For a few weeks in a row, I was meditating by focusing on my breath, mostly around my diaphragm. Inevitably after some time (exact amount hard to determine because, meditating), my attention would be drawn to some patches of skin around my neck. If I focused on them, something good happened, although it’s been long enough since I did this that I don’t remember what. Probably I relaxed.
Several times I tried to get ahead of the system by focusing on those neck patches from the beginning. It was always the same patches, so the problem was not that I was focused on the wrong area. This never worked. Something necessary was happening during the focus on diaphragm.
“Skipping ahead to the neck” feels like a pretty good metaphor for my failure mode in meditation and introspection in general. I identify the thing that happened most directly before something good, and try to replicate that, then am disappointed when I get the same results. I have a lot of resistance to going through the longer process.
Some of that is Drive For Efficiency, but I think a lot of times I genuinely don’t know what the whole process was, only the last step or two. I spent a week in July drawing body map after body map and hit the most enlightened I’ve ever been, by which I mean I was getting the promised benefits of meditation. Even very negative emotions didn’t bother me, they were just another kind of sensation. I was able to see a lot of things I’d previously labeled as emotions were better considered reactions to emotions, or attempts to mitigate them.
This went away after a few days. I tried desperately to get it back by drawing more body maps, but nope. That has never worked again. Either I solved all the problems body mapping can solve (unlikely), or there was some precursor I haven’t identified. Actually I generated a new guess writing this out. Thanks guys.
For a few weeks I was very frustrated by my inability to recreate the feelings at all. Then someone told me to stop striving (duh), and I got back maybe 40%, which is not bad at all.
[I hesitated to write this because I don’t want to jinx it. I’ve only been using it for four days and things have a tendency to stop working for me, but I’m really excited and wanted to share.]
I first heard about binaural beats when a massage place I occasionally go to invited me to Hemi-Sync® weekend workshop, which is the brand name for a particularly well marketed form of binaural beats. Hemi Sync (short for hemisphere synchronization) sounds extraordinarily made up. In their own words:
The audio-guidance process works through the generation of complex, multilayered audio signals, which act together to create a resonance that is reflected in unique brain wave forms characteristic of specific states of consciousness. The result is a focused, whole-brain state known as hemispheric synchronization, or Hemi-Sync®, where the left and right hemispheres are working together in a state of coherence. Different Hemi-Sync® signals are used to facilitate deep relaxation, focused attention or other desired states. As an analogy, lasers produce focused, coherent light. Hemi-Sync® produces a focused, coherent mind, which is an optimal condition for improving human performance
The website offers hundreds of (extremely expensive) CDs sorted into categories like “behavior modification”, “cancer support”, “weight control”, “learning and information” and “shamanic”. The “research article” section has one peer reviewed study, which I found equivocal, and a bunch of self hosted articles.
It seemed so unlikely as to be unworthy of consideration that just listening to sound could force an arbitrary brain to do arbitrary things. On the other hand, if it was going to work for anyone, it would be me. I have misophonia, which basically means arbitrary sounds are physically painful. I don’t know if this is part of the technical definition, but for me sound is also often very attention grabbing when it shouldn’t be. You know how you involuntarily shift attention when you hear your name across the room? Imagine if you reacted like that every time anyone spoke. And you worked in an open office.
Misophonia + sound = chronically activated sympathetic nervous system (the fight/flight/freeze response). That is an excellent mode to be in if you have encountered a tiger, but a lousy way to spend 80% of your life. It’s not just that you’re tense and anxious, although those are unpleasant: sympathetic activation directs energy towards tiger-avoidance systems (voluntary muscles, heart, lungs, vigilance) at the expense of long term investments like the immune system, tissue repair, and even digestion. And it’s self reinforcing, because you become more sensitive to sound as the SNS ramps up.
We know sound can provoke immediate, strong emotional reactions. Apparently the properties of human screams are wired directly to fear in your brain. Sound affects how food tastes. So it doesn’t seem crazy that certain sounds activate or at least facilitate the parasympathetic system. That would give you an immediate feeling of relaxation, which helps you concentrate and reduces pain, and long term could lead to a greater marginal investment body maintenance, which is good for your health. It is not as simple as “listen to tape, develop super powers”, but it seemed at least worth trying for me.
This shit is great.
Too soon to say anything about the long term effects, but this is a better muscle relaxant than anything I’ve tried.* Moreover, it has the largest effect on the muscles that are most tense. My shoulders and especially my lower back resist massage because pushing on a tense muscle hurts, and whatever gains I do get to be lost very quickly. My jaw is in a pain<->tension cycle from the nerve damage. They’re all dramatically better after some time listening to binaural beats, even under adverse conditions like the open office. I am still kind of dumbfounded that I am getting up from working in an open office more relaxed than when I sat down. Actually I’m dumbfounded I’m working in an open office at all, I’ve spent most of my time as a conference room refugee.
So obviously I did get a concentration effect. The open office is still not my ideal environment, but I can now see why other people called it “not ideal” rather than “Satan’s waiting room”. It may have tempered my immediate response to noise, but the real gains have been that I recover from disruption much faster, which is exactly what you’d expect from something encouraging the parasympathetic without disabling the sympathetic.
The one thing it doesn’t help me with is sleep. It’s great for power naps or falling asleep, but I wake up ~40 minutes later. I have the same problem with meditation, which makes me think listening to these tracks does share qualities with meditaiton. Speaking of which: I have found binaural sound to be really helpful for meditation- either focusing on the sound itself, or using it as a backdrop for a guided meditation. Without it, when I meditate I feel simultaneously stuck and unmoored. With it, I have a sense of flow, and a thing to concentrate on that has no chance of connecting to pain.
You can find a lot of these by searching for binaural or hemi-sync, but so far my favorites are:
I like this one because it has patterns repeating on intervals of different lengths.