I recently realized something about meditating, which hadn’t clicked for me before.
I already had a vague understanding that the mind and the body are connected and that science backs that up. I knew that there was some kind of biological justification for why we bring attention to both our mind and our body when we meditate. But I recently read a passage from Tara Brach’s book True Refuge, which helped make this connection clearer to me.
I thought it might be worth passing this along, because, after finding out about this connection, I’ve started to place more emphasis on the physical sensations that arise when I meditate. And after I started doing that, my experience of meditation has felt even more therapeutic than it did before.
The connection I’m going to describe may already be obvious to some people, but I think it might be a new idea to others who, like me, hadn’t already made this connection.
So, here’s the idea –
When we meditate, we aspire to include an integrated awareness of both our mind and our body.
The scientific justification for why we do that seems to be rooted in the idea that neurons that fire together, wire together1.
Tara Brach quotes this idea in True Refuge and goes on to explain that,
“If we are unaware of the anxiety in our bodies, we will identify with the felt sense of endangerment or craving, which will generate a new cycle of obsessive thinking.”
So, when we meditate, if we don’t bring awareness to the physical aspect of our experience in addition to the mental aspect of our experience, we risk getting pulled back into a cycle of obsessive thinking. This is because of how our neural circuitry works – because neurons that fire together wire together.
When we meditate, part of what we’re trying to do is to bring awareness to the full scope of our present moment experience and then to allow our experience to be just as it is, without fighting against it. When we’re able to sit with our full experience without aversion to any aspect of it, our experience starts to feel less overwhelming. We begin to feel more balanced and we get back some agency — it starts to feel more possible to choose how to respond to what’s happening in our life.
But, if we just focus on bringing awareness to our thoughts and emotions and neglect to bring awareness to the physical sensations in our body, we risk instinctually fighting against the physical aspect of our experience. If we’re accepting our thoughts and emotions, and allowing them, while still tensing against what’s arising in our body, our neural circuity is still being sent signals about the tension in our body. If we leave that tension in our body unexamined, we risk having a new wave of painful thoughts and emotions that get triggered by the neural circuitry that’s associated with our unexamined physical tension.
So, if this idea is true, then when we’re fighting against any part of our present moment experience, or even when we’re simply unaware of some part of our present experience, we can end up being pulled back into the grip of a painful mental loop. We can get stuck in a trance of suffering.
Therefore, when we meditate, we should aspire towards an integrated awareness. We should intentionally notice what’s arising in both our mind and our body. We know that we’re supposed to do this – almost all guided meditations encourage us to do so – but this explanation for why we do this, can help us remember that a simultaneous awareness of both our mental and our physical experience is crucial to the therapeutic aspect of meditation.
When we bring awareness to the full scope of our experiences, meditation becomes a more effective coping tool.
- The Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb popularized this idea in the 1950s. It’s been elaborated on in the scientific literature in the decades since.