Saturday, September 10, 2011

Meditation V: Visual Imagery

'Where one's thoughts are, there he is with the totality of his being'
Chassidic adage 

The rehearsal of dangerous manoeuvres before their real life execution is a given. Before astronauts are sent into space on a mission they rehearse every move underwater, in an environment that simulates the weightlessness of space. Similarly, soldiers are briefed about battle tactics in order that they carry out an operation in the most efficient and coordinated fashion possible. Often, they'll practice an operation numerous times in a simulated environment until they can perform it successfully in a given time frame.

What's less known is that a significant level of rehearsal and training can be carried out within the mind. For the mind is not detached from the body, and one's thoughts - especially those pertaining to action - have a real tangible effect on the body. For instance, mental self-talk triggers subtle muscular movements of the vocal folds and other organs of speech normally used to pronounce those sounds audibly. Similarly, in using visual imagery to revisit a traumatic experience for the sake of reinterpreting it with one's present level of wisdom and maturity, people often experience intense emotional and even physiological arousal. Likewise, scientific studies have shown that mental rehearsal of sport related movements actually helps train and prepare muscles for competition.

One of my cherished aspects of skateboarding is watching a 'trick tip' clip of a professional skater performing a trick and then sitting down at the skate park and imagining myself performing the trick exactly as I'd observed it. I often find my muscles tense, twitch, and even move as I go through the sequence of movements in my mind. I've also palpably felt fear when imagining myself attempting a dangerous trick and the thrill of executing it successfully.

It is important to note, however, that there are levels of 'observer - participant' types of visual imagery. In skateboarding, observer imagery involves visualizing how the professional carried out the manoeuvre; a mental replay, if you like. This sort of imagery can help one develop clarity as to how a trick is to be performed but fails to effectively include one's psycho-physiological self. In a participant form, however, one actually imagines oneself performing a trick as though doing so in real life. It is then that one's emotions and physical limbs are activated by the imagery.                  

There are thus four stages to this overall process:
1. Observe a skilled skater perform a trick;
2. Replay the trick in your mind in observer mode several times;
3. Imagine oneself performing the trick - as a participant - exactly as observed;
4. Attempt to execute the trick in practice.

Perhaps the four stages can be summarized as follows:
1. real observation;
2. mental observation;
3. mental participation;
4. real participation...



Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Meditation IV: Awareness

Self-awareness is one of the distinguishing human capacities. Admittedly, some animals - chimpanzees for example - exhibit self awareness when placed before a mirror. However, humans have an internal mirror for constant self-reflection and self-discovery. Human self-awareness is also not limited to a recognition of the body, but of emotion, intellect, imagination, and even of self-awareness itself. Furthermore, the human is able to articulate his self-reflection and come to a profound and explicit understanding of himself.

This is highly advantageous, for in knowing oneself one can come to function in sync with his psychological and physiological makeup. Furthermore, identification of one's strengths and weaknesses allows weaknesses to be worked on and improved, and talents to be cultivated.

The type of self-awareness under discussion is not to be confused with narcissism, diffidence, or self-centeredeness, which are distinct maladies of the spirit. In narcissism one is obsessed with his/her own beauty and appearance; in diffidence one is self-conscious to the point of inhibited functioning and spontaneity; and in self centredeness one is disproportionately focused on gratifying one's own desires over those of others. In all three cases self-awareness is not intentional but a fixation. In healthy self awareness, however, one intentionally pays attention to one's behaviour, feelings, and thinking, in order to learn about and improve oneself. In fact, it's through real self awareness that one may become cognizant of and overcome the above mentioned three conditions.          

Skateboarding can serve as a microcosm for attaining authentic self-awareness in many aspects of one's being. Here are a few examples:

What is my overall approach to fear management: Do I avoid fearful manoeuvres? Do I recklessly attempt them without giving thought to the risks involved in their performance? Or, do I consider the risks involved and take the necessary precautions to minimize injury?

What is my approach to improvement? Do I have a systematic, theory based approach, or do I progress through the inefficient process of trial and error?

What is my attitude toward those that skate better than me? Do I envy them or praise them? Do I feel inspired or threatened by them?

Why do I skateboard altogether? Do I need exercise? Because my friends do so? Because it's a fun activity and I have nothing better to do? Because I need an escape from the stress of life?

The discoveries made about oneself  through skateboarding can be generalized to other aspects of one's life and result in tremendous all round self-development...  



Sunday, September 4, 2011

Meditation III: Calm

The human nervous system consists of involuntary and voluntary 'parts.' The working of the heart, liver, stomach, etc, are regulated by the involuntary - unconscious - part, while the movement of the arms, legs, eyes, etc, are generally under voluntary - conscious - control.

The involuntary system further divides into two branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The former galvanizes the body for action by speeding up heart and breath rate, tensing muscles, dilating the pupils, triggering the release of adrenaline and increasing blood sugar for energy, etc. The latter, on the other hand, counterbalances by slowing down and overall reversing the sympathetic wind up, bringing the body into a state of repose and calm.

If the sympathetic branch becomes overactive or 'hyper-arroused', an individual can become aggressive, nervous, impatient, on edge, and focused on dealing with the stimulus apparently responsible for the increased arousal. It is therefore important for one to be able to counter by maintaining calm, a state conducive to sensitivity, openness, patience, and a broad range of awareness.

If the sympathetic system is excessively triggered, the parasympathetic system may lose its ability to maintain equilibrium as part of the involuntary mechanism. Voluntary facilitation of parasympathetic activity then  becomes necessary. One method for inducing parasympathetic functioning is relaxation meditation.

My preferred form of relaxation meditation involves focusing the mind on one's breathing for approx. 15 - 20 minutes at a time. This is relaxing for several reasons:

a) one tends to feel stress and anxiety on account of the unpredictable nature of life. We are constantly on alert for the next challenge that may suddenly crop up. Breathing, in contrast to ordinary life, is repetitious and highly predictable. The knowledge that for the next 20 minutes one will experience the same gentle rhythmic pattern over and over again puts the mind at ease.

b) the mind tends to imitate the stimuli it experiences. Out of the four primary elements of fire air water and earth, air is the most lightweight and imperceptible. By paying attention to the gentle flow of air passing in and out of the nostrils, one's mind mimics the air somewhat and ones come to feel a lightness of being.

c) Respiration is a link between the unconscious and the conscious; the voluntary and the involuntary. Normally, breathing is an unconscious process and reflects unconscious activity. However, we can also regulate our breathing patterns consciously and voluntarily. Thus, by slowing down our breath rate we influence the unconscious attached to it into a calmer - parasympathetic - state.

d) During normal functioning one's attention divides between several different tasks, commitments, and alternatives. This tug of war over one's attention creates inner stress and tension. When one focuses their attention onto one object to the exclusion of all else, much inner tension is reduced and is replaced by stillness and calm.   

The body and mind share a two directional relationship. The state of the body tends to affect one's thinking, and thinking has an affect on the body. For instance, when the stomach is empty, thoughts about food enter the mind. On the other hand, thinking about food triggers the entire digestive system, from the salivation of the mouth to acid production in the stomach. Thus, if a person relaxes his mind, his body will become more relaxed as well, and vice-versa.                           

A relaxed state is important in skateboarding for many reasons. Firstly, when relaxed, one's awareness expands and one gains a clearer perception of what one is doing. Secondly, one becomes cooler headed and less fearful, open to attempt tricks which one usually finds too intimidating. Also, when the body is relaxed and supple it is easier to control when performing delicate and precise movements. Finally, in a relaxed state, one can enjoy every moment of skateboarding rather than being repeatedly frustrated and angered by an inability to land a particular trick - after all, skating is supposed to be fun...         

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Meditation II: Concentration

Concentration is the ability to intentionally focus one's attention onto something. There are two general levels in this process: negative and positive concentration. In the first, one manages to eliminate distracting  thoughts and pay attention to the subject at hand. In the second, one proceeds to focus increasingly more mental energy onto the subject.

These levels are analogous to the ways one improves the quality of sound on a radio. In level one, negative concentration, one fine tunes the dial in order to reduce the static caused by other frequencies. With  static removed, the sound of one's desired frequency becomes much clearer and sharper. In the second level, positive concentration, one turns up the volume.

One way of strengthening one's power of concentration is to think of a word, colour - or any object for that matter - and to try to keep it within one's mind for as long as possible. The restless mind will attempt to replace the mental image with other thoughts. Use your will to continue projecting your desired thought onto your mental screen, revive the image again and again. If you find it difficult and persevere nonetheless, your ability to concentrate strengthens. Remember, strength is typically developed through resistance.              

When skateboarding one often fails to perform optimally because - usually without one's awareness - the mind is bombarded with all sorts of thoughts irrelevant to the trick at hand: What's for dinner?; Who am I going out with tonight?; Do I look cool performing this trick?; I'm late, my mother is going to have my head!; Look at that attractive person sitting over there! Perhaps I should try another trick now?, etc. By developing concentration such 'mental static' is reduced, and one can skate with heightened clarity of awareness and increased confidence...