Most skydivers exercise some form of mental preparation on the way to altitude. What most do not realize is how incredibly important this is. The mental state that we are in prior to exiting the airplane determines how we respond to any given situation, and this response is the most important contributing factor in how the situation ultimately evolves. In other words, mental preparation is every bit as important as a pin check.
What is Meditation?
It must first be clarified that the specific method of meditation is not important for the purposes of this discussion. There are many ways to attain a calm internal dynamic, and there are no wrong ways to meditate.
The goal of meditation is simple. We are striving to calm the mind, and develop a state that is devoid of thinking so we may calm back down to our state of basic sanity and health. This can be achieved through sitting practice, or through deliberate focus of attention toward a simple task such as walking or yoga. All of these pursuits result in the same kind of brain activity, which happens to be the direct opposite of the fear state.
In the emotional experience of fear, the brain becomes unbalanced. Certain parts of the cortex become deactivated, while others, most notably the older structures such as the Amygdala, become awakened. These ancient brain areas cause an unconscious escalation toward a preparatory "sympathetic" response, rather than the healing, balancing forces of our "parasympathetic" systems.
Interestingly, the first part of the brain to show significant diminished functionality during a fear response is the pre-frontal cortex. This is the newest part of the brain, responsible for higher cognitive functioning and is the source of willed action. This means that when we are afraid, we are no longer in control of our actions. Our choices gradually become dominated by our old brain that only knows three things: Fight, Flight and Freeze.
In walks the "parietal lobe" of the brain. Located on the crown of the head, this is the spatial orientation area. When the parietal lobe is working to help us orient ourselves in the world, we are not in a state of rest. When this part of the brain is under-stimulated or deprived of input, however, the quiescent (calming) systems of the mind and body take over to cool us down.
When the visual information coming into the visual cortex is interpreted by the parietal lobe, there are aspects of our visual experience that have not changed in the recent past. These aspects of our reality become "base frame", which is to say that we stop paying attention to them. When this occurs to a majority of the visual data, the parietal lobe is said to be in a state of "Deafferentation". (Newberg, 2001)
Deafferentation may be the cause of the altered states reported by mystics and spiritual seekers of all cultures. The common denominator across all the spiritual practices is the lack of changes in the data set coming into the visual cortex. This is accomplished simply by gazing in one particular direction for a long period of time.
When the parietal lobe is deprived of neural input, our parasympathetic processes begin to transform our state of consciousness, as demonstrated in brain scans such as SPECT and functional MRI. The resulting brain activity is most notably different from our normal waking consciousness, called "beta" activity. In fact, experienced meditators exhibit extremely balanced activity throughout the brain, referred to as "gamma synchrony" (Davidson, 2004). Further studies have shown that the balance of activity in the parietal lobe is significantly different from that experienced in "normal" consciousness (Newberg, 2002).
The interesting thing about the results of the many studies on meditation is the fact that repeated exposure to the meditative state seems to increase the effect. Buddhist monks with considerable meditation practice showed a much higher level of gamma synchrony than subjects with no previous experience (Davidson, 2005). It seems that practice really does make perfect.
What does this mean for you and me? These studies show that we are actually able to alter our brain's activity, and prevent stress from diminishing our cortical activity to the capacity of a caveman. All we need to do is take the time to practice a new way of operating our minds. Although there are many different methods of meditation, there are common aspects across the techniques that seem to create the most powerful effect. Following are some of the common elements.
- Minimal change to the visual field, eyes open
- Focusing on the breathing, particularly the out-breath
- Balancing the posture to prevent physical discomfort
- Letting go of thoughts as they come
- Returning to the present moment
When you exit an aircraft in flight, you are going into battle. You must prepare in every way that you can to defend yourself against planetary impact. The most important tool of all is your awareness. When your mental speed increases due to fear or anything else, you are a danger to yourself and everyone near you.
How you find your way to the meditative state is your business. Your rituals are your personal avenue to the calm state, and it will look different for everyone. All that matters is that you take the time before each jump to cool out and let go of your thinking. That way, when some unconsidered possibility comes your way, you are relaxed and in balance, ready for anything.
Portions of this article are excerpts from Brian Germain's new book, Transcending Fear, 2nd edition. For more information regarding meditation as a tool for fear abatement and performance optimization, go to: www.TranscendingFEAR.com
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