Many of the earliest known teachings about wisdom and self-knowledge include methods of meditation and breathing. We find these teachings in every culture around the world, past and present. We can trace the teachings back to every dead culture that we have evidence for. It is possible that these teachings originate before writing, and perhaps before language itself. The wisdom teachings we know today as meditation and breathing methods may go back to our earliest cognitive experiences of self-awareness, even before the dawn of Homo sapiens.
Although such ancient teachings may have had independent origins in many different times and places, I suspect that all these teachings about meditation and breathing may have a common source, and that source might actually be our own DNA.
There are numerous instinctive patterns of breathing and mental states that are suitable to different types of activity.
Although there is probably some cognitive “wisdom” correlated with all such possible states, here I only want to focus on the state of being at rest or repose or prior to sleep; and in particular the state of intentional self-calming and relaxation on a mental and physical level concurrently. This could be characterized as a process of progressive relaxation and breathing in a characteristic way. Although the optimal patterns, processes, and progressions are only vaguely defined, they include
- Synchronization of circulation, muscle action, organ functions, neural networks, etc.
- Process cycles, oscillators, timing and re-timing cascades
- Self-massage of internal organs and muscle sets. Optimizing circulation.
- Balance and equilibrium approached progressively, step by step, through repeated cycles of stretching (inhalation) and relaxing (exhalation).
Muscles are like taffy. They tend to stiffen into any long-held position. Stretch-relax cycles plasticize the tissue, allow stress and balance redistribution, equilibrium.
- Beginning: The first step is mental, attention turns from thought to quiet observation of body, muscles, breath, etc.
- Middle: as tensions are located and relaxed, the breathing pattern gradually gets deeper, larger, and more synchronized. The deep breathing creates passive mobilization of joints, alternate muscle sets, and organs. All gradually assume their ideal positions and orientation.
- Ending: When all the tissues and organs have experienced a sufficient period of rhythmic flexing and have assumed their ideal configuration, the breathing gets shallower until motion becomes minimized at a level just adequate to provide sufficient blood/air material exchange in the lungs to support the resting, or idling, body and brain.
This type of meditation and breathing is ideal for introducing sleep but can also be practiced as a “tune up” in many other situations.
These three stages of progression probably have many subdivisions that could be teased out by subtle physiological measurements.
At each point along the progression of this process, with each breath, there may be an optimal rate of inhalation and exhalation, an optimal volume of expansion and contraction, and an optimal pause in transition. These parameters can not be prescribed by theory or taught in any exact, static, one-size-fits-all paradigm. It can only be anticipated that such optimums exist and that they can and must be directly sensed by each individual in each moment.
Each species presumably has it own distinctive set of patterns for this process of retuning or toning the brain and body.
These instinctive patterns have not been invented by us. They have been invented by evolution and are only crudely understood by the mind and by the traditions that attempt to “teach” them.
Our cognitive attempts to recognize, ponder, and practice this process consciously could possibly be the very first example of organic biology percolating up into mindfulness and ultimately taking shape as individual and collective human wisdom.
Cognitive models of these phenomena vary. Many are crude and take off in tangents influenced by many possible agendas. Most end up in “the weeds”. But as long as the core elements of calming thought, turning attention to finding and releasing tensions, and expanding breathing cycles remain, each individual has an opportunity to follow a gradient in these perceptual “tastes” towards the “zone” of equilibration and instinctive “master rhythm”. This process may involve not only joints, tissues and organs but perhaps even cellular and sub-cellular processes. It may also involve rerouting neural network/module inputs and outputs in novel ways that increase functional neural integration and/or re-order the functional dominance hierarchy of one area or network over another. One example would be new or increased mapping of the motor, parasympathetic, or proprioceptive neural networks onto the neocortex. The neocortex is the newest and outermost layer of the brain that seems to be all about integrating, organizing, and coordinating older brain areas in new ways. Practices such as yoga and tai chi may also help to increase brain integration in a similar way.
What makes this authentic wisdom is that it is self-knowledge gained through a combination of self-observation and rational thought. It is a combination of instinctive biological activity with conscious cognitive functions in which each enhances the other. The instinctive pattern of breathing becomes associated with a passive but observant mental state and the conscious mind becomes able to initiate and facilitate the instinctive activity. Such combinations promote new and higher cognitive and biological integrations. I think this is the reality base and the functional nucleus of most forms of yoga, meditation, and other “spiritual” practices. Unfortunately, this core reality often gets obfuscated or entirely lost in inappropriate language, ideas, and extraneous associations. Then the potential for wisdom is perverted into its own opposite, magical thinking and folly.
I guess this is my non-mystical version of the “perennial philosophy“. People in all cultures and all ages find a few common truths hidden in plain sight and proceed to embellish them with all sorts of extraneous associations drawn from the culture, natural history, and language of the respective place and time. This process further buries and obscures what was always hidden in plain sight under more and more layers of cultural graffiti.
The human brain is brilliant at connecting dots. List three facts on a blackboard and anybody can instantly make up a story about them. In fact, we can’t help it. We have to make up a story. Our brains are wired that way. The problem is that we go around spontaneously and compulsively connecting all kinds of dots that really shouldn’t be connected. Pretty soon we are all lost in the tall weeds of our own bullshit.
“Just the facts, Ma’am.”
Did Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday really say that–or not?
Related PRA 2010 posts:
Know Then Thyself
by Alexander Pope
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks to little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.