Activating the Forebrain using Open Spaces
This is something that came to me recently while writing the new jhana guide.
Meditation can be seen, in a very basic way, as the skilful use of the front brain (neocortex) to subdue and reprogram the back brain (the more emotionally-erratic reptile brain and limbic system).
In a normal setting (when one is psychologically stable), activating the front brain is pretty easy: you focus upon a single event or idea (e.g. the breath) which the left frontal lobe turns into a consistent, stable object. The right frontal lobe soon follows suit and provides space around the object in which it can breathe, and you are said to be in jhana at this point. Any noise emanating from the back of the brain is deemed irrelevant to the current experience of the object and is “pruned off” — which is felt as delicious, healing energies.
However, an emotional trauma tends to bog you down in the recesses of the back brain, draining energy and leaving you in ongoing cycles of rumination about the event that caused the trauma. These thoughts are almost all useless, and are based in bodily pain. The front brain becomes a lot less active during this time, giving rise to familiar symptoms such as inability to think clearly, reduced sensory appreciation for colours and tastes, and a reduced capacity for pleasure (or to really feel things you know you usually like). The time spent in this state depends upon your psychological constitution, but is also affected by factors such as physical health and the effectiveness of any coping techniques you may apply.
I have known since the death of my father earlier this year that traumatic events have the capacity to really shut down jhana practice. It’s like you are running straight into a brick wall when trying to get the forebrain activity required to enter jhana. I have seen it at times as turning the key in the ignition and hearing the “dah-dah-dah-dah-dah” of the spark plugs trying to ignite the mixture — but then nothing happening. The forebrain receives the signal to start up, but just refuses to comply. In the case of my father’s death, I had to switch to a more basic mindfulness and insight-based meditation until the sadness passed and I could get jhana again (which is one reason the guide has been held up for so long). This is one reason, I believe, that monks go and live in the mountains for years — to avoid real life “getting in the way” of practice.
I had a minor emotional trauma recently which, while no big deal, was enough to give this familiar “brain fog” feeling while trying to enter jhana. I was really sick of hitting that brick wall, so tried a variety of meditation techniques and objects to try to break through it. Finally the one that I found to work is as follows:
- Get out the house, go for a walk, and find the most wide-open space you can. Nature is best, but even a huge car park will do if you can’t get outside the urban sphere.
- First, get a sense of the widefield. Breathe while taking in the vast spaciousness of it all. Spend some time on this part. The widefield focus is turning on the right frontal lobe.
- Second, pick an object in the distance. Focus on that and get some access concentration on it, as you would an object in jhana. The narrowfield focus is turning on the left frontal lobe.
- This has created activation in both frontal lobes using the environment as an external stimulus (rather than activating them internally, as in normal sitting practice). This should begin to give that breathy, “free” feeling you should recognize from jhana. Absorb into those feelings as long as time allows, so you can take them home with you.
Back at home, two things have made it easier to trigger this forebrain activation in my sitting practice. The first is visualizing an open field, then absorbing into both the visual and the feelings it generates simultaneously. The second, slightly different method, is just to use an eyes-open object placed in the middle distance. So, if you have a coloured disc or other visual totem, place it on a shelf at head height in the middle distance and do an eyes-open jhana with that as the object. The principle is the same as the open field: that, in a subdued state, it is easier to turn on the forebrain via external, environmental stimulus (particularly visual) than it is to work with internal objects such as the breath.
The use of open external physical spaces to create internal emotional space around one’s problems is a primary facet of nature and solitude as a healing modality — one which has been practised for millennia, and which should be engaged in regularly.