Sense Your Body With Clarity

Here are the instructions for Vipassana meditation, e.g. body scan meditation. Copypasted from here.

What do you get out of it?

  • The good.
    • It allows you to Tune Your Motor Cortex.
      • For most people, this will be the main purpose of acquiring this skill, and it’s a worthy purpose indeed!
    • Your whole body will be more sensitive.
      • Experiencing detailed sensations seems to be intrinsically pleasant, though don’t ask me why.
      • You will be more likely to notice when something is wrong with your body, and interpret it correctly (e.g. illness).
    • You will have interesting mental experiences, and learn something about how your brain works.
      • Among other things, you’ll have a chance to watch new neural connections form in your brain in real-time. Normally, this process is too slow to notice anything interesting about it.
  • The bad.
    • Developing the skill takes a bunch of hours of pretty tedious mental work.
      • Depending on your starting point, it could be a few days up to a few months of persistent effort.
    • Afterwards, you’ll need to continue training with some regularity, or it will regress.

How to tell if you have it?

Note: this skill requires effortful training. It is extremely unlikely that you already have it without also having clear memories of having trained it.

  • You can hold your focus on each individual small patch of skin, on the whole outside surface of your body.
    • The places which you don’t use much in daily life tend to be more difficult (e.g. the back, the toes, the back and top of the head, etc.).
  • You started clearly experiencing sensations in your body that you have never felt before, and didn’t even suspect were possible.
    • E.g. at some stage it’s common to have a number of revelations about breath and heartbeat.
  • The diameter of your sharpest spot of attention has gradually decreased over time.
    • To judge your progress, try to keep track of the smallest diameter you can maintain depending on the body area and your state of mind.
    • E.g. if at the beginning you could focus only on your whole mouth, and after a week you can focus separately on the left half of the upper lip, that’s progress!

How does it work?

  • Your brain is naturally capable of getting all sorts of detailed signals from the body.
    • It’s in fact doing this all the time, only it’s mostly subconscious.
  • Neural connections decay when they aren’t being used, and grow when they are.
    • That’s a basic property of your brain, and is necessary for its efficient functioning.
  • We can make neural connections grow by conscious effort.
    • Loosely speaking, if you want more neural connections that do something, try hard to act as if you already had them. Soon enough, your brain will catch up with the game.
    • The rate of growth is the fastest when 100% of your attention is on a particular subject. The brain reads this as a signal that the matter is very important, and reacts vigorously.
  • Some circumstances make it easier to keep unwavering attention on the body for long hours.
    • By switching your body and mind to the right “gears”, you can apply much more sustained pressure than is normally possible, and form completely new neural structures in mere hours.

How to learn it?

  • Method 1: go to a meditation retreat.
    • This is not for everyone, because it forces you to take a long vacation, and to listen to some spiritual yada yada that you might not agree with.
      • On the other hand, you will have perfect conditions for working on the skill, and a much better chance to succeed than with homemade methods.
    • Try a 10-day retreat with the Goenka school of vipassana meditation. They run on donations and offer retreats in most major cities around the world. The amount of spiritual yada yada you have to sit through is acceptably low.
      • As a bonus, they’ll give you detailed meditation instructions, which you can simply follow to the letter and have a reasonable expectation that you’ll get somewhere. The essence of Goenka’s instructions is pretty similar to what you’ll find on this page.
      • However, be careful not to absorb some confusions that are deeply embedded in their tradition. For example, the idea that muscle tension is in some mystic way a direct representation of your mental issues (duh).
  • Method 2: try it at home.
    • This is definitely possible, but requires more tinkering and possibly also more total effort. Half-hearted attempts are not likely to succeed!
      • Be prepared to fail for many days, if not weeks, before you make any of this work. If you give up, you can always change your mind and go to a retreat.
      • However, some people are at an advantage, and are likely to make progress very fast. This includes e.g. yoga practitioners, dancers, gymnasts and other people who work a lot with their own bodies. In these cases, going to a retreat might be an overkill.
    • Step 1.
      • Become Very Alert and Calm.
        • This is absolutely crucial. Otherwise, you won’t be able to keep up the consistent focus, and without it the process takes too long. You’ll get bored to death and give up before you see any results.
        • A reliable indicator of being ready to start is that the prospect of sitting perfectly still for at least 1 hour, and doing nothing else but focusing on your body, does not seem horrible.
      • Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.
        • You’ll probably need at least around 1 hour at a time to move forward, though at first it might make sense to try short times (e.g. 5 minutes) just to get used to it.
        • Concentrating your effort into a short period of time is better than spreading it out.
          • E.g. consecutive days are preferable, and multiple sessions on each of the consecutive days would be even better.
        • It doesn’t matter how and where you sit, however…
          • If you are too comfortable, you’ll likely relax too much and drift away.
          • If you are too uncomfortable, you’ll likely not be able to focus on anything.
    • Step 2.
      • Sit motionlessly for the whole allocated time, to the best of your ability.
        • This is not strictly necessary, but tends to help, and especially at the beginning you’ll need all the help you can get.
        • It’s very useful for concentration to keep your back straight, held firmly in place by the muscles around it.
      • Keep your eyes closed.
        • Again, not necessary but helps you focus completely on the internal world of sensations.
        • It’s OK to let your eyeballs move behind closed eyelids, tracking your attention.
      • Pick some consistent order of going through all the external surface of your skin.
        • Doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as you cover your whole body and it’s simple enough to not be distracting.
        • This way, after several repetitions, you won’t have to think about what to do next.
    • Step 3.
      • Focus on each individual patch of skin, according to your consistent order. Try to feel the minute sensations on the very surface of the skin.
        • It’s very important to really reach for something that you couldn’t have guessed before, before you move on to the next patch.
          • Otherwise, it’s very easy to slip into just going through the motions, without using any of the neural connections that bring in new information.
          • For example, if you sit in a warm room, you’ll easily guess that your arm is going to feel “warm” in general. But you can’t predict all the subjective-experience detail that comes with realizing what it’s like to feel that a particular patch of skin on your arm is warm at a particular time. Find your way to those detailed, raw sensory experiences, which in daily life you’d ignore as unimportant.
          • Initially, it might be the case that even with a lot of effort you aren’t able to reach the sensations. I describe this feeling as having a “soft cotton padding” on the inside of your skin, and many people resonate with this metaphor. However, genuine trying also counts, and makes the padding gradually “burn away”.
        • Smaller patches are better than big.
          • But don’t stress about it too much! It will improve with time. If you have trouble, start with whole big areas (e.g. right upper arm, right forearm, …).
        • Accurate and slow is better than quick.
          • If you can’t feel anything, you can stop in that place and keep trying for a few seconds.
          • However, don’t stop for more than 10 seconds or so, because your brain will get bored and give up.
        • At the beginning, if working on the whole body feels too difficult, you might do better if you put all your effort into one particular area.
          • Ultimately you’ll want to do the whole body, but it can be hard to keep going when you don’t see any results.
          • Using a smaller area will make your progress faster, and you’ll have more chances to correct your technique.
      • Whenever you get distracted by thoughts about other matters, notice that it happened and return your attention to the body.
        • Resume from the last place that you clearly remember.
        • Don’t deprecate yourself for failing.
          • Unless you have significant experience in meditation, your attention will likely keep on doing that. Be patient, and keep up the work.
          • If you have lots of trouble with some personal issues that constantly come up and grab your attention, you might want to Tune Your Emotional Processing before continuing.
      • Repeat the cycle as many times as you manage.
        • That’s it, really. If you keep up the pressure, your brain will definitely respond.
        • The only problem you are likely to encounter is that for this or other reason you can’t exclusively focus on your body for long enough.
        • This problem can be solved by regulating your life, body, and brain before you start executing the steps above.
          • Using more willpower is useful on the margin, but unlikely to help if other factors are working against you.

Further progress

  • The instructions above focus on the outside surface of the skin, because it’s the easiest.
    • Later, you’ll have fun discovering that the process also works for other components of your body.

Next post: Relax All Your Muscles

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