Meditation: Beyond the Toggle Switch

Sometimes meditators fall asleep, not because they are tired but because the mind sometimes thinks all it has is a toggle switch, either on or off, awake or asleep. The idea of being fully awake and fully present with the eyes closed may make no sense to the mind at first, and as we know habitual behavior dies hard, so even experienced meditators may have resistance to exploring further.

Of course, you can meditate with the eyes open and in Zen Buddhism meditators are trained to have eyes open with a downward unfocused gaze. But even with our eyes closed, we can train our minds to start noticing all the subtle states possible besides simply being awake or asleep.

Yes, this training can be challenging. It is like learning how to be a wine connoisseur when you have no idea why anyone would want to do all that seemingly pretentious sniffing, swirling, sipping, and swishing. As meditators we have the potential to develop the same kind of subtle noticing that the true wine connoisseur is experiencing. And if you have taken the time out of your busy day to sit, you might as well savor it!

The meditation version of sniffing, swirling or sipping is to savor the present moment, creating an open, receptive field of awareness, then noticing what arises – thoughts, emotions, sensations – and opening to whatever is present in our experience with as much compassion and non-judgment as we can manage. Sometimes, especially at first, we may be overwhelmed by the thought or emotion and get lost in it. But at some point we notice we are lost, and then we compassionately set our intention to be present again.

If this whole process eludes you because you fall asleep, then you can give yourself practice in small bits at various times of the day when you know you will not fall asleep. When you are in a waiting room, for example. Close your eyes and simply notice what is. Notice sensation inside your body, notice sounds around you, notice where your energy is, notice any emotions arising, perhaps restlessness and impatience at having to wait. Whatever comes up in this brief little exploration is simply exercise, training the mind to discern the subtleties of experience beyond the on and off of the toggle switch.

Now the concept of a toggle switch has application beyond learning to meditate without falling asleep. When we check out when it comes to bodily sensation rather than sense in, we miss out on vital information, the body’s wealth of wisdom, that can give us guidance in our lives. For example, when we have an important decision to make, our ability to notice if our jaw clenches or our stomach gets queasy at one choice and our heart gladdens and our shoulders lighten at another, allows us to make the right decision with greater ease and better results. Even a decision that looks good on paper can be the wrong decision if our body response is negative. We may find that we sabotage the choice taken because it ‘made sense’ instead of a choice that our senses agreed with. And when we follow the paper trail choice we often cause suffering to ourselves and others. We want to make choices in life that sing clearly throughout our whole body, whole hearted choices that help us thrive.

You may well ask why does the body often have a different take on things than our brains? Our bodies are freed from the concerns about what we think we should do, what others around us would think if we did this, any sense of obligation or guilt, any sense of numbness out of habit. Of course, the body has its own issues, hormones for example, and it isn’t familiar with the law (though it usually is intuitively ethical), so we need to be aware and take that into consideration. We’re not throwing logic or common sense out the window!

For some people this sensing in to the body is difficult. In our culture this ‘touchy-feely’ stuff has been actively discouraged and effectively trained out of us. In this conditioned state, we stay in our heads and steer clear of our senses. The minute we register a hint of pain, the toggle switch in our brain sets off a mental pattern that courses through, pushing panic buttons that say things like, “Oh pain, I hate pain, I remember what pain is, why is this happening to me? How long will this go on? How can I get rid of this pain?” All this happens instantaneously. The very idea of slowing down to sniff, swirl or sip the experience, to sense into the pain seems ludicrous. Instead of checking in with the body, we are conditioned to simply check out. Thus we have incredibly busy brains struggling to find formulaic solutions to problems that the body could help us solve in a moment of sensing in.

Through meditation we relearn the natural skill of sensing in to the body that we have been conditioned to ignore. We may notice that this sensation, previously labeled pain and filed away, is not just one thing, one terrifying concept, but a whole symphony of changing sensations. In this way, we allow ourselves to slow down and learn the language of the body beyond the toggle switch.

When we can’t sense into our bodies in this way, when we shut down when pain hits and go on automatic pilot mode, we are trapped in a tight cage of fear that creates incredible suffering, what in Buddhism is called dukkha. (See January posts on the First Noble Truth.) Shutting down might seem like a good response, a way of self-medicating for the duration. But what about chronic pain? Must we be numbed out forever?

And something else to consider is that when we use this shut down response for pain, we also unfortunately cannot truly experience physical pleasure, because we shut down our ability to be fully sensate in all forms. When the mind is trained to shut down at sensory overload, it doesn’t distinguish pain from pleasure, it is all sensation.

One benefit not much mentioned about meditation is the increasing ability to fully enjoy the sensory pleasures of the body. In the first place, our minds are fully present to enjoy it. We are not making to do lists but fully experiencing the sensation. But also, by intentionally listening in and honoring the body’s wisdom, we avail ourselves of being more intensely aware of every subtle nuance of pleasurable sensation. Sounds good? Meditate regularly!

Now this is not a cult of the body, nor about seeking out pleasure. It is just acknowledging that the body has some wisdom the mind on its own can miss, caught up as it is in synapse patterns of fear. By practicing awareness of the body’s response to our experience and our thoughts, we develop useful tools for coping with the challenges of life. By getting beyond the toggle switch, we see much more clearly all the subtle layers of life.

We have been studying creativity for a number of weeks now, and this idea of the toggle switch has application here as well. Fully inhabiting our bodies allows our creative expression to rise out of felt experience. We can allow the body’s wisdom to help us in choosing a color or a word. We can notice when we are tightening up out of fear, and we can either allow that noticing to be the basis for a creative exploration, sensing in further, asking some questions, noticing associations, or we can offer ourselves some relaxation techniques. Either way we have insight.

In the arts we often explore painful material. Last week I found myself writing a poem about scattering my mothers ashes. When it came time to read the poem in class, I had to turn it over to a classmate to finish, because I was so overcome with tears. Staying in touch with the bodily sensations, I was able to access the experience. Staying in touch with the bodily sensations, I was able to weather the storm of emotion it brought forth without getting lost in it. Even being able to savor it, the bitter sweetness of still missing my mother, and being able to let it go as it passed.

Tapping into the wisdom of the bodily sensations is a rich way of beginning any creative session. Allowing ourselves to really notice what arises, the sensations that come up in response to the thoughts and emotions that stream through. Sensing in, and allowing that process to inform our decisions and our explorations enriches the whole process of creating and of fully living our lives, beyond the limitations of the toggle switch.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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