Am I meditating or is this something else?
July 22, 2009 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Am I meditating or is this something else?

So I have this... thought exercise? technique? ...not sure what to call it... this thing I do. I usually it when I'm in bed to help me fall asleep faster, though I have done it other places: during yoga, on the subway, etc.

Basically I close my eyes, and allow images to form in my mind's eye. It's sort of an actively passive exercise, since consciously thinking about what I'm seeing- or thinking about anything for that matter- or trying to control what images form, breaks it. It's definitely something I consciously decide to do, and am aware that I am doing, but once I've started doing it, any actual thought breaks it.

It's always very random stuff. People, faces, objects, behaviors, and sometimes just various shapes. They start off sort of grey, blurry and indistinct, more the suggestions of the shapes and objects, than anything. If I'm good about just going with the flow, not thinking about anything, they gradually become more distinct and more visible (hard to verbally describe what you see in your mind's eye, but its sort of like the difference between seeing something through a pane frosted glass and then having the glass gradually become more transparent) and if I can hold the right mental state for long enough they lose the grey tones and start to be in vivid distinct colors. They also tend to start off taking up a small portion of the space in my mind's eye, but towards the end can grow to be fill the entire space. And when I get to this point it really feels like seeing the thing for real, rather than just imagining it. By the time I get to this point, I feel incredibly relaxed.

If I'm in bed, I usually fall asleep very shortly after I get to the stage where I'm experiencing this level of realism. This is why I find it particularly effective as a bedtime exercise. I've gotten to this point a few times while elsewhere too, most usually in Yoga during the final shavasana, but since external stimulus tends to break it up I generally don't have much luck getting beyond semi-distinct shapes when I'm in a public place.

I've been doing this for years, as I said, mostly to help me fall asleep. I mentioned this to a friend the other day and she said it sounds a lot like meditation, what with the need for me to cease all conscious thought for it to effectively work.

I've never actually tried to meditate, so I wouldn't know. However as I understand it, meditation generally doesn't involve falling asleep, and that seems to be the eventual destination of this thing I do if I can keep it up long enough. I also have never heard meditation described as an intensely visual experience, which this most certainly is. In fact, it's pretty much all visual and nothing else.

Any gurus/yogis/whatever out there who can tell me if what I've been doing counts as meditation or if it's something else?
posted by reticulatedspline to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Sounds like you're describing a kind of self-induced hypnagogic state. I'm no expert, but that seems to fit within a broad definition of meditation.
posted by adjockey at 7:39 AM on July 22, 2009

Broadly speaking, meditation can be defined as the intentional use of concentration and conscious awareness (in varying ratios) that results in a structured period of altered consciousness (to varying degrees of alteration). So, yeah, that counts.

Various spiritual and religious and psychological traditions will all like to get more specific definitions of what proper meditation is, and there's debate to be had over what forms are more useful, for whatever definitions of utility they're prioritizing.
posted by Drastic at 7:50 AM on July 22, 2009

What adjockey said. And if you can remain aware and enter the dream state, you will have learned to lucid dream.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:52 AM on July 22, 2009

First of all, meditation is a very broad category of activity. Different people use the word differently. So some people may consider what you are describing meditation.

Personally, I would not consider what you describe above as meditation. The major goal of meditation is to develop powers of concentration. For example, some people meditate by clearing their mind and staring at a candle. Other people will create some kind of mental image, but they will hold that mental image in their mind(or maybe they will change the image but they will change it consciously). Still others will simply focus on the breath and they will hold their mind on their breath. The common thread in all of these techniques is that they engage and develop the mind's ability to concentrate.

Meditation, like many things in life, actually has a goal. The goal in meditating is to be able to pull oneself into the present moment, and then to remain in the present moment via the concentration developed from years of meditating.

The technique you describe above, in my opinion, will not lead to an increased ability to concentrate because you are allowing your mind to do whatever it wants instead of consciously focusing it. Therefore, I would not consider your technique meditation. Now, I bet you could easily switch over to some kind of visual meditation while doing your technique, but I bet falling asleep would be much harder.

(my $0.02)
posted by satori_movement at 8:09 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I mentioned this to a friend the other day and she said it sounds a lot like meditation, what with the need for me to cease all conscious thought for it to effectively work.

By the way, your friend's understanding of meditation is not a common one. (Which of course doesn't mean it's necessarily wrong to describe what you're doing as meditation.) I don't know of any meditation teachers who would say that ceasing conscious thought was the method. (Many would have problems with the idea of it "working effectively" also but that's another point.)

Meanwhile, likewise, satori_movement's focus on concentration describes one kind of meditation, not any commonly accepted universal characteristic that defines all meditation.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:18 AM on July 22, 2009

Can you define "mind's eye"?
posted by hal_c_on at 9:35 AM on July 22, 2009

Response by poster: Can you define "mind's eye"?

The visual area I see when my eyes are closed.
posted by reticulatedspline at 9:44 AM on July 22, 2009

Investigate the definitions of and experiences associated with altered states of consciousness. Especially look into brain waves like Apha, Theta, Delta, etc.

I know that meditating causes the meditator's brain waves to change, depending on the level of concentration and type of practice. I'm thinking the specific answer to what it is you do is in this genre of research and information.
posted by jbenben at 12:18 PM on July 22, 2009

game warden to the events rhino, the problem with the English language is that a word like meditation can have so many meanings as to be almost meaningless.

The webster's entry for meditation defines meditation as a myriad of things, everything from general contemplation and reflection, to mental visualization techniques, etc. I made an assumption that reticulatedspline wanted to know if their technique was similar to so-called "Mindfulness Meditation," or the technique which the Buddha described as "the path to liberation". I tried to answer her question from that perspective.
posted by satori_movement at 12:57 PM on July 22, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah when I say "meditation" I meant the Buddhist concept of it.

Having read some stuff today though on hypnagogia, particularly bits of "Hypnagogia" by Andreas Mavromatis, I'm pretty positive this is what it is. The subjects' descriptions of their experiences meshes very closely with my own: faces, landscapes, sometimes blocks of text, gradually becoming clearer and more colorful.

Whether this level of brain activity is similar to that achieved by meditation is something I'll have to look into deeper.

I guess my followup question would be: since I've gotten to be very good at inducing this state in myself, does this mean I'd have an easy time learning how to meditate?

If so, any suggestions on where to start learning?
posted by reticulatedspline at 1:20 PM on July 22, 2009

What you're experiencing sounds not at all like Buddhist meditation. Buddhist meditation emphasizes mindfulness. The stream of random stuff you think about is what I've heard Buddhists call "the monkey mind". Meditation is about quieting the monkey mind.
posted by paulg at 1:49 PM on July 22, 2009

Wow! I think I do this as well! Does this sound right:

It's as if there's a big well of collected sensory input that all flows together in a chaotic way. When you start playing with it, it's like you dip the little bucket of your mind into the well. You catch things here and there, but then your conscious mind tries to follow through on the thoughts... which is not what you're going for. What is really satisfying is to get all the way into the well, and just let it all wash over you.

When I do it I can also hear things in my "mind's ear" and the things I hear are often more meaningful (or understandable) than what I see.

I think paulg's comment has merit, but I don't think this is the monkey mind. I say this because what I experience is usually very helpful to my inner life. All of the random stuff makes no sense to my frontal lobe, but somehow speaks to my emotional center. Doing this practice can help me make sense of emotional obstacles, without me really being able to explain how I got there.

So ultimately I think it is very helpful and an extremely cool thing to do!

I would also disagree that it is not mindfulness meditation. Isn't the goal of such meditation to quiet your reactive mind, so that you can simply experience things in the moment as they are? Are reticulatedspine and I just descending into the depths of our minds and meditating there?

That being said, it does serve a much different function than practicing mindfulness... and it does tend to lead to sleep.
posted by muscat at 3:36 PM on July 22, 2009

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