It was 7 a.m. on the last morning of the retreat, and Sister Cecily, a 70-something Franciscan nun in exercise togs – Cece, as everyone called her – was teaching us qi gong. Though the retreat itself was sponsored by the integrative medicine department at UW Health, we were invited to participate in the regular morning yoga and tai chi sessions the nuns who live at the Christine Center hold for local residents. These were unquestionably the New-Ageyist nuns I had ever encountered, and they covered everything from Hildegard von Bingen to Native American dancing. I had contemplated skipping the session, but it would be one of the final times I would be with my retreat group, and Sister Cece had impressed me the previous morning with her yoga lesson and teaching us how to chant the syllable RAM from various chakras, all in that cheerful, no-nonsense way I remembered from nuns I knew as a boy.
I admit I was charmed. So I followed along as she demonstrated the various hand gestures for adjusting the energy field around the body, and explained that each movement had to be repeated to the sacred number nine. Asking her what kind of energy was in the energy field would have been too snotty, and besides the gentle movements were waking me up after I had sat in the meditation hall past midnight. After 20 minutes of qi gong and ten minutes of chanting, we sat down flor a half hour of silent meditation.
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I encountered many wonderful ideas this summer in the book, Teaching Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Educators (McCown, Reibel and Micozzi, 2010), which I’ve been studying in preparation for the launch of the Practice Circle. One of the most interesting originated with Daniel Siegel, who proposed that mindfulness meditation involves a process of “intrasubjective resonance.” Siegel pointed to the discovery of “mirror neurons” in the brain which function to help us recognize the feelings, emotions, and even intentions of other people by reproducing them in our own awareness. For the neuroscience geeks out there, here’s how McCown et al describe the process of seeing your friend slam a finger in a drawer:
. . . [T]he mirror neuron system takes in and processes the movement of, say, finger-in-drawer, which is sent to the superior temporal cortex where the sensory consequences are predicted (sharp pain!). Then, this information is communicated through the insula to the limbic regions for processing of the emotional content (surprise, anger). This is fed back through the insula to the prefrontal cortex where it is interpreted and, finally, attributed to your friend. The circuit is complete. Your somatic and emotional states are now attuned to your friend: You tense your hand, cringe, and maybe even say ‘Ouch.’ The empathy you feel is based on perceiving your friend’s experience – with/in your own body.
This “resonance circuit” helps us feel empathy when we see someone in pain or sorrow; it’s how we predict what others will do without having to think about it.
Siegel proposed that the practice of mindfulness meditation brings the resonance circuit to bear reflexively to allow us to predict and attune to our own intentional states. Here’s a quote from Siegel’s book, Mindsight:
What is at first a form of interpersonal integration in the sharing of affective and cognitive states now evolves into a form of internal integration in the patient. With the entry of previously warded-off states of being in conscious awareness, the patient can now learn to develop enhanced self-regulatory capacities that before were beyond their skill set. It may be that as interpersonal attunement initiates a new form of awareness that makes intrapersonal attunement possible, new self-regulatory capacities become available. If the mirror neuron system were to be focused on one’s own states of mind, we can propose that a form of internal attunement would allow for new and more adaptive forms of self-regulation to develop.
An example from McCown et al:
Let’s start with the concrete, a meditation on awareness of the breath. You notice the in-breath. Your resonance circuitry predicts that an out breath is coming. It happens! And happens again. As you coincide repeatedly with your own intention, breath by breath you begin to resonate with yourself. This is a primal experience, like the infant and caregiver attuning in ways that help create secure attachment . . . And this same pattern is true for more abstract intentions such as the one in a mediation practice like choiceless awareness, notes Siegel (2007). In this case, the intention is to be open to whatever comes. While we cannot map the ‘whatever comes’ with the resonance system, we can, however, easily map the intention to be open. When our experience coincides with the map of being open, intrasubjective resonance begins.
As I read this, all kinds of sutta verses started coming to mind.
Irrigators guide water;
Fletchers shape arrows;
Carpenters fashion wood;
Sages tame the self. (Dh 80)
I also thought of the metaphor in Anguttara Nikaya 3:100 where Gotama compares the monk’s effort to purify the mind to the goldsmith’s process for removing impurities in ore, until at last the metal is malleable and strong. In all these comparisons, Gotama suggests that the practitioner stands in relation to an objectified mind or the self as the fletcher stands in relationship to the arrow; in the goldsmith metaphor, the process is one of introspection as the monk observes unskillful thoughts and nurtures the arising of concentration and tranquility in the mind.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, Gotama describes this training of the mind in detail, and again relates it to a work of craftsmanship, this time a carpenter with a lathe:
“‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself.
“Just as a clever turner or a turner’s apprentice, turning long, understands: ‘I turn long’; or turning short, understands: ‘I turn short’; just so, indeed, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, when he breathes in long, understands: ‘I breathe in long’ . . .
Notice that Gotama isn’t just giving instructions here. He describes mindfulness practice as a kind of internal dialog wherein the practitioner sets his intention and then confirms the execution with awareness, “coinciding repeatedly with [his] own intention.” This is the self relating to the self – just as Siegel’s concept of intrasubjective resonance describes.
In another famous verse, Gotama comes up with a very personal simile for this relationship:
Neither mother nor father,
Nor any other relative can do
One as much good
As one’s own well-directed mind. (Dh 43)
This image hinges on the same parent-child resonance analogy McCown et al observe above. Through mindfulness, we can loosen our reactive identification with our thoughts and emotions, and learn to observe them as they arise and dissipate. We can learn to recognize the intentions behind our thoughts, words and deeds, and experience how unskillful intentions lead to unwholesome mind states. And we can begin to cultivate a compassion for ourselves that diminishes our aversion to seeing and embracing our lives just as they are. In short, we befriend ourselves. Siegel’s concept of intrasubjective resonance suggests a neurological correlate to what’s going on here. Meditation, he suggests, objectifies the relationship between bottom up and top down functions of the brain to permit structures that evolved to facilitate social relationships to be applied to the work of self-regulation.
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Sister Cece’s class was almost over when an idea arose as I meditated. What if practices like qi gong also accessed the resonance circuit, objectifying and projecting internal states so we can “work on ourselves”? What if religious practices such as prayer and ritual work the same way? What if God, rather than being a transcendental being or an empty myth, is instead a practice, a technology we developed to project an objectified self, to trip the resonance circuit, to enable us to better listen to and attune to ourselves? You may laugh, gentle reader, but at the time the idea seemed beautiful enough to send a tear rolling down my cheek.
It will take a fair amount of work to suss out this idea and its implications. I throw this out here in its undercooked state in hopes that readers may suggest fruitful lines of investigation, or, which would be nearly as merciful, to point out the gross flaws in this idea. If it holds any water, it seems to me it would put us skeptics in a different relationship to religious practices of all kinds, to help us explore the wisdom traditions with less trepidation, and to appreciate the continuity between traditional religions and secular dharma practice.