visualization of how we breathe; diaphragm in yellow, lungs in blue, abs in red
Our conscious minds are, largely, strangers to our bodies. They have a kind of uneasy alliance, with our subconscious, autonomic systems basically running everything, when we’re asleep, and when we’re not consciously focused on our bodies. Most of our information processing — probably 99% or more — is unconscious, somatic. The sophistication of our digestive system, for example, is vastly greater than that of our brains — far more decisions and regulatory adjustments are made, literally, in our guts than in our heads.
If you think of our bodies, as Cohen and Stewart have described them, as a ‘complicity’ of our organs, as water-, food- and air-flushed containers evolved for their mutual survival and advantage, then you could imagine that our brains were evolved merely as information processing tools to look after these containers’ residents’ needs, as detection systems. Occasionally (perhaps one in a million decisions), our autonomic systems encounter a problem they do not now how to address, and they may then choose to consult with our conscious minds. Even in these rare cases, they will probably make the initial decision (e.g. fight or flight, love or loathe) but they will give our conscious minds, slow-moving as they are, the opportunity to participate in or even override these decisions. If someone swings a bat at your head, it’s fortunate that you do not have to wait for your conscious mind to react, but equally fortunate that you do not have to depend on your unconscious systems to decide what to do after you’ve ducked.
In some cases, however, our subconscious and conscious ‘selves’ need to get their act together. To play a musical instrument, or to dance, or to walk on uneven terrain, you need to be coordinated. I am acutely aware of this because I am probably the most uncoordinated person on the planet.
It’s not surprising, then, that I have tremendous difficulty meditating. Some experts would have us believe that meditation is the ultimate conscious activity, the very height of awareness and self-awareness. They may be right, but to the extent meditation is focused on your breathing, it does require a lot of coordination.
Many meditation practitioners suggest you should in some ways control your breathing — you should take deep breaths, from or filling up the abdomen, and slowly and fully expel all the air in your lungs. They are saying, in fact, that you should override the autonomic process of breathing by conscious effort.
Let’s take a look at what breathing is all about. I decided that I might be able to focus my attention on my breathing during meditation if I was able to visualize exactly what is happening when I breathe. Contrary to what mystics and vocal coaches might tell you, you cannot draw breath into your abdomen! Some people wonder how we are able to ‘remember’ to breathe when we’re asleep. The answer is that we breathe while we’re asleep the same way we breathe while we’re awake — subconsciously, automatically. Our conscious mind is not involved. Here’s how it works:
This is a staggeringly complex process, so it’s probably just as well we don’t have to do it consciously.
When we do intervene consciously in the process, lots of things can go wrong. When we hold our breath for a long time (perhaps because we’re underwater), we are taking advantage of the fact that the diaphragm is the only muscle in the body that is both voluntary and involuntary. So we can learn to control it, but only to a certain degree. Eventually, as the body signals the diaphragm that it is short on oxygen, our conscious and unconscious selves will be essentially warring over control of the diaphragm. Our intercostal muscles, which we can’t control voluntarily, will attempt to expel the air. The war will end, if not sooner, when we lose consciousness.
What happens when we try to control our breathing? When we breathe more deeply and slowly than we would ‘naturally’? When we use our pectoral muscles (the predominant chest muscles) these have no effect on our chest cavity or breathing (they control only arm and shoulder movement). There is no such thing as conscious “chest breathing” or “abdominal breathing” — there is only diaphragmatic breathing. When we breathe consciously, we use our partial control over our diaphragm to slow our breathing rate but increase the amount of air we intake. Pushing out your abdomen when you breathe in isn’t making room for more air there, it’s actually making more room for your diaphragm to press down into your abdomen. In addition, when we exhale consciously, we use our abdominal muscles to help expand the diaphragm to expel more air, and/or to expel air faster. Talking and singing are just refinements of the exhaling process.
Could we meditate more effectively if we could be more attuned, scientifically, to exactly what is going on in our bodies when we breathe? This is an interesting question. I tried in vain to find realistic visualizations of what our nasal passages, trachea, autonomic nervous system, intercostals, diaphragm, lungs, capillaries and abs look like when we breathe. If instead of just ‘picturing’ our breath as we meditated, we could picture the whole neuron-firing, muscle-contracting, air-filtering, rib-expanding, lung-inflating, gas-exchanging, muscle-relaxing process, would we be better able to focus specifically on that one extraordinary, autonomic, miraculous process, and achieve a meditative state of attention more effectively? If you think so, do you know anyone capable of producing a video of this kind?
This raises a broader question. I’m convinced that many of us are trapped in our heads, and trapped by the emotions that the ideas and stories in our heads trigger. As a result we are increasingly estranged from our sensuous, intuitive selves. Would being able to see pictures of what’s going on inside our own bodies, in real time, help reacquaint us with the somatic, visceral essence of ourselves, the aspect that Cohen & Stewart argue is our real, true, original self. And then, having been reacquainted, could we reintegrate this real, earthy essence with our abstract, image-inary intellectual and emotional self, and rediscover, for the first time since our brains took control of our senses and moved our selves’ HQ and identity to that tiny unreal upstairs room, what it really means to be nobody-but-ourselves?
Category: Self-Knowledge and Self-Change