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Meditation is an important part of my research: both a private, subjective laboratory for studying the properties and characteristics of phenomenal experience and a technique for accessing thoughts and feelings that do not make it into ordinary day-to-day awareness. Many of the ideas I end up pursuing arise during meditation. I also regularly see how to solve problems when meditating that I'd not been able to solve before.
Some of my ideas about the nature of experience appear in my chapter "This Boundary-less World" (Ch. 13) in Brain, Mind, Cosmos, edited by Deepak Chopra (2014).
The description below is an exerpt from my new book with my wife, author and yoga teacher Alison Tinsley: Meditation: If You're Doing It, You're Doing It Right: Conversations With Meditators. We talk with 27 meditators about how and why they meditate and the experiences they have while doing so. Both the commonalities and the differences are fascinating!
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When Alison started meditating, I was engaged in a frustrating administrative job at the local university and spending my creative time doing art. While Alison meditated, I stayed in bed, nursing my morning coffee and reflecting on whatever was going on. It was nice to have this early-morning time to myself, to engage in the kind of random thinking that I usually did on afternoon walks or pacing around in my studio.
I read some of the books about meditation that Alison was then devouring - she reads an entire book for every few pages I get through. Lama Surya Das's Awakening the Buddha Within had a particular impact on both of us. I was attracted to the idea of not doing. I'm a physicist by training, and the "Law of Least Action" is one of the main principles of physics. It basically says that the universe takes the path of least resistance. Not doing - waiting for the solution to come - is taking the path of least resistance. It certainly worked for art. I'd spent the last year observing my own art-making process and had just written a paper about art-making as a form of problem solving for the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. The main point of the paper was that solutions only appeared when one wasn't looking for them; indeed, they usually appeared when one was doing something else altogether. Edison is famous for saying that "genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." I'd say that a bit of inspiration can save a lot of perspiration.
In 2006, we packed up our car and moved to Costa Rica. It was a new life in a new and wonderful environment. Our house was mostly glass. My morning time alone turned into a time to look out the window at the trees, rain, birds, monkeys, sloths, whatever was happening outside. I decided one morning to go outside and sit with Alison. She had her eyes closed. I looked at the landscape and the sky.
I'm not sure when sitting and looking turned into "meditating" or even if it has. But now Alison and I sit next to each other every morning. We sit outside unless it's cold. Alison's eyes are usually closed. Mine are usually open. She sits with her legs crossed. This is uncomfortable for me, so I sit on a zafu (or a yoga block, a thick book, or whatever) in "hero pose" with my shins and the tops of my feet flat on the ground. She wears her morning clothes. I wear as little as possible. She's always finished with her coffee. Sometimes I still have mine.
At some point I noticed that after 40 years of not being able to, I could breathe through my nose. When I first figured out how to breathe that way, I made lots of noise - my natural "nose breath" was what's called "ujjayi breath" in yoga and it's loud. I've finally learned to tone that down, so I can breathe without bothering Alison's practice. I breathe pretty slowly, about one breath every 30 seconds. I feel completely hollow when I'm following my breath, like there's nothing in my body except air. Even when I breathe out, there's nothing but air inside. My hips and legs feel like they're a long way away. I feel transparent.
A couple of years ago, my eyes started spontaneously defocussing during meditation. They don't stay that way long, but while they're defocussed the world turns into a pixelated map of blurry colors, with few if any boundaries between objects. This is interesting to me, because much of my scientific work is on how people see boundaries around objects, and hence how we see a world of "objects" at all. Babies have to learn to do this. Babies have pretty bad vision for the first few months, too, so maybe I'm seeing the world sort of like they do when my eyes defocus.
I seldom make any attempt to control what my mind is doing. It wanders all over the place, from noticing something going on - look, Alison, a fox! - to thinking about something I need to do, to wondering about some problem or other, to just going blank for awhile. Most of the ideas that I pursue in my work pop into my head during morning meditation. This makes sense. As we'll see in the next-to-last chapter, not thinking about a problem - not doing - is often the best way to solve it. In hindsight, I've realized that I've done this all along. I'm no good at concentration and "studying" has never worked for me. Even back in grad school - and probably before - solutions to puzzles would just arrive from nowhere when I was walking to work or out in the woods or on a long drive. Meditation is just a way of being alone. Alone with Nature, or the muse, or however you want to think of her.
Alison tells me I'm calmer and a bit nicer now. I don't swear at the pots and pans so much when I'm cooking. I'm still impatient, but maybe even that is starting to fade. We'll see. I'm probably healthier, too. In Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi's book Super Brain, some of the reasons why meditation is good for your current and future health are explored in depth. We'll talk with both of them later in this book and then briefly explore the neuroscience of meditation. But the bottom line is, stress hormones are bad for you. They kill neurons and other cells. They distract your brain from one of its most important jobs: keeping you healthy. Meditation - not doing - lets your brain get back to work.
The most important thing for me, though, is that my curiosity has increased, as has my sense that we haven't, ever, got the foggiest idea what's really going on. This increased sense of wonder I chalk up to meditation. It's good enough for me.
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