Even after years of practice, I needed to be reminded of this.
I was on a course and a teacher was doing a guided meditation. My meditation felt heavy and oppressive. I was noticing my ongoing symptoms of brain fog, and feeling quite frustrated that it was there again, changing how my practice felt. I started pushing against the experience rather than settling into the meditation.
Then the teacher reminded us that the intention is to notice what’s happening.
This non-fixing is what Mark Williams calls the being mode, as opposed to the doing mode. We can notice when we are getting caught up, trying to make things different.
Doing mode is one in which we try to close the gap between the way things are and the way we think they should be. We respond to what we hear as a call to action – and it can make us feel worse.
“Another mode of mind is required when it comes to dealing with unhappiness. Evolution has bequeathed us with an alternative to critical thinking. … It is called awareness.”
Mark Williams, The Mindful Way Through Depression. Audiobook.➹
In my ongoing saga with brain fog, today I tried the technique of expanding the awareness.
It’s common for the mind to become contracted around a small area of experience. This happens particularly when we have problems. A simple meditation practice is to push the awareness back out to a larger container.
In my case, the ‘issue’ is located in my head. When I first sit on the cushion to meditate, it’s the first sensation that I notice. The thought that comes with it is: ‘There’s a problem, and it’s here.’
My technique is to settle into my meditation posture, and let the mind start where it is – contracted to the numb sensation in my brain. Then gently push the volume of awareness out to a larger space – I chose the volume of my body. Every time I notice the mind has contracted again, I push it back out. This brings the other sensations of having a body into awareness. Now the brain fog isn’t the only thing happening.
Once I have this larger container for awareness, I can continue with my regular meditation routine. It’s not the same as before the brain fog, but it’s a lot better than being stuck.
I’m still seeing my doctor to check out why this has happened, but I have acquired a relentless brain fog. It’s been over a year now. The symptom is similar to long covid.
The relevance to meditation is that my mind has this physical feeling of numbness. It dominates all other sensations of how my mind is. Knowing how my mind was, or ‘mind state’ as it’s sometimes called, was my main navigator in meditation sittings. It was always a subtle sense, but one which I was developing nicely.
If you are practicing mindfulness, you are often being mindful of something in particular. The breath is the most common object. But it’s not the breath itself that we are developing – it’s the mind. So, adding awareness of how the mind is, while attending to the breath, is where things start to get interesting.
Once we are able to pay attention to how the mind is, we can do two things. We can watch what the mind gets up to, and we can influence the state of the mind. The latter is called cultivation practice and I was really into this.
But my previous sensitivity of mind states has been swamped by this brain fog. I sit on the cushion, calm a bit, then look ‘up’ at the mind to see how it’s doing. And all I get back is numbness.
To be continued …