How to: Fourfold Breath Meditation

This is a form of simple breath meditation. You will choose a count which you will use for each of the four phases of a breath. So, for example, during a full inhalation, count to four. Then hold the breath for a count of four. Next exhale gently but fully to a count of 4. Hold the lungs empty for a count of four. Then repeat the cycle for between ten and fifteen minutes.

If a count of four is too rapid to allow for full inhalation and exhalation with full diaphragmatic breathing, then extend the count to six or to eight. Keep the count for each of the breath phases the same.

This is not a marathon, so keep the counts low enough to be comfortable and peaceful throughout the cycle. No need to strain. You may find that you can extend the count comfortably after a few weeks of practice if you wish.

After daily practice for a few weeks, how does this compare to the the Simple Breath Meditation described earlier? Any interesting experiences arise? If so, what phase of the cycle were they most commonly found?

Epiphenomenalism

The version of mind brain interaction most popular in neuroscience these days is a version of physical monism called epiphenomenalism. Some form of epiphenomenalism is essentially required from a physical monist perspective to account for anything resembling mind or qualia. This perspective describes an emergence of consciousness or mind from the biological complexity of the brain. Hoffstadter and others assume this perspective, and argue that new phenomenon arise from complexity in many physical systems. Examples often given include the complexity of fluid motion not being clearly predictable from the observation of a single water molecule. Other philosophers find the concept so revolting that they don’t even dignify it as a legitimate perspective at all.

Arguments from complexity do create interesting an interesting delima, however. If the number of molecules in the Empire State Building meet a critical number, could they interact in a manner analogous to consciousness? If the number of Chinese in China reach a critical mass, does the country itself gain the quality of consciousness? David Chalmers and others argue that, in fact, China would become a conscious being at the level of a nation due only to complexity itself. Each person would have at least the interactivity of a neuron, and if enough interacted that would mirror neural nets, and if the total reached a critical mass then “consciousness” would arise. Although the experts who defend the complexity argument are forced to this position in order to maintain a coherent perspective, it is an increasingly difficult position to reasonably defend, in my opinion. What might be defined as the consciousness of a country or other large aggregate of interacting materials seems woefully different than what each of us experience as consciousness on a day to day basis, largely based upon the difficulty of defining who or what might actually experience that form of consciousness.

A key foundation of the principle of epiphenomenalism is the assumption that consciousness is an unintended byproduct of neuronal complexity. The corollary of this assumption is that consciousness, or perhaps mind, flows from the biology of the system, and could not even in theory control or alter the biological system itself, given that it is an unintended byproduct. Recent studies employing brain scanning technology bring this a priori assumption into serious question.

Mind Stuff, Brain Stuff, or What?

Western thought has wrestled with the concept of whether such things as brains and minds are one in the same, some version of monism, or whether they are distinct and separate, some version of dualism.

Rene Descartes, a prominent French philosopher, was an intellectual giant in his day. He created the “cartesian plane” which bears his name, which you may recall from high school algebra. He started a philosophical enquiry into the nature of reality by starting from a position of extreme skepticism, eliminating all dogma and based upon belief with only that which was self evident. He arrived at the famous phrase, often quoted, of “I think, therefore I am.” A brief series of other “self-evident” statements led to his suggesting a strong form of dualism, suggesting that physical reality and mental [spiritual] reality were entirely separate realities. The social ramifications of this conclusion freed science from the chains of church mediated versions of pseudo-science. Freeing scientific inquiry from religious dogma led to the technological and scientific revolutions, the fruits of which we enjoy today. From a practical standpoint, this dualistic philosophy of Descartes allowed science control over the study of the measurable and physical, but left religious authorities in control of matters related to the spirit.

Intuitively, dualism, at least in the West, feels so natural and experientially real: we experience sensations, emotions, and ideas, we don’t experience brain waves or brain chemicals in a direct way. It is so intuitively appealing, that although this strict form of dualism has substantial problems, it is often the manner in which we live.

Yet, the dualism of Descartes left one giant question: how does an immaterial mind affect the physical brain [and the reverse]? That difficult, if not impossible question, led many more recent theorists to propose some version of monism: mind and brain as identical. Various models of biological monism remain in vogue with neuroscientists. The most radical version of this espoused by Daniel Dennett even suggests that subjective experience does not even exist, and likens it to an illusion of subjective experience. That seems a rather high price to pay for an answer to dualism’s problems.

Mental monism was suggested by Bishop Berkeley, and known as Idealism. Mental monism declares the entire physical world a complete illusion with the only truly real being the thought or idea. Berkeley suggested this theory in response to what he perceived as the inappropriate emphasis on physical reductionism.

There is [rather amazingly] no experiment which could be performed, even in theory, that can actually refute the claims of any of these three perspectives: neuroscience tends to make the assumption of biological reductionism, but that a priori assumption does not prove truth. An open mind, therefore, is a prerequisite to exploring the more insightful questions.

Eastern philosophy largely escapes the questions of dualism versus monism, in that it assumes that the level of physical reality is distorted by the Veil of Maya. In that model, everything is the result of a monism of consciousness being interpreted as a dualistic universe by instruments as primitive as the five senses, the brain and general awareness. Such a solution is inherent in interpretations of the Qabalah as well, with monism implied the highest levels, but dualism required in lower physical realms.

How to: A Simple Circular Breath Meditation

Back to practical experiential exercises: Little is so primary to human life as the intake of breath to provide oxygen. The earlier breath exercise was to allow focus upon the breath without altering its natural flow. Although that exercise is quite useful to monitor your conscious awareness, and to withdraw awareness from the outside world a bit, other practices involve specific patterns of inhalation and exhalation to aid in the creation of meditative states of awareness.

This simple circular breath is perhaps one of the easiest of these methods.

Sit down and allow thoughts of the day to fade. Observe the breath as it naturally flows for a few moments. Close your eyes.

When ready inhale slowly but comfortably. Make sure that first the abdomen expands, then the chest, then the tips of the shoulder. This full breath fills the entire lung space. Don’t neglect to expand the abdomen first. Reverse this sequence for the exhalation and try to empty the lungs completely by pulling the abdomen in at the end of the exhale.

For this particular breath exercise, count the number of seconds of the inhalation, do not pause, immediately start the exhalation for exactly the same number of seconds as the inhalation. Again, do not pause at the end of exhalation, but start the next inhalation which should also last for the same number of seconds. The breath is similar to a large circle with the inhalation being half, and the exhalation being the other half, with no breath holds at any point. Keep the breath flowing in this cycle for ten to fifteen minutes to start.

How does this practice feel different from the earlier one? Do the results of practice differ?

Find a comfortable number of seconds for the inhalation/exhalation: don’t struggle or strain, and don’t slow the cycle to a point of feeling “air hunger.” It’s a relaxation exercise and a refocusing of awareness, not an endurance test!

The Experience of Different Brainwaves

 There are several generally recognized brainwave patterns within the brain which can be measured with EEG technologies. Each of these brainwaves correlates with different experiential realities. Most of us in the Western world experience only three levels of awareness: awake, asleep with dreaming, and asleep without dreaming. The normal sleep cycle includes Alpha, Theta, and Delta waves in special sequences throughout the night, in sequence with a dreaming pattern called REM [rapid eye movement]. We usually sleep through brainwave patterns other than active waking Beta brainwaves, and thus rarely experience some of the expanded awarenesses available to us as humans.

The names of the brainwaves relate to the electrical frequency generated by brain activity as measured by electrodes placed on the head. There is nothing better or worse about any particular pattern, but each has a distinct experiential quality which is useful for various life tasks.

The Beta brainwave state is involved with thinking, cognitive activity, work, driving and goal focused activity. It is necessary and useful to technological progress, and general daily functioning. If you think about your frantic daily schedule, work deadlines, or a shopping list, your brain is probably functioning in this range of electrical activity. Although an essential part of daily life, it’s contents would also include stress inducing material!

Alpha brainwaves begin in the eyes-closed state, and become more coherent across the brain hemispheres in meditative practice. The Alpha state typically increases a sense of relaxation, and in the sleep-deprived western world, many will fall into sleep states rapidly. If you’re “fading out” in a boring meeting, sitting back in a state of calm, or just starting to feel relaxed right before falling asleep, this is likely an Alpha state.

Theta brainwaves are slower than Alpha and in this brainwave pattern ecstatic states, dream like visions, out of body experiences, and a significant lessening of physical pain are common. Characteristic is a lack of awareness of the sensations of the physical body. Creative insights also occur in the mental space here, and amazing breakthrough discoveries begin here. Examples include Kekule’s insight about the structure of benzene, Einstein’s “thought experiment” about light, and Mendeleev’s vision of the periodic table of elements. More on creativity at another time. . . .

Delta brainwaves are expressed deep sleep, usually far outside of awareness. When conscious at this brainwave state, the experience is often of a pure empty void, described in several meditative traditions as an experience of the full infinity of nothingness that is at the same time full of possibility. Carl Jung made reference to this as the “Pleroma” of Gnostic traditions. Buddhist meditators simply refer to it as the void.

Meditation practice leads the meditator to remain consciously aware at these various brainwave states in a process unlike any other. Ken Wilber notes that as meditative practice progresses over time, one first experiences quiet relaxation [Alpha], then a reverie of creative imagery [Theta] followed by absolute silence and/or one-ness [Delta]. If you want to understand meditative experience in the context of brain physiology, this is an excellent place to start. Functional brain imaging is the next step at this level of understanding.

I’ll tell you about some of the amazing findings about a newly described brainwave pattern, called Gamma, in a later post. The findings about this make a substantial argument against biological reductionism in neuroscience, and thus, should not be underestimated.