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Meditation - Awake Sleep

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Today I want to talk about meditation. This is an interesting topic and at the same time, it is also a mysterious topic. This is because human beings have been meditating for at least thousands of years. And during these thousands of years, there were countless people and organizations have given meditation so many different definitions, explanations, and meanings. But most of these observations and understandings were from philosophical and/or religious views which added mysteries, here and there, more or less. Now, let’s try to look at meditation from a different view, the scientific view. Let’s find out what mediation is really about. Or what is the essence of meditation? This is the fundamental question, because only after we answer this question, we can answer other questions related to meditation easily. For example, why are there so many different meditation techniques? Do they have anything in common? What meditation technique is the best? What is the benefit of meditation? And why is that? Before we explore these questions, let’s answer the first question first – “What is meditation?”.

Most people have two states in their daily life, either awake or asleep. In fact, there is a third state between the two, that is to keep the mind awake but let the body fall asleep. And this is exactly what meditation achieves. This is also the essence of meditation. In other words, mediation is sleep; it is awake sleep; it is sleep with consciousness. With this in mind, it is not difficult to understand that all those fantastical sensations that arise during meditation are just due to the changes in our body after falling asleep. Although those physical changes in our body occur every night, we never notice them because we lose consciousness during sleep, and thus miss one wonderful moment after another.

Now let’s try to prove this special relationship between sleep and meditation. We know that our heart rate and respiration rate will drop significantly during sleep. Although this is exactly what happens during meditation as well, it is not good enough to prove that meditation is same as sleep. So, let’s look at what else happens to our body after we fall asleep. First, our body activates a protective mechanism that gives paralysis commands to the skeletal muscles of the joints, stopping the muscles of the limbs from functioning. This prevents us from harming ourselves and others while we are dreaming. And that is why in our dreams we always feel weak and cannot run fast when chased by enemies. In addition, some people suffer from a condition called sleep paralysis. This occurs when the body is still in an “off” state after the mind wakes up. This is also known as the “the ghost pushes you down” in some cultures. From this we can see, in normal situation, our mind and body fall asleep at the same time and wake up at the same time. But in some special situations, they can be asynchronized. And when this happens, if we cannot get out of that asynchronized state and get back into that synchronized state quickly, it is considered as a disease. On the other hand, through some practice, we train ourselves to not only get into the asynchronized state easily, but also get back to the synchronized state at any time we wish, and that is called meditation.

After months of meditation practice, you may gradually feel the limbs become heavier and stiffer, as if “paralyzed”. This indicates that you have succeeded in keeping the mind awake and letting the body fall asleep. However, many people do not know how they have done this even if they are able to do so. It will be easy to understand if you ever used a smartwatch to monitor your sleep. Smartwatches can tell exactly when we fall asleep and when we wake up. This is because they are equipped with a motion sensor that can detect if there is any wrist movement. If they do not detect any wrist movement for a certain period of time, they know we are sleeping. Similarly, our body has built-in ‘motion sensors’ as well. When we sit and meditate, we keep our body still. If we practice long enough, it will eventually trick the body to fall asleep when no muscle movement is detected by those ‘motion sensors’. And consequently, the protection mechanism mentioned earlier will be triggered and the paralysis commands will be sent to the skeletal muscles even when our mind is still awake. From here we can see clearly why keeping the body still is the first important thing in meditation practice. This is also why the lotus sitting position is better than the half lotus position, and the half lotus position is better than the easy pose; It is because the full lotus is the most stable, and the easy pose is the least stable. However, for those who can only sit in easy pose, you can insert 2 small sponge blocks between the feet and the legs to improve the stability of the legs significantly.

As sleep deepens, all the muscles in our body become more and more relaxed, until they finally reach a state of complete relaxation. The feeling of this full-body relaxation is way better than any masseuse can give you, but the bad news is that we lose consciousness in our sleep and cannot experience what it really feels like. Fortunately, Dr. Edmund Jacobson, an American physician, has developed a method that allows us to experience muscle relaxation even when we are awake. This method is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation, or PMR. For example, hold your fists tightly for 7 to 10 seconds, then release them quickly; You will feel a numb, vibrating sensation in your hands. This is the sensation of hand muscle relaxation. In addition to hand muscles, Dr. Jacobson has also invented a series of muscle movements of tensing and relaxing that make people experience muscle relaxation on each part of our body. Although this method is awesome, it only allows us to experience the relaxation of one or two muscle groups at a time. If you want to experience full body relaxation, you have to use meditation. Also, by using this method, we can only experience muscle relaxation for a very short period of time, usually less than 30 seconds. But meditation can let us experience muscle relaxation for a much longer time. In fact, with enough practice, eventually you may be able to stay in that relaxation state as long as you like. Another disadvantage of this method is that it can only let you experience relaxation of skeletal muscles. But beside skeletal muscles, human beings also have smooth muscles and heart muscles. If you want to experience the relaxation of all these muscles spontaneously, the only way we can accomplish that is through meditation. After more and more meditation practice, you may occasionally experience numbness and vibration in your body here and there, just like a current flowing through. If you continue practicing, one day you will feel the amazing full body vibration from head to toe; This indicates that you have achieved the full body relaxation with all the muscles relaxed completely. This feeling is really good, but even better, while your body relaxes, your mind is also relaxed and temporarily freed from all kinds of anxiety, big and small. In Dr. Jacobson’s own words, it is “an anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body”. And this is why he invented this PMR method in the first place.

This way of relieving anxiety by relaxing the body sounds interesting and works really well, but scientists aren’t stopping there. Some valid questions are – do body tension and mind anxiety happen at the same time? Or does one cause the other?  Recent research has shown that anxiety is not directly generated in the brain, it is actually caused by physical stress in our body. In other words, when something outside happens, it is our body that reacts to it first, and the emotions that follow are caused by the physical changes in our body. For example, when resolving anxiety, the mainstream approach is talk therapy, rational thinking, and deep breathing. Dr. Elizabeth Stanley, author of Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma, disagrees. Dr. Stanley states in her book that “people’s anxiety comes from the body, not the brain. Those practices don’t work until you get your body back to normal”. To understand why our body react to the outside world first, we need to bring up a new concept called neuroception. It is a neural process that enables humans and other mammals to engage in social behaviors by distinguishing safe from dangerous contexts. It is an unconscious process, and it happens much faster than any conscious process can do. When danger is spotted, it sends an instantaneous stress arousal message to our body by turning on the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in the release of specific hormones that lead to certain physical sensations related to our heart, breathing, and digestion. In fact, as early as two thousand years ago in India, people recognized this and utilized it to practice “wisdom” in meditation. Specifically, it is to observe the physical sensations of the body with equanimity. And the so-called equanimity is that all sensations should be treated equally regardless of good or bad, hot or cold, pain or itch, etc. In other words, people should not produce a distinction between likes and dislikes in their mind for any sensations in the body. Through such practice, the mind will always remain in a state of calm and harmony, and eventually one may attain liberation from all misery. 

Obviously, the “wisdom” here is not intelligence and knowledge. Modern people have much higher IQ and much more knowledge than ever before, but our anxiety and misery has not decreased a bit. In contrast, it may have increased a lot due to the increased complexity of human society. Scientists and physicians have found many ways to address this issue, but the simplest and the most natural way is just to sit still, to let the body fall asleep while keeping the mind awake. It will not only relax your body, but most importantly, relax your mind at the same time. May each of us have the wisdom of the ancient sages, cultivate ourselves in awake sleep, be free from anxiety and misery, live peacefully and happily forever.

Edited by weishanxia
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FYI - This article is to let people look at meditation from a different angle, scientifically, instead of philosophically and religiously. It has been submitted to the Meditation magazine and it has been accepted. Will post a link once it is published officially. Thanks!


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