I have always been fond of Fritz Perls’ slogan, “Lose your mind and come to your senses” because that’s what meditation practice is really all about. When our worries and fears dissipate, we come into the present moment and we open up to a world of enhanced sensory perception with kaleidoscopic sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and smells.
The complement to sense perception is sensory interoception– sense experiences within the body, including hunger, thirst, breathlessness, pain, temperature, heartbeat, and muscle tension. Interoception is related to how we process emotion, alter our sense of the body’s physiological condition, and shift our state of mind.
Some interesting studies have been done that measure the accuracy with which people recognize their own heartbeat. The chief author of these studies, Vivien Ainley, concludes that those with more highly attuned interoceptive awareness are, “more accurate on heartbeat tasks, more intuitive, experience stronger emotional arousal, have better memory for emotional material, and perhaps be better able to control their negative emotions.”
A separate group of researchers at Stanford University have concluded that people with depression are less attuned to their own heartbeat than others. Their research led them to suggest that the worse someone’s interoceptive awareness is, “the less intense were their experiences of positive emotion in daily life, and the more likely they were to have difficulty with everyday decision-making.”
Meditation is a way of increasing interoceptive ability. It also heightens our awareness of implicit memories. Explicit memories consist of factual knowledge and autobiographical information. And implicit memories are emotional responses coming from body sensations—They are feeling based rather than factual and they travel in different pathways in the brain. Both types of memories have to be integrated later to form one unified memory.
Our thoughts go into, and remain in, overdrive when we are not aware of the emotional memories lodged in our body that stimulate them. Meditation is a way of increasing our awareness of implicit memories. As Buddha says in the Anguttara Nikaya, “There is one thing, monks, that, cultivated and regularly practiced leads to a deep sense of urgency…to the supreme peace…to mindfulness and clear comprehension…to the attainment of right vision and knowledge…to happiness here and now…to realizing deliverance by wisdom and the fruition of Holiness: It is mindfulness of the body.”
There seem to be three layers of interoceptive awareness. On the most superficial level are the stories we tell ourselves including our reflection on these stories and attempts to can change them. A little deeper are our emotions that provide fuel for our stories, and deeper than these is our bodily felt sense. Here’s Buddha again: “I teach awareness of the body in the body… If the body is not mastered by meditation, the mind cannot be mastered. If the body is mastered, mind is mastered.”
Through our meditation practice, our attention drops from our storyline to our emotions and into our moment to moment physical experience. In other words, the mind drops into the heart. We cannot will this to happen, but if we practice bare awareness, this happens on its own and we begin to rest in our natural center of being, heart-mind (citta in Sanskrit, as in bodhicitta, awake heart-mind).
Here’s an exercise the Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt has used to differentiate between normal sense perception and interoceptive awareness:
“Hold your right hand up and begin by looking at the back of it. What do you see? You might notice the skin color, the veins, and whether there are any wrinkles or scars. Now turn it over and look at your palm. You might notice its shape or the length of your fingers. Alternate between looking at the front and the back of your hand. You might observe the length of the various finger bones in relation to each other or the size of your knuckles. You might notice the pattern that the lines make in the palm of the hand. Just witness these things.
Now interoceptive: rest your hand for a moment. With your eyes closed, raise your hand again. Start to move your hand in space. Let the wrist move with the hand. You might curl the fingers in toward your palm, then extend them out a little. With your attention, “feel” the thumb, the forefinger, the middle finger, the ring finger, the little finger, the palm, and the back of the hand. Now lower your hand and open your eyes.”
Moffitt is talking about two very different experiences of looking at the hand. The second one is nothing more nor less than the felt sense of the body, which can only be tapped into through interoceptive awareness, what I call bare awareness.
Emotions lodge in the body. Then the mind worries, and our emotional suffering grows. But through meditative awareness, we simply relax and soften through our thoughts and our emotions into our sensations. When this happens, our mind falls into our heart.
The best vehicle for us to increase our introceptive awareness is meditation. For several years I supported Molly in her meditation practice. She had severe asthma that went back to her childhood. By conflating her physical experience and her mental reaction, asthma has become her identity. When I first met her, she told me that she was an “asthmatic person.”
The first thing I encouraged her to do was try sitting in meditation with her breathalyzer, which she was very dependent on, by her side, but not using it until she had to. When she did this over a period of weeks, she expressed surprise that she only had mild constrictions in her throat, that most of her stress was due to anxiety about having an asthmatic attack.
I helped her begin to look at her body as her teacher. Little by little she learned to be aware of not only the constriction in her throat, but her anxiety and the underlying sensations as they moved through and around her shoulders and neck. Little by little her interoceptive awareness increased and she developed the ability to sit quite calmly for long periods without using the breathalyzer. She still had asthma, but she became comfortable sitting in long retreats without using her breathalyzer at all. Once she rushed into see me for a one to one and exclaimed, “Even though I have asthma, I am not an asthmatic person and I never really was!”
Maybe next time you’re feeling angry, sad, scared, or frustrated, you would like to soften into and through your emotions to your sensations. If you are kindly attentive to them, they always break up and heart-mind is liberated from its constriction. All you have to do is patiently and persistently stay with this process and you will experience a freedom beyond the limits of what you can imagine.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher