The Middle Way: Working with Neurological Diversity

Continuing our discussion of the Middle Way, we recognized that there is no one Middle Way for everyone. Rick Hanson’s book Buddha’s Brain talks about neurological diversity, the wide range of tendencies of temperament we were born with, influenced by our culture and life experiences. Understanding this natural variation provides us with the opportunity to more compassionately accept our way of being in the world without beating ourselves up about it, and to be more compassionate with others who clearly operate differently.

But, Hanson also says that we can work with our brains, through concentration practices, to develop skills to find more balanced, less extreme neurological patterns. In other words, the Middle Way.

There is a chart on page 181 of Buddha’s Brain that shows the range of neurological diversity in three aspects of attention: The capacity to hold onto information, the ability to update awareness, and the desire to seek stimulation. We used this chart in class to identify where we are in the three different aspects of neurological diversity. This recognition can help each of us to both accept and challenge our tendencies.

Acceptance of something in our nature does not make us a slave to it nor does it give us a permission slip for unskillful behavior. In fact, acceptance opens us to become more aware of the tendency and to see how it impacts our lives and the lives of those around us. Seeing it as innate, we can let go of any guilt or shame around it. We were born with it, we didn’t create it. If we recognize a way in which it as a product of the culture in which we were raised, or as a product of a specific experience or set of experiences in our own lives, we can see the tendency and its roots more clearly. Beginning to see the workings of our mind, our way of being in the world more clearly, with less sense of having to defend ourselves, is a welcome breakthrough. So Hanson’s chart is a useful tool for exploration.

One thing I’ve noticed in exploring this chart and identifying my own tendencies is that they are really just tendencies. The highs and lows are places I might go if I am tired or feeling overwhelmed in some way, or if I go through a period where I’m not keeping up a meditative practice, as one time when I was traveling – I could literally watch my tendencies unravel and reveal themselves anew.

In class, one student said, and others agreed, that given certain circumstances she has at one time or another experienced all the extremes on the chart, from the obsessiveness to concentration fatigue in the category of ‘Holding onto Information;” from distractibility to obliviousness in the category of “Updating Awareness;” and from hyperactivity to lethargy in the category of ‘Seeking Stimulation.”

(If you do not have this book and don’t feel able to purchase it at this time, email me and I will send you a copy of the chart to make this discussion more meaningful for you. I would not feel comfortable publishing it online, since it is not mine to do. However, I do feel comfortable, when teaching from the book, sharing an excerpt with my students, and I think Rick Hanson, as a meditation teacher, would agree with that.)

Another student was bothered by the fact that all the terms in the high and low range in each category were pejorative: “Over-focusing, Thrill seeking, Fixed views, etc.” while all the moderate terms were positive: “Good concentration, Mental Flexibility, Enthusiasm, Adaptibility.” She asked what was wrong with the term ‘adventurous’ instead of thrill seeking. She has taken on the assignment of finding other less negative terms that might suit. I agree there is room for ‘adventurous,’ but perhaps it is in between the high and the moderate. We all know from our own experience that operating at the extremes is not just an interesting variation of character trait; it can actually be destructive or dangerous. A thrill-seeker can use poor judgment in pursuit of a challenge. A tendency toward apathy or stuckness can also be suicidal. So I think it is reasonable that these terms exist at each end of the spectrum.

One of the main benefits of meditation is to bring us into this more moderate range where we find we have good concentration, mental flexibility, enthusiasm and adaptability more of the time. This is the Middle Way. It comes as a surprise and relief to find that while tendencies toward being obsessive or experiencing concentration fatigue, distractibility or obliviousness, hyperactivity or lethargy are not unusual, we are also not locked into them forever. They are just tendencies. They don’t define or confine us.

As we become more aware of a tendency in ourselves or in others — children, employees, students, patients — we can see the tendency for what it is, letting go of harsh judgments, and we can see how it might be put to good use in career choices, for example. Being over-focused is a quality we might want in our accountant, for example. Knowing tendencies helps us adapt information sharing to a tendency-related learning style.

Acceptance of these tendencies and working with them is great. But we can also challenge our tendencies. According to Hanson, the brain is malleable. With practice in the areas of awareness and focus, the brain develops new ways of seeing and being.

If you have the book, look at page 181 and look over this chart in each of the three columns and make note of any that you recognize as yours.

Choose one tendency that resonates with you the strongest right now to be your focus for inner exploration over the coming weeks. Just make this choice intuitively and quickly, without worrying if it is truly accurate, or only true to a slight degree. If it resonates in any way, just take it. It’s just an exercise.

Your practice will be to notice how this tendency impacts your life. When you notice yourself reacting to a situation, pause to consider if and how this tendency is involved.

You might want to jot down these examples as they arise to get an even clearer picture of what goes on. This is the path of insight that provides incredible opportunities for growth through inner exploration. You don’t need your Sherlock Holmes outfit. You don’t need to do any inner historical survey of past behavior. Just stay present, and when something resonant comes up, make note.

Due to these neurological variations, each of us learns and works in different ways. As we’ve seen in our class over the years, each of us finds we respond better to different ways of practicing meditation. That’s why in leading the meditation in each class, I am always offering new ways to explore how we can each best maintain alertness and stay present with whatever arises. Over the course of the past few years, each meditator has had the opportunity to develop a toolbox of techniques that work for her. There is no one right way to meditate that will be effective for every individual. And this chart clearly shows us why that is so.

Lest you feel resistant to the idea of inner work or transformation, let me just share this example of inner transition that has nothing to do with meditation, but captures the spirit of doing inner work:

A few years ago, a friend of mine would be exhausted after reading a few pages of a book. Today he finds reading enjoyable, sometimes addictive. How did this change happen? He didn’t force himself to read. He simply challenged his assumption that he couldn’t do it. He gave himself the opportunity to read on a regular basis, stopped when he got tired, and over the course of time found that, without efforting, just by providing himself with regular opportunity, he became an enthusiastic reader, able to maintain attention and read multiple chapters, when before he would burn out after a few pages.

This is how we develop the ability to meditate. It’s really just a matter of being willing to show up on a regular basis. We don’t force ourselves, but we offer ourselves the opportunity. Again and again. And eventually, we find that the practice becomes easier and more nourishing.

Since we are individual in our tendencies, each of you is invited to request a one-on-one session with me occasionally to discuss how meditation is going for you, and get help with refining your practice to better meet your needs. Some of you have done this and say it has transformed your practice. This is offered to both regular students and to blog readers. It is offered on a dana basis, as are the classes.

Okay, back to the book. Buddha’s Brain is chock full of really valuable information, but because it has no index, I’ve experienced some frustration in doing research. “Now where did I see the bit about the basal ganglia?” etc. What I have not found in my searching is specific meditation style recommendations for each of the extremes in all three categories, only general recommendations standard in any book or class on meditation. If it’s in there, I haven’t found it, because, did I mention there is no index?

However, over the years of meditating and teaching meditation, I have had a lot of experience in fine-tuning the practice to many personality types, though I haven’t before labeled them in just this way. So I will attempt here to provide some suggestions for each extreme.

In each case, I think it is valuable to first find a practice that works with the tendency, and then a practice that would challenge the tendency. Working with the tendency makes it more likely to become comfortable and regular in meditative practice. Once the practice has become a regular part of life, then experimenting with ways to challenge the tendency will help bring us into the Middle Way.

So I will use the neurological diversity aspects defined in Buddha’s Brain, providing specific meditation suggestions for each extreme. These are just suggestions. Feel free to come up with your own as well.

Holding Information
High – Obsessive, over-focused
With this tendency, following the instruction to stay focused on one object – the breath, for example – seems quite easy. We may not see what all the fuss is about. Or we may find that we cannot shift easily into meditation from the particular thought we have been focused on. In this case we can practice different means of gently but firmly setting the thought aside for now. This might be simply reminding ourselves that the thought will be available to focus on after meditation. Or if we don’t want to return to it, we can simply focus on holding the thought with warmth and compassion, encouraging our awareness of it to be more all encompassing, able to see it as just a thought, not intrinsic to our being.

Hanson doesn’t use the word perfectionism here, but I can’t helping thinking obsessiveness is the need to make everything perfect in some way. To challenge this tendency we might focus on relaxation techniques, letting go of any sense of goal or accomplishment, sending metta to ourselves, bathing ourselves in complete acceptance, and practicing creating a spacious mental field for thoughts to arise and fall away without such focused attention. I would also encourage walks in nature with special attention on the ‘imperfections’ and how totally acceptable and natural they are, perhaps even bringing home a sample of such ‘imperfection,’ like a gnawed on leaf, and let that be a point of focus and potential insight.

Low – Small working memory, concentration fatigue
Keeping instruction clear and simple is key. Here is my three part easy to learn practice, using the three key words: tension, intention and attention. Whenever you notice the mind has wandered, bring your awareness back to the body, releasing any tension that has built up.

Then set your intention. I find this works best by feeling the support of the earth beneath you and pulling it up throughout your body on an inhalation, especially feeling it coming up the vertical channel of your spine (giving yourself some backbone). If it helps, think of how the Buddha touched the earth, saying ‘the earth is my witness.’ Imagine the earth supporting you in your practice. It is not unreasonable to think the earth does want us to become more in tune with the nature of things, to be more open hearted, compassionate and clear seeing. Let that support firm up your intention.

Then focus the attention on the breath or another sensation. Meditate for very short periods at first, then gradual increase the length of your meditation over time, thus challenging this tendency and developing an ability to concentrate.

Updating Awareness
High – Porous filters, distractibility, sensory overload

If we are easily overwhelmed in meditation by thoughts, or find guidance by a teacher to be too much, we need to find a strong anchor within our meditation that we can return to again and again. This anchor can be the breath, or it can be a phrase that we repeat when our mind wanders.

It could be a single word. I find the word ‘or’ to be incredibly powerful, because wherever my mind has wandered, I can always answer my thinking mind with the phrase ‘…OR I could focus on the breath.’ It helps me to know that there is this solid option. This option oriented word actually works with the distractible mind, giving it the feeling of a multitude of options, while really gently but firmly encouraging a narrowing of focus to the important task at hand: staying in the present moment.

Through practice, the miasma of thoughts becomes less overwhelming. The tangle becomes more spacious and we can begin to see the source of the thoughts and the associative connections. Insights arise. Aha! It becomes more a sea of thoughts we can skillfully swim through with compassionate curiosity. With practice we may find we can keep our head above water for longer and longer periods, or even mount a surfboard with which we navigate the waves without getting dunked in them, aware of the sea of thoughts rather than drowning in it.

Low – Fixed views, obliviousness, flat learning curve
With this tendency we might not be open to meditation at all. If we are, we have a clear idea of what it is and what is required. Assuming we meditate, we begin where we are, taking advantage of any habitual tendencies we have. We set up our practice; we adopt the techniques that we believe in. We are not lacking in intention or dedication, so this part is relatively easy.

But we may well be lacking in ability to release tension, to relax, to open, to simply be. We may be lacking in compassion for ourselves and others. So within our practice, we challenge ourselves to really pay attention to bodily sensation and to relax and release muscular tension in our neck, jaw, shoulders or elsewhere. Throughout the meditation we can return to this task again and again, because the tension will build up again.

We can release tension even more effectively by developing soothing techniques, telling ourselves we are loved and lovable just as we are. We don’t need to be ‘right’ to be loved. We can begin to incorporate play into our meditation, experimenting with insights that challenge our need to know everything. We may begin to discover the joyous freedom of the Don’t Know Mind. We might experiment with concepts that are initially frightening to us, like No Self, which is really just challenging the idea of boundaries that keep us separate from the world around us, that lock us out of the richness of fully experiencing life. And as we explore the edges and the dissolving of edges, we might find ourselves allowing for the possibility of there being other ways to think about things that are equally as valid as our own. We might let go of the need to convert others to our way of thinking. We might develop a curiosity about all the variations and develop a thirst for learning that surprises us.

Seeking Stimulation
High – Hyperactivity, thrill seeking

If we need a lot of stimulation, then we give ourselves that by using a technique that is very active – chanting, counting, repeating a mantra, etc. But eventually, once we have an established practice, we want to begin challenging our tendency. In this example, we might challenge ourselves to find a sensation we can become curious about, really noticing the variations in our breath, for example. We could do some combination within a meditation period, starting with what’s easy and introducing what’s more challenging for increasing periods of time.

Low – Stuckness, apathy, lethargy
This tendency has relaxation down pat. But we may find ourselves sleeping a good deal of our meditative practice. We want to be sure to practice at the time of day we are least likely to fall asleep. Using our tendency, we can really sink into the senses in our body that capture that lethargy. We can focus on loving-kindness, feeling ourselves wrapped in a sense of warmth and kindness. In this cocoon that is a safer version of the cocoon we are already in, we can begin to investigate the subtle sensations, thoughts and emotions that arise.

As we become more practiced at creating this sense of loving kindness, we can expand it, sending it out into the world, developing a greater capacity to reach out, connect and care. As we do this, we empower ourselves, and that sense of empowerment offers us strength and clarity. Eventually we are ready for greater challenges, and we bring in concentration practices.

After this talk we had a good discussion, stimulated by the following questions:
Do you see your own patterns in each of the three categories on the Buddha’s Brain chart?
What techniques are in your meditation toolbox that have been most useful?
How does the technique that works best for you reflect your tendencies?
How does it challenge your tendencies?

As we meditate on a regular basis, we may begin to come into balance, finding our own Middle Way.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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