Life has a purpose, but a strange purpose. When you come to the end of the road and find perfect insight you will see that enlightenment is a joke. Life is a joke; you'll learn to understand that sometime--not now, but it will come.
- Zen Master to student. (1)
In our discussion of the brain, we have seen how there are several older layers that lie inside (literally lie physically inside) the reasoning "human brain" of the neocortex. Dreams access those layers and can thus provide information not accessible through conscious reasoning. We've already discussed how dreams can thus serve as a gateway between inside and outside, and how each of us can set up rituals to remember, record and work with our dreams. In this chapter we'll deal with meditation as another gateway.
The first important requirement in the task of learning to control the mind was to restrict its activity. . . . The whole secret of the Satipatthana method lies in the selection of a natural field for these activities which, though restricted, offer the mind continuous occupation.
- E. H. Shattock. (2)
The empty mirror, he said. "If you could really understand that, there would be nothing left here for you to look for.
- Advanced Zen student to novice. (3)
I started meditating at a very tension-filled point in my life, a time when my philosophy of life was thoroughly materialist and reductionist. At that stage of my lie, I had discarded any "childish" mysticism that might have gotten in the way of a very outer-oriented life. In those days, my little ego definitely thought it was in charge.
Then I started having digestive problems--there is nothing like having to run to the bathroom before you've even finished a meal to get your attention. After denying that anything was going on, I took the usual next step to avoid personal responsibility: I turned to higher authority: I went to a number of doctors who gave me every imaginable physical test. Uncomfortable tests like the upper and lower GI (gastrointestinal) series, where they put phosphorescent fluid in one or the other end, and watch it progress through your intestinal track. I forget the term they used after all these tests to describe my condition, but in summary, it was "we've got no idea, it's probably tension." And that was probably as good a diagnosis as I could get with physical tests.
What I needed was meditation, but I couldn't get there directly. Meditation would have been far too mystical a concept for me in those days. Instead I found a book which presented a technique called progressive muscle relaxation. (4) Basically the idea was to either sit or lie on your back in a quiet, relaxed setting, then alternately tighten and relax your muscles, moving from the muscles in your feet slowly up the body, until you had visited every possible sight of tension. From the start, I found this to be helpful. Once I had learned how to use this technique, however, I knew it was just a baby step toward something else. Next I found a very well-written, scientifically oriented summary of information about meditation (5), and progressive muscle relaxation gave way to a simple meditation of saying a mantra over and over. I tried a number of different mantras at first, then gradually starting using a traditional one almost exclusively ("gate, gate, paragate, para sam gate, bodhi swaha").
Interestingly, while meditation considerably eased my digestive problems, they didn't go away. By that time, however, my interest had shifted away from the presenting problem to the experience of meditation. In fact, though my digestive difficulties gradually grew less and less pronounced, they never went away entirely. When I have periods of tension in my life, the problems pop up again to remind me of the tension. The difference is that the physical problems are no longer center stage. They have just become part of my total environment, a somewhat unpleasant given--like smog in L.A.--but also something that provides a measuring device that is both accurate and impossible to ignore.
Meanwhile, I was meditating regularly--after I had gotten past the baby steps of how to sit, etc. I meditated formally at least twice a day for a minimum of twenty minutes each time. However, I also meditated on an impromptu basis many other times during the day. I would say my mantra over and over to myself when I was standing in line at the grocery store, when I was walking down the street, or doing virtually any other task that didn't require conscious thinking. During my work day, whenever I got tired of too much mental exertion, I did a mini-meditation to refresh my mind. After practicing mantra meditation for a relatively short time, I realized that, at least for me, it was also just a step toward something else. I began to explore traditional Buddhist meditation: "sitting" and "breathing". Simple enough--just sit quietly in place and direct your attention to your breath. Once I started this process, I knew I had found the right mode for me, and remained sitting and breathing for the next several years.
Sitting and Breathing
"To be able to concentrate well your spirit has to be in balance; when your spirit is in balance your body has to be in balance as well. The double lotus is a position of pure balance, of real balance. When you sit in the full lotus, you just have to become quiet because nothing else can happen. . . . "
"But isn't it possible to meditate on a chair?"
"You can meditate in any attitude," replied Peter, "but one is best, and that's the one we'll teach you."
- advanced Zen student to beginner. (6)
Let's begin with the actual physical position of sitting. Sit on the rug or a blanket, with a cushion underneath your buttocks. If your body is up to the task, the traditional full lotus position is by far the best position for sitting in meditation. Here, the right foot is on the left thigh, the left on the right (or vice versa). Both knees press against the floor. The body is thus totally symmetric, totally balanced.
Another reasonable position is to kneel with your legs spread to the sides of the cushion and the bottom of your feet facing upwards. This position has much to recommend it as it forces your abdomen forward, which is necessary in all positions.
I never could sit in either of these position comfortably. Instead I settled for having my right foot under my left thigh, my left foot under my right thigh. Though also symmetric, this position isn't as stable at a full lotus, plus it tends to force the upright position of the body out-of-alignment unless you're careful. You have to avoid sitting back so that the waist lowers backwards. The right size of cushion under your seat can help here. "In all these positions, the stable base for the body is a triangle formed by the buttocks and the two knees." (7)
Once you're sitting in one or another of these positions, push your abdomen forward and your buttocks backwards. When you sit in this position, the body's weight will be concentrated on a small area just below the navel. Your body should form a straight line when viewed from the back, comparing right and left sides, though not when viewed from the side, since your abdomen will be thrust forward. In this position, the body is most stable and the mind most likely to be quiet. (8)
Now comes the breathing. At first it may be wise to use a mantra. For many, mantra meditation remains their preferred main method for a lifetime, though as I said, for me, it gave way to watching my breath. TM (i.e., transcendental meditation) practitioners are given a mantra that is supposedly designed just for them. In practice, however, this is usually simply one of sixteen TM mantras that are assigned to the meditator on the basis of their age. (9) Though any word might be used, normally a two-syllable work is preferred. It has been noted that mantras often include m or n or soft h sounds "which seem to resonate through the head even when repeated silently." (10) Avoid a word that has strong associations for you. Thus a foreign word or even a made-up word may be preferred.
I've already mentioned the full phrase that I used most often: "gate, gate, paragate, para sam gate, bodhi swaha." (11) I found this especially good for times when I wasn't sitting formally, but instead standing or walking. The point of reciting a mantra is that it keeps your "monkey mind" (which wants to run around playing with all sorts of thoughts) busy, at the same time the recitation of the mantra falls into rhythm with your breathing. This is a powerful combination.
The mind, so said the Sayadaw [another name for a Buddhist master], is without any inherent continuity; it is not always bearing thoughts, and it is not a form of unceasing energy. . . . Our thoughts are connected to one another by memory, inference, desire, attachments such as our likes and dislikes, cravings and fears, etc.; and it is these habits and attitudes that link each minute element of mind to the next, so that it seems to be an endless stream of thought pressing for attention. (12)
A variation on mantra meditation that bridges to breathing meditation is to count your breath. Simply count "one, two", then return to "one, two." "One" can be on the intake of breath, "two" on the outtake or vice-versa. Soon though, you will probably find, as I did, that the sound of the count becomes intrusive. Your mind begins to demand more quiet, to simply follow your breath. Some observe their breath at the point where it enters their body, some at the point where it expands their abdomen, some follow the full path of the breath.
It's better to breathe through your nose than through your mouth unless you are a "mouth breather" who has no choice in the matter. When you first sit down to meditate, take several deep breaths through your mouth, then quiet down and begin breathing through your nose.
"Sitting" and "breathing" presented considerable challenges. Initially my body would protest at having to remain immobile for so long. When my body wasn't protesting, my mind was--no sooner would I direct my attention to my breathing than more interesting thoughts would come to mind. No sooner would I notice that my attention had wavered and try to force it back, than some physical problem would present itself. Even the experience of physical aches and pains is often a sign that you are advancing in your meditation. A master of the Satipatthana method of Buddhism explained it this way:
While the mind was normally occupied with its myriad disjoined lines of thought that followed each other without break, the pricks and pains that continually occur in the body cannot reach the mind in their individual form; they are received, if they are strong enough, as a general feeling of discomfort; if they are not, they do no intrude on the conscious mind at all. But the continual checking of the mind by the practice of Satipatthana breaks this apparent continuity, and it is then possible for the conscious mind to receive and note each small physical disturbance as it occurs. (13)
In my early days of meditating, I was lucky to be able to sit properly and watch my breathing for a minute or two of the twenty minute sessions. I fought with myself, and no one won. In time, the process grew easier--I learned not to struggle against the protests of my body, or the wandering of my mind. When my body ached or my attention wandered, I merely noted that fact, then directed my attention back once more to my breathing. This technique of merely turning your attention back to your breathing sounds ridiculous, but it works. It's a sort of judo in that you're not fighting your monkey mind's tendency to go off on tangents; you allow it to happen, then return to what you're doing. If the thoughts that come up are impossible to avoid, turn your attention to them briefly, as if to honor that part of your mind, then again return to watching your breathing or reciting your mantra.
There are usually several different levels to this tendency of his mind to wander. In the early stages, your mind is likely to talk to itself continually. If you continue to direct your attention back to your mantra or your breathing, at some point, you will probably find that words give way to images. Often these are as sharp and vivid as those in dreams. Here is one meditator's description of this process:
Suddenly, without my noticing a change, instead of thoughts in words, pictures flashed into my mind. When I eventually discovered what was happening and looked back to see when it had started, I remembered the first picture very clearly. . . . The unusual thing about these pictures, which I had never experienced before, was not only the vivid detail that I had observed in them, but that they appeared absolutely real. . . . Once I was aware of what was happening and watched out for being led astray in this way, they were detected and dealt with, just as the word thoughts, and they didn't trouble me for long. (14)
After quite a while, in my own case, I started to find that all these distractions largely went away and I could just sit and breathe. It wasn't long after that accomplishment when I found that my body would seem to vanish: I felt my consciousness diffuse throughout my body until it seemed to vanish. Or perhaps an alternate description is even closer: my consciousness narrowed down until it wasn't there. Though the two descriptions--diffused consciousness or narrowed consciousness--may sound contradictory, in practice they weren't. There was still an awareness of self at some level, but that level seemed separate from me (if that isn't also a contradiction in terms). Zen Buddhism uses the word "samadhi" (enlightenment) for the higher stages of this experience. Let's call my experience a "little samadhi."
Again this is very hard to describe. People experiencing various levels of advancement in meditation have recorded their experiences, but the experience is not readily communicable. One thing that did surprise me was the extent to which my little samadhi was physiological, rather than psychological. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised--since all the effort was at achieving a certain physiological state--but I was, and I suspect most meditators are when they finally achieve their goal. Once I had experienced my body disappearing, it was fairly easy to find my way back to that state again.
What I'd like to emphasize is that finding this place required a physical learning process on my part. There was nothing mystical about getting to a mystical state. I had to develop new skills--psychic muscles--in order to get there. Once there, I knew what the experience felt like and recognized the warning signs when the body was approaching the correct state. With that knowledge, it became relatively easy to return to that state whenever I liked. At the risk of being crude, it was similar to the control you have over muscles that you use to "urinate". You couldn't possibly explain to someone else how you can choose to either urinate or refrain from urinating when it's not socially desirable. Whether you urinate or not is under the control of your mind, but it's accomplished by a definite physical process. Learning how to enter a state of "samadhi" (to use the Zen phrase, and I'd again stress that I'm discussing a very small samadhi above) is a physical process, not a metaphysical process. (15)
Feed your shit to Mother Earth. It makes the flowers grow.
- Irish/Cherokee medicine worker Harley Swiftdeer.
Sometimes it can be useful to impose structures around your meditation. For example, sometimes I begin a meditation by "rooting" myself in the earth. I simply imagine roots extending from the lower part of my spine down into the earth. I visualize the roots bifurcating into pairs of roots as they go deeper into the earth. I continue the process until the roots are so numerous and extended that I'm inextricably connected to the earth. I imagine the roots extending from my body connecting with the roots systems from the rest of humanity, from all life. Then I draw down all the "shit" in my system and feed it down into the earth through the roots. As I used to hear medicine worker Harley Swiftdeer say: "feed your shit to Mother Earth. It makes the flowers grow." Once I can feel a clean flow of energy, I proceed with a normal meditation. This technique enables you to draw on the primal chakra energy of the Creation Wheel.
Another structure which increases energy for a meditation is to imagine wrapping a golden ribbon of light around your body, starting at your head. Curve the stream around until it slowly forms an egg, which fully encloses your body except for a small opening at the crown of your head. Once the egg is complete, draw energy down from the sky into the crown of your head, then breathe the energy through your body. When it seems appropriate, simply shift to a normal breathing meditation. Whereas in the previous technique you were drawing on the basic earth energy, here you are pulling in the energy of the Sacred Wheel. All that exists lies between these two extremes.
You can combine the highest and lowest into a single structured meditation. After you plant your roots, as in the first meditation, imagine your body as the trunk of the tree with branches flowering upwards from the crown of your head. You can even build the golden egg around the tree as a protection with openings for both the roots and for light to enter and shine on the branches. (Or alternately allow the branches to extend through the upper opening in the egg and flow out to the heavens much as the root system flow below. Pull in energy from the sky, let it flow through your body, and out the root system. Then pull in energy from the ground through the roots and let it flow through your body and out to the sky.
A more elaborate guided meditation is to breathe in and out through your chakras. This is a very powerful technique which can be used to quiet an overly active mind, to balance your emotions, or to generate energy. Simply sit in a meditative position that is comfortable for you. Either close your eyes or stare at a fixed point in front of you. Breathe in and out a few times with your mouth, then breathe through your nostrils and continue to breathe that way. At that point, switch your mental attitude to breathing symbolically, forgetting about the actual channel of the breath. Start at the "1-Sacred Wheel", breathing in and out there several times, then breathe in through this wheel, but breathe out through the next wheel, the "2-Spirit Wheel". (I've attached the numbers so you can more readily see the progression of the breathing during the exercise.). In and out, then in through the "2-Spirit Wheel" and out the "3-Human Wheel". Slowly work your way down the chakras to the "7-Creation Wheel", then slowly back up again. Depending on how it goes, this may be enough for your first time, as this can be a very powerful exercise. You may have to simply lie quietly after finishing it before you move back into normal activity.
Once you are comfortable with this chakra breathing, you may want to make the breathing pattern more intricate. Enter in through the "1-Sacred Wheel", out through the "7-Energy Wheel", in through the "7-Energy Wheel", out through the "2-Spirit Wheel", alternating above and below the "4-Animal Wheel" until you arrive at the "4-Animal Wheel", then move outwards again alternating above and below. Once you master this so that you can move through this patten without thought, then try moving in ever more complex patterns, sometimes concentrating on what wheel seem to need more energy, what needs less energy, where balancing needs to occur.
Though this exercise is complete in itself, you can add immeasurably to it by building up a set of correspondences held in memory for each chakra. There are many systems that provide corresponding colors, planets, Tarot cards, etc. for each chakra. Probably the most psychologically complete is the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, which can be grafted onto the chakra system and which itself has complex correspondences. Just as a starting point for the reader, one common assignment of colors and planets to the chakras follows:
Though, of course, a great deal of thought and experience has gone into the assignment of these correspondences, you may still find discrepancies between, for example, the colors assigned by one system vs. another. Ignore this and simply learn one or another of the systems that you're comfortable with. The importance is the fact that you go through the effort of building a set of correspondences for yourself, no matter which system you use. You need to learn a set of correspondences so thoroughly that, as you move through the chakras, they automatically come to mind without any conscious effort on your part. If you then allow the colors, as an example, to come to mind simultaneously with breathing through the chakras, your breathing will acquire a quality it would not otherwise have. The more correspondences that you have associated to the chakras, the more you prevent the mind from following its normal untamed routine of jumping from thought to thought. In effect, you defeat this action of the mind by imposing a complex structure upon it.
Bridging Conscious and Unconscious
. . . when meditating, subjects tend to show a predominance of alpha waves. These waves are particularly prominent during meditation in the frontal and central regions of the brain. It is as though the motor were idling as the brain drift along in a peaceful, rhythmic fashion. These trains of alpha waves are sometimes followed by burst of theta waves. The Zen monks mentioned before showed an ability to remain for extended periods of time in "theta" without going to sleep at all.
- Patricia Carrington. (16)
In our earlier discussion of dreams, we saw that dreams are highly active states of mind, often (though not always) characterized by theta waves. Zen meditation provide another example of a similar active state of the mind that takes places while one is seemingly totally inactive. During meditation, the brain waves of most meditators tend to be largely marked by alpha waves corresponding to a release of tension in the body; in more advanced meditators alpha waves tend to give way to rhythmic theta waves. In fact, Tomio Hirai, who has studied the connection between the brain and meditation at great depth, found that "theta waves emitted during Zen meditation are more regular and their amplitudes are greater than theta waves seen in sleep." Inexperienced Zen meditators take nearly a half hour to arrive at this state, much like it takes a dreamer a while before he or she drifts into a dream state. In contrast, experienced Zen meditators can drop almost immediately into a deep meditative state characterized by rhythmic theta waves. This might be seen as an indication that meditation is a more controlled, or perhaps merely more structured, version of the dream state.
But perhaps even more interesting than the theta waves are the rhythmic quality. There is other research that seems to indicate that deep meditation can synchronize brain-waves throughout all parts of the brain. For example, there was one set of experiments in which meditators had EEG leads connected to multiple areas of their brain. In addition, they each had a signal button so that they could indicate which of five conditions they were experiencing: "(1) body sensations; (2) involuntary movement; (3) visual imagery; (4) deep meditation; or (5) pure awareness." When they signaled that they were beginning either "deep meditation" or "pure awareness" their brain wave patterns shifted from alpha to beta (which as you'll recall, is more characteristic or our normal waking life). But here's the kicker: all the beta waves were synchronized in all the different parts of the brain! So something special seems to be going on when we get to deep meditative states. We'll see these same synchrony occurring when we discuss mind machines later in this chapter. (17)
I found another set of experiments, which compared Zen meditators with meditating Yogis, quite significant. When Yogis, in a deep meditative state, were suddenly exposed to some external stimuli, like the sound of a bell, their brain state didn't change at all. It was as if they were totally cut-off from the outer world. In contrast, the brain-wave patterns of Zen meditators, in an equally deep state, would show an immediate reaction to the outer stimuli, then an immediate return to the deep state. They were not cut-off from the outer world, but let it flow through them to be instantly released. Dreaming appears to be more similar to Zen meditation than to the meditative state of Yogis. These seem to provide two limit-case metaphors. Yogis show how we can become independent of the world around us, while the Zen adepts demonstrate how we can remain aware of the outer world, while we go deeper into an inner world. (18)
We have already dealt at some length with breathing and life energy in the previous chapter. We commented there that "breathing stands at the junction between those functions which we consciously control and those controlled by our autonomic nervous system." You don't have to think in order to breathe, yet you are able to take conscious control of your breathing if you like: to hold your breath, or to take quick short breaths in order to pump up your energy. In some esoteric traditions, you learn how to take conscious control of other normally unconscious processes: heart beat, body temperature, etc. In the Zen tradition I was practicing, you bridge these two sides in a different way: you learn how to become conscious of your breath, yet you don't interfere in the process. Later--much later--I was to discover that this was the metaphor I had to use to deal with my entire inner life: become conscious without interfering in the process. Or in the metaphor we have been using up to now in this book, I learned to construct conscious rituals for dealing with gateways that were beyond conscious control. This has been much more difficult that it was to achieve my little samadhi.
At times I had the feeling that I had suddenly been placed at the controls of some immensely powerful machine. It was as if my brain had been given a tune-up and was now working in new ways, presenting me with new thought, new ways of thinking, new capabilities.
- Michael Hutchison. (19)
Physical aids to meditation are as ancient as the process of meditation itself. As we've already seen, meditation depends largely on repetition and rhythm: repeating a mantra over and over in rhythm with our breathing, or observing the actual rhythm of our breath. Dance, chant and drumming are all so ancient that it is difficult to imagine a human culture lacking any of them. Chimpanzees, gorillas, monkey and other primates vocalize rhythmically, beat on their bodies and objects to make rhythms, move to those rhythms. Dance, chant and drumming all induce altered states of consciousness which bring a group into synchrony. First the group's movement becomes synchronized, like the little girl we mentioned in chapter 3, who led her classmates in an unconscious dance around the playground. And outer synchrony leads to inner synchrony, opening gateways to inner worlds.
Shamans, those earliest "trained practitioners of the psyche", used all three techniques, as well as specialized drugs and other tools, to induce meditative states in which they could journey into the inner world of their psyches to access hidden information. These techniques are as effective today as they ever were. Today we find teenagers and young adults up all night at a "rave" party where they are surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of other young people, contained within a constant envelope of extremely rhythmic music. This is music that evolved out of rock and rap, with an emphasis on the beat, then added a further rhythmic musical emphasis that is deliberately "technological", "mechanical". No wonder these events are so popular.
In a time as technologically oriented as our own, it would be surprising if we hadn't developed explicit technology to deal with our inner world, a world supposedly beyond technology. But we're not beyond technology, in part we're machines ourselves. Of course, we're living machines and we're much more than machines, but it doesn't pay to forget that we live in our bodies and our bodies are in part incredibly complex organic machines. The early generation of "mind machines" which have been developed to-date, though primitive by comparison with our bodies, are still able to accomplish quite a lot.
Though the general population is still largely unaware of any of the mind machines, there is a substantial minority who have used one or another of a variety of them, in order to induce an altered state of consciousness comparable to that on psychedelic drugs in a legal way (at least so far it's legal). The most popular of these mind-machines are "light and sound" machines. You slip on a pair of "goggles" (usually wrap-around sun-glasses with tiny LED's inside), and put earphones on your head. Both plug into an electronic "magic box" which plays pre-defined programs of light and sound designed to induce an altered state of consciousness; i.e., to entrain your brain waves into any desired pattern of alpha, beta, theta or delta waves. Let's take the light and sound components separately, though they're normally used in combination.
The goggles usually have 2-4 very bright red LED's which flash in each eye. (There are also white, yellow, green and blue LED's, but red is far more common.) Even though your eyes are closed during use, the flashing lights are bright enough to be recorded on the retina and transmitted to the brain. In these days of special-purpose computer chips, the magic box is easily able to control the frequency and pattern of the flashing. Some of the boxes are small enough to fit into a shirt pocket and even the largest ones are smaller than a hardbound book. Many such electronic boxes are now, in effect, general purpose light and sound computers which can accept new programs, either designed and sold by the manufacturer, downloaded off the web, or even developed by the user. These programs are supposedly specially designed to improve creativity, induce relaxation, assist in learning, improve meditation, and so forth. At this stage, these claims are more speculative than anything else, but one certainly gets very different experiences from different programs. The user is given wide latitude in choosing from pre-defined programs, then varying the length of the program, the intensity of the light (in general, the brighter the better), and the volume, tone, frequency, and pitch of the sound (more on sound later). These systems have become increasingly more sophisticated, and increasingly less expensive over the twenty years or so that models have been available for the public. Currently they range in price from about $100 to $500, though there are specialized machines costing much more. Like all electronic products, one can expect these machines to become increasingly more sophisticated and less expensive in the near future.
If all we saw were little red lights flashing, this wouldn't be very exciting, would it? Happily, our brains are very creative and those flashing lights are transformed into all sorts of fantastic things. Now people vary widely in what they see, with some actually seeing dreamlike fantasies induced by the lights, and a small number who see almost nothing at all. But most people see incredible geometric forms in constantly varying patterns using every color imaginable. Mandala forms are quite common, with every conceivable variation; e.g., colors shifting, rings of colors moving in or out or rotating. In general the flashing pattern of the lights is incorporated into the patterns you see, with shifts occurring in rhythm with the flashes. Strobing tiling patterns, like those of a beehive or perhaps an M. C. Escher drawing (more formally called tessellations) often fill your vision. Many of the programs are designed to create abrupt shifts from one pattern to another several times during the program. Most of the machines are now sophisticated enough to bring the machines to a slow halt when they finish, so that you're not so jolted by the transition back into normal perception. And remember that the purpose is not a light show per se: the lights are flashing at frequencies that correspond to desired programs of alpha, beta, theta and delta, so that you are relaxed, then energized in complex rituals (there's that word again), all intended to induce altered states of consciousness.
While the lights are able to flash directly at the rates of the various brain waves, our hearing isn't capable of experiencing frequencies at those slow rates as sound; they would simply translate into clicks. So a different technique is used--binaural beats--in which the left and right hear sound at two different frequencies. The difference between the two frequencies corresponds to a brainwave frequency. For example, one ear might receive a buzzing sound at 128 Hz (i.e., 128 hertz, or 128 beats per second), while the other receives a sound at 135 Hz (i.e., 128+7). The mind hears the difference of 7 as a sort of sweeping between the two ears. This frequency corresponds to a theta wave and the theory is that hearing binaural beats at such frequencies will entrain the brain so that all of its waves gradually become synchronized as theta waves. Some machines use dual binaural beats, which are simply two different pairs of frequencies, say 128 Hz and 135 Hz for one pair and 256 Hz and 263 Hz (i.e., 256+7) for the other. It's hard to describe the effect, but both sounds are heard simultaneously with movement back and forth between them, which creates an eerie effect. There are even more sophisticated effects involving varying pitch, modulation between tones, smoothing of notes, etc., built into many of the programs.
I've used a number of these machines over the last fifteen years or so. I find them most useful as either an occasional alternative to meditation, or as a way to quickly reach a desired state--most normally alpha or theta--upon which the goggles and ear phones can be taken off and one can continue with normal meditation. They are also useful as training devices which enable people new to this process to experience the differences between alpha, beta, theta and delta states. That way, when they are nearing theta, for example, in their meditation, they will recognize the sensation and can almost "dive" into a deeply rhythmic theta state. This is again hard to describe but once you know the experience of a state, you can recognize when you're close and how to move deeper into it. This is similar to the early primitive biofeedback training to induce alpha waves, but the light and sound machines have the ability to induce virtually any brainwave state.
Other Mind Tools
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all through narrow chinks of his cavern.
- William Blake. (20)
Another proven method for inducing altered states of consciousness is based on the Ganzfeld effect, a word originated by German scientists in the 1930's. In the 1940's and 1950's, an American psychologist, Donald Hebb, demonstrated that when we are totally deprived of sensory input, we experience an altered state of consciousness, in which we may see hallucinatory images, and experience intense emotions. More recently, scientists experimented with restricting only the field of vision. Psychologist Robert Ornstein found that a total absence of vision emerged in which the person did not even know "whether their eyes were open or not." (21)
In a laboratory, a Ganzfeld effect can be created fairly easily by cutting a ping-pong ball in half, taping each half over one eye, then shining a light source on the subject's eyes. With careful arrangement of the light, this produces an uniform, unchanging visual field. Outside of a laboratory, this is rather difficult to set-up for yourself. There have been several sets of goggles on the market that draw on the Ganzfeld effect, more or less successfully. One used goggles with a built-in light source that attempted the same effect. Unfortunately, there always seemed to be light leakage which took away from the desired uniformity One inexpensive pair I currently own uses goggles much like those used by skin-divers, with translucent colored lens. You wear them facing a light source and try to avoid light leakage by staring off into the distance, several feet away from yourself. The unvarying field of vision tends to make your brain create visual perceptions to fill the void. Combined with the varied colored lenses, this can induce unusual meditative states. The effect can be enhanced by using the sound only part of a light and sound machine to generate "white noise" as a constant auditory background. Though this is much less powerful than the light and sound machines, it is an interesting device to use occasionally.
Some biofeedback devices have become small enough to fit into headphones. They buzz loudly when you're in a Beta state and become quiet when you go into Alpha. More elaborate and correspondingly more expensive machines, use headbands or electronic caps that record your EEG patterns and feed them into a normal personal computer where intricate analysis is possible. Another feedback device combines a light and sound machine with a sensor that registers your breath under your nose. The light and sound vary depending on the frequency and pattern of your breathing. In general, I've found that none of the personal biofeedback devices are as powerful as the light and sound machines.
I won't go into many other devices which are based on more esoteric principles, often of doubtful worth--though it is wise to remember that some of these areas at the fringes of science may one day prove significant. All are exploring the edges where psyche and physical world meet.
Music Tapes & CD's
Just as my finger on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
- Wallace Stevens. (22)
We said that the earliest tools used to induce altered states were a combination of chanting, drumming and dancing. All music changes your consciousness to some extent, but some music is more closely tied to its roots than others. Gregorian chant, which evolved as combination group prayer and a group meditative technique, is as powerful today as when it reached its peak in the seventh century A.D. Its power lies in the fact that all the voices are singing the same notes at the same time, which again induces a meditative state. Other musical forms that particularly lend themselves to inducing meditative states are the drone-based vocalizations of middle-Eastern music, the ragas of India, Bulgarian and Tibetan throat-singing, and the chants of Native Americans, among others. Virtually every culture has developed music intended to calm the mind and opens gateways between inner and outer.
There are many music tapes and CD's especially designed to bring about altered states of consciousness. They use a variety of principles, including the binaural beats mentioned earlier, complex systems of overtones, as well as complex rhythms in varying patterns. I've had positive experiences with many of these tapes and CD's, but I've found that in general the most powerful effects have come from music designed as music by musicians, not from those created to demonstrate scientific principles. Musicians simply make use of the underlying principles more complexly and more subtly. Scattered within traditional classical music are many such pieces. Of course, what works and doesn't work may vary by individual, but I'll mention several classical pieces that work for me and others including: Bach's "Goldberg Variations", "Music for Solo Cello", and "Musical Offering"; Beethoven's Late Quartets; Ravel's "Bolero"; Satie's "Trois Gymnopedes"; Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition"; Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler"; and to mention a lesser known composer who is a personal favorite: Messiaen's "Visions de l'Amen", "Quartet for the End of Time", and "Trois Petite Liturgies for the Divine Jesus." And, of course, Gregorian Chant and other plain song such as the vocal works of medieval abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen. There is an enormous variety of such music from many different European nations. The above selections are, of course, only a tiny sampling of the wealth of classical music that serves this purposes among others.
In our own time, there are many albums that can be used to bring around altered states of consciousness. Beginning with New Age music, then later with Ambient music and other offshoots, there are thousands of albums of what I teasingly call "zonk" music, since they leave you in a state of disequilibrium where it is easy to move deeper into the psyche. Some of my personal favorites include almost anything by Brian Eno, Harold Budd, or Jon Hassel, especially Eno's "Thursday Afternoon", "Music for Airports", and "Discreet Music"; Budd's "Music for 3 Pianos", "The Pavilion of Dreams", and "The White Arcades"; Hassel's Facinoma; and collaborations between the three in various combinations. An amazing vocal album which uses Middle Eastern drone techniques in modern settings is Sheila Chandra's "AboneCroneDrone."
A great deal of jazz can serve this purpose. To mention just a few lesser known examples, Jan Garbarek's "Officium" is an inspired coming together of jazz saxophone and Gregorian chant. "Red Lanta", a collaboration with Art Lanta, also fits this territory very well. "Nigel Kennedy Plays Jazz" shows how an eclectic classical violinist can take jazz and drive it into the deepest resources of the mind.
Most minimalist music, especially Steve Reich, Terry Riley or Philip Glass is wonderful for yielding meditative states. As just one example, Glass' collaboration with Ravi Shankar on "Passages" is strange and beautiful. And much of John Cage's work is lovely and unknown to most listeners, especially "Music for Prepared Piano." A good sampling of his work, almost all meditative, is "In a Landscape." One of the most touching albums of recent years is "Sacred Spirits" which sets Native American chant to thoughtful Western musical settings. Turning to another continent, Japanese flute music, such as Shakuhachi's "The Japanese Flute" is marvelously evocative. As with more traditionally classical music, there is too much of a wealth to do more than point to a few possibilities. And I guarantee that everything I've listed will "zonk" you.
Final Words on Inducing Altered States of Consciousness
In 1979, at a time when I had been meditating for about a year, I had an important dream that spoke to these matters. In the dream, I was in a cavern, participating in an initiation rite. As part of the ritual, a marijuana joint was passed successively from acolyte to another. When it came to me and I tried to pass it on, it kept slipping from my fingers. Somehow I couldn't hold it long enough to pass it on to the next person in line. I became aware that I had to learn how to do it "by the numbers." When I did so, I was finally successful.
I think that dream was teaching me that it isn't enough to experience alternate states of consciousness. We have to develop control over that process--methodical, "by the numbers" control. This is hardly a new revelation. In every esoteric spiritual tradition, there is a stage of ecstatic union with the universe (or God, or one's higher self, or various other terms for the same experience). At this stage, everything is revealed in its own perfection. However, as soon as the acolyte steps out of the experience, the memory begins to fade. The world around looks gray and desolate in comparison. There is a temptation to keep returning to the ecstatic state in preference to the mundane world in which we all live. However, most esoteric traditions rightly regard this as merely an early stage of enlightenment--sort of an adolescence of spirituality. In order to advance further, one has to go back into the world and find a way to incorporate that same consciousness in the normal routine of life.
In the introduction, I mentioned the series of ten pictures of a man "In Search of his Missing Ox" that Buddhists used to picture the stages of enlightenment. The missing ox represents the man's true nature, which all of us lose and have to find again. At the start, the man is sitting at ease beneath a tree. He then notices that the ox is lost, and goes hunting for it. Along the way, he catches a glimpse of the ox, then loses sight of it again. Later he catches it, tames it, and leads it back. At the end, the ox has been recovered and the man is standing beneath a tree, talking with a fat, jovial master. Everything is the same, yet somehow everything has changed. (23)
Or perhaps even more succinctly, Zen Buddhist masters say that before enlightenment, we are like animals who eat when we are hungry, sleep when we are tired. After enlightenment, once again we Eat when we are hungry, Sleep when we are tired. But what a difference between eating and Eating, sleeping and Sleeping--the difference between eating and sleeping unconsciously, and Eating and Sleeping with full consciousness. We have constructed rituals so that the gateways to the unconscious are always open.
My learning process has involved moving back and forth between such ancient wisdom (and sometimes ignorance) and modern knowledge (often arrogant foolishness). In both cases, a selection process has been necessary: I have had to distinguish the true core of knowledge from the outer trappings that every tradition acquires over the years. This process has been neither quick nor easy, and continues.
1. Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 8.
2. E. H. Shattock, An Experiment in Mindfulness ( New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1960), p. 63.
3. Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror, p. 124.
4. Herbert Benson, The Relaxation Response (New York: Morrow, 1975 ).
5. Patricia Carrington, Freedom In Meditation (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1978).
6. Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror, pp. 12-13.
7. Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy (New York: John Winterhill, Inc. 1975), p. 39.
8. there are many good books available to explain how one learns to "sit" and to "breathe". I would personally recommend Katsuki Sekida's Zen Training (especially pp. 38-52), but many other books have also been wonderful sources for my own development.
9. Patricia Carrington, Freedom in Meditation, pp. 77-8, 165-166.
10. Marilyn Ferguson, The Brain Revolution (New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1973 ), p. 83.
11. Obviously any one of a host of others might have been useful, many of which comes from religious ritual. E.g. om mani padme hum or hari krisha from the Hindu religion, or the Latin phrases dominus vobiscum and agnus dei from the Roman Catholic mass. See Patricia Carrington, Freedom in Meditation, p. 83.
12. E. H. Shattock, An Experiment in Mindfulness, pp. 89-90.
13. E. H. Shattock, An Experiment in Mindfulness, pp. 52-3.
14. E. H. Shattock, An Experiment in Mindfulness, pp. 54-5.
15. For those interested, no one has done a better job describing the troubles and travails accompanying meditation than Janwillem van de Wetering in two books The Empty Mirror and A Glimpse of Nothingness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975).
16. Patricia Carrington, Freedom in Meditation, pp. 46-7.
17. These experiments were carried out by neurologist J. P. Banquet. See Patricia Carrington, Freedom in Meditation), p. 48.
18. Above information from Tomio Hirai, Zen and the Mind: Scientific Approach to Zen Practice (Tokyo: Japan Publications, 1978), pp. 95-135.
19. Michael Hutchison, Megabrain (New York: Ballantine, 1986), p. 16.
20. William Blake, in Michael Hutchison, Megabrain (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986), p. 263.
21. Michael Hutchison, Megabrain (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986), p. 252, for above information on Ganzfield effect. Megabrain is the "Bible" on mind machines and Hutchison their most vocal and articulate advocate.
22. Wallace Stevens, "Peter Quince at the Clavier," in Louis Untermeyer, Ed., Modern American & Modern British Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955), p. 100.
23. See J. Marvin Spiegelman, "The Oxherding Pictures of Zen Buddhism: A Commentary", in J. Marvin Spiegelman and Mokusen Miyuki, Buddhism and Jungian Psychology (Phoenix, Arizona: Falcon Press, 1985), pp. 43-87 for a psychological analysis of these pictures.
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