Purifying the mind with meditation - A Scientific Meditator's considerations
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
In the world of spirituality, it is said that you can "purify your mind" with your meditation practice. When I first heard this I didn't have any way of processing it; and I didn't know whether to consider it utter garbage or to just swallow it blindly without understanding it. Of course I wanted to believe it was true, however, simply believing in something would not be in correspondence with my preferred scientific approach...So I found some evidence.
Through my direct experiences with the process of mental purification, along with some knowledge of basic neuroscience, I have come to a level of understanding that allows me to describe the process from an experiential point of view, as well as to speculate about the neuroscientific part of the phenomenon.
I've come to find, that you can indeed "purify your mind" with meditation. I've experienced it on my own body and mind hundreds of times and learned to observe the process as it takes place.
But purify the mind, how?
- In the quality of mental states. In short, this means either less of or less dominating states of: Anger/hatred, fear, lust, craving, aversion, restlessness, impatience, irritation, jealousy/envy, regret, and other likewise negative mental states.
I myself have experienced much less of all of these as a result of the thousands of hours of meditation I've done. For instance, regret and jealousy/envy I've completely gotten rid of. Or at least I don't remember when I last felt either of these emotions. The other emotions are likewise greatly diminished for me, although I still get irritated and angry for very short periods every now and then.
Habits die hard
How we can purify the mind can actually be explained logically from what we know of the brain and habits: We have emotional reaction patterns, which may be anger, fear, lust, craving and so on. As with all habits, they can be eliminated and new ones can form based on what we do. This is how it works with habits due to the plasticity of our brain and its ability to form new neuronal pathways; old habits die when we no longer act them out; the old neuronal pathways stop being used and new ones are formed and used in stead.
(I highly recommend the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear, which goes in depth with habit formation and achieving goals on the basis of habit making.)
New habits form by acting on them: The more times we act in one way, the more habitual it will be. After a while, it will be hard to not do that thing anymore. It does not matter one bit what it is; if we do it enough times, we can hardly stop. It can be anything, even something which is super uncomfortable and disgusting when it is done for the many first times: Like smoking! If you've ever taken a first drag of a cigarette, you know it sucks really, really bad. There is nothing good about it. But if you have tried doing it repeatedly, for some odd reason like I have, you also know that you at some point feel craving towards that disgusting thing.
It goes the other way too: If we do something good for us, we won't be able to stop if we do it enough times. For instance, don't you know someone who's "addicted" to exercising? Even some people are so addicted to exercise that it's likely not healthy anymore. Habits do die hard...
Emotional reaction habits
Our emotional reaction patterns work similarly to any other kinds of habits. We tend to react with the same kinds of emotions to the same things. If we get cut off in traffic and we get angry one day, we are likely to not get happy when it happens another day. Right?
The way this works, is that we experience something (for instance being cut off) and then feel an emotion in response. One of the things you learn when you start investigating the body and mind like a Scientific Meditator, is that this happens all the time. Even when you experience a very subtle thing, like thinking of something like an image in your head of your friend; an item you own; a place you've been; anything; somewhere in the body you will feel something as a response - an emotional response.
In normal daily life we experience things constantly: We have conversations, watch things on our phone or on TV, get hungry and tired, drive in traffic, do work, and so on. All of these things interacts with our minds, and we experience emotional responses.
A lot of the time we won't pay attention to tiny and subtle emotional responses, even though they occur on a microscopic level all the time, in response to microscopic mental and physical stimuli. But at least a few times a day we will feel something strongly enough to notice (unless we are clinically depressed) : Either we'll feel some degree of good, energetic, bright, on a roll, or we'll feel pissed off, irritated, impatient and restless.
We may not pay attention to it, but these emotions don't come out of thin air. If we're feeling irritated, then it likely was because someone who said and did something; or maybe we thought of something we don't like; or we ate something we didn't like. Whatever it is, something caused our emotions in reaction to some input; mental or physical.
So we spend the whole day reacting to things, either on a microscopic level of which we are not yet aware, or on a level where our general mood is affected.
How meditation changes our emotional reaction habits
In meditation we sit still, we relax and perhaps even get a little bliss going. But then something happens... We feel restless. We want to move; get up; watch TV/phone; anything as long as it involves stopping meditating! Or we think about something which makes us relive stories or fantasize about the future. We feel angry, happy, sad, frustrated, anxious...
All kinds of emotions come up in reaction to our thoughts and what we feel in the body as we meditate. Surely, sitting still, with no movement at all, for an half an hour, an hour or longer at a time will make you feel some emotion which is not comfortable. (Try it.)
Even when we are meditating and 100% in our head and not going on with our lives, not in traffic, not at work, not talking to someone, we still react emotionally to the things we think or feel in the body: A pain in the knee may make us irritated; a growl in the belly may make us wanna get up and make a sandwich; a blissful feeling may make us want more of that and so we feel needy.
You see, we are very conditioned creatures, and very habitual ones too. Even in absence of anything to react to emotionally, we will react out of extremely strong habits to what goes on in our bodies. Even strong anger and fear can come up in meditation.
"Neurons that fire together, wire together"
Normally, outside the meditation, when we feel restless, we simply pick up our phone and browse Instagram or some other dopamine inducing app. What happens here, is that we react to the general boredom or lack of certain stimuli with an emotion of restlessness, by doing something that gives us dopamine. We obey the signal of the emotion and get the brain what it wants, which is always dopamine, the natural feel good drug of the brain.
To our basic animalistic brains this means that the generation of emotional restlessness as a response to whatever we experienced (or didn't experience) worked - it made dopamine for the brain by doing something which made us feel restless. That means that the neuronal pathway responsible for making us feel restless, was used successfully; and when neuronal pathways are used they become stronger pathways and are more likely to be employed again. Hence the saying: "Neurons that fire together, wire together".
A neuronal pathway becomes more wired, more dense, more strong when it is used. That's why habits form so strongly and why some of us tend to pick up that phone again and again (and again and again...), every first second we don't have anything to do. As we know, restlessness can strike in an instant, and we can be like slaves to that feeling; we obey and deliver that dopamine when the brain wants!
When we feel such restlessness in meditation, we can't just go on our phone - because we're meditating! So what happens instead of enforcing this habit pattern?
Instead, we can skillfully create other ways of reacting to our feelings; ones that are healthier and involve less mindless acting.
The purifying meditation technique - be cool, be cool!
If we just sit there and become frustrated with our feelings as we meditate, then frustration will become our new habitual reaction. This is no good, so we need to know what else to do when we feel these negative emotions.
Counting to ten doesn't work either, because it just distracts us from the stuff which we must work better with. What we actually want to do is to delve into our emotions and find healthy ways of working with them right in the midst of them. We must take responsibility in a proper way.
So we observe neutrally. We act as damn cool, calm and collected as we possibly can as our difficult emotion comes over us; and then we investigate it as if we were scientists studying our emotions with a magnifying glass. Especially, we study with some curious questions in mind:
Where in the body can I feel the emotion?
Where in the mind?
How does it feel in each of the places where I can feel something?
Does the feeling change? (Does it move, pulse, vibrate, tickle, throb, anything else?)
Am I in control of what happens in each of these places where I can feel something?
...If not, then who/what is? How does it happen?
We can make up any curiosity-based questions we may want to, as long as they are investigatory and scientific in nature. This means that we have to avoid all judgement and interpretation of what we experience. We need to be neutral and objective in our observations! (The foundation for science) The goal here is to become wiser about what is going on in the body and mind; to understand the fundamental nature of the feelings and how we perceive them.
So no name calling, please. No "good" or "bad" judgements - simply observe where; when; what; how much; how strong; for how long; moving or not moving; those sorts of investigatory and objective questions.
If we start becoming scientists of our mind every time we feel one of those negative emotions, we are already changing our habits. By doing this, we are stopping the mindless action pattern that we are used to, for instance picking up the phone a billion times a day; getting angry in traffic; or feeling irritated with people at work; etc.
Instead we are replacing the old habit with a new one. One of careful investigation and understanding. This allows us to act with consideration and with a larger understanding of what is actually going on.
Our brain literally changes from doing this, as new pathways are being used and old ones abandoned. The brain is an efficient piece of equipment, in fact its super high-tech, and it will adapt to its needs - in this case less mindless emotional acting; more consideration, investigation and understanding.
The cool thing is that it becomes habitual. Every time you act in a way that doesn't fuel that anger; restlessness; irritation of yours - it becomes a weaker neuronal pathway and a weaker habit. As a result, you'll be able to let go of those negative feelings a lot quicker and they will slowly melt away from your mind if you keep at your practice.
If you do the above then you've already won. You've learned to act with more consideration, investigation and understanding in stead of mindlessly getting angry, irritated or restless. That's a huge win because it means that you can start filling your life with more high quality mental states in stead of the negative ones.
But there is a bonus which we haven't talked about: The insight you are getting when you learn to observe your emotions in detail.
I have no particular logical explanation of this as of yet, but I can describe to you what I've experienced as happening: You start to see the fundamental nature of how your body and mind works to create negative and positive mental states.
When you do, you realize that those emotions, good or bad, are really just a lot of sensations in the body. For instance, when you feel angry you can start to break this feeling down into its subtle components of feelings in the body: There will be some throbbing in the temples; some tingling in the hands, arms and legs; some tightness in the stomach; some pulsating in the throat; and so forth. It's a myriad of microscopic experiences happening all over your body and you can learn to tune into this instead of simply being angry.
Before you learn to sense such accurate details of your emotions, anger will feel like just anger - not a lot of separate feelings all over the body. Because you cannot break it down into its subtle components, it will feel like you're just angry.
But when you do learn to see the subtle details all over your body, you can consider each one separately. For instance, you may consider the throbbing in the temples if that's how you feel when angry. This is not so scary or so anger-relevant in and of itself. Neither is the tingling in the hands, arms and legs. So you start to see that all the components of anger actually don't have that much of a compelling drag to it. You start to see that you can really just stand there and observe your own anger neutrally, without getting carried away; without actually getting angry.
Your whole experience of emotions change when you learn to break it down like this. They can all be broken down into their finer components, and you can learn to see each little part as something which doesn't have power over you. Anger/fear/irritation and so on will be reduced to something which goes on in your body, out of your immediate control, and not something which you need to have a problem with.
The world of insight is opening up
How your insight into yourself can help you with dealing with emotions, is just an example of how insight will transform your whole experience of life.
There are more things than just emotions to consider in your whole integrated experience of life, and they are all affected by your learning to observe the details of them and the fundamental nature of those details. To mention one really important thing, your sense of self will change. But that is a topic for another post.