October 11, 2017
Episode 6: Positive Feedback Loops
In this episode, Thomas guides the listener into a style of meditation that people have been practicing for thousands of years–shamatha, or calm abiding meditation. For style points, he breaks down the basic mechanics of this technique, explaining the basic mechanism–the feedback loop–that makes it so effective. Listen in, and feel your stress melt away as you learn to ride this natural wave of bliss and concentration.
Hello! Welcome to Mindfulness+, I'm your host, Thomas McConkie, thanks so much for listening today. So in case you're new to Mindfulness+, let me tell you a little bit about how this works. Each week I release a new lesson on Wednesday afternoon and I introduce a topic that I believe will be helpful to you in developing this life changing skill of mindfulness. Today the topic is positive feedback loops. What is a positive feedback loop and what is its role in helping us develop mindful awareness?
Let's start with the positive feedback loop: by definition, a positive feedback loop is "A" causes "B" and "B" causes more "A". "B" causes more "A" and then "A" causes more "B" and so on. So a common example of a positive feedback loop is a stampede. Imagine a wildebeest out in the savannah and it thinks it hears a snake rustling in the grass. It gets spooked so it starts to run. It starts to run and wildebeests around it in the heard get spooked as well and they start to run. And the more wildebeests that run, the more other wildebeests get spooked and before you know it you've got a stampede.
This is a classic example of a positive feedback loop and notice that "positive" in positive feedback loop does not imply that the results you get from the feedback loop are desirable. Depending on who you are and where you are, a stampede may or may not be a good thing. So I've got another example, I think more relevant to what we're doing here today. It's about a positive feedback loop that really changed my life early on in practice.
I talked about this in a previous show, that what originally drove me to a mindfulness practice was insomnia. I just couldn't fall asleep. When I did fall asleep I often wasn't able to stay asleep through the night. So what happened is that I wouldn't get a good nights rest and that would make me really anxious and the next day I'd feel like a zombie and before I knew it, night time rolled around and I was just exhausted and I was even more anxious the next night about falling asleep. I was intimidated by the night because night was a place where I tended to suffer a lot. So the less I slept the more anxious I got about not being able to sleep, the more anxious I got about not being able to sleep, the harder it was to sleep. That was a positive feedback loop with very negative consequences for me.
But what happened as I got in to a mindfulness practice, I noticed something spontaneous happen: my breath dropped. I went from this kind of anxious, shortened breathing up in the chest, to all of the sudden just feeling my breath kind of migrating back down deep in to my abdomen. And the more I breathed from my abdomen the more relaxed my body got. The more relaxed my body got, the easier it was to keep breathing from my belly.
So again this positive feedback loop, only this time the consequences and results were very desirable. I was feeling so much more relaxed throughout the day, more so than I ever had in my life. I couldn't believe it, I'd discovered this thing that seemed to be a cure all for everything that ailed me. Then I would approach the night with a totally different attitude: breathing from the belly, soft in the body, relaxed. Over time I would just go to bed and I would actually look forward to going to bed.
I'm not here to claim that mindfulness is going to solve or take care of your insomnia or any other problem. It may or may not. What I have found is that mindfulness helps everything work better. Whatever issues you're struggling with in life and whatever challenges, mindfulness in general helps us meet those challenges more optimally.
Ok, so much for examples, these are positive feedback loops. How can we practice with a positive feedback loop? How can we use this natural mechanism to develop our mindfulness practice? As we do in Mindfulness+, we're going to practice this rather than talk about positive feedback loops conceptually, we are going to learn about them only to become them in the practice. So how do we become a positive feedback loop? How do we give ourselves to this natural process? Here's one way that people have been doing for literally thousands of years and I think that people have been doing it this long because people have found it to be incredibly effective. It goes like this: we sit still (I recommend sitting still for this practice we're going to do today) and we start to focus on restful states in the body. What happens is when we focus on restful states in the body, our attention amplifies the pleasant sensation. So the stillness and restfulness in the body actually becomes more pleasant the more we focus on it. The more pleasant it feels the easier it is to focus. The easier it is to focus the more able we are to focus on the pleasant sensations. So the pleasant sensations become more pleasant and it becomes easier to focus as we enter natures feedback loop.
In the Buddhist tradition this kind of meditation is called "Shamatha". Shamatha often gets translated as "calm, abiding meditation”. But the word itself has connotations of high concentration because as we're in this feedback loop we become more and more concentrated. And the word Shamatha also has a connotation of blissful calm and it has that connotation, again, because of this feedback loop where the more we focus the more highly concentrated we become and the more we amplify this sense of bliss. The more blissful we feel, the more rewarded we are to continue concentrating more and more. That is the basic theory and after break I will invite you to join me in a practice. Stay tuned.
Welcome back from break, everybody. My name is Thomas McConkie and you're listening to Mindfulness+.
So before the break I described what a positive feedback loop is and how it can help us in the context of a mindfulness practice. The last thing I'll say here as we get ready for practice is a couple things that you can be on the lookout for. First, I try to keep these meditations a little bit shorter so you can fit them conveniently in to your day and make use of them often. But one principle you'll find as you do mindfulness over time is that the longer you practice, the deeper you practice. So if you'd like to really explore the depths of this Shamatha practice or the positive feedback loop practice, I'd invite you to extend the time a little bit. So maybe going from five minutes to ten and ten minutes to twenty and so on just to see where that takes you.
Also, just because we're focusing on pleasant sensation it doesn't mean for a moment that there aren't unpleasant sensations. The body may feel uncomfortable at times and the mind may be racing and that's ok. None of those things have to go away, none of those things have to be problems. When we do this kind of meditation we're simply focusing on the pleasant sensations and letting everything else be in the background of awareness. I'll invite you to join me, here. Go ahead and find a comfortable place where you can sit still for a moment without being disturbed or interrupted.
Start by letting the body settle in to the posture. The posture that allows the spine to be naturally upright but without excessive effort. Take a moment to settle in to a posture that allows you to be both relaxed and alert. Feel the ground beneath you, supporting you and see if you're able to relax a little bit more. How can you sit in this moment with even greater ease. At this point I'd like you to bring awareness to the breath, particularly the breath as it shows up through the torso, feeling the expansion and contraction of the torso and just joining your awareness with the flow of sensation. Breathing in, you can clearly sense the feeling of breathing in. Breathing out, you can be clear about the sensations of breathing out. And I want you to focus specifically now on the out-breath. Notice with each out-breath through the torso there's a natural wave of relaxation of letting go. All of the muscles that work so hard to create space for the breath to enter the lungs and enter the body, when you breath out they just soften and let go. and as you focus on this sensation of relaxation and letting go, you may notice that it wants to spread beyond the torso, out in to the limbs, through the head, through the entire body and if that's the case you can just let it do that. Let the relaxation spread. Or you may notice that this feeling of relaxation wants to remain local and concentrated in the torso. If that's the case, that's great, too. You can just stay with this area of focus in the torso sill focusing on the profound ease and restfulness, the letting go that comes with each out-breath.
Good. After doing this for a few moments you may start to notice even when you're not exhaling and letting go, there’s still a quality of softness and restfulness in the body that you can actually stay in constant contact with through your awareness. Even if the body is not one-hundred percent relaxed in this moment or the mind completely calm, you can let any discomfort, any unpleasantness in experience fade in to the background for the moment. While in the foreground you stay with this quality of rest and relaxation. Notice that focusing on this calm and rest in the body is intrinsically rewarding. The more you focus, the more pleasant it becomes. The more pleasant it becomes, the easier it is to focus. And you can stay here as long as you would like, softening and surrendering to this natural feedback loop that is always here, always available to us.
Thank you so much, everybody. I hope todays lesson is of benefit to you and that in that last practice you were able to get just a bit of a taste of what we mean by a positive feedback loop and what we mean by Shamatha meditation: this calm abiding that involves deep concentration and blissful calm. My name is Thomas McConkie and you've been listening to Minduflness+. Thanks so much for joining us, we'll be here next Wednesday… and every other day.