I don’t mean literal, physical energy. I more or less understand that. I mean “energy” in the supernatural/ metaphysical/ woo bullshit sense. And specifically, what does it mean for a meditation practice?
Here’s what I’m talking about. As regular readers know, I’ve recently begun a secular meditation/ mindfulness practice, based on the evidence-based Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques. I do a few different practices, depending on where I am and how much time I have… but the core of my practice, at least for now, is something called a “body scan,” in which I focus my attention on each part of my body in turn, starting with my feet and moving up to the top of my head, noticing thoughts and distractions as they arise and acknowledging them without judgment and then gently letting them go to return my attention to the body part in question. When I first started doing the body scan practice, I basically had to say the words to myself, in my head, “Heel. Heel. Pay attention to your left heel. Heel. Okay, moving on to the big toe. Big toe. Pay attention to your big toe. Okay, that’s an interesting thought drifting into your consciousness: notice it, don’t judge it, let it go, return your attention to your big toe. Big toe. Big toe. Okay… now little toe.”
But as I get more familiar with the practice — more practiced, I guess — this has been shifting. The verbal instructions to myself are becoming less necessary. It’s becoming easier to just experience my body, to just feel it, without having to name the parts. If I’m more tired, or more stressed out, I need more of the verbal directions… but I’m needing them less and less. (In a “two steps forward, one step back” way.)
And as I get less dependent on the verbal catalog to keep me focused on my body, and become more able to just experience my body for what it is, this… thing has been happening.
Instead of controlling or directing the body scan, it’s just been happening by itself.
If I can get into a state where I’m simply experiencing my body, without words, the focus through my body into the different parts has been like… this is hard to describe. It’s been like a vine, a slow stream, a sinuous tingling sensation, gradually creeping up and around and through my body. And I’m not guiding it or controlling it: not consciously, anyway. (Although I do sometimes try to give it a gentle nudge.) Instead of consciously directing my focus from one body part to the next, I just follow this sensation, and let it go where it’s naturally going, at whatever pace it’s going at. This experience comes and goes — during a session, I’ll lose the thread and then pick it up, lose the thread and then pick it up — but over the course of a session, the experience becomes stronger, and more constant. And as I do the practice more over time, it’s becoming easier to slip into this state.
And what it feels like, subjectively, is a wave of energy going through my body.
Don’t worry. I am not going over to the dark side. I am entirely aware that this is not “energy,” in any supernatural/ metaphysical/ woo bullshit sense. I am entirely aware that certain physical and mental practices can alter one’s consciousness, sometimes dramatically… including the ones I’m doing when I meditate. I am entirely aware that the only energy in my body, when I meditate or indeed at any other time, is chemical and kinetic and electrical and heat and all the other kinds of physical energy we know about.
That’s sort of the point.
What, exactly, is happening here? What is the physical process? What is the tingling sensation? Why do parts of my body tingle just from thinking about them for a few minutes? And how and why does the tingling sometimes move through my body of its own accord, without any conscious effort on my part? What is it that makes that happen? What is the physical and psychological process? I know that this isn’t chi or kundalini or anything like that… but what, exactly, is it?
(Brief tangent, for any practitioners of woo who might be reading this and at this point might be saying, “She’s having the chi/ kundalini/ whatever experience! It’s so obvious! How can she deny what’s happening right in her own body?” Yes, it’s “obvious” that a wave of energy is going through my body when I meditate. It’s also “obvious” that the Earth is the center of the Universe, and that life is too complex to have evolved naturally with no designer, and that solid matter isn’t mostly made up of empty space. Lots of things seem obvious that aren’t true. At this point, there is an overwhelming body of evidence pointing to the conclusion that the physical world is all there is — and every serious effort to demonstrate the existence of a non-physical “energy” inhabiting the body has drawn a giant goose egg.)
Back on track. Many years ago, I took a yoga class through the P.E. department at my college. The teacher kept talking about focusing your “energy,” or feeling “energy” going through your body during certain poses and in certain ways… and even though I was pretty involved in some woo bullshit at the time, for some reason this “energy” business totally got up my nose. It was a useful class in other ways, though, and I wanted to stick with it.
So when she said the word “energy,” I translated it in my head to “attention,” or “awareness.”
And I’m doing that now.
Focus your attention in your belly. Feel how your attention moves through your body as you move. See if you can draw your attention from the base of your spine up into your chest. Focus your attention in a ball held between your hands.
It’s very clear to me that what’s happening here is not “energy.” It’s a specialized form of attention, a specialized form of awareness. As I’ve written and said approximately 8,356,374 times: We don’t yet understand what consciousness is… but an overwhelming body of evidence points to the conclusion that, whatever it is, it is physical, a biological process of the body. We don’t yet understand how that works — not by a long shot — but an overwhelming body of evidence points to the conclusion that it is so.
So when I feel a wave of “energy” moving through my body, what I’m experiencing is a wave of awareness moving through my body. When I feel a sinuous vine of tingling snaking up my leg, what I’m experiencing is a wave of awareness snaking up my leg. When I’m finishing a session and I feel my entire body gently tingling and vibrating, what I’m experiencing is an awareness of my entire body.
There are still things that puzzle me about it, though. So all you neurologists or neuropsychologists or people who are more familiar with the science behind this mindfulness meditation thing, if you know anything about this, I’d love to know: What, exactly, is happening here? Why do parts of my body tingle just from thinking about them for a few minutes? What is the physical process? What is the psychological process? And especially interestingly and weirdly: How and why does the tingling sometimes move through my body of its own accord, without any conscious effort on my part? What is it that makes that happen?