By Peter Carlson
I have frequently reflected lately on the experience of change while meditating. Of course, impermanence is a fundamental concept of Buddhist psychology and is regarded as an essential nature of reality. My meditation practice over the last several weeks has been an investigation of the flow of change in the mind as it occurs. This makes the concept of impermanence an embodied experience rather than just an intellectual exercise. My goal is to experience changing mind states openly, without preference and with the least amount of emotional reactivity. This is hard to do—the mind easily slips into identifying with the arisen mental states, which creates a turbulence of wanting or not wanting.
As a psychotherapist, I have repeatedly heard from my clients that being aware of a dysfunctional belief is, in itself, insufficient to produce reliable relief from the suffering brought on by the belief. “I knew that I was being irrational, but I just couldn’t help myself!” Recent psychological research suggests that what causes psychological dysfunction to continue is the felt sense of urgent reactivity associated with the thoughts and images that arise in the mind. This urgent reactivity reinforces the mind’s inclination toward more and more suffering. It manifests as “stuckness”, a persistent inability to adapt freshly and effectively to changes that occur in life. We then experience a disabling and discouraging repetition of old habit patterns.
I want to share some thoughts about this inability to respond creatively to the flux of change that is life. Our experiences are processed and coordinated in response to the environment’s changing conditions in very complex ways. The brain processes experience in several areas, almost simultaneously. I put almost in italics because the time lapses in mental processing are an essential element in the stuckness process.
Mental conditioning creates thoughts as the verbalizing and conceptualizing neural pathways operate. There are other processing systems in the brain operating outside of conscious awareness that regulate emotional responses to events. Clusters of neurons, primarily the hippocampus and the amygdala, regulate emotional responses to a stimulus. The amygdala sorts out possible threats from the data flow, while the hippocampus creates a contextual meaning for the signals from the amygdala. Signals from the amygdala coordinate with the hippocampus, creating a very rapid, reflexive response to stimulating events. This is a “felt sense” of what is happening, an initial impulsive surge of inner energy, sort of like the adrenaline rush you feel when a car backfires close by.
Meanwhile, the more rational part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, is processing the event with more thoroughness. This higher level of functioning is what allows you to calm down after that part of your brain realizes it is a car backfire, not an artillery round exploding. Research reveals that the surge of energy from the amygdala occurs about 1/3 second faster than the reasoning processes of the cortex. This 1/3 second gap is ongoing—sort of like the way dominoes fall when they are on edge in a line, with a brief, repetitive interval between contacts as each domino falls onto the next one—click, click, click. In this way, you can understand how emotional reactions “hijack” your otherwise sensible thoughts and behaviors. The emotional urgency of the amygdala’s impulse affects the way the cognitive, reasoning part of the brain interprets experience.
Learning how to be open to the urgency that comes with this gap without reacting is essential for managing the ongoing flow of changing mind states that arise. My wife calls this balanced tolerance “urge surfing”. The practice of mindfulness supports this opening. This non-reactive acceptance of the urge creates an internal buffer that allows the mind to consider alternatives to the emotional urgency that seems to control mental conditioning.
I would invite you to practice mindfulness in this manner, through urge surfing. Investigate the ongoing wave of change that we call the self: Consider the touch sensation of the breath as the central focus of attention—not the sole focus, but the most reliably repetitive aspect of change occurring in awareness. Around the periphery of this awareness other phenomena occur, constantly flowing, like the rhythm of the dominoes falling. Don’t try to control these events in the mind—just let the breath awareness be central, and let everything else flow past the breathing in and breathing out awareness.
Everything is changing, inevitably and incessantly. It is only an illusion that there is any permanency occurring. It would seem that the body sense is permanent—I feel hot or cold, or sense the pressure of my hands touching my lap. As I look closer…….
With increasing mindfulness, I notice that what I thought was permanent, solid, enduring, is instead a constantly changing mass of vibrations that can be felt in the body. With even more precise, non-attached insight, thoughts, emotions, and the urgencies that accompany them are seen as flow states rather than steady states. Even the breath awareness is a flow state. My suffering comes from efforts to prevent change from happening or trying to force it to happen, driven by desire or aversion. Salvation from suffering occurs when I can adapt to change in ways that are compassionate and manifest creative and adaptive wisdom, rather than through trying to control change, repeating old dysfunctional patterns.
It is much like skiing downhill. There is a felt sense of momentum, sliding rapidly down the slope. If I try to fight the skis, my body tenses up and I can’t adapt to the changing terrain; then I fall. To make more use of the metaphor: With life, I may fall off the skis (representing losing mindfulness, compassion and equanimity, that essential internal balancing process), but I’ll never stop sliding down the hill! Practicing the Noble Eightfold Path allows for a more skillful slide through life.
Life is always changing, very rapidly. I can combine mindfulness with compassion to adapt to the flow, keeping my balance with equanimity, modifying my course down the slippery slope of life. I hope that you can find your way to use mindfulness to be aware of and manage the flow of changes that occur, finding ways to increase peace and clarity. Ride the wave of change. I wish you well.