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An Old Discovery From My Meditation


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Many years ago I heard Baba Ram Das speak about what happens to his mind when he meditates. He described these concentric spheres. He could feel a transition from one to the next as if a balloon pops. Then there is a larger balloon around him.


That metaphor came back to me as I meditated. I had these waves of relaxation around my face. The first one was especially strong and was always a welcome friend to signal that I was leaving this awkwardly expectant moment of just having closed my eyes and entering whatever meditation really is. I noticed it this way many times before I realized there was something asymmetric about it. My left eye especially relaxed, even though I felt something all over my face, just like that balloon popping I had heard about.


Eventually I realized what this was. I have an esophoria I didn’t realize I had. My eyes point in the same direction only with some effort. It’s a much more common condition than people realize, much more common than when people’s eyes are a little crossed all the time. People in coma routinely have eyes pointing in different directions. Sometimes that’s because of brain damage, but more often it’s because people are very relaxed and are no longer compensating for this common imbalance in their eye muscles. When awake, it usually requires no conscious effort to straighten our eyes, any more than we think about back muscles to maintain our posture. Our body just does it automatically.


So here I had discovered something tangible from meditation. My left eye turns in when I’m very relaxed. I meditated in front of a mirror at least once to confirm that this transition I had noticed was indeed that. It was. I opened my eyes a little after this sentinel sensation, and that’s exactly what it was. It is strange what a widespread sensation it is. I’ve learned to feel the one small muscle that relaxes, as subtle as that is. The much broader sense of warmth and lightness is harder to explain in detail. It’s like someone putting down suitcases from both arms and feeling it all over his or her body. Our sensations are imprecise like that.


Intellectually I know I have no way of knowing if the balloon popping that Baba Ram Das described was anything like this. I don’t remember his saying that it was a physical feeling for him, but he was clear that there was some sense of transition. I can’t help but think that if it isn’t this common, though obscure condition, the feeling he felt must be something equally meaningless. One can feel such a relaxation repeatedly. The first one is strongest, but then one drifts back a little toward the fully awake state and relaxes again. Maybe it’s not concentric spheres at all. Maybe it’s just one transition, experienced over and over and over again, mischaracterized as well. That would be a very different universe from what Baba Ram Das described.


Physical correlates of consciousness come up all the time, from autonomic measurements to EEG to PET scans. What advocates of higher consciousness say about these make me even more suspicious than my personal experience. It impresses those who want to be impressed, but it’s all easily attacked. In recent years I’ve heard many mentions of radiologist Andrew Newberg studying meditation with SPECT scans, even in Newsweek. Yet it never comes up that Dr. Newberg isn’t able to publish his results in a peer-reviewed journal, where those mean old scientists won’t let someone say whatever they want, as Newberg can in his books. If the scans he presents are even beyond normal variation, which is not established in his books, the explanation might be as trivial as an altered focus of attention during meditation compared to wakefulness, nothing as involved as the explanation Newberg invents despite his lack of expertise in cerebral neurophysiology. Then there are other equally fringe researchers that contradict him about something as basic as whether parietal lobe activity goes up or down with meditation.


It’s strange because I don’t care directly if meditation has physical effects. It’s the spiritual effects or at least the mental ones I’m interested in. But if advocates of meditation can’t tell the difference between good science and junk, why should I believe them about anything? It’s a question that comes up a lot for me in religion. If people are willing to believe nonsense about what can be known, why believe them about more mysterious things?


Eventually my meditating turned to prayer. I would prayer the Lord’s Prayer or something else scripted. Then I would pray whatever else came to me. Then I would wait, sometimes for a long time. 17 years ago God started speaking to me in words during those times. Before then the Spirit was doing something, bringing prayers to me that I had no idea were in me, things like that. I became aware of a presence in my prayers long before I was sure it was God. That might have even started when I was just meditating. I don’t remember. It was a similar state. I remember that much.


What I remember best is learning that I had an esophoria, and maybe Baba Ram Das did, too. People are so willing to follow religions of the past, as if ancient people knew what they were doing. They didn’t. Still it’s not completely useless. If there hadn’t been religion, I never would have discovered even that I have an esophoria, much less all these things about God that are much more important to me. Yet all religions are false, even if they have some truth. If something’s true show me. If you can only show me indirectly, then show me how you live your life to end poverty. Show me how you live your life to end conflict. That’s what God is willing to do for me.


Many people are less demanding. I think that’s a pity.

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