Articulating the positive effects of any habit is usually not easy. Change happens in tiny increments, and each change in isolation has a largely indiscernible effect on the mind. There is also an adaptation effect as we adjust to each incremental change and it becomes our new normal. It is therefore only after the sufficient accumulation of changes and some self-reflection that they become discernible at the emergent level of our daily lives.
In my experience, the development of a new habit of mind can be a more obvious way of gauging progress with respect to the positive effects of meditation. One particular habit of mind I have observed in myself is the tendency of the mind to ‘go meta’, particularly when a negative emotion or mind-state arises.
To ‘go meta’ refers to a quality of mind known as meta-cognitive awareness, which is a state of awareness of the nature of whatever the underlying mind state is. When one is angry or frustrated for instance, there is a knowing of these mind states not just upon reflection but actually in the moment.
When this movement of the mind has been trained, when a sense of anger or frustration arises, the mind quickly goes into a state of observation and awareness of that state. This awareness could be of the negative thought, emotion or a strong bodily sensation that arise, which could be a sense of heat or pressure in some particular part of the body.
In my experience this is perhaps the most fundamental skill a meditator trains – the ability observe arising mind states in a somewhat objective way without getting lost in or ‘fused with’ their content. And it applies to a full spectrum of possible mind states including those with a distinctly negative valence including anger, jealousy, impatience, annoyance and anxiousness.
Training this quality of mind is one of the most practical ways one can direct their attention while meditating. One way I have trained this quality of mind is to purposely think of some thing that has recently caused me some difficult mind state or emotion. If that mind state or emotion can be re-experienced in some way while sitting, it is a perfect opportunity to train this quality of awareness or observation.
Attention can thus be directed to what change happens in the body or mind upon thinking about this thing – perhaps some change in mood, feeling or bodily sensation. We can then slowly integrate this habit of mind in moments when we start to feel some negative mind state or emotion.
This creates a positive feedback loop in the mind – every time we can practice de-fusion, it makes that response more likely to arise in the future. It either arises immediately when those states are relatively mild, or it arises earlier than usual when those states are more strong. In any case, practicing this weakens associated neural pathway or ‘imprint’ in the mind that is our habitual reactions.
Over time, training this response to the stream of thoughts and feelings in the mind loosens the grip they have over us and we can start to act in the world in a way that is more informed by our deeper values. In other words, we can act in such a way that aligns with the person we want to be more of the time.
We can also cultivate this quality of mind through our language. Instead of identifying as an angry or frustrated person with language like “I am angry”, we can observe such states arising in us more objectively by being aware of the kinds of thoughts or feelings that represent these states. This movement to defuse from angry thoughts or feelings allows us to be free of this states much more quickly than would otherwise be the case – the only way to stay angry for some period of time is to stay fused with (i.e. to keep thinking) those angry thoughts.
While it certainly seems possible for a non-meditator to understand the logic of de-fusion, and to practice it in certain circumstances, from my own experience it has only been through training mindfulness through formal sitting practice that I have been able to effectively practice de-fusion in my life and set this positive feedback loop in motion. And for regular meditators, this is perhaps the best indicator of the effectiveness of practicing mindfulness in daily life.