In examining the functions of the amygdala in its primitive attempts to prepare us to face or run away from danger, it’s a given that we must try to deal with any actual danger in our surroundings. These don’t need to be gone into in too much detail here, but they range from health factors to active threats in a person’s immediate family or work life. In the presence of real negative pressures or actual pains, the amygdala is simply doing its job. The individual has o deal with these situations practically, adjusting his or her circumstances as best they can.
Where our focus lies is with those times when the alarm bell rung by the amygdala is a false alarm. When these false alarms mount up, they can plunge an individual into anxiety and depression.
Depression is very much like trying to live in a house in which there is a loud alarm that rings constantly, preventing easy sleep and distracting from every activity, though the exact reason for the alarm cannot be specified. At this point, the amygdala mechanism has measured the individual as incapable of dealing with even the slightest threat in the environment, real or imagined, and has activated the ‘fight/flight’ response more or less permanently — or so it seems.
So let’s assume that you have managed to remove or distance yourself from those sources of potential or actual threat in your physical environment like dangerous physical activities, aggressive family situations, impossible job positions and so on, and that you have addressed any possible health factor in yourself which triggers the amygdala. What you should be left with, then, is the ‘false alarm amygdala’, the one warning you about things which seem non-specific or even imaginary.
What you probably think of as ‘normal’ meditation can play a part here.
There are many different methods of standard meditation — so many that the term ‘standard’ seems like a misnomer. But the broad principles are the same:
1. Mindfulness meditation, as mentioned earlier, involves ‘being in the present moment’ and paying close attention to sensory input, encouraging an ‘observer’ position in relation to it.
2. Ordinary meditation involves ‘emptying the mind’ and achieving a state of ‘stillness’ in which the present surroundings of the individual effectively disappear from his or her attention.
Though they sound like opposites in terms of an intended outcome, they are similar in terms of approach. They involve sitting or lying comfortably somewhere where the person cannot be interrupted, establishing a breathing rhythm, and relaxing the body, usually section by section. (Mindfulness says it can be done anywhere, but the prerequisite is always going to be a place free from interruption of the mindfulness session itself.)
What neither meditation or mindfulness probe into very much is the reason why they are both apparently needed — in other words, what is it that is preventing the body and mind from relaxing normally in the first place? Every time that a meditating person scans his or her body seeking to relax muscles, here, there and everywhere, they are in fact uncovering more and more areas in which the amygdala’s subconscious alarm system is at work.
We find a maxim here which will crop up again later:
A body (and mind) in a natural, optimum condition are normally at peace.
This means that any areas of tension, pressure, tightness, or parts of the body or mind in some other non-optimum state must be being acted upon by something to be in that condition.
So we can utilise ordinary meditation or mindfulness to achieve a relaxed state, but we can already advance our technique beyond the conventional by exploring things from the perspective of what state the body or mind should be in.
By all means, sit or lie comfortably, breathe rhythmically and start relaxing the body, muscle by muscle — but think of it as not something that you are doing to the body, but something that you are undoing.
What’s happening, if you think about it, is that, during meditation, you are running a kind of ‘conscious amygdala’ programme internally, looking for departures from perfection around and throughout your body. Rather than setting off an alarm, though, you are undoing the effects of an unconscious alarm that is already ringing.
Bit by bit, moving up and down your body, you can locate more and more areas and levels of tension.
When you feel reasonably relaxed, try to go deeper.
Look for zones or parts of your body where there is a sensation of ‘pushing’ or pressure, as though you, the individual, are exerting force upon the body somehow. When you sense such a pressure, ease off as much as you can.
As you scan round and round your body, you will probably find that some parts where you already had to relax a pressure have subtly re-exerted that same pressure or a lighter one. What’s happening there is that your body is used to operating largely unconsciously, and listens to unconscious instructions all the time; you entering the ‘room’ of your body, as it were, is much like a newcomer entering a room full of relatively passive students: the students are willing to listen to you and grant you respect, but they are creatures of habit and will drift back to obeying former instructions as soon as you move on.
You have to try to retrain your body to listen to you.
As you apply this method of physical relaxation — the first part of ordinary meditation — you may find yourself edging into areas of mental stress. This is to be expected. Try to apply the same approach there: move through areas of thinking, locating levels of tension.
When you manage to relax them a little, try to go deeper.
Mentally, you will probably find zones of judgement — areas of thought in which you sense heavy judgement from somewhere, usually finding you wanting in some fashion. This is you, the individual, subconsciously exerting pressure and finding fault with yourself. When you sense such a pressure, just as with physical relaxation, ease off as much as you can.
This lowly judgement of yourself feeds into the amygdala’s primitive measurement of You — to your detriment.
As you scan round and round your mind, just as with the body, you will probably find that some parts where you already had to ease up on a judgemental attitude have re-exerted that same attitude or a lighter one. Your mind, like your body, is used to operating unconsciously to a significant degree : the amygdala mechanism has largely had free rein in terms of issuing commands. Scanning through your thoughts in this way is nudging these prior instructions, bumping into old orders, jostling habits and long-established routines. It will take many meditation sessions to persuade both the mind and the body to behave differently, to listen to different voices, to obey You rather than your unconscious.
Of course, much of the time your mind will drift off entirely into its own thoughts; a great deal of the time, meditation can slowly sink into sleep. That is also to be expected. Don’t resist it; go with the flow. Before long, you’ll explore that hinterland between waking and sleep with interest and you will have de-activated so many amygdala alarms that you will start to feel new levels of internal peace.
This is just ordinary mediation, though.
Active Meditation takes you much further.