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How I Got Interested in Mindfulness and Biofeedback

Publication date: 04 November 2011

The story starts when I was a student. I was studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and hoping to specialise in Physics. I was struggling with Physics, in part because my studies weren't giving me the deep understanding of reality that I really wanted. Then I came across a book called 'The Tao of Physics', written by Frijof Capra back in 1973. It was about the parallels between some ideas in modern physics, and ancient traditions of the East, such as Buddhism and Taoism. It was my first real contact with the idea of meditation as a way of directly experiencing wisdom, the nature of reality, etc. I realised that was what I really wanted. I learned that in Buddhism, wisdom is not just a passive acquiring of knowledge but comes with complete personal transformation, which is what meditation (at least in the Buddhist context) is all about.

That was back in around 1988. I'm still working at meditation. It's probably fair to say that mindfulness meditation has proven harder for me than I would have liked.

Years later, I began wondering if there was a way to use modern science and technology to make it easier. I was also interested in just what was happening in the brain and body when one entered a deep meditative state. Perhaps knowing this would give me some ideas. So I started reading around, and that was when I first encountered biofeedback and neurofeedback. (Actually neurofeedback came first.) I was immediately struck by the potential, and excited about trying it out.

This was at a time (around 1999) when I was living at a Buddhist retreat centre. I didn't feel like I could devote my life to full-time meditation practice, so I was looking around for a vocation of some sort. When I came across biofeedback, I began to think in terms of becoming a therapist. I realised biofeedback wasn't really a therapy in itself but more of a tool for doing therapy, so I began training as a psychotherapist. I'd also been reading the works of Milton Erickson, the great American psychiatrist and hypnosis practitioner, so I chose to train in “Ericksonian” psychotherapy.

I don't suppose I'd have gone far with biofeedback, had I not been using it myself to work with my own mind, especially in a context of meditation. To some extent it was effective in teaching me how to apply my mind, in ways that I hadn't found before. I learned that I had to let go of attachment to results. And it increased my level of interest. (These are themes I'll return to in future postings.) But I also encountered limitations. For instance, one of my first devices was from the Heartmath Institute – it was then called “Freeze-framer” but has now evolved into the “Emwave”. The way the device presented the feedback was too simplistic for my taste. I relied a lot on auditory feedback, since I was working in eyes-closed meditation. Another problem was the feedback was too intrusive – to an extent it detracted from my meditation.

I'd worked as a programmer in the IT industry, so I was able to use my experience to come up with something better. I now use my own software in my mindfulness practice – but that's the subject of another posting! For now, suffice it to say I really believe it helps me personally, and I'll try to say something about how.

I'm a bit of a thinker by temperament. Even after over twenty years of meditation practice, my mind is still prone to lose itself in thinking, planning, and otherwise talking to myself endlessly. To put it bluntly I need to get out of my head and involve my body more. Biofeedback helps me do that. It also helps me by reflecting back to me when my mind has “gone off” - at least to the extent that the distraction changes my physiological state. In other words it works as a kind of distraction detector. I suppose that's what I always found hard – noticing when my mind had become distracted.

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