Thoughtless Awareness & Self-Care
Thoughtless Awareness as a Self-Care Strategy: Attend and Abstain for Better Mental Health
We can all spontaneously achieve certain beneficial aspects of meditation to some degree without engaging in the formal practice of meditation. A hike through the woods on a golden, sunny autumn day, for example, might instill in us a glorious sense of wholeness and well-being. We may suddenly be able to observe the subtle details of our surroundings with more depth, clarity and perspective. We may marvel at the mysteries of nature, be better able attend to our feelings, and experience a sense of oneness — a deep spiritual connection to ourselves and to the universe. Or we may simply be able to sit still, even as we experience an impulse to act.
In this way, everyone — even those who have never formally engaged in meditation — may catch a glimpse of what meditation is and experience a small subset of all that Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness can offer. In fact, in a survey exploring the science of well-being, 60 percent of respondents reported experiencing an altered or non-ordinary state of consciousness at some point in their lives, “a oneness or unity with the universe” (Cloninger, 2004). But meditation is an intentional practice that allows us to summon a self-transcendent, healing experience whenever we wish.
Meditation involves, in part, two beneficial processes that we’re all capable of spontaneously performing: attending and abstaining.
Certainly we can consciously direct our attention to the present when we decide to and inhibit our own behaviors when we need to – even if only temporarily. But Sahaja meditation, in internalizing our attention and purifying awareness, allows us to automatically attend and abstain, and as a result, it is, at once, both an extraordinary and practical technique of self-care. Meditation is a family of techniques that, by their very practice, train attention automatically, which heightens self-awareness and allows us to bring cognitive and emotional processes under conscious, voluntary control in our daily lives.
Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness enables us to develop the deepest insights into the nature of mental and spiritual processes, consciousness, identity and reality — in other words: a deeper understanding of self and the universe, which results in an optimal state of psychological well-being.
Our psychological health may depend, in part, upon our ability to naturally perform these two processes of attending and abstaining in our daily lives. In fact, some mental health professionals have suggested that the ability to spontaneously perform these aspects of meditation may be one predictor of the ability to heal (McGee, 2008).
Taking the Ego Offline
To understand how the processes of attending and abstaining have psychoemotional healing effects, you must first understand how thoughtless awareness interacts with ego.
During thoughtless awareness, we experience both the “awareness of everything,” or a full and total awareness of the present reality, and “awareness of no thing,” a pure, all-perceptive empty awareness that has no specific cognitive content. We can both embrace and let go of everything that we are consciously experiencing at the present moment. There’s an old Zen saying that perfectly encapsulates the marriage of these experiences:
“To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”
During thoughtless awareness, our attention is focused inward on the flow of experience rather than on the contents of experience, allowing us to segregate awareness itself from the contents of awareness. Ultimately, this process of focusing inward with a nonreactive, nonjudgmental attitude can trigger dramatic shifts in our perspective of ourselves and of the world around us. This shifting of perspectives is, effectively, a therapeutic — healing — split of self from ego. The self becomes an observing self that can experience its true nature, empty of the contents of awareness such as the ideas, thoughts and feelings that comprise our sense of self, as well as our ideas of what or who we are not, all of which are fleeting and illusory. In thoughtless awareness, we transcend the me-slash-not-me dichotomy.
When we can let go of ego, we can let go of all those thoughts and feelings that are wrapped up in our egoistic concept of ourselves.
Once ego is detached, we may perceive ourselves as both no thing and every thing. In other words, we may experience ourselves both as pure awareness (no thing) and also as the entire universe (every thing). One obvious benefit of this enhanced perspective is the diminishment of defense mechanisms. Even high-functioning people may actively defend against the demands of the legislative, judgmental self. Defenses, which are constructed by the ego, are strategies that we adopt to cope with reality and maintain our sense of self-worth. And while they may protect us from anxiety by preventing us from being fully aware of our unwanted or “unacceptable” impulses, thoughts and feelings, they also prevent us from living authentically and being psychologically whole.
In meditation, our defenses drop away because, after all, when we’re experiencing ourselves as no thing, there’s nothing to defend. When we’re experiencing ourselves as every thing, there’s nothing to defend against. (For an in-depth look at defense mechanisms, see: Playing Defense: Where Defense Mechanisms Come From and How to Know When They’re Hurting You.)
Taking the ego offline allows us to do ego repair. We can correct characterological flaws and restructure our view of ourselves and how we should interface with the world. Ego repair and the newly awakened awareness are two separate (but perhaps simultaneous) processes that have a synergistic influence on each other.
Meditation is the gateway to a very different kind of knowing in which there is no ego. With this new awakening and perspective, we may even be astonished at the pervasiveness of ego-centered perspectives all around us in normal daily experience, including our own.
We may even begin to realize that many qualities that we thought of as ourselves are, in fact, qualities that we thought of as not ourselves, and we are poised to forge a new nonegocentric path forward.
The Therapeutic Value of Attending and Abstaining
The processes of attending to the present moment and abstaining from action are two separate aspects of meditation that each have primary and secondary consequences. Meditation can produce complex outcomes that have many separate but integrated consequences; consider, for example, outcomes such as: emotional stability, sense of well-being, or a personal value system such as integrity. As we explore the processes of attending and abstaining, you’ll see how primary consequences may spawn countless secondary consequences.
The Process of Attending
Attention is energy, and we create ourselves, moment by moment, by how we invest this energy. Thoughts, feelings and memories, for example, are all shaped by how we direct our attention. Consciousness is not strictly linear; rather, the relationship between attention and self is circular. The self directs attention, attention sculpts the self. Attention is always ours to control.
Self-awareness, perceptual receptivity, concentration
The observing meditative self is stimulated by the process of attending. Self-awareness flourishes. In meditation, the ultimate goal is to sustain this attention over time, cultivating a stable and nonreactive awareness of the present. Primary consequences of attending to this moment — the present moment — include: segregating the contents of awareness from awareness itself, heightened perceptual receptivity, and enhanced concentration.
During thoughtless awareness, we absorb all that is this moment while understanding implicitly that “this,” or the awareness of this moment, is not a verbal or cognitive understanding of this moment. Thoughtless awareness is a pre-verbal, primal experience that awakens in us new and different perspectives of the rest of ordinary experience.
Attending to the present moment increases perceptual receptivity by triggering a natural inquisitiveness and openness (and open-mindedness) to new experiences. In attending, we are embracing reality, accepting whatever rises to awareness, regardless of meaning or value. This is, in a sense, a respectful, unconditional acceptance that reflects a capacity to simply honor the flow of reality, rather than attaching our subjective ideas, thoughts and feelings, which may or may not be “true.” Perception, as we all know, is not necessarily reality. It’s just one perspective, subjective. And subject to interpretation. We emerge from meditation with a more realistic perspective of ourselves and others because we are no longer trying to reconcile unrealistic ideals or someone else’s idea of who we are with truth. We are not burdened by guilt or self-recrimination.
As our ability to focus and concentrate improves through meditation, we become more productive in our everyday lives, even when we’re tired or in pain, whether physical or psychological. Concentration allows us to both attend to that pain and develop an ability to bear what is painful. Enhanced attentional control strengthens the quality of our meditations, which only further increases our perceptiveness.
The process of attending has countless positive secondary consequences. Heightened perception, for example, manifests in a myriad of emotional and creative contexts. EEG studies of coherence (“orderliness”) between disparate brain regions during Sahaja meditation show that attending to the present during thoughtless awareness causes more balanced, integrated functioning of the left and right cerebral hemispheres, which ultimately produces more holistic, whole-brain, synchronized thinking (Aftanas, Golocheikine, 2005).
A 2015 fMRI study found that set out to pinpoint the neural correlates of thoughtless awareness found that, during meditation, long-term Sahaja practitioners experienced activation in fronto-parieto-temporal regions involved in sustained attention, and in limbic regions involved in emotional control. After passing through an initial intense neural self-control process necessary to silence the mind, Sahaja meditators experienced reduced brain activity commensurate with the deepening of mental silence (across the right inferior frontal cortex/insula), reflecting the effortless process of attentional contemplation associated with the state of thoughtless awareness.
It’s a simple fact of life that we see more when we pay attention. Achieving our self-improvement goals depends upon our ability to pay attention to relevant information and discard irrelevant information. Attending to each moment allows us to experience each moment as if it has never been experienced quite that way before (and perhaps it hasn’t). We experience a sense of freshness, a fullness of awareness. We may develop a deeper understanding of the inner energy inside us and how that energy influences our thoughts, emotions and sense of self.
Acceptance and self-love
Because thoughtless awareness is an act of attending inwardly, we ask: What am I? Who am I? We are gifting ourselves the level of full, accepting attention that we yearn to receive from others, including our parents, from the moment we took our first breath. In thoughtless awareness, the self is listening to the self with acceptance, even if the contents of awareness are unpleasant or difficult to accept in a normal state of consciousness. Attending to our own experience is an act of self-care and self-love, and this process nourishes and strengthens these ego functions. We’re actually providing a therapeutic service to ourselves, much like a caring therapist or loving parent would. In a way, meditation can be thought of as a form of re-parenting.
When we attend to ourselves without judgment, we have no need to repress unwanted aspects of ourselves. Defenselessness and self-honesty emerges.
We’re able to explore the feelings that lie buried beneath those layers of defenses that we’ve repeatedly fallen back on over the years. As self-awareness is enhanced, affect — the emotional feeling, tone and mood attached to our thoughts and behaviors — becomes more available to consciousness.
While meditation is about the experience itself, rather than the content of experience, we may notice that attending to our own experience stimulates observing ego functions of “thinking about thinking” and “knowing about knowing,” — in other words: metacognition. During thoughtless awareness, our cognitive understanding of ourselves is deepened by attending to the present, but our attention doesn’t become bogged down in the nuts and bolts of mentation that occur on the mental plane. Our attention remains on the higher plane and the mind achieves “mentation silence.”
It is at this higher level of cognitive functioning that psychological insight occurs and we develop the capacity to self-regulate, cognitively and emotionally.
Coping with pain
It’s only fair to point out that enhanced awareness of feelings may include awareness of pain, and in meditation, an experience that typically induces a state of joy and bliss, attending to suffering may be counter-reflexive and even require conscious effort. But allowing ourselves to attend to pain allows us to replace neurotic suffering with true, “legitimate” suffering. We may encounter and work through feelings of fear, anger, sorrow, loneliness, emptiness, or yearning that may have been repressed from conscious awareness. Attending repeatedly to this pain within the safe space of meditation promotes healing by enabling healthy mourning, coping and ultimately closure. This healing process that can be especially helpful for people who have been grieving a loss for a long time. Attending may ultimately desensitize us to this pain. We can face and accept reality more fully and work through that pain calmly and nonreactively. Old wounds heal. And we’re no longer blind-sided by unresolved losses in our daily lives. (For more about managing grief and loss through meditation, see: Sahaja meditation and DABDA Stages of Grief.)
Identity and self-esteem
Attending consolidates and strengthens our sense of identity and increases our self-esteem. Heightened self-awareness and perceptiveness increases psychological differentiation, that is, our sense of ourselves as distinct from others. Through persistent attention to our experience, we develop greater self-trust and self-confidence. We come to believe in ourselves, which enables us to be more decisive and assertive in all aspects of life, including our relationships. We behave with more calmness and strength in anxiety-provoking interactions with others because we are clear about what is “true” and “right” for us.
Balance, empathy and oneness
Heightened perceptual receptivity manifests in the external world, too. Awareness of others is enhanced by attending to others. Meditation can enhance our ability to perceive even the most subtle feelings of others, thus enabling us to empathize more fully with them, which strengthens our relationships. People appreciate being attended to, cared about, shared with. And paying impartial attention to all aspects of experience, both inner and outer, diminishes our sense of aloneness and isolation, an experience that may lie at the heart of the mystical sense of oneness. Balanced attending between our internal and external worlds brings about an understanding that, while we are but one thread in the universal consciousness, we are inextricably woven into that vast web of life.
The Process of Abstaining
De-linking action from impulse
The simple act of sitting still or abstaining from movement can actually function as a behavioral modification technique. During thoughtless awareness, we are able to inhibit impulses to move, act or respond. Thoughts and feelings are calmly observed without triggering a reaction, judgment, or an impulse to act. This response inhibition, de-linking of action from impulse, has powerful implications for healing. Often, impulses only become problems when we act on them.
With practice, the de-linking of action from impulse allows us to recognize and understand the automatic, reflexive, and unconscious nature of our thoughts and behavior patterns. We become aware of how various stressors trigger certain negative thoughts and emotions, which helps us understand why we react to them the way we do. This enhanced awareness helps us frame problems and conflicts in the proper perspective and perceive them realistically and even objectively because ego has been detached from them. Old habits and biases are no longer built into our decision-making process.
We’re more likely to seek mature, long-term solutions, rather than seeking immediate gratification, or making tunnel-vision decisions.
De-linking, addiction, and compulsive behaviors
In time, we come to naturally generalize and apply concepts of de-linking action from impulse in healthy, appropriate ways in our daily lives. This life skill has powerful ramifications for ending compulsive, self-destructive, addictive behaviors — from drug and alcohol abuse to compulsive gambling and overeating. In meditation, the habitual urge or compulsion to indulge in these conditioned behaviors is attended to and action is inhibited. In introducing a sort of “therapeutic delay,” meditation not only prevents us from indulging in self-destructive or addictive behaviors, it also endows us with a sense of control, which gives us a sense of freedom.
Repeatedly acting on harmful impulses conditions the brain’s motivation circuitry, which reinforces or strengthens the conditioned response (e.g., abusing alcohol). Eventually, the brain develops a powerful automatic association between pleasure and our particular drug of choice. The anchor (triggering stimulus) is set. Anchoring, which happens outside our conscious awareness, is the process by which one element or sensory component of an event recreates the whole experience. This is why impulses are often triggered by strong pleasure memories associated with a substance (e.g., the camaraderie of drinking with buddies at a local bar) or activity (e.g., the thrill of winning big at a casino), which can lead to addiction, or at the very least, compulsive behaviors that we struggle to control.
You can see why people who have the so-called “addictive personality structure” — a combination of traits such as impulsiveness, a tendency toward negative emotions, and the need for increasingly greater stimulation to attain pleasure — are at especially high risk for addiction. For more on how Sahaja meditation helps addiction and compulsive behaviors, see: How Sahaja meditation Helps Addiction and Compulsive Behaviors.)
Meditation encourages us to abstain from numbing pain in habitual destructive ways. During thoughtless awareness, those memory-based cravings that get us into trouble rise and fall and we can abstain from acting on them. We have no need to act on them. As we continue to abstain from acting on these self-damaging impulses, we gradually rewire or recondition neural pathways that are associated with motivation, pleasure, and reward.
The ability to focus on the impermanent nature of thoughts can act as a psychological buffer between the person experiencing the thoughts and the thoughts themselves, reducing the likelihood of a habitual — and often dysfunctional — response. When stressful situations arise in the course of daily living, we may learn to view them as opportunities to simply observe our thoughts and feelings as they arise and disappear and abstain from reacting according to our old habitual, conditioned response patterns.
De-linking and the relaxation response
De-linking always, at the very least, brings about a relaxation response, thus helping to relieve the negative effects of stress. De-linking blunts overall sympathetic nervous system tone, which produces equanimity and a sense of well-being. For many, the process of merely inhibiting movement is relaxing. For people with anxiety, for example, de-linking through meditation helps enable gradual, systematic desensitization so that relaxation can occur.
Learning to associate discomfort or anxiety with a suspended response can autonomically desensitize and blunt their usual, habitual sympathetic response to stressors in the same way that exposure therapy for people with phobias helps them become emotionally insensitive or unresponsive to the phobic stimulus through repeated, controlled exposure to it. (For example, a person with an elevator phobia repeatedly rides elevators with their safe person and ultimately becomes desensitized to their fear of elevators.)
Sahaja meditation has been found to reducing the emotional significance of negative events during the evaluative stage or appraisal.
One 2014 study of long-term Sahaja practitioners found that Sahaja meditation exerts top-down emotional regulation and flexible appraisal and control of our own emotional states, particularly negative emotional states (Reva et al, 2014). The emotional stability of Sahaja meditators was found to be more than an overall flattening of the emotional responses to external events; rather, it resulted from the ability to prevent intense, full-scale, potentially harmful, physiological reactions in response to strongly adverse conditions. Thus, emotional appraisal transforms into cognitive appraisal, thus allowing more flexible responses to emotional challenges; e.g., our rational, objective problem-solving skills kick in, rather than leaving us at the mercy of emotional overreaction.
Personality and character traits
De-linking action from impulse can be the cornerstone of true personality change. As we are freed from the control of habitual, destructive urges, character and personality traits may begin to change for the better. Our behaviors are less ego-triggered. We act with a greater sense of personal responsibility and integrity. When we can learn to calmly accept our experience and let it simply be, we can let go of our habitual grasping for pleasure in order to avoid pain.
Abstaining ultimately becomes spontaneous as we learn to both observe ourselves mindfully and let ourselves be who we are. We instantly sense when acting on a particular impulse will be harmful to ourselves or others — we can simply abstain.
Attending to suffering
The process of abstaining in meditation diverts energy from doing something to attending to something. When we can fully accept the richness of our experience, we experience a deep sense of happiness and well-being that’s impossible to acquire by overindulging in ephemeral pleasures. The ability to accept our experience without having to do something other than attend to it also increases our capacity to bear suffering with compassion. As we become better at attending to our own suffering, we become better at attending to others’ suffering with compassion. Sometimes the capacity to simply sit with someone, with presence and compassion, can ease that person’s suffering, especially in a situation where there is little else that can be done.
Like attending, abstaining ultimately enhances self-esteem. We’re better able to delay gratification and refrain from acting on self-destructive impulse. Gaining control over behavior increases our self-confidence that we can control ourselves in the future, which increases our self-respect and self-love. When we feel good about ourselves, we make better choices because our behavior is not driven by the whims of a defensive ego. See also: How Sahaja Meditation Boosts Self-Esteem.
Thoughtless Awareness as Self-Care
Talk therapy… without the talking
Preventive psychotherapeutic interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy operate by changing self-damaging thought patterns that become activated in states of negative affect (such as depression or anxiety) and will ultimately provoke self-damaging behaviors. Meditation allows us to gently uncover and attend to an inner logjam of painful emotions, and its intrinsic ability to redirect attention away from negative, ruminative or anxious thoughts can automatically stimulate cognitive-behavioral changes.
There are many reasons to practice meditation. Many, for example, practice meditation primarily to achieve spiritual enlightenment. But meditation can also provide psychoemotional enlightenment for those who choose to view its benefits in a psychotherapeutic context. For example, if you consider just this small sampling of meditation’s benefits…
- increases attentional control
- enhances awareness of self and others
- reduces negative emotions
- reduces our defensiveness and reactivity
- allows us to access and tolerate painful emotions
- inhibits destructive behaviors …
You quickly see why meditation can help heal a wide variety of health problems, such as stress, anxiety, depression, attention-deficit, hypertension, addiction, and chronic pain.
But everyone can benefit from meditation, not just those who meet the criteria for a specific disorder. And for those who do, meditation can be an important part of the work of healing.
Routine and commitment
Making the decision to incorporate a meditative practice into your everyday life can be a profound, life-altering experience. Incorporating into your lifestyle a disciplined practice that improves every dimension of experience and adds meaning to your existence increases your commitment to self-care, which increases the odds that you’ll achieve your self-improvement goals. Improvement rarely happens without commitment. Meditation promotes continuous self-improvement, in part, by conditioning a habit of self-care. You can think of regular meditation as psychological weightlifting.
Meditation can act as a catalyst for exposing our values and long-held beliefs to scrutiny. For example, consider a busy working mother who meditates every morning but initially felt guilty about allowing herself this Me Time. Her guilt, however, conflicted with her desire to be a better mother. The practice of regular meditation ultimately broadened her perspective, which led to an understanding that her own early parent-child relationship had cultivated false notions about whether one “deserves” self-care, and this new understanding allowed her to practice self-care without guilt.
It’s not enough to only attend and abstain during meditation. Healing must ultimately happen in the process of being in the world working, loving, and playing. When the meditation session is over, we must go out into the world and coexist with others. But the insights and abilities we acquire through meditation can not only help us build productive lives filled with meaningful relationships, they strengthen our ability to spontaneously engage the healing process in our daily lives.
Aftanas L., Golosheykin, S. (2005) Impact of regular meditation practice on EEG activity at rest and during evoked negative emotions. International Journal of Neuroscience 115: 893-909.
Cloninger, CR. Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Hernández Sergio E., Suero José, Rubia Katya, and González-Mora José L. (2015) Monitoring the Neural Activity of the State of Mental Silence While Practicing Sahaja Yoga Meditation. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine – 21(3):175-179.
McGee, Michael, MD. Meditation and Psychiatry. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience. January 2008.
Reva NV, Pavlov SV, Loktev KV, Korenyok VV, Aftanas LI. Influence of Long-Term Sahaja Yoga Meditation Practice on Emotional Processing in the Brain: An ERP Study. Neuroscience. 2014; 281:195.