Last week I spent an hour and a half having my brain scanned in a Functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) device at the Cognitive Neuroscience of Thought Lab at UBC. I had agreed to participate in a study of long-term meditators in the Mahasi style of Buddhist meditation. While lying there, with my skull wrapped in a pillow and encased in a kind of helmet, I was asked to meditate, or simulate a meditative attitude anyway, observing the rising and falling of the abdomen and noticing what kinds of thoughts, or "events," were occurring in the mind.
I was directed to press a key with the index finger of my right hand as soon as I became aware of a sensation or a thought--something other than the breath, or the loud sounds of the scanner. The first stroke on the key indicated the event. The second stroke, on the appropriate key (index, middle, ring finger, or little finger), was supposed to indicate what kind of event had taken place: an image, a story (that is, something involving words), an emotion, or a sensation. Sometimes words flashed on the screen, visible in a mirror positioned above my head. "Heat," "itch," "memory," "future," and I was directed to press whichever key seemed to match.
What I noticed in the practice session on the previous day was the desire to demonstrate that I was a "good" meditator and could therefore perform the tasks well. Initially, I was confused about whether admitting that my attention moved from the sensations of the breath to other phenomena (and quite frequently too) would indicate poor concentration and reveal me as a failure in the realm of meditation. I decided, however, that the definition of mindfulness is knowing what is happening in the present moment. Whether the mind is steady on one object, or moves from object to object doesn't matter. The purpose of the study was to track what happened within a discreet period of meditation. What "events" were taking place?
Sensations were the easiest for me to be aware of, emotions most difficult. Images were pretty rare, and stories popped up fairly often. Watching where the mind goes is actually a very useful skill. It reveals the composite, shifting nature of human consciousness, moving between present-moment sensory experience to thoughts of the past or the future and then to vague or more distinct emotional states and sometimes to images, close-up, or wide-angle, of parts of my physical self. Seeing this flow is both humbling and liberating. It invites a whole new set of inquiries: Am I my mind? Am I my body? Is my body in my mind, or my mind in my body?
I thought I might be claustrophobic in the machine, but my curiosity about the experience outweighed my fear of claustrophobia, demonstrating that old stories and old habits are never as firmly lodged in my psyche as I think they are. They are not who I am. In other words, as one of my teachers says, "When the mind is still, myriad phenomena come forward to experience themselves." There is no need to identify with the contents of the mind, which arise and dissolve according to conditions. At the same time, however, seeing the random, impulsive nature of thought provides great impetus to generate wholesome states, like loving-kindness, mindfulness and investigation, so that the field out of which thought arises becomes increasingly and naturally one that reflects my deepest values.