myself and thinking that I just had not found the correct or best technique. Sound familiar?
One thing I find with people who practice and don’t get results is the very same problem. It is not always what we are doing but HOW we are doing the what. This cannot be overstated in training.
Yes you need proper guidance but you really need to look at the design, execution and re-evaluation of your practice. It is not “just” practice, practice, practice. Let’s get clearer about our training. This is why we are recording and working with these parameters that can be measured.
So back to the 1-5 and 5-1 count of my breaths.
My problem is that I did not stick to the training for very long. I find this out all the time in training people. They were given an exercise and they are not stronger or better. When asked are they doing it they say yes, but…
This means that they are doing it infrequently and with not much effort. Once they learn the value of proper training methods and are working hard for weeks and months they then begin to see progress. It is guaranteed or your money back!
So recently I did a variation of this counting for 6 months. It was a great practice and very helpful. I kept records of all three components and they markedly changed over the 6 months. Again this practice was embedded in lifestyle changes that allowed for the training.
When counting the breaths after the first month you will notice and become very sensitive to the count and the breath flow. When your mind wanders you will immediately note the change in the count. What I am saying here will become clear when you do the practice.
Then each month thereafter you can work on an particular attribute of the breath flow with deeper concentration of the mind. This means that while you watch the smoothness of the breath in counting you watch the smoothness of the minds focus. Just little disturbances of the breath and little disturbances of your focus become noticeable. Your sensitivity here really increases. The mind becomes like the breath. They work together and deepen into the subtle aspect of the breath and mindfield.
This stability of the mind through the breath allows the breath to flow as prana into the akasha or space element. The mindfield becomes more quiet and the sense of the observer becomes clearer. Now meditation begins.
Many more philosophical explanations can be received from the multitude of teachings by Swami Veda Bharati on these topics.
You can now carry these attributes to your meditation seat.
Diving deep has definite physiological and psychological correlates. We can use some of the simple measurable parameters outlined here to assist and organize our training and feedback of our methods.
The rest is skillful practice. It is much easier to just sit and hang out. For many who do just that–I ask: How is it going?
Be honest in your re-examination of yourself. Be brutally honest sometimes. Again as the great teachers have taught us, how we are doing is answered in our living of our lives. Are we loving and being surrounded by love, even in the midst of pain and turmoil. Can we recover from the ups and downs of life and continue. Do we only train in sterile environments of the familiar and friendly?
What does are training prepare us for in the real world?
Our depth of practice is the light that shines not because of us but because the light always shines, though we cover and obscure it.
Always my wish is that we share our efforts, both trials and triumphs. Share in a community of support and then move along the path together.
Also wishing much hard work, sweat and tears. Then enjoy the warm embrace of the love of life.
yours in practice