Secular Meditation: "Energy," and Attention/ Awareness

So what does this “energy” thing mean, anyway?

I don’t mean literal, physical energy. I more or less understand that. I mean “energy” in the supernatural/ metaphysical/ woo bullshit sense. And specifically, what does it mean for a meditation practice?

Here’s what I’m talking about. As regular readers know, I’ve recently begun a secular meditation/ mindfulness practice, based on the evidence-based Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques. I do a few different practices, depending on where I am and how much time I have… but the core of my practice, at least for now, is something called a “body scan,” in which I focus my attention on each part of my body in turn, starting with my feet and moving up to the top of my head, noticing thoughts and distractions as they arise and acknowledging them without judgment and then gently letting them go to return my attention to the body part in question. When I first started doing the body scan practice, I basically had to say the words to myself, in my head, “Heel. Heel. Pay attention to your left heel. Heel. Okay, moving on to the big toe. Big toe. Pay attention to your big toe. Okay, that’s an interesting thought drifting into your consciousness: notice it, don’t judge it, let it go, return your attention to your big toe. Big toe. Big toe. Okay… now little toe.”

But as I get more familiar with the practice — more practiced, I guess — this has been shifting. The verbal instructions to myself are becoming less necessary. It’s becoming easier to just experience my body, to just feel it, without having to name the parts. If I’m more tired, or more stressed out, I need more of the verbal directions… but I’m needing them less and less. (In a “two steps forward, one step back” way.)

And as I get less dependent on the verbal catalog to keep me focused on my body, and become more able to just experience my body for what it is, this… thing has been happening.

Instead of controlling or directing the body scan, it’s just been happening by itself.

If I can get into a state where I’m simply experiencing my body, without words, the focus through my body into the different parts has been like… this is hard to describe. It’s been like a vine, a slow stream, a sinuous tingling sensation, gradually creeping up and around and through my body. And I’m not guiding it or controlling it: not consciously, anyway. (Although I do sometimes try to give it a gentle nudge.) Instead of consciously directing my focus from one body part to the next, I just follow this sensation, and let it go where it’s naturally going, at whatever pace it’s going at. This experience comes and goes — during a session, I’ll lose the thread and then pick it up, lose the thread and then pick it up — but over the course of a session, the experience becomes stronger, and more constant. And as I do the practice more over time, it’s becoming easier to slip into this state.

And what it feels like, subjectively, is a wave of energy going through my body.

Don’t worry. I am not going over to the dark side. I am entirely aware that this is not “energy,” in any supernatural/ metaphysical/ woo bullshit sense. I am entirely aware that certain physical and mental practices can alter one’s consciousness, sometimes dramatically… including the ones I’m doing when I meditate. I am entirely aware that the only energy in my body, when I meditate or indeed at any other time, is chemical and kinetic and electrical and heat and all the other kinds of physical energy we know about.

That’s sort of the point.

What, exactly, is happening here? What is the physical process? What is the tingling sensation? Why do parts of my body tingle just from thinking about them for a few minutes? And how and why does the tingling sometimes move through my body of its own accord, without any conscious effort on my part? What is it that makes that happen? What is the physical and psychological process? I know that this isn’t chi or kundalini or anything like that… but what, exactly, is it?

(Brief tangent, for any practitioners of woo who might be reading this and at this point might be saying, “She’s having the chi/ kundalini/ whatever experience! It’s so obvious! How can she deny what’s happening right in her own body?” Yes, it’s “obvious” that a wave of energy is going through my body when I meditate. It’s also “obvious” that the Earth is the center of the Universe, and that life is too complex to have evolved naturally with no designer, and that solid matter isn’t mostly made up of empty space. Lots of things seem obvious that aren’t true. At this point, there is an overwhelming body of evidence pointing to the conclusion that the physical world is all there is — and every serious effort to demonstrate the existence of a non-physical “energy” inhabiting the body has drawn a giant goose egg.)

Back on track. Many years ago, I took a yoga class through the P.E. department at my college. The teacher kept talking about focusing your “energy,” or feeling “energy” going through your body during certain poses and in certain ways… and even though I was pretty involved in some woo bullshit at the time, for some reason this “energy” business totally got up my nose. It was a useful class in other ways, though, and I wanted to stick with it.

So when she said the word “energy,” I translated it in my head to “attention,” or “awareness.”

And I’m doing that now.

Focus your attention in your belly. Feel how your attention moves through your body as you move. See if you can draw your attention from the base of your spine up into your chest. Focus your attention in a ball held between your hands.

It’s very clear to me that what’s happening here is not “energy.” It’s a specialized form of attention, a specialized form of awareness. As I’ve written and said approximately 8,356,374 times: We don’t yet understand what consciousness is… but an overwhelming body of evidence points to the conclusion that, whatever it is, it is physical, a biological process of the body. We don’t yet understand how that works — not by a long shot — but an overwhelming body of evidence points to the conclusion that it is so.

So when I feel a wave of “energy” moving through my body, what I’m experiencing is a wave of awareness moving through my body. When I feel a sinuous vine of tingling snaking up my leg, what I’m experiencing is a wave of awareness snaking up my leg. When I’m finishing a session and I feel my entire body gently tingling and vibrating, what I’m experiencing is an awareness of my entire body.

There are still things that puzzle me about it, though. So all you neurologists or neuropsychologists or people who are more familiar with the science behind this mindfulness meditation thing, if you know anything about this, I’d love to know: What, exactly, is happening here? Why do parts of my body tingle just from thinking about them for a few minutes? What is the physical process? What is the psychological process? And especially interestingly and weirdly: How and why does the tingling sometimes move through my body of its own accord, without any conscious effort on my part? What is it that makes that happen?

Secular Meditation: "Energy," and Attention/ Awareness
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16 thoughts on “Secular Meditation: "Energy," and Attention/ Awareness

  1. 1

    Based on pieces of what I understand from psychology and cognitive musicology and from therapy with a psychologist who uses mindfulness therapy, I think you’re using a part of the brain that corresponds to touch, or being touched, to focus your attention on each part of your body. You’re doing something different from “be aware that you possess feet”. You’re actually directing and fastening your attention there. If this is so, because your nerves “expect” the sensation of being touched, not receiving the sensation causes a sort of feedback that you may experience as a tingle.

    As far as why it happens, I think it makes sense that one explanation could be that you’ve simply trained yourself to do the routine consistently in response to a stimulus that you haven’t completely identified. When that stimulus happens, and you may not be aware of it consciously, the trained body reacts. I would be surprised if mindfulness training didn’t lead to these sorts of learned responses. I think I am doing the same thing with certain techniques I’m learning for being more aware of internal states and knowing how to prevent them from becoming “bad thoughts”.

  2. 2

    And especially interestingly and weirdly: How and why does the tingling sometimes move through my body of its own accord, without any conscious effort on my part? What is it that makes that happen?

    Well, I doubt anyone could give you a super-accurate neurological explanation at this point, even if they had lots more detail from you, scanned your brain, etc. But generally, your brain does lots of things like this unconsciously all of the time. You just don’t notice it. 🙂

    No matter how it may seem, your attention isn’t something “you yourself” make your brain do, but the reverse. Your awareness and self-awareness are representations or models of reality made by your brain, because it “needs” that to be available for lots of different higher/lower level processes. You attend to something, and there are lots of options about what is going to happen next. You can look at it, listen to it, feel it, reach for it, smile at it, talk to it, compare it to how you remember it, run away from it, etc. If it’s not in your attention, you’re not putting any effort into evaluating those different options, because you’re attending to something else or you’re in a dreamless sleep/coma. If it is in your attention, then some of those (operating in the background) can do their own thing without “you” telling them to do it. All of those options aren’t something a representation of your brain state (your awareness) chooses — they’re chosen by your brain, often subconsciously without it ever being represented globally to “you.”

    For something like this (assuming it’s not actually coming from peripheral signals but is just a psychological state) you might compare it to having a dream or a daydream. How does your attention shift around to different “objects” then, when there’s no object, nothing external stimulating it? Unless it’s a very lucid dream, you might have a character/object/location/thought in your dream which is very prominent and realistic, but then without your control (and usually without making much sense) your attention drifts: suddenly something new takes over.

  3. 3

    After you get a some time with adding awareness to your body, you can do the same thing to how your brain is thinking. I don’t know that I can explain that in any other way and you have to have had the body experience first to even understand the sentence.

    It may be too soon for you to consider but I’ve been wondering for a while if the masochism trick (brain remapping) for converting physical pain (strong sensation?) to pleasure (again wrong words, endorphin flood?) could be applied to the emotional pain of depression. I don’t even get close to clinical depression so I don’t know if my understanding is reasonable or off in looney land. Also, to test the idea, you need someone who has clinical depression, experience with pain transformation (spanking receiving should count here) and enough meditative awareness to remap their experiences. I was able to apply this general idea to minimize PTSD like mental trauma from having my life controlled by abusive people.

    I’ve been doing ‘body awareness meditation’ since I was a child. I think I started it as something to do while trying to fall asleep. Aside from badgersdaughter’s great reply, you’re also building and reinforcing new thought pathways in your brain. Since they are new, not all of the potential branches have been pinned down and when you come into an older path (like say the touches from your left hand) from a new path (conscious awareness instead of actual touch) the older path doesn’t always know where to go next. i.e. the brain is flailing around a bit with how to process the new thoughts. I tend to think of it as a slower and irregular experience of epiphany (that wash of oooh! i get it now!)

    I have a smallish problem where I flip into body awareness when I get up and start walking. It can be relaxing but also a distraction. At those times, I have to tell my brain to quit it. I do ‘turn it on’ specifically sometimes when I’m agitated and don’t know why. Turns out that at least some of the time I’m hungry or have a muscle cramped or other physical issue and it hadn’t hit my awareness yet. I fix that small physical problem and then get to calm down.

    Lastly, this trick (I think of it as one of the several ‘stupid human tricks’* I do (*same phrasing as stupid pet tricks from Letterman)) helped me with martial arts and currently helps me with my new born daughter. Once you are good at awareness of your body, imagine mirroring someone elses body to your own (right down to how you imagine how they energy flows (for lack of better terms) are going. I used this is martial arts to figure out balance points, defense openings and to help read what the opponent was going to do (and I rarely lost sparing bouts). I use this trick now to think about how my daughter (3 weeks old) is feeling. My wife has stopped looking at me funny when I say thinks like, the onesie needs the left leg adjusted. We have quick empirical feedback (crying / fussing) to rely on and did a few controls with minor adjustments to parts that I didn’t think were being uncomfortable (also, from the science journal, duh, comfortable babies fuss less).

  4. 4

    Oh, I had another practical thought. Like I mentioned, it’s somewhat obnoxious to flip to certain mental states at certain times. I’ve associated my various mental (physiological) tricks with certain hand positions or sounds. This helps in two ways. It’s easier to achieve a mental state with the memory prod of the hand position / sound than to start off further away and walk there slowly (again, I don’t have a vocabulary for this). Conversely, by having a trigger, it makes it less likely I’ll flip states with out doing the reminder (chapter titles?).

    For example, I’ve associated euphoria with my left hand raised about shoulder/ chin high with the palm facing me. Balance (peaceful repose? empty mind with body awareness; really, I need a dictionary that doesn’t exist) is palms facing together, right hand pointed down and left up as though I was holding a plane of glass. Since being too up (full of energy) can be inappropriate, I added touching the earth (any floor actually) with my right hand for fast energy dump, the mental image is like pouring a big heavy bucket of water; the association training was with feeling down or tired or a feeling that reality is present and heavy.

  5. 5

    I went through similar thought processes while learning Tai Chi. I don’t believe there’s Qi energy flowing through my body, but it’s useful to think of it as an analogy for the way you’re coordinating the work your muscles are doing as you move through the pattern. If you think about connecting your fingertips to the ball of your foot pushing against the floor you become aware of the connections between those two points.

    Thanks for these posts, by the way. I have to get back to doing that sort of thing; I’ve been letting myself fall back into laziness and distraction and you’ve giving me a metaphorical kick in the pants here…

  6. 6

    You might really enjoy reading a book called “Explain Pain” by Lorimer Moseley. You can get it on Amazon. Strictly speaking, it’s a book about chronic pain, but the thesis of the book is very closely related to the types of questions you’re asking here (it’s also a very accessibly written and well-cited book): that our experience of physical sensations is much more about our brain’s opinions of what is going on (important distinction: not *our*opinions, our brain’s opinions) than it is about what is actually going on. In the same sense that our visual perception isn’t a direct line to photons hitting our retinas — it goes through a whole lot of preprocessing first — our tactile sense goes through a tremendous amount of contextual processing before we actually “physically” feel something.

    Mosley has a wonderful TED talk on this stuff, too:

  7. 7

    I’ve experienced this sensation when meditating since I was a kid – I was essentially doing a body scan, trying to draw up that “energy buzz” from my toes all over my body (good drugs were not always available). The closest thing I can compare it to is the physical sensations of taking nitrous oxide, albeit more localized. The times I’ve had a guided meditation exercise from a therapist or somesuch, I’ve had the same thing.

    This is actually why I *don’t* meditate anymore. After doing it, I feel so disoriented and withdrawn that it takes me a while to be able to interact with other people, and my body sensations feels kind of out of control – the buzz doesn’t stop for a while after I stop meditating. It’s kind of distressing.

    Perhaps I’ll work on it more sometime. Anyway, it’s good to hear your progress and experiences.

  8. 8

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about your meditation practice Greta. Back in the late 70’s when I was still a believer in a vague Buddhistic karma idea I took a course in T.M. (transcendental meditation) and experienced some of the same sensations you’re describing. For about twenty minutes three times a day I’d sit quietly on my chair, close my eyes and repeat the mantra silently. After a short while I was amazed at the relaxation levels and greater clarity of thought that could be experienced. I was also taking B1, B6 and B12 vitamins. Like a hermit #5 I too should take up the practice again. It doesn’t hurt. It does take a degree of self-discipline but the results are most beneficial, especially if one keeps at it.

  9. 10

    My background: I practiced ki no kenkyukai aikido for some years until I had to stop because of a bad knee. I’ve also practiced Zen meditation for some years. Philosophically I’d describe myself as a critical rationalist as defined by Karl R. Popper, with heavy phenomenologist leanings while attempting to steer clear of the reefs of poststructuralism.

    I do not believe in gods, reincarnation, or the supernatural.

    My answers to your “what is this?” question:

    (1) It’s a really good question. Keep asking it.
    (2) You may or may not discover an answer. If you do, it’s likely not one you’ll be able to describe to anyone else who hasn’t discovered one.
    (3) You will be able to describe facets and aspects of it, both phenomenological (=what you’re experiencing) and explanatory (=observable, quantifiable stuff going on in your organism as you experience it). It’s likely that that that “but what is it?” question will be with you for a quite a while.
    (4) In my opinion, “chi,” “ki,” and “kundalini” (and many others) are perfectly acceptable labels for these phenomena. If you stick with what you’re doing, you’re likely to experience all kinds of interesting shit, some of which may be associated with stuff like colors, shapes, and specific points in your body. You could find that if you were to attempt to describe these colors, shapes, and points, your description might sound amusingly like a description of chakras, even if you were to couch it in non-traditional terms.

    My point is that there are traditions around which have been doing what you’re starting to do for a long, long time, and they’ve been systematically comparing and collating experiences about it. As a result they’ve built up a vocabulary to describe it. I find a lot of this vocabulary useful to make sense of the experiences. I.e., I think it can be useful to describe things in terms of dhammas, cittas, caittas, dhyanas and ñanas, and so on, instead of attempting to reinvent a vocabulary for it.

    I do not find many of the associated supernatural beliefs useful, and some are clearly actually harmful. It’s also quite hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, especially since most of what you’ll find in the corner bookstore is complete garbage.

    But meditation is a powerful practice, and while it would be obviously dumb to swallow everything any passing guruji chucks at you, I also think it’s not necessarily a great idea to dismiss out of hand everything, say, Buddhists or yogis have to say about it just because they’ve been practicing it in a religious context. There are Buddhist atheists too, you know!

  10. 11

    My point is that there are traditions around which have been doing what you’re starting to do for a long, long time, and they’ve been systematically comparing and collating experiences about it.

    Petteri Sulonen @ #10: Yes. However, they’ve been doing this with a fundamentally mistaken idea at the foundation — namely, the idea that there is some sort of supernatural entity or force inhabiting our bodies and shaping these experiences. I am therefore not particularly willing to trust in these traditions and their interpretations. I’m not just trying to find a different vocabulary — I’m trying to understand what, exactly, is happening with this practice and the experiences. Medical practitioners used trial and error to stumble onto some useful techniques, over thousands of years thinking that illness was caused by demons and imbalances in the bodily humours and so on. I still want my health care to be based in the best scientific understanding of the body that I can find. And I want my mental health care to be based in the best scientific understanding of the mind that I can find.

    Also, I’ve dedicated my life’s work to opposing this fundamental idea that the religious versions of this practice are based on. It is a profound irritant to me. I am fundamentally unable to hear these words without thinking, “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”

    I know there are materialists who are able to filter out the noise of the woo bullshit, and take what they need fro these practices. If you can do that, and you find their language useful, knock yourself out. I can’t, and I don’t. And I don’t want to.

  11. 12

    Greta Christina @10 — In my experience, say, most Zen or Theravada practices aren’t really based on an idea of a supernatural entity or force inhabiting our bodies and shaping meditation experiences. If you start by rejecting the notion of a separate ‘self’ let alone ‘soul,’ that kind of automatically pushes any explanation dealing with such stuff to the margins.

    On the other hand, “trying to understand what’s what, exactly is happening with this practice and the experiences” is, again in my experience, at the very core and center of it.

    In any case, I’m happy to read about your experiences and hope you’ll continue blogging about them.

  12. 13

    Things like this really make me resent the way religions and new-age woo have hijacked the term “spirituality.” “Spirit” itself comes from a Latin root being “breath” and I wish we could just treat is as such. “Spirit” doesn’t need to be anything more than the process that keeps you animated. As such, cultivating an awareness of the body, its form, and processes would be the essence of “spirituality” and that notion gives me a good reason to actually meditate.

    That being said, I tried this last night and fell asleep. Guess I shouldn’t have been lying down in bed.

  13. 14

    This may be the “practice effect”.

    When dancers or ice skaters listen to the music for their performance and visualize the performance, it’s not just their auditory processing centers that activate. The circuits for muscle movement get activated, except that nothing moves … the final “do it” signal is blocked, because this is a mental exercise.

  14. 15

    That being said, I tried this last night and fell asleep. Guess I shouldn’t have been lying down in bed.

    nkrishna @ #13: I do it lying down in bed… but I don’t do it at night, for that exact reason. If I do it lying down in bed at night, I fall asleep. (Apparently, that’s really common.) I do it first thing when I wake up in the morning. But, of course, there are other practices that don’t involve lying down: ones that involve sitting, or moving. This particular practice is just one that seems to resonate with me.

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