It’s just as well that last weekend’s restorative yoga and pranayama workshops were about coming into the physical body and into the breath, because this weekend, I lost all sense of self. Or gained all sense of self. I’m just not sure.
Led by Dr Zoran Josipovic, our sessions this weekend focussed on the neuroscience of meditation. Doesn’t seem like it belongs on a yoga teacher training, does it? That’s what I thought.
Dr Josipovic’s research has involved everything from meditating while on DMT (in the name of science, right?) to scanning the brains of meditating Tibetan monks. He’s a pretty interesting guy. He started our sessions this weekend by talking us through different definitions of what ancient yogis call ‘samadhi’. Call it kaivalya, nirvana, enlightenment, bliss or samadhi, all the traditions, it seems, are referring to the same thing – a state of higher consciousness, or pure awareness, found through breath practice, meditation, or yogic practice.
Quite often, access to this state of being is hindered by our awareness of the duality of our existence – distractions coming from both inside and outside of ourselves. Dr Josipovic thinks this duality can be dealt with in three different ways: emphasising the subject, emphasising the object and non-duality.
This ‘non-dual’ approach is the one that interests Josipovic most – he defines it as:
the realization of a very subtle, non-conceptual, unbounded consciousness that is experienced as the essence of one’s own being and of all life. This is a mutual transparency of self and other, in which everything, including one’s own being, is revealed as made of a single, vast expanse of consciousness.
Contemplating explaining this theory to a room of tired trainee yoga teachers must have been quite complicated. Josipovic started softly, explaining the opposite to non-duality – duality. This is the state that he thinks we all exist in – a state where we know what is me, and not me. What is inside and outside, good and bad. In the body, this can be productive – it’s the immune system’s sole function to determine what is our body and what isn’t our body. That’s how it protects us. That’s the only way in which it can be functional, and useful.
However, at the same time, within the body there are systems which can benefit from non-duality. There are two systems within the brain which manage our attention – the extrinsic and intrinsic systems. The extrinsic comes into play when we’re focused outwards, when we’re doing things. The intrinsic system deals with the self-referential processes, our internal monologue and our understanding of our own thoughts and emotions. These two systems are described as being ‘anti-correlated’. This means that when one is working, the other one is switched off. They’re the perfect example of a dual nature – the intrinsic system vs the extrinsic.
He then went back to the three approaches to dealing with the duality which hinders our realisation of non-duality, or reaching ‘samadhi’. When we’re emphasising the subject, or focussing on our internal experience, there is more activity in the brain’s intrinsic system. Of course, the opposite is true when we’re focussing on the object – the extrinsic system fires up. This third approach is a non-dual approach.
Scanning the brains of experienced meditators whilst they did a focussed meditation practice or a non-dual meditation practice, Josipovic noticed something amazing. While in the non-dual state, the meditator’s intrinsic and extrinsic systems became less anti-correlated. That is to say, they become more functionally integrated.
According to Josipovic, the brain is naturally predisposed to function more efficiently in this non-dual state.
There is more detail, of course, but it was about this point in the lecture that Josipovic led us through our first meditation. In the end, we did quite a few meditation sessions over the weekend, but it was my experience of the first one that was the most profound. As he talked us through the meditation, Dr Josipovic encouraged us to notice the space within ourselves, and then the space in the room we were sat in, and then beyond the room. He then talked about how the space in the room and the space within ourselves was one and the same – that everything was the same space, and that the space transcended everything.
Sceptical at first and struggling to maintain focus without drifting into a sleepy state that definitely wasn’t meditation, I wasn’t expecting what would happen next. As Dr Josipovic talked, I became aware that I could no longer be completely sure of the end of where I was and the beginning of where I wasn’t. I wasn’t lost, or confused by any means – it was simply that my body boundary had blurred. I flowed into what was around me and it flowed back into me. Just for a few seconds, I knew what he meant by non-duality.
It’s not something I found easy to replicate – it only happened a couple of times over the weekend, and I’ve not managed to get to that place in my yoga or breath practice since. That bizarre, special moment aside, there was something else I took away from Dr Josipovich’s outlook on our existence, something more accessible and maybe slightly more useful in every day life.
If you work from a principle of non-duality, there is no part of our experience that has to be rejected. There is just what is. We have to accept it all, just as it is.