How Meditation Can Change Your Sense Of Self (For The Better)

Written by Paula Watkins, PhD

Notions of self and mind differ across cultures and history. For quite a while now, Western cultures have emphasized a Cartesian dualism between mind or self and social persona. In contrast, several other cultural groups tend to convey a sociocentric concept of self and emphasize a sense of both interdependent personhood and intertwined mind-body-spirit.

I spent several years immersed in learning from and researching the Karen people — an ethnic minority refugee population from Burma (Myanmar). I was interested in their indigenous notions of self, mind, suffering and healing. I wanted to know how, within their cultural framework, they conceptualized the unimaginable horrors they endured. I wanted to understand how they harnessed their resilience, healed and hoped.

What they taught me changed my own understanding of Western psychiatric and psychological models. It changed my understanding of my “self,” and it invited me to conceptualize the experiences of human suffering and human flourishing in ways that resonated with my own meditation practice.

The Karen community taught me their understanding of the tha: the heart-mind. This word, tha, refers to both the physical heart organ and the symbolic heart as the seat of emotions. When used to denote emotional suffering it is more aptly translated as “heart-mind,” as the Karen people perceived emotions and thoughts to be interrelated.

After sharing my culture’s list of names for states of emotional and mental suffering they emphasized that in comparison to the English language, Karen dialects do not have so many different words or phrases to describe emotions. It’s unnecessary, they told me. After all, it all relates to the heart-mind.

My Karen friends both experienced and expressed emotional distress through the body (e.g., physical aches and pains) and mind (e.g., thinking too much or remembering past suffering), but avoided a Cartesian division of the two. Rather, their heart-minds were hurt (tha ba do). Their narratives tended to integrate discussions of self with their community and sociopolitical context.

Such “somatopsychosocial” conceptualizations and culturally prescribed patterns occur in many cultures, but differ in terms of the particular configuration of experiences. What’s interesting is the number of cultures who hold a heart-mind conceptualization. Karen and Buddhist notions of a separate, though interrelated, heart-mind also parallel conceptualizations of distress and healing reported in other parts of the world. Wherever mental health researchers bring an open notebook (and dare I say an open heart) as they travel the world to better understand the human experience, they tend to find heart-minds.

Perhaps this is why meditation — which acts on the heart-mind level — has so far proven beneficial for nearly every variety of mental illness Western psychiatry has classified. No matter what ails us, mindfulness meditation is proving to be an important aspect of modern psychological therapies.

When we meditate, we affect our physiology in a series of interesting ways. Yes, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system (as does any relaxation technique). Yes, we get a faster, fatter, fitter frontal lobe (any focused concentration exercise will do that). Yes, we see both synchronized and slower electrical activity in the brain (this also happens when we listen to certain music, and occurs when we sleep). But something more is going on.

We elicit a cascade of bonding hormones which essentially means we feel more connected with others. We see enhanced activity in parts of the frontal lobe that allow us to better understand others, interpret their expressions and experience empathy. Even better, we are more likely to act on that empathy. We become compassion in action. If the symbolic heart is the seat of love, our actions are more likely to “come from our heart” and we're more likely to “follow the heart.” The mind comes along too, but it’s calmer and clearer than can often be the case. At the physical level we actually affect the physiology of the heart organ. It slows down. It becomes more responsive (heart rate variability is a good thing). We lower our risk for cardiovascular disease. We lower our risk for a range of mental illness. If we have mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, we decrease our risk for relapse.

As meditators, we not only heal and cultivate our internal heart-mind but we do the same to our collective self. We understand that we are “somatopsychosocial” beings. We are bodies entwined with minds entwined the world around us. We are it. It is us. And we’re all better off when we take good care of all of it.

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