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10

June 6, 2020


Interoception

I sacrificed most of my thoughts this week to the gods of nutrient extraction, mostly the ones associated with nut milks and butters. I know there are much heavier things going on in the world. What I don't know is what to do about them (i.e. what I can personally do about them). So maybe I was looking for something that I could maintain some control over, rather than sink further into the paralytic American quicksand, which even four years after moving 9,000 miles away, I am still not even slightly inoculated against. And maybe that's a form of defeatism. I don't think it is. But I'm me, so of course I wouldn't want to think that. And of course, were it true, I would go to great and covert lengths to conceal that truth from myself. So who really knows. But what I do believe to be true, is that this is yet another manifestation of the pleasure I take in cutting away all excess.

Almonds + water + time, blending and squeezing = almond milk. That alone is a fucking miracle and an adventure, like plucking a wild and sinewy salmon from the Pacific and taking a bite.

Fitness to me is a condition of both mental and physical health. If either is absent then the whole system fails. And when both are present they support and strengthen one another. This is verifiably true. And I think if one can find ways of molding, maintaining and tempering that truth, within oneself, then the whole of this wayward human experiment might actually stand a chance. So that's what I choose to do. Temper my condition. Not selfishly, or at least not entirely selfishly, but because it's all I really know how to do, and do effectively. That's my thing. Maybe your thing is taking to the streets. And to that I say go for it, but please go in peace, with your heads and hearts cloudless and connected.

In Thailand, people often use the phrases jai yen (cool heart) and jai ron (hot heart) in ways not dissimilar to how we might use coolheaded and hotheaded in the West. I don't think either of us got this fully right or wrong, in terms of linking our ("hot" and "cold") emotions to either our heads or hearts. But I think a coalescing of the two is sorely needed. And why stop there? Now more than ever, a more focused care for and convergence of our full assemblage of impossibly complex parts would serve us all well.

Brian Leli, June 2020

Shifting from Head to Heart

In the 1970s, one of the first researchers went to Nepal to do a study on the EEG brainwaves of Tibetan monks. When he got there, having brought these huge suitcases and trunks of equipment, he set them up and began to show the monks exactly what he was going to do. They were sitting quietly and politely. And then he took out the EEG cap, which is like a bathing cap with these electrodes on it. And he put it on his head. The monks began to laugh and giggle. And he was surprised. So he asked, "What's so funny?" And the monks responded, "Why would you look here, in the head?" And they put their hands on the middle of their chests, and said, "This is where we experience meditation, in our heart-mind."

Loch Kelly, Waking Up, "Effortless Mindfulness"

Mind Your Body: Inward Bound

We tend to think of sensory perception as the way we process external stimuli with our eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and skin. Yet there’s another form of sensory perception, known as interoception, that involves the feelings that originate within the body, such as hunger, thirst, breathlessness, pain, temperature, heartbeat, muscle tension, and bladder pressure. Aside from the obvious necessity—you won’t live long if you don’t know that you’re starving—a recent explosion of interest in the phenomenon has illuminated its role beyond ensuring our physical survival. As a growing body of research reveals, interoception is intimately linked with how we process emotion. And if people can alter their sense of their body’s physiological condition, some suggest, it can potentially shift their emotional state.
Interoception is a matter of degrees, says Vivien Ainley, a neuropsychologist at the University of London who studies how interoceptive signals affect emotion, cognition, and other facets of how we conceive of the self. While everyone is aware of internal sensation to some extent, there’s wide variability in how sensitive we are to this input, as evidenced in studies that measure the accuracy with which people recognize their own heartbeat. Those with high interoceptive awareness—that is, people who are more accurate on heartbeat-measurement tasks—have been shown, Ainley says, “to be more intuitive, experience stronger emotional arousal, have better memory for emotional material, and perhaps be better able to control their negative emotions.”
When we can’t accurately gauge our body’s signals, there may be a price to pay. Low interoceptive awareness has been associated with clinical problems, including depersonalization disorder, eating disorders, and the experience of unexplained physical symptoms, such as pain. Studies have also linked low interoceptive awareness with depression. In a paper published last year in Biological Psychiatry, people with severe untreated depression who were asked to perform an interoceptive attention task showed lower brain activation than nondepressed people; the researchers concluded that major depressive disorder is associated with abnormal interoception. In a similar study, Daniella Furman, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Stanford University, together with colleagues, found that people with depression are less attuned to their own heartbeat. The worse their interoceptive awareness, she says, “the less intense were their experiences of positive emotion in daily life, and the more likely they were to have difficulty with everyday decision making.”

By Tori Rodriguez, Psychology Today, March 2015

How Thoughts and Feelings Intertwine

When we become skilled at tracking the subtleties of our internal sensory landscape, we can encounter our experience in a clearer way. Take for example the experience of anger. When you have an experience of anger, you have talk in your head: “He said such and such.” “How dare he do such and such.” “The next time he does such and such, I am going to do such and such.” “But what I would really like to do is such and such.” We hear words like these in our mental “talk space.”
Meanwhile on the internal screen (the mind’s eye), there are pictures that go with these words. We might picture ourselves striking back or stalking off. Taken together, these internal words and pictures constitute the thought component of the anger experience.
While these are going on, a tight quality is happening in the gut, a shaky quality is arising in the legs and spreading through the rest of the body, a hot quality is moving over the face and also spreading subtly over the rest of the body, and a pressured quality is arising in the chest. These feelings are the emotional-type body-sensation component of the anger experience.
These three components of anger—mental image, mental talk, and emotional body sensations—often occur simultaneously. Without clarity, they become a tangled skein. Without equanimity, that tangled skein coagulates into a solid mass of congealed suffering. And what’s true of anger is true of all mind-body experience. If we develop an ability to discern the components of the experience, we can begin to keep track of what part is thought and what part is feeling. But if you don’t have the skill of keeping track of the components, then you get this mixture, this tangling together of the feeling body and the thinking mind. And the result of the tangling together can bring about two undesirable consequences: the first quantitative, the second qualitative.
The first undesirable consequence of tangling is an illusory intensification of the experience. This is a quantitative effect. It makes the suffering associated with an uncomfortable experience seem much worse than it actually is. Without sensory clarity, the different components of the experience don’t just add together, they crisscross and mutually multiply. For example, if we have ten units of discomfort in the body and ten units of negativity in the mind, what we actually have is twenty (10 + 10 = 20) units of undesirable experience. That is what you will experience if you have sensory clarity—just what it is. However, if you don’t keep track of what is going on, each of the ten units of discomfort in the body will interact with each of the ten units of negativity in the mind, cross-multiplying to produce the illusion of one hundred (10 × 10 = 100) units of undesirable experience. If I have to be uncomfortable, I’d much prefer twenty units to one hundred. Sensory clarity skills give me that choice.

Shinzen Young, The Science of Enlightenment