For about 35 years I had some deluded notions about meditation.
Back then I embraced a teaching that said meditation was about concentrating at the eye center (third eye, basically) so one's mind/soul could enter higher realms of mystical consciousness.
Now I realize that this wasn't what genuine meditation really is all about. A book that I've gotten back to reading, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body" has helped me understand this.
I bought this book in September 2017, wrote a rather critical blog post about it in April 2018 ("Awareness is a process, not a thing") and recently read a couple of additional chapters that make me feel considerably more positive about the book.
Here's some highlights from those chapters, which describe what happened when the brains of some highly experienced meditators, both Buddhist monks and others, were examined through modern scientific devices: EEG and fMRI. The key theme here is Open Presence.
Researchers found that the brain waves of Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk, were off the charts when it came to his ability to almost instantly enter a state of compassionate meditation. But those spikes diminished, yet didn't disappear, when he went into a rest period. Thus his brain had acquired a lasting trait, not just the ability to enter into temporary states of consciousness.
When another researcher tested whether Mingyur could generate an elaborate visual image or had extrasensory perception, he flunked both tests. Here's a passage from Altered Traits about this.
Mingyur, it turned out, had done no practice with visualization since the long-gone, early years of his practice. As time went on, his meditations evolved. His current method, ongoing open presence (which expressed itself as kindness in everyday life), encourages letting go of any and all thoughts rather than generating any specific visual images.
...As for "extrasensory perception," Mingyur had never claimed to have such supernormal powers. Indeed, the texts of his tradition made clear that any fascination with such abilities was a detour, a dead end on the path.
Which is exactly my experience, though I make no claim to being anywhere near as experienced with meditation as Mingyur is. What we're trying to do in meditation is experience reality as it is, not as religious fantasies make it out to be.
An eighteenth-century Tibetan text urges meditators to practice "on whatever harms come your way," adding, "When sick, practice on that sickness... When cold, practice on that coldness. By practicing in this way all situations will arise as meditation."
...Mingyur Rinpoche, likewise, encourages making all sensation, even pain, our "friend," using it as a basis for meditation. Since the essence of meditation is awareness, any sensation that anchors attention can be used as support -- and pain can be very effective in focusing.
...Each yogi (including Mingyur) was compared to a meditation-naive volunteer matched for age and gender. For a week before they came to be studied, the volunteers learned to generate an "open presence," an attentional stance of letting whatever life presents us come and go, without adding thoughts or emotional reactions. Our senses are fully aware, and we just stay aware of what happens without getting carried away by any downs or ups.
When the yogis and volunteers were tested to see how they reacted to a 10-second slight warming of a firey device, followed by a 10-second blast of hotness, the control groups' pain matrix in the brain reacted almost as strongly to the slight warming as it did when the high heat came on.
So their "anticipatory anxiety" caused them distress even before the real pain arrived. By contrast, the experienced meditators showed little change when the plate warmed just a little.
But during the actual moments of intense heat the yogis had a surprising heightened response, mainly in the sensory areas that receive the genuine feel of a stimulus -- the tingling, pressure, high heat, and other raw sensations on the skin of the wrist where the hot plate rested. The emotional regions of the pain matrix activated a bit, but not as much as the sensory circuitry.
This suggests a lessening of the psychological component -- like the worry we feel in anticipation of pain -- along with intensification of the pain sensations themselves. Right after the heat stopped, all the regions of the brain matrix rapidly returned down to their levels before the pain cue, far more quickly than was the case for the controls.
For the highly advanced meditators, the recovery from pain was almost as though nothing much had happened at all.
Pretty inspiring. This shows that the human brain/mind is capable of more than most people are able to express, or experience. Yet this capacity isn't supernatural, divine, or godly. Here's some final quotes from Altered Traits.
We can only make conjectures about what state of consciousness this reflects: yogis like Mingyur seem to experience an ongoing state of open, rich awareness during their daily lives, not just when they meditate. The yogis themselves have described it as a spaciousness and vastness in their experience, as if all their senses were wide open to the full rich panorama of experience.
Or, as a fourteenth-century Tibetan text describes it,
...a state of bare, transparent awareness.
Effortless and brilliantly vivid, a state of relaxed, rootless wisdom;
Fixation free and crystal clear, a state without the slightest reference point;
Spacious empty clarity, a state-wide-open and unconfined; the senses unfettered...