Narrowing Mental Bandwidth

“Among the great things which are to be found among us, the being of nothingness is the greatest.”
Leonardo da Vinci

When surfing the Internet, more bandwidth is better. We want more data to flow to our computer more quickly. When meditating, less data flow is better. Many of the behaviors of meditation are designed to shut down the flow of information from our senses and our various mental activities, so that we can reach a quieter state of consciousness.

If you have a dial-up Internet account, you know that if you download a web page with a lot of graphics while you download a large file through your email account, the web page you are waiting for will load slowly. Only so much data can flow through your modem into your computer within a given amount of time. 

Similarly, our brains can only manage a limited amount of data at a time. Data flows to our minds through the channels of our senses, our emotions and our cognitive processes. So much information comes at us that we are not even aware that we are processing much of it. In a moment, we are seeing our surroundings, hearing sounds in the environment, and feeling sensations such as the force of gravity on our body or the pangs of hunger. Our nose is sampling the air for odors. We are getting signals from our mouth such as whether our tongue is wet or dry or what taste is there. We may be processing emotions, having memories, thinking about our next move. Thoughts may seem to come at us like those unwanted pop-ups on a web browser. We don’t want them, but there they are.

To attain a peaceful mind, we limit mental data flow. Just sitting in an upright posture and attending to the breath requires a good deal of attention. That attention crowds out extraneous thoughts that might contribute to mental turbulence. Directing our gaze at a single object or a spot on the floor in front of us restricts the amount of input we get through the visual cortex of our brain. Incense blocks most data we might process through our sense of smell. We can’t hold two packets of verbal information in mind at the same time; so repeating a mantra ties up the line in that area. Counting our breaths may have a similar effect. Our hands use a lot of brain resources, so holding them in a particular position, a mudra, limits the data flow in those parts of the brain. When we place the tip of our tongue at the part of our palate just above our front teeth, we restrict tongue activity that might interfere with concentration. Sitting very still limits the need for our extremities to talk to our brain.

As we enact each of these meditation behaviors the corresponding brain activities settle down. With practice and persistence we attain a quietude that creates an openness of mind. Clear of mental disturbance we settle into a pure awareness and a deeper consciousness.

“We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what it not.”

Lao Tzu

To the Meditation Archive Menu

To the current Meditation of the Week


© 2004 Tom Barrett