For theta’s sake, smash up your TV and go for a walk

You can get experienced meditators to produce, on demand, feelings of timelessness and spacelessness. Tell them ‘Try to be outside time’, and ‘try not to be in the centre of space’, and they will.

These sort of sensations tend to happen together – so strikingly so that Walter Stace proposed, as one combined element of mystical experience, ‘non-spatial-and-non-temporal’.1

Why should that be? asked an Israeli research group in a recent and fascinating paper.  And was the generation of these sensations related to alterations in the sense of the body?

The answer to the second question was yes: as timelessness and spacelessness invaded, perceived bodily boundaries dissolved. And the answer to the first question was: theta waves. Both timeless and spacelessness used the theta bandwidth. The authors concluded: ‘[O]ur results underscored the specificity of theta activity, and emphasize theta’s unique role in altered experience of time, space and the body. Taken together, the results reported here support previous suggestions of the psychological integrative role of the theta band…..and provide further understanding of deep meditative states, reported frequently to invoke enhanced theta activity.’

So what? Well, perhaps the paper signifies nothing, and should simply be yet another exhibit in the well-stocked cabinet of neuroscientific curiosities. But here are a few wholly speculative, evidentially unsupported suggestions and assertions, woven artlessly into a crude argument with an ethical conclusion, all of which cravenly ignore objections based on the derivation of an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

(a)       The brain’s use of the theta band to modulate both timelessness and spacelessness indicates that timelessness and spacelessness are linked fundamentally: they are two sides of the same neurobiological coin.

(b)      The association of timelessness and spacelessness with the dissolution of body boundaries likewise suggests a tight, probably evolutionarily ancient, and significant relationship between all three phenomena.

(c)       When meditators experience any of these phenomena – and particularly when they experience more than one of them at the same time – they tend to describe the experience as good; as an improvement on the workaday baseline. Indeed they often struggle for superlatives. Words such as ‘bliss’ and ‘Nirvana’ pepper the narratives. Meditators typically emerge from the meditation hall glowing and restored.

(d)      (Here’s the first real leap). Meditators are better people as a result of their meditation. They are less selfish, more altruistic and more empathetic.

(e)       (And here’s the second). This is specifically because:

(i)        Timelessness gives long perspectives – tending to put into context the meditators’ own pre-occupations, and hence to generate concern for times other than the meditators’ own.

(ii)       Similarly for spacelessness:  shift the focus away from the immediate neighbourhood, and one shifts focus away from oneself, making a genuinely general, universal benevolence more likely.

(iii)      Similarly for the dissolution of a sense of our bodies’ boundaries. The dissolution makes meditators fanatical, mystical communitarians.

(f)       Welfare (described in (c) above) and morality are themselves inextricably entwined. The welfare experienced is, at least in part, a consequence of the timelessness and spacelessness and anti-atomism, which are themselves drivers of a better ethic. It is welfare-good to be ethically-good, and ethically-good to be welfare-good. If your face glows from being on a metaphorical mountain-top, your behavior will glow too.

(g)       The mountain-top needn’t be metaphorical: the meditation needn’t be intense and disciplined. When we get away from our screens and the crushing littlenesses of our lives, and stride into a physically bigger landscape, our sense of our own importance diminishes: we begin to feel ‘at one’ with the world around us. I bet there’s a lot of theta sloshing around our heads as we look up at a glowering mountain.  Which explains why shepherds make ethically better decisions than politicians, why suits are so dangerous, why you needn’t check your change at a farmers’ market, why folk musicians are all nice people, and why you should take a sledgehammer to your TV.

References

1. Stace W.T. (1960), Mysticism and Philosophy.  Los Angeles, A: Jeremy P. Tarcher, p. 109, cited Berkovich-Ohana et al (2013): see link.

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10 Responses to For theta’s sake, smash up your TV and go for a walk

  • Eryk says:

    The phenomenology of unitive experience: a deep feeling of connection with everything and the discovery that everyone is beautiful. Simply abide in thoughts and feelings of love and you develop a capacity for loving that is mentally strong. This virtue (literally, power) is not our birthright, it takes discipline.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      Eryk,
      Would your advice to a woman hospitalised by her partner’s violence be : “simply abide in thoughts and feelings of love and you will rejoice in the phenomenology of unitive experience…” ?
      Or do I misunderstand you ?

      • Eryk says:

        In this case, she loves herself by keeping herself safe. Her rationality isn’t stupefied by her compassion. It doesn’t happen that way in the real world.

        • Anthony Drinkwater says:

          Thanks for your reply, Eryk,
          In the real world that I experience, there are women whose rationality is completely “stupefied by their compassion”, who continue to think that their man is “beautiful” regardless of his violence, and thus don’t keep themselves safe. I’m not arguing that meditation can not help them, but react to two of your statements :
          1. “SIMPLY abide in thoughts and feelings of love” – recipe for passive acceptance.
          2. “Everyone is beautiful” – not factually true.
          (By the way, I’m not stating that non-beautiful people can’t have positive qualities : I believe that Hitler was a non-smoking vegetarian with an interest in art…..)

          • Eryk says:

            In every online discussion on love/peace, there is at least one poster who comes in with violent scenarios involving children or utilitarian dilemmas involving hostages. It’s the belief that love makes us vulnerable to attack and even encourages it from people looking for victims. What a great plan for ending the cycle of violence.

            Love is not stupid. It correlates with intelligence. Intellectually gifted youngsters score high in psychological testing for emotional intelligence and empathy. Love is observant and appreciative and intelligent in thinking of ways to help out. That’s why we say “how thoughtful of you” when someone is kind.

            The meditator who cultivates thoughts and feelings of love will not be psychologically dependent on a bully or anyone else. They don’t need love from others because they understand that the only way to have love is to think and act in a loving way. They put themselves in a state of love on their own and they take full responsibility for their emotional experiences. The governing emotion of the loyal battered wife is not love but the fear of being alone. Completely different way to live.

            And yes, love in the heart makes the world lovely. It’s a wonderful side effect of meditation and cognitive therapies for anger. I think this attitude is required for a sincere belief in things like intrinsic human dignity and inalienable, universal human rights.

  • Matheus De Pietro says:

    Charles, I’d have two comments:

    1. Regarding bullet (g) but referring to the others as well:

    I wonder if anyone made a connection between the points you raise in your article and the Stoics’ ideal of “living in conformity with nature” – in which “nature” can also be read as “the world which is bigger than us” (unlike the realm of our egoistical needs as individuals). Marcus Aurelius’ explanation of why we should be empathetic is very similar to what you wrote (Marcus Aurelius 2.1).

    Interestingly enough, we know that the Stoics also developed a mental exercise called meditatio/askesis, which aimed precisely at achieving wisdom by changing the way one perceives the world. In fact, there are many parallels here that one can relate to the Stoic theory of cognition. For instance: the point you keep stressing, – the feeling of partial selflessness yielded by the practice of meditation – is an essential aspect of Stoic psychology and an important step toward their supreme good. I find this connection very interesting and I’ll take a look at it as well.

    2. How about the studies on the positive influence of serotonin on one’s moral choices? Since meditation increases serotonin levels I think that would support your argument.

  • Charles Foster says:

    Matheus: many thanks. The connection with the Stoics hadn’r occurred to me. I will look it up too. And, yes, serotonin fits nicely.

  • Dave Frame says:

    I don’t buy (d). Meditators may be more chilled out, happier, healthier, even better on some generally recognisable betterness-index. But I don’t buy that altruism is caused by meditation, or that altruism follows normatively from meditation. Personally, I think the value of meditation is in escaping, rather than improving* the world. [Nor am I convinced that altruism is a general indicator of people's goodness, but that's another story.]

    *Usually taken to mean “making it more like what you want it to be and less like what those pesky Other People want it to be…”

  • b.akoury says:

    Being a yogi and a hiker, I agree 100% with this article!! The most deep meditative state I ever reach is while hiking in mountains!!! The feeling is intense, you feel part of the earth I am walking on, and also I feel the nature alive and interacting within my deep soul. Amazing state

  • b.akoury says:

    Being a yogi and a hiker, I agree 100% with this article!! The most deep meditative state I ever reach is while hiking in mountains!!! The feeling is intense, one does not feel the fatigue nor the time,it is like floating into space. one feels part of the earth , and also one feels the nature alive and interacting with the deep soul. Amazing state of meditation.

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