Contemplative Practice That Isn't Meditating
More and more people are talking about meditation and even worse, suggesting that I try it. While I appreciate that other people like the activity, some of the woo-vocabualry and the way that people treat it as a panacea really scratch my face.
But also, I’m kind of indignant about the fact that there are plenty of things that I’ve done that are ‘contemplative’ and I want them to count. While I’ve never regularly meditated, I am a very curious-about-my-mind kind of person. In this post I thought I’d give a run down of mind-states that I have experienced without meditating.
I’ll also write some stuff afterwards about how it all 100% counts and is Very Good.
Lights Behind The Eyes
I remain somewhat shocked when people don’t know what I mean when I say this.
The description: Close your eyes, as if for sleep. There is no light. I’m not talking about closing your eyes in bright sunlight I mean in darkness. Concentrate your attention/mind on the sense data you are getting from your eyes (or would be getting if they were open).
In a few seconds you should be able to see not-total-blackness, rather something else. Lights or colours or something. Shifting patterns that are dark but not black.
NB: if you have aphantasia you can still do this. I’m not talking about “picturing in your mind’s eye”, which is a sort of thinking, I’m talking about actual “seeing” with your actual eyes, even though what you see might be your brain experiencing “false” signals.
I find that when I’m ‘watching’ the colors I tend to focus my eyes onto a specific spot. And I mean literally focus, like squinting, not “focus” in the sense of “concentrate”. I can feel that my eye muscles are moving, probably to focus on something that is very close to my face, I assume that it’s literally my eyelids, or maybe it’s infinity.
This concentrating my attention and literally focussing on the back of my eyelids is different to thinking/imagining, where we typically look up or down and to the side, or totally unfocus our eyes. In this case I feel that I’m actively looking at something, but with eyelids closed.
This might be hard to understand for two reasons: it could be that the lights are obviously there and so much a part of your life experience, that you don’t see them, your brain ignores them. Or because you have never done this before and just because your eyes are closed you are deliberately turning your mind off, so you are not actually looking at the lights that are there. I find people who fall asleep easily struggle to know what I mean about these lights.
Another possibility is that my weak blue coloured irises have already lead to eye damage and only I can see this stuff – but apparently other people agree with me so hopefully it’s not that.
If you still can’t see them, you might want to try closing your eyes in bright sunlight. Your visual field then will be bright orange. Try to see the veins in your eyelids, which will be darker. It is this focus position for your eyes that you need in the darkness.
Once in darkness, pressing on your closed eyelids might also help, as this moves your eyeball around and sets off signals to your brain.
Hopefully, this technique will help you see something. Now, I will talk about my experiences of doing this.
I once heard that when a person is in a sensory deprivation tank, the brain likes to make up hallucinations of things. This is because there has never been a time in all your long life that you are awake, and yet there is no sensory data whatsoever. Your brain’s top-down processing is saying, “what’s there, there must be something there, a light, is there a light, perhaps a bird? Is it this thing? Is it this thing?” And it makes you hallucinate all the things. In the tank this happens with every sense – people report hearing loud noises, feeling sensations and seeing things, none of which were present in or outside of the tank.
Anyway, this explains why with your eyes closed in perfect darkness and focussing on the back of the eyelids one can “see” lights.
I experience them as orange or purple or a bit of both (something very like purple fringing in photos) on a dark background.
Once you can see them and start watching them, they can start to take on patterns. Sometimes you’ll only get incoherent blobs, they might be ghosts of lights if you just came from a bright room or looked at your bedside lamp as you turned it off. Occasionally the patterns might be something like veins or crazy paving cracks but mine most often end up taking specific shapes, such as a five-pointed (palmate) leaves or my favourite, peacock feather ‘eyes’.
Another feature is that this pattern ground is not static, the lights are moving, and in the most fun instances the patterns seem to rush towards the viewer (me) in a never-ending tunnel, just like youtube animations and artworks that seem to be moving towards you.
The patterns seem to respond to your will if you relax into it enough, and can produce some beautiful shapes and novel morphing from one thing to another. Sometimes of course you drift away into thinking about things and if you’re not aphantasic then those things can be imagery. I imagine this is how artists get their ideas. Anyway, for a time in my life I “watched” these lights so often I wondered if there was something wrong with me.
The most interesting effects occur when deprived of sleep or when using some drugs, or ideally both. Cannabis is excellent for making the lights more patterned. The most intense effects I’ve had were when I stayed awake all night using cannabis and drinking tea (caffeine), and another time on a very small dose of mdma, some cannabis and also very sleep deprived – awake until 5am or so.
When sleep deprived, the patterns are more coherent, continuously move down this animated tunnel I have just described, morph and merge beautifully from one shape to another and once, one of them even ended in a final, stunning image which was a closed eye, styled like the ‘all-seeing eye’ or an ancient Egyptian eye, suddenly opening in a blinding flash and looking directly back at me.
It is from this experience that I have the intuition that the location of the ‘third eye’ spoken of in various traditions is indeed located between and slightly above our two natural eyes, but it is also, in the third dimension actually hanging out in space about 2 inches in front of the forehead, not directly on the skin, because this is the location of the focus point when watching this internal light show / when focussing on the inner landscape.
Body scanning is a phrase I’ve heard only recently, but it seems to describe what I mean. Again, it involves lying in the dark but this time “feeling” one’s body with very great attention. I did this with most effect around my reproductive organs. For a while I focussed very carefully on feelings of period pain, curious about what it really was.
I came to the conclusion that the Greeks were half-right, your womb really does move around (a bit) across the menstrual cycle (the cervix radically changes position) and it also tenses and twists, inflates and deflates across it too. Because that’s what it feels like. I realised my womb was likely pressing on my intestines, or that they were unusually full, hence the bloaty, crampy feeling when premenstrual and why Victorian doctors dismissed period pain as “just” constipation.
It’s interesting what mental picture one has when thinking about the body with eyes closed. I once experienced my clitoris as a curve of blue light on a dark background. I don’t have any visual metaphors for other things though. On psychedelics, I once got the feeling that my lungs were in front of my body. I sometimes visualise my alveoli becoming wetter and softer when I’m feeling wheezy from asthma to ease the symptoms.
This practice seems to be the entire point of Focusing by Eugene Gendlin, whose technique involves careful, deliberate “feeling” of ones body, trying to identify and locate bodily sensations, then very slowly drawing out the experience into words. Through this one realises the tight coupling of bodily processes and emotions, and the great extent to which people are typically ignoring their bodies.
This kind of body awareness helps me with understanding emotions, diagnosing illness and improving my technique for physical things, such as weight lifting, as well as feeling like I understand and appreciate my body.
NB: doing this is not a good idea when in an anxious state or panic attack, it is likely to make symptoms worse.
In some ways, much has been made of the visual effects that psychedelics can have. If you do an internet search for “psychedelic art” or even just “psychedelic” a typical range of artworks show up. From the first page of results I would say this image is quite close to the kinds of things that I see.
Android Jones is by far the leader in psychedelic arts, now and maybe ever. Go ahead and check him out, I’ll wait.
The mind-state on psychedelics is quite interesting and largely not popularised by media outlets or anyone else. I plan to make a longer post of what being on LSD is really like.
Visually, when looking at a very blank, boring background (such as an 8/8 cover cloudy grey sky) I often see goddesses, sometimes with many arms like Shiva.
When looking at patterns, straight lines become wiggly. In wiggly, the wiggles grow fingers and curl and move around even more than in reality. Clouds become fractal on the edges. When looking at uniform colour fields, their contrast changes in continuous waves, like a cloud casting a moving shadow on the ocean. When looking at natural patterns, like stone, which has subtle gradations of colour, shapes and faces and lines continuously arise and retreat, flow and merge.
But the key to all of this imagery is that it is moving in a very specific way. It will turn, curl or shadow a small amount in one direction, and then back in the other direction, over and over. It does this to a very regular rhythm about one beat every 2 seconds. It gives the effect that everything is “dancing”. Shiva or Shakti will twist one way, then the other. The woodwork floor lines will slide one way, then the other. The super-wiggly wiggles on my wall hanging will drift one way, then the other. Back. Forth. Up. Down. Everywhere you look, all at once. Hence my now notorious phrase:
“The universe is dancing with itself”.
It’s completely delightful to watch, causing feelings of giggles, euphoria and “oneness”. One feels the universe has a literal vibration or rhythm, which all things are plugged into, which you can actually see.
The effect works with closed eyes too. The “lights” which I believe is in some way sense data, are more patterned and this watching the lights also shifts back and forth into more “visual” but “abstract” ie definitely in the “mind’s eye” not your real eyes, imagining. Music has a profound effect on the visual imaginings with one’s eyes closed. Psychedelics seems to amplify synaesthesia and so one feels one can see the music, with bassy notes seeming dark and entwining and high pitched notes seeming like bright points of light. One sound in the music seems jagged or fractal while another is swirly and blurry.
Additionally, one feels more connected to one’s body, both internal and external senses as well as proprioception and the emotional body. It seems possible to feel the interplay between thought and emotion propagating throughout the body.
This is a mind state that is quite far from normal, but hugely beneficial and fun.
Perfect Stillness, Euphoria and Memory Loss
At one time of my life I was a life model, and got into all kinds of games with my mind while sitting absolutely still. Life models are people who get naked so that other people can draw them.
I did three or four sessions a week, which were 3.5-4 hours long, once a month. For about 8 months it was my only source of income.
One goal of life modelling is to allow the people doing the drawings to be able to focus on their drawing, to think of the subject as a series of curves and lines, highlights and shadows. If the model shows any signs of being human, rather than a series of planes, it can be very distracting for the drawers, especially if that human is in distress. A person who has paid to come to draw but then becomes flustered by the model will have a bad session, and it will be the model’s fault.
So a good life model does all they can to reduce the appearance of their human distress, even though they are naked in the centre of a room full of strangers, probably with a limb going dead from lack of circulation.
Stillness is a big part of it. You have to keep your body perfectly still, which takes effort. On top of that, a good life model knows that there are ways to appear even more still, and one of them is to not move your eyes. You could be as still as a stone but if the eyes dart around, it gives the appearance of movement and is a distraction.
Life modelling provides a strong extrinsic motivation to make the effort, because you’re being paid to do a professional job. I cared about being good at the job, and frequently got compliments about my skill.
So I know what it means to be absolutely still.
The sessions normally had several short poses (2-10mins) a medium pose (20mins) and finish up with a long pose (45mins). Although I’ve also done sculpture and painting modelling with was the same pose for 4 hours, with breaks every half an hour.
At the beginning, I’d have to settle on a point to stare at. The first location was never the one that actually became easy to look at. Similarly you hope that you’ve chosen a good pose that won’t become painful after a few minutes. You do a lot of body scanning in the first few minutes, trying to make sure all the parts of you aren’t moving or in pain, but without looking at them.
Then comes, at about the 5 minute mark, an irresistible moment when you become aware of your breathing, which makes it speed up and go shallow, risking hyperventilation and dizziness, and it takes me some effort to get under control.
Once you get past that stage, and the involuntary muscle twitches at the 10 minute mark, the territory is wide open for what to do or think about. Sometimes I saved up things to think about, like reflecting on events that happened between my friends, or making calculations such as how many hours I needed to work to buy something, or probablities for finding higher paid work vs continuing to do lower paid work. Often I would fantasize about sexual things (the boon of being a female model, but not entirely without hazards*).
These kind of thoughts can last you for about 20 minutes, but become boring. Being aware of one’s body is always an option. Scanning around of what is cramping, what is ok, what is going numb, what feels hot or cold and making sure everything is still in the same position was part of the job. Sometimes I would try to “send” more blood to a limb that was going dead with my mind. It kinda helped. Sometimes you’re in excruciating discomfort and alternate between focus on it and trying not to focus on it. In the end you have to endure, with tight jaw muscles being the only clue to the torture.
Listening to the room was one of my favourites, a non-painful source of relief, the sounds of pencils and shuffling feet amplified to fill your whole world. You realise that you can build an abstract but pretty good sense of things from behind you from what you can hear rather than see.
After all that I would stare at my spot, trying to push my visual perception outside of normal. Straight lines become wavy very easily, and you can fuck around with depth perception too. I would try to recreate the effects of psychedelics, but never got as far as the “dancing universe”.
At the end of a session, I would frequently feel euphoric and be much more smiley and sociable than normal. It took me a while to notice this effect. I’m not sure why it happened.
And the most extreme sensation was “memory loss”. Sometimes in long poses, I would be shocked when the class leader announced the end. 45 minutes had passed, but if you had asked me I would swear that we were at the 20 or 25 minute mark. I used to practice wondering how much time had passed and I was typically quite accurate for shorter poses. But clearly not so with some long ones.
Sometimes it was such a shock that the time was over that I would worry about things, such as: had I stayed still? Had I embarrassed myself? I felt like I had no memory at all of the final 20 minutes of the pose. If I had no memory then perhaps I’d also had no control? But the class attendees gave me the usual compliments of being still etc.
I can’t account for these times when I had no memory of the long pose, but I assume I had put myself in a trance.
It Totally Counts
When I describe these things to meditators they tend to nod sagely and say “yeah, that happens” with all this stuff.
So I wonder what makes meditation so special? I think meditators themselves would say that it isn’t, particularly. “Meditation” as a name and rallying point is good for attracting people who don’t normally do any contemplative practice. In that sense it is a useful beacon.
But one problem may be that “meditation” is now so ubiquitous that people might feel disempowered to be self-reflective in their own way because they’re not “doing it right”. Good problem for meditation to have, I guess, but irritating for me.
At the beginner level I’ve come to believe there is no “right” and “wrong” way and I’d like to encourage people to get creative with lying down and spacing out in any way they enjoy. It all totally counts as reflective practice and you should feel self-satisfied about it.
I think we could do with more encouragement for random self-reflection that doesn’t have to involve strict rules on length or regularity or style of practice. That doing it “for fun, when I’m high” is a great reason and time to do it. I think we need more encouragement that such practice is not a waste of time.
However, the one thing that beginner versions of meditation and other kinds of random contemplation don’t really have is teachers, and teachers seem to be important.
When staring at lights behind my eyelids I get a sense of not really achieving anything that I think is partly correct. Once you establish some foundations of contemplation, it feels like you won’t get any further beyond some low hanging fruit without guidance, and might end up in pitfalls as well, such as endless self-referential noodling, or making your panic attacks worse.
So in all cases one eventually needs a teacher, and perhaps that’s where I’m at now. I still can’t really be bothered to dedicate time and money to a practice which some people claim has no benefits, especially the woo-ey versions that turn me right off. So for now, suggestions that I meditate can fuck right off but if anyone hears of a “go further with your closed-eye light show” practitioner then you can let me know.
*1 I once had a standing pose where vaginal fluid began to creep down my leg, agonizingly slowly! I wasn’t sure if it was visible or transparent and couldn’t tell if everyone in the room could see it! Turns out it was not transparent but no-one gave any sign they could see it. I sorted it out before the next pose!