Anticipation and meditation

Germund Hesslow’s paper Conscious thought as simulation of behaviour and perception, which I first read maybe three months back, has an interesting discussion about anticipations.

I was previously familiar with the idea of conscious thought involving simulation of behavior. Briefly, the idea was that when you plan an action, you are simulating (imagining) various courses of action and evaluating their possible outcomes in your head. So you imagine bringing your boyfriend some flowers, think of how he’d react to that, and then maybe decide to buy him chocolate instead. Imagining things is a process of constructing a simulation of them. Nothing too surprising in that idea. Here’s how Hesslow puts it:

What we perceive is quite often determined by our own behaviour: visual input is changed when we move our head or eyes; tactile stimulation is generated by manipulating objects in the hands. The sensory consequences of behaviour are to a large extent predictable (Fig. 2a). The simulation hypothesis postulates the existence of an associative mechanism that enables the preparatory stages of an action to elicit sensory activity that resembles the activity normally caused by the completed overt behaviour (Fig. 2b). A plausible neural substrate for such a mechanism is the extensive fibre projection from the frontal lobe to all parts of sensory cortex. Very little is known about the function of these pathways, but there is physiological evidence from monkeys that neurons in polysensory cortex can be modulated by movement[33].

But the “buy flowers or chocolate?” example concerns relatively long-term decision-making. We also simulate the short-term consequences of our actions (or at least try to). And what I had not consciously realized before, but what was implied in the excerpt above, was that very immediate consequences will be simulated as well.

Discussing this paper with a friend, we considered the subjective experience of such anticipatory simulations. Suppose that I want to open a door, and start pushing down the handle. Even before I’ve pushed it all the way down, I seem to already experience a mild foretaste of what having pushed it down feels like. I know what it will feel like to have completed the action, a fraction of a second before actually having completed that action, and it feels faintly pleasing when that anticipation is realized.

Which was interesting to realize, but not particularly earth-shattering by itself. But the real discovery came soon after reading the paper. I was doing some vipassana-style meditation, focusing on the feeling of discomfort that came from wanting to swallow as there was excess saliva gathering in my mouth. I realized that what I thought of as “discomfort” was actually a denied anticipation. I wanted to swallow, and there was already in my mind a simulation of what swallowing would feel like. I was already experiencing some of the pleasure that I would get from swallowing, and my discomfort came from the fact that I wanted to experience the rest of that pleasure. When I realized this, I focused on that anticipated pleasure, trying to either make it stop feeling pleasant, or alternatively, strengthen the pleasure so that I could enjoy it without actually swallowing. My clock rang before I could fully succeed in either, but I did notice that it made it considerably easier to resist the urge.

On my way to town, I started observing my mental processes and noticed that that tiny anticipation of pleasure was everywhere. Coming to the train station, there was an anticipation of not needing to wait for long. Using a machine to buy more time on my train card, there was an anticipation of the machine working. Waiting for the train, there was an anticipation of seeing the train arrive and getting to board it. And each time that I experienced discomfort, it was from that subtle anticipation being denied. Anticipating the experience of seeing the train being there on time could have led to frustration if it was running late. Anticipating the experience of boarding the train led to impatience as the train wasn’t there yet, and that sequence of planned action that had already been partially initiated couldn’t finish. Suddenly I was seeing the anticipatory component in every feeling of discomfort I had.

When I realized that, I started writing an early draft of this post, which contained the following rather excited paragraph:

That’s what “letting go of attachments” refers to. That’s what “living in the moment” refers to. Letting go of the attachment to all predictions and anticipations, even ones that extend only seconds into the future. If one doesn’t do that, they will constantly be awaiting what happens in some future moment, and will experience constant frustrations. On some intellectual level I already understood that, but I needed to develop the skill for actually noticing all my split-second anticipations before I could really get it.

Unfortunately, what often happens with insights gained from meditation is that one simply forgets to apply them. Or if one does, in principle, remember that they should apply the insights, they’ll have forgotten how. Being able to isolate the anticipation from the general feeling of frustration, and then knowing how to let go of the attachment to it, is a tricky skill. And I ended up mostly just forgetting about it, especially once my established routine of meditating once per day got interrupted for a month or so.

I did some meditation today, and finally remembered to try out this technique again. I started looking for such anticipations whenever I experienced a feeling of discomfort, and when I found any, I just observed them and let go of them. And it worked – I was capable of meditating for a total of 70 minutes in one sitting, and got myself to a pleasant state of mind where everything felt good. That feeling persisted for most of the rest of the day.

But after that session, it feels like my earlier characterization of the technique as “a cessation of attachments to predictions” would be a little off. That description feels clunky, and like it doesn’t properly describe the experience. “Letting go of a desire for sensations to feel different” sounds more like it, but I’m not sure of what exactly the difference is.

This probably also relates to another meditation experience, which I had about two months back. I was concentrating on my breath, and again, I noticed that the sensation of saliva in my mouth was bothering me. At first I tried to just ignore it and keep my attention on my breath; or alternatively, to let go of the feeling of distraction so that the sensation of saliva wouldn’t bother me anymore. When neither worked, I essentially just thought “oh, screw it” and accepted the sensation just as it was, as well as accepting the fact that it would continue to bother me. And then, once I had accepted that it would bother me… the feeling of it bothering me melted away, and vanished from my consciousness entirely. I was left with a warm, strongly pleasant feeling that lasted for many hours after I’d stopped meditating.

I haven’t been able to put myself back into that exact state, because as far as I can tell it, getting into it requires you to genuinely accept the fact that you’re feeling uncomfortable. In other words, you cannot use the acceptance as a means to an end, thinking that “I’ll now accept this unpleasantness so that I’ll get back to that nice state where it doesn’t feel unpleasant anymore”. That’s not genuine acceptance anymore, and therefore it doesn’t work.

Anyway, it feels like the “isolate anticipations and let go of them” and “accept your feelings and discomforts exactly as they are” techniques would be two different ways of achieving the same end. The feeling of pleasure I got today wasn’t as strong as the feeling of pleasure I got when I managed to accept my discomforts as they were, but it seemed to have much of the same character.

Some – though not all – meditators report a lack of achievement after reaching high levels of skill. They’re just happy with doing whatever, with no need to accomplish more things. And after meditating today, I too felt happy with whatever would happen, with no urgency to accomplish (nor avoid!) any of the things that I had planned for today. There seems to be a fine line between “use meditation to get rid of your disinclination for doing the things you want to do” and “use meditation and get rid of your inclination to do anything”.

In any case, I will have to try to remember this technique from now on, and keep experimenting with it. Hopefully, having written this post will help.

2 comments

  1. Pyry Pakkanen

    I wouldn’t completely agree that accepting discomfort needs to be genuine to produce that pleasant feeling. When trying to fake acceptance you’re probably just failing to fake all of the supporting stuff that is present in genuine acceptance.
    I know feels paradoxical and conceptually looks like infinite recursion when you’re dropping the “desire to feel pleasant” in order to feel pleasant and then drop that intention and desire to feel pleasant and then that and so on, but it can be done. In the end you just do “that” and it works. Not every time and not always with 100% efficiency but with experience it’s possible to come up with a large bag of mental acrobatics that eliminate most suffering and produce happiness more often.

    • Thanks, that does actually make sense. I’ve managed a little bit of that successive dropping of intentions – not enough to drop all the layers of intention, but enough to know what you’re talking about. Just need to practice it more, then…

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