Getting to alpha
2 May 2013
The popular exhortation to “slow down and smell the flowers” – meaning that we should take life a bit easier, reconnect with the natural world, and notice the beauty around us – contains, it seems to me, its own implied, wistful rejoinder: “yeah, sure, wouldn’t it be nice, like anybody’s got the time for that!”
It’s a measure of how disconnected we’ve become from the earth that the phrase now even sounds almost quaint, having been largely replaced with “take time to smell the coffee.” After all, in this impersonal, urban, and crowded world, many people go through their day cloaked in hardware and buffered by technology. They’re unlikely to see a real flower sprouting up out of a genuine patch of ground – at least not one that’s approachable for smelling. But coffee? Hey, man, it’s everywhere!
The instinct behind this basic sentiment – whether the predicate is flowers or coffee – is fundamentally correct: if you want to get sane or be healthy, or if you just need to calm yourself down, stop thinking and instead start sensing. Perceive directly whatever happens to be around you: see the colors of the flowers or of the cloud-speckled sky; smell the aroma of brewing coffee or of freshly baked bread; feel on your cheek the cool breeze off the sea, or on your finger-tips the cat’s silky back… Don’t think about it. Don’t describe it. Don’t try to name it. Just experience it.
Within less than a minute of switching in this way from thinking mode to sensing mode, your body reacts. Your breathing becomes more regular. Your circulation improves. You become less tense. Your mind begins to clear. These are changes you can perceive in yourself – and others around you can often see them in you, too.
At the level of your biochemistry, other changes are also taking place. When you’re in thinking mode, parts of your brain emit fast, somewhat erratic, low amplitude “beta” waves. The jerky, nervous profile of the beta-wave readout from the electroencephalograph visually suggests the agitation and the short-term, rapidly changing, and often reactionary conditions that produced it.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with “being in beta.” It’s the normal condition of waking life, evidence that the discursive mind is at work. You emit beta waves when you’re thinking, reacting, judging, deciding, arguing, planning, hoping, and just getting on with what life throws at you. Many of these activities we don’t even consider particularly stressful. Your body knows otherwise, however: beta waves mean wear and tear.
When you switch to sensing mode, the wave-length changes. The impulses from the brain slow down, becoming longer and more regular. These oscillations are called “alpha waves.” When the brain is in this state – under alpha conditions, as it were – restoration takes place.
The mind alternates between beta and alpha all day long, because it knows it has to. Even if our ego attempts to drive us through a heavy agenda without respite, the mind rebels. That’s why we find ourselves inexplicably staring out the window for a moment during an intense meeting, or instinctively pouring ourselves another cup of coffee.
But what a chaotic way to live! No wonder so many of us get sick so often, take so long to recover, and often feel out of sorts in some diffuse way. If we remain in beta for too long, with no regular alternance with alpha, we don’t get sufficient opportunity to heal. The physical damage caused by stress accumulates. We break down.
Moving from beta to alpha (and to even calmer states) and remaining there for a fixed period of time is one way to describe meditation. The mantra – or any sensual focus of attention – draws us away from the cerebral into the sensual.
Tending to our bodies in this way, which inevitably removes our ego as the center of attention, puts us on the threshold of a spiritual path, too. Jesus, in inviting us to leave self behind on such a pilgrimage of return to wholeness and authenticity, never neglected first to feed, heal, and restore the body. We would be well advised to “go and do likewise.”