This Pearls Before Swine comic humorously sums up my evolving approach to meditation. Which, as you can read below, also is the approach favored by my new favorite mindfulness teacher, Amit Sood, M.D.
Now, actually I'm more of a blend of Rat and Pig. I still enjoy closed-eyed meditation, but I no longer am devoted to what the spiritual organization I belonged to for 35 years, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, referred to as "going within."
That notion was based on religious assumptions I've come to reject.
Namely, that supernatural realms of reality exist, and it is possible to experience them through meditation aimed at bringing every bit of conscious attention away from one's body and the outside world through concentration on what lies within one's head.
I have no problem with focusing attention on what lies within -- thoughts, emotions, imaginings, visions, inner speech, and such -- but this is a one-sided approach to meditation and mindfulness.
At its worst, and I experienced this during my time as an active member of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, avid devotees of "going within" can become seriously damaged psychologically. They lose interest in work, family, and other normal human pursuits, having become fanatically committed to detaching from the world and entering imagined non-physical domains of existence.
Not good. Meditation should make us a better person, not a worse one. If we aren't becoming a more loving, caring, and compassionate friend, relative, spouse, employee, volunteer, or parent, meditation isn't working for us.
After all, what makes us feel better when we're listless, lacking energy, down in the dumps, sad? (1) Sitting by ourselves in a room with eyes closed, focused on the contents of our mind, or (2) Getting out and doing something like walking in nature, talking with friends, patting our dog or cat?
I don't know about you, but I find #2 much more appealing.
Here's some quotes from Amit Sood's book, Mindfulness Redesigned for the Twenty-First Century, along these lines. I shared Sood's seven tenets in my previous post. The third tenet is: Intentional attention, external or internal, engages the same brain network. Focus your meditation on the world if you struggle with the mind.
In the third tenet, we explored ways to develop meditative attention by cultivating curiosity and focusing on meaning in the outside world. This helps us with engagement and flow.
These externally oriented practices are not only easier but also more effective than trying to see the light in an inwardly focused meditative stance.
The pursuit also makes you a more engaged spouse, parent, employee, and citizen. Attention so strengthened loses its rigidity, It becomes supple and flexible. Flexibility gives you freedom. In most situations, flexibility is a sign of health.
...An important aspect of the brain is that thinking about an activity engages similar brain areas to those engaged in actually practicing the activity. Thus research shows that imagining playing piano or violin or imagining dancing can help you improve your piano, violin, or dance performance.
When I read all this research, I speculated that the same networks should be engaged whether you focus externally or internally (playing piano versus thinking about playing piano). Thus meditation with eyes closed (internally directed) or eyes open (externally directed) should engage the same or similar parts of the brain. I was excited to see that an interesting study supported precisely this speculation.
In this study, investigators evaluated which brain areas activate based on two variables: external versus internal focus, and intense versus low-grade attention. Researchers found that the intensity of focus had much greater effect on the activation than did the direction of focus.
Thus, very similar areas were activated when the participants were intensely focusing, whether looking out at an object externally or thinking about the details of the object internally. An additional research team has recently corroborated these findings.
Realizing this has freed me. I meet so many colleagues who find the internally focused meditation practice very difficult. I have similarly struggled with sitting meditation. I feel comfortable now in suggesting externally focused meditation, in which you experience your world with full attention.
Because from the brain's perspective it doesn't matter whether you are focusing externally or internally. Therefore, in addition to or in lieu of sitting with the eyes closed, you could meditate immersed in the world, with your eyes open. It will activate the same or similar areas of the brain.
Since we spend most of the day in the world and not sitting on a cushion, we could get ten thousand hours of training (which some but not all experts suggest is needed to become really good at anything) in just a few years.
The third tenet builds on intentionality and emerging research, offering you a different way to meditate: instead of meditating with eyes closes, you meditate with eyes open by intentionally projecting your attention externally.
...A few thousand years ago, when our threats were mostly external, training attention would have meant pushing it toward the depths of the mind, the basis of most meditation practices. A lot has changed since then, such that the definition of escape isn't escaping into the mind but escaping from the mind.