The Brain, Meditation and the Aware Ego Process
-Allies of the Aware Ego-
A profound revolution has occurred as a result of a new understanding of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Neurogenesis is the development of new neurons in the adult brain. Neuroplasticity is the process by which the brain can continuously remodel itself by generating new neuronal pathways in response to either novel experiences or brain injury. In the past, it was thought that the adult human brain was not capable of generating new nerve cells or establishing new pathways. It was thought that we were born with a specific set and number of neurons and that these neurons and pathways were fixed over time. These concepts were mistaken given we now know the adult human brain does have the capacity to generate new neurons and clearly neuroplasticity represents a fundamental developmental process in the human brain (Begley, 2007).
The regular practice and repetition of focused concentrative meditation appears to stimulate neurogenesis and neuroplasticity (Wallace, 2007; Siegel, 2007). A meditative experience has now been endorsed as an important modality in the treatment of patients with cancer (Kabat-Zinn, 2005), obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD (Schwartz & Begley, 2002) and in the management of elderly patients with early memory loss. Modern neuroscience is also transforming our understanding of the meditative process itself. During focused meditation parietal lobe metabolism is decreased in contrast to an increase in frontal lobe activity (Ekman & Davidson, 1994). In addition, medial prefrontal activity is increased during self referential or self-aware mental activity –Metaconsciousness-(Northoff, Heinzel, Greck, Bermpohl, Dobrowolny, & Panksepd, 2006).
A variety of meditative techniques have been taught for over 2,500 years. The Dalai Lama suggests that there are two types of meditation (Dalai Lama & Hopkins, 2002); namely, stabilizing and analytic meditation. Stabilizing meditation consists of concentrative focus on a single object, often on the breath, which is posited to calm the mind. During stabilizing meditation the focus is on an individual process i.e.: breathing. For example, an individual may focus on the coolness of the in-breath on the back of the throat or the single point in time when inhalation changes to exhalation. A regular practice of focused meditative processes is suggested to support the aware ego process (Stone, H. & Stone, S, 1989). This aware ego process is relative to the Jungian concept that postulates the ego being the center of consciousness; more specifically, the part of the psyche concerned with perceiving, thinking, feeling, and remembering. Similarly, Jung posited three aspects of individuation; (1) becoming an individual, fulfilling one’s capacities, and developing one’s self (2) Once the psyche’s structures are individuated and acknowledged, then transcendence can occur and (3) transcendence is an innate tendency toward unity or wholeness in the personality, uniting all the opposing aspects of the psyche (or selves).
Stabilizing meditation can give support to this transcendent process by silencing and clarifying the dialogue of the various selves. Only as a process directly orchestrated by the aware ego can one have access to the energy of the individual selves (primary and disowned) and to the position of awareness. The disowned self is proposed to involve the emotional aspects of the psyche that are done away with by the rational mind, in this sense it is imperative to not allow the rational mind to conduct the Symphony.
Stabilizing meditation is particularly helpful in the early morning hours, as the energies of the primary selves are often intense preparing one for daily activities. Stabilizing meditation consolidates the aware ego and emphasizes nonattachment. This process of the aware ego compliments stabilizing meditation and the conscious engagement of the aware ego during stabilizing meditation may plausibly facilitate and augment neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.
In the aware ego process the meditative self or attentional self must be channeled through the aware ego. The attentional self represents an ally of the aware ego and the aware ego process; however, this attentional self may often be a primary self, yet in many individuals it appears disowned. This attentional self has the capacity to engage in stabilizing or analytic meditation. Analytic meditation represents a focused meditation on the energy, form, and nature of a single object i.e. a physical icon or on the characteristics of an individual self. The aware ego process as applied to analytic meditation starts by engaging the aware ego and secondarily the attentional self in a process of intense focus and analysis of the energy and characteristics of an individual self be it primary or disowned. It is important to experience the energy of the self and allow it to speak and invade the sense of now — thereby surrendering to its energy. Perhaps this is a self that was engaged intensely during the day or perhaps this represents a preparation for the future. Letting the energy carry the process, allows this specific self to speak through the individuation process, hence the aware ego and the attentional self can witness this process objectively. Finally, one can ease the direction of the attentional self after a sufficient period and return to the aware ego. As a result, the aware ego process has been strengthened with the possible development of new neurons and neural pathways.
The attentional self is a concept from neuroscience blended into the Aware Ego Process. Selective attention is defined as the capacity to exact volitional control of one’s attention and maintain and direct this attention to a particular object or idea. Selective attention is very highly developed in man and is associated with activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. From what we know of the anterior cingulate cortex, it contains both cognitive and affective regions and is active during tasks involving attention, cognition, and executive processes and is suggested to serve a primary function in motivation, goal direction, response selection, memory and regulation of nociceptive, visceral and autonomic processes (Devinsky, Morell and Vogt, 1995). The anterior cingulate is of particular interest to the both the aware ego and selective attention processes, since we know that lesions to the anterior cingulate often result in states of altered consciousness; therefore, it is a reasonable possibility that the aware ego is mediated in the anterior cingulate cortex. It is reasonable to interpret selective attention, as an individual self — in voiced dialogue terms. It is this self — channeled through the aware ego — that has the capacity to engage and maintain attention on the breath, for example — One can use this attentional self to engage in stabilizing or analytic meditation.
It is helpful to have an appreciation for how the aware ego exists in time. Tolle, (1999) suggests there are three types of time. First, there is psychological time, which represents the reality of the many selves — both disowned and primary. Second, there is clock time which is a manifestation of the world outside of us. Third, there is the now and the aware ego exists in the realm of the now. The aware ego, aided by the attentional self, has a unique vantage point to observe the primary and disowned selves because it is separate from the constraints of psychological time. The aware ego is able to view the many selves without attachment and is able to make nonattached and nonjudgmental decisions.
Some individuals have suggested that the aware ego process represents a form of Western Buddhism. Both Buddhism and the aware ego process emphasize nonattachment. The Buddha taught that meditation can open a dimension of being that dissolves the tendency to become attached to anything. A similar dimension is opened through the aware ego process. The goal of the aware ego process is to develop an aware ego that is not attached to the primary or disowned selves. As such, the combination of meditation and the aware ego process provide a powerful and transformative method to release attachment to the selves, the world, and the future.
The Buddha achieved enlightenment after years of meditation, wrestling with his own inner demons (Armstrong, 2007). In regards to the aware ego process, he wrestled with his primary and disowned selves. Immediately after his breakthrough he reached down and touched the earth. His gesture was suggesting that he had touched the root of his being or his aware ego. During meditation, the Buddha had passed through the illusions of identity and attachment. Similarly, the aware ego process helps dispel illusions of identity and attachment to the selves. Can the combination of the meditation and the aware ego process lead to enlightenment?
John H. Dougherty Jr. M.D.
LeAnne I Dougherty Ph.D