Monday, 27 February 2012

How I worked out what happens to cause the panic


“What is it that makes a person panic?” I asked the universe again and again.

A few days later I had an inspiration to go over some notes I had made years earlier when I was using insight meditation to observe my heart muscles and how they were working. This was a meditative technique I had learnt from a Burmese Buddhist master many years earlier. With insight meditation you can look inside your own body, you can observe organs, tissues and cells through direct mental perception. I will explain so you understand what I mean and maybe you can try it yourself.

In the most basic form of meditation we begin by holding a mantra in mind, such as a candle flame. It is an anchor on which we can anchor our attention or another way of saying that is we use the flame to hold our focus steady. And the aim is to reach a level of unbroken attention or steady focus.
Insight meditation uses some object of perception that we are interested in the place of a mantra. It is in some ways alike Tai Chi. It is not an easy technique to learn, much less master, but I persisted so I succeeded. At first I was asked to take a 20 foot stretch of lawn and aim to walk across it in no less than 2 hours. It was an extremely difficult task. I made a lot of effort and still I could not walk it in less than 10 minutes, let alone 2 hours. Needless to say I made little progress during the retreats. However I persevered afterwards and a year later I had made the progress that I needed. The aim at first is to observe the whole body but most particularly the legs. You observe the pressure of your foot on the ground, how the leg feels lighter and lighter as you lift it up, how the knee feels as it bends, how your balance shifts as your put your weight on the other leg and so on. Once you have mastered steadfast perception you can move up to the next level. On that level you focus on the muscle in the back of your leg, the calf muscle and you begin by observing the tension and relaxation of the entire muscle as you go through the motions of walking. On the level above that you begin to observe just a small section of the muscle tissue. As you can now see the entire calf muscle in your mind you can choose any area within it to focus your attention. You perceive the tissue cells, how they contract and expand. When you can do that you move to perceiving individual cells and finally to sub-cellular areas. That is as far as I got but I am told you can even go down to the sub-atomic level. It took some years to get this far but I still think that it is possible I might have developed this technique in some other lifetime. The reason I say this is because as a very young child I had some chewing gum stuck on the top of my head and as I was removing it I could see in my mind the roots of my hairs and the cells of the skin on the top of my head. I had noticed a slightly darker area within each cell. Years later when I learnt biology at school I remembered this experience and recognized that what I had seen was the cell nuclei.

Anyway, I had discontinued this type of meditation after I moved away from Buddhism and had joined a Sufi group. However years after, when I had some problems with my heart I was motivated to begin the practice once again. At that time I did sitting meditation and I was eventually able to recover my earlier skill and observe the muscles in my heart with a high degree of clarity. In my notes I had recorded my observations. I had found that my heart was working very hard but didn’t realize then that this was due to fear arising from real danger, although I must have had some inkling at the time because I wrote "something's wrong, something feels a bit scary but I don't know what". The changes I noticed in meditation at such times were mainly associated with changes in my breathing. I observed that my breath, which under normal meditative conditions is subtle, excited but even, had suddenly become rapid and deeper as my heart rate had increased. This I now realized was due to the action of the sympathetic nervous system, this is a part of bodily processes which are fear or what the medicos call “fight or flight response”. A short time after and as a separate event, my breathing had, a little less suddenly, become deeper, fuller. I had also noted that this change in my breathing took place as my experience became unpleasant. And this time my heart rate further increased but after my breathing deepened. So what I saw was that as my experience became unpleasant a habit kicked in. This was a habit, which no doubt, had formed in my childhood.

Using the benefit of insight observation I determined that deepening the breathing was purposeful. However where my meditation was concerned it had a detrimental effect because it blunted my awareness and hence my insightfulness, my mental vision of my heart muscles and as I had a great deal of clarity the change became very obvious. My high level of awareness was lost and the vision in my mind became blurred. However it had a seemingly beneficial effect with respect to the annoying thoughts, which I did not appreciate then were indicating danger. I was doing what all people do, and that is to seek a comfort zone. I realized as I read over my notes that a comfort zone is really nothing more than a zone of mental fuzz. We overcome the unpleasant thoughts that give rise to our emotional reactivity in our body and the unpleasantness that we experience but at a cost. I could see that deepening the breath affected awareness but I still did not understand why. Then I read another note that I had made. "I can control the heart problems by staying with the fear" I had jotted down in the margin. And below it "not trying to escape it". I remembered that I did this to try and decipher the thoughts and what was wrong. In holding this attitude I pondered about it now. I was over-riding the habit of seeking a comfort zone, lessening it whenever it arose, by staying with the fear. I realized also that this must have helped me overcome any worry because until I deciphered the thoughts it was no use trying to think over a solution.

Why, I now wondered, would breathing deeper create mental fuzz? Could it in some way relate to panic? I used the current conditions that I had at my disposal to investigate this matter further. I only needed to slightly irritate my husband with musings of leaving him for him to react so as to use the “evil conditions” or in other words call over his gun-carrying individuals and have them hover around outside. When that is all that they did the threat was mild so the conditions in my body that I had to deal with were also only mildly unpleasant. Each time I had a ten minute time interval in which to begin meditation and establish a baseline of high level awareness because it took about 10 to 15 mins for the criminals to arrive outside from the time he had called them. So I was able to notice the thoughts of danger as they appeared suddenly and briefly and then just as abruptly disappear as the habit of deepening the breath took over. And I might add here that the fear react in my body didn't go away, it was simply no longer associated consciously with the thoughts that ignited it and kept it going. Another important thing to note too was that the nasty thoughts, such as "be sorry if leave here" and "don't know what's out there" came from my husband. Notice that the way they were presented made them look like my thoughts and not as presented ideas. And furthermore as time went on and I was more prepared to be aware of the danger conditions, I was able to perceive people approaching before they were close enough for me to hear the noise of their car engines as they came up the hill. Since I could do all this I thought at the same time that I could not only observe the habit but also train myself to overcome it. And as time went on I only needed to made stronger hints at leaving for my husband to step up his threatening stance. And then I noticed that the ideas that came were not only of my husband's presentations but also snippets of the dialogue between the criminals, as in "is he going to give us a go ahead this time". I had taken some protective measures though. I had a carpenter build a massive wooden door to my bedroom with two bolt on it, top and bottom. So unless I went outside I was safe. Even so the reality of having people with guns outside, especially that were there at my husbands invitation and whom he could bring inside the house was most certainly frightening, especially when at the time I did not know what counter measures I could take. Nonetheless I needed just such a range of real conditions of danger to work with, from mild to moderate. And with one hundred thousand hours or more of meditation experience under my belt I was well positioned to conduct the experiments that I needed to do.

In the first experiment I held the attitude of “stay with the fear”. I was able to observe the thoughts of danger and glimpsed the rapid changes in my body that are the emotion of fear. Over and over I observed that this emotion was nothing more than a range of somatic reactions, which arose following from AND logically from.. the thoughts of danger. The initial processes were often too rapid to even get a glimpse of but the fear processes once established were easy to perceive. What I can say is that fear is not some psychological condition at all by physical, first, second and last! The parts of the brain, the limbic system, which I was able to glimpse had to do with accelerating the heart, heightening perception, intensifying my senses and other related functions. I would hardly call it an emotional centre as I had seen these processes in other situations that had nothing to do with emotion.

In the second experiment I allowed myself to seek a comfort zone or in other words to run away from and avoid the fear. In this experiment I was able to observe the effects of the comfort zone habit over the top of what I now knew was the basic conditions and processes in my body, the fear. The habit was still largely automatic despite the years of meditation but only while I was unsuspecting of what was happening or when I allowed it to happen. No doubt without the meditation that I had done over the years this habit would have been much more serious.
As the coping habit took a hold I saw how my higher level of my awareness was abruptly lowered because my attention was affected. I then took two lines of action. Sometimes I tried to reduce the breathing and I did achieve a higher level of awareness and the re-appearance in mind of the danger thoughts, but this path was difficult and not always reliable. The other method was not to try and control my breathing at all but rather to restore my concentration on my mantra, I regained attention more easily and more reliably and hence recovered the higher levels of awareness. When my higher level of awareness was restored, I noticed that my breathing had returned to being subtle, excited and even again. It returned to this state without any effort from me. And as breathing returned to normal and my awareness expanded, the thoughts reappeared. I could observe how the thoughts appeared, disappeared and reappeared again with the changes to my breathing. I did not purposefully think the thoughts again, I simply had recovered full awareness of them. So what affected my awareness. The changes I had noticed again and again were changes to my breathing. Did this affect attenion and if so how? I needed to know how changes in my breathing could be associated with my attention level. And then I did another experiment. I purposely held my breath to prevent the deeper breathing and strangely enough I found that here again the level of attention was affected. What was going on?

I had an inspiration to return to the original exercise of observing the calf muscle. I thought I was doing this to hone my skill even more. I started to do some walking meditation and I suddenly observed both the activity in the muscle but also activity in various parts of my brain and I saw that as distraction. So I sat on my cushion and tried to observe the calf muscle at rest. I noticed a small amount of activity and again I noticed activity in my brain in the same areas. I had done this exercise a number of times and then one day unexpectedly as I sat focused on the calf muscle I sensed danger and fear arose in my body. And I noticed then, that when the breathing was deepened there was increased activity in my calf muscle. I was in a deep meditative state and had also concentrated on areas in my brain as I did to glimpse the early conditions of fear. But what I noticed was that the thought activity had not really disappeared. They had only become weaker signals, far weaker than all the other neural activity taking place. I realized that my brain rationalizes its fuel materials and to accommodate those areas that need it the most. This was now areas in my brain that were needed to facilitate the changes in metabolic activity, not only in the calf muscle but the entire skeletal musculature, that is all the muscles in our body that are associated with moving the body. Fear also involves a great deal of neural activity but it specifically heightens perception and the senses. The new activity however did not include this effect. Rather it caused disruption. Thus I realized that it was not my awareness that was being affected directly but my attention and primarily because the signals were now far weaker and sometimes too weak to keep in focus.

To try and give an illustration, let's say our attention is like light focus.. like having a torch in our hands. If we enter a dark room and hold the torch steady we see clearly what was hidden by the darkness. If however we wave it about vigorously we get an incomplete picture. In this same way when the brain activity was increased my level of attention was affected, enough for me to loose the unpleasant thoughts from consciousness (awareness).

For the sake of completion I have shown in the illustration above both coping habits that people use. One, like mine elevates the metabolism and causing higher activity in the brains, which makes the thought signals weaker and hence disrupts or distracts attention. The other method, in which people hold down a breath or two and/or breath more shallowly, I strongly suspect helps them acquire a state of lethagy akin to the early stages of sleep. This must cause a lowering of attention although I do not know the mechanism. I was not able to study it as it is not my habit.

I might also say here that ordinarily thoughts arise and fade away again when they are not relevant and not significant because we give them no value. When thoughts simply arise and fade away again there is no flow on effect in the body, no emotional reactivity. The person’s high level of awareness remains undisturbed. And the body remains tranquil, operating without disturbances. In contrast we cannot dismiss thoughts that are highly relevant or significant in some way, particularly we cannot attribute 'no value' to thoughts that indicate danger. We are simply "not wired" to do that. Thus if the thoughts that arise point to such matters as danger that is inexplicable we seek to avoid them, we use denial. This method does not allow the body to become tranquil. When the breathing is deepened more oxygen is absorbed by the blood and that triggers the body to move into higher gear, higher metabolic states and specifically in the skeletal musculature, which means the body is working harder than it is required to do in ordinary states of activity as in everyday life. The other method of lowering the attention moves the body into lower than ordinary states of activity.
It is also worth mentioning that I have made another finding, much earlier when I was practicing insight meditation originally, I found that in reality there is no real subconscious (and possibly also not true unconscious). It is all a matter of attention. If we hold the attention steady, ie we concentrate then we can remain fully aware of all the thoughts /perceptions in the mind. All of the bodily structures and functions etc., that I am able to observe are not observed by some miraculous means. All I am doing is holding the attention steady, by steadfast concentration I am able to bring whichever particular aspect I wish to observe into focus. In some sense we are aware of them all, even though they exist in a nebulous form within the mindstuff, but we don't remain attentive to them. We don't need to be attentive to them all of the time. We tend to be attentive to novel things, changes, anything that looks interesting, different, new and anything that might need our attention.

At the time that I first used insight meditation I didn't understand why I was stressed. Now I understood what was being done behind my back and I found that remarkably I was able to have a much greater amount of control over the habit. It made me appreciate that the neural pathways that are forged in our brains due to experience can be modified or removed fairly easily with more awareness of the thoughts that we would otherwise have shunned. I could override the coping habit when I had knowledge. That "ah ha" experience that is talked about is much more powerful than we at first appreciate. It meant that I was able to bring the habit under my conscious control as a first step to eliminating it. These experiments, and particularly overcoming of the comfort zone, unbeknown to me at the time, were to be enormously significant in my life some years later, I was able to avert, on several occasions, serious and indeed potentially lethal heart problems because I had done this work!

It is important to say here that if you meditate you will observe that there are never a lot of different thoughts in your mind all at once. Sometimes it feels as if there is a jumble but when you can focus on what there is you will always find a thought stream or a train of thoughts. Each thought arises out of the void and returned into the void again before the next one appears. Indeed when you choose to observe some aspect of your body or some activity in your body, what you are doing is calling forth the relevant thought forms/ ideas out of an undifferentiated state, which we can call "emptiness" and bring them into a state of definition. Holding a mantra is using the defined thought forms that define the mantra to the exclusion of all other activity. And it is possible to experience expanses when there is no other activity in the mind. The mind stuff is like a huge matrix of possibilities that underpin the whole of creation. All of the body’s activities are immediately preceded by thought forms or we could call them "packets of information" that arise out of the mindstuff and become defined, but we are not normally aware of them at the precise moment that this happens because our minds are not focused but distracted with a lot of other things. The realization of there being thought forms or "packets of information" arising just prior to each and every action that we do was a crucial observation that enabled me to create and use mental precriptions. Changes in the body can only be brought about by changes in the mindstuff and that means the choosing and twigging of information. It is not some mysterious energy that has some magical effect on body structures or functions as many New Age healers are selling to the public. What is even more important is that self-prescribed and self-administered mental prescripitions are the absolute tools to deal with your health -with 100% results, satisfaction guaranteed. In most cases, no need of doctors. I have successfully battled very bad conditions and gained fantastic results without a doctor in sight, not even through a telescope, and for seven years now!

1 comment:

  1. great thoughtful theories, I love your demo photos greaaat, and expressive...