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The art of coffee and enquiry
How to use caffeine to deepen meditation
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I woke up this morning coughing and feeling terribly congested. I’ve been sick since I got off the plane from Japan on Monday last week. Me and my girlfriend are also currently sleeping in a friend’s bus in their backyard while we wait for our new apartment to be empty. That with full-time research and teaching, means there’s plenty of reason to feel run down. Particularly this morning. I woke up coughing so much I couldn’t catch my breath. My head felt like it was in a four-way brace that was gradually closing in.
But, less than two hours later (i.e., right now) I feel clear, fresh, and have a basic underlying feeling of being well. My mind is quiet, and I have a general sense of connectedness to my body and the world around me. I also feel inspired, in a calm way. I’m aware that the body is still healing but I’m really, very, okay. Actually, I’m great. There’s a kind of spacious lightness to life, even around the coughing and the sickness. There’s a centredness without a fixed point.
This state also made me naturally inclined to write this little bit, just to share how I made that transition in a short space of time. So, here’s my probably controversial take on how we can transmute the workaholic energy of coffee into a tool for stillness and insight, drawing on my own experiments and some science.
So, I drink a coffee every morning before I meditate.
It’s not something I necessarily advise you to take up. But, if you’re already a coffee drinker, then this should work. Most people drink coffee nowadays so I thought a few ‘keys’ for unlocking its potential would be nice to share around. It’s probably too late to get rid of our collective addiction, but it’s not too late to transform its utility.
Coffee is a stimulant. But what exactly does it “stimulate”? How can we use this boost or stimulation to improve our meditation practice? And what practice works best?
I’ll approach these questions from a neurophenomenological and computational perspective, rather than a biochemical one. The latter is a horse dead-beaten. And my intention with this little piece is just to help, not to provide references. I’m speaking more from experience but can’t help but draw on what I’ve learned through research too.
So here we go.
Coffee stimulates attention, confidence, and thereby vivification. From a computational approach, I would connect this to ‘precision-weighting’. Put simply, it boosts the significance of whatever comes into the spotlight within awareness.
The term confidence here is a bit technical, it’s more like perceptual confidence, like a ‘knowing that it is so’, rather than the feeling of being confident, but they’re related.
This boost can make anxious thoughts more anxious. That is, it can increase the attention, confidence, and vivified nature of anxious thoughts as well as the nervous feelings they’re linked with. It can also boost the vivification of ego-centric motivations. It can give you the energy and confidence you need to get on with believing that you need to go to work, to exercise, and so on.
It can also boost the body. That is a strange statement. But, within your field of awareness, your experience of a body is not that different from the experience of a thought. Only it’s less abstract. More real, in a way, but still dependent on your system’s inferences.
So, you can boost the precision, the vivification, and the confidence of your body. This will, in turn, reduce the precision, significance, and confidence of your thoughts and everything that is not your body.
That’s already a nice way to start the day. If you drink a coffee and do some yoga, lift some weights, or go for an attentive walk, you’ll have taken that stimulation and boosted the primacy of your body in awareness, which can permeate your day in a way that keeps you grounded, calm, and frankly better in almost every way.
But there are other places you can guide the ‘boost’ if you apply a bit of meditation. You can boost relaxation, you can boost mindfulness, you can boost ‘letting go’, and you can boost feelings of loving-kindness and compassion. You may need to already have a degree of expertise to guide the boost (e.g., via attention) to the desired location, but there’s a trick you can use if you don’t have that degree of ‘control’ yet.
Of course, control is a bit misleading, because what you really develop over time is the ‘control to let go of control’. The attentional capacity to let go of attention.
Cracking the code: Coffee and self-enquiry
Many of us don’t have the training to immediately release the many levels of assumptions in the mind that drive its behaviour. In other words, many of us are not just able to let go of anxiety, stress, sadness, or the ego-mind, on demand. Quite often, neither do I. But with a little boost from coffee and the right technique, the odds get quite a bit better. Especially in the atmosphere of morning sunlight, chirping birds, and the natural stillness that permeates a new dawn.
No technique is perfect but with a little practice, we can create techniques that are perfect for us.
So, the simple way to use coffee to meditate better is to use the right thoughts. If you’re reading this, you can therefore ‘think’. If you’ve paid attention up to this point, you’re able to ‘pay attention’, and therefore you can do this practice.
It basically involves two things:
1. Relaxing the body,
2. Asking a basic question.
Well, first drink the coffee. Even better, do a kind of ‘soft’ version of this practice while you drink the coffee, or from the moment you wake up. You can of course use tea, or not use anything, and it still works (cf. these two legends; Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta).
But it’s a match made for heaven when it comes to coffee and enquiry.
For this practice, you don’t need to be in a particular meditation posture. The coffee gives enough energy so you only need to prioritise relaxing the body. This will ‘boost the body’, as described above, and help prevent the ‘boosting’ or vivification of any anxious or stressful patterns.
Allow most of your attention to soak throughout the body with a gentle intention of relaxation and releasing tension. As you do this ‘boosting the relaxed body’ practice, allow the attention to sink deeper towards the heart-space as it continues to permeate the body. Be patient with each stage, just listening to your own sense of what you need.
If things get confusing, just stick with the body. Allow the overall emotional space within the body to also be included. Don’t actively ‘exclude’ anything at all. Be open and aware. As you feel this emotional-body-energy-space, guide your thoughts towards some simple questions.
Here are a list of questions I recommend:
1. What is this
2. What am I
3. What is already here
4. Where is there holding on
There are other questions that can work but they can also make us too recursive in our minds. It’s best to choose the question(s) that you find most grounding, most open, and least abstract. Any of them can work just fine because the goal is not ‘finding an answer’. These questions simply begin to undercut the assumptions of the mind. They ‘boost’ that which is there before the conceptual mind.
The question should feel like it’s sinking you deeper into the now. Like it’s dropping the attention deeper into that space. Towards the heart of the heart. Or, like it’s paradoxically reducing mind-chatter. If it’s not doing any of that, go back to boosting the relaxed body, or try a different question.
And the coffee makes these questions more ‘penetrative’. By analogy: If the question is a guiding light for your attention, then coffee boosts the luminosity of the light. And if the enquiry reduces conceptual abstraction by chipping away at the trunk of the mind-tree, then coffee gives you a bigger axe.
The way this works can be explained using a simple example. If you ask yourself: “I wonder how deep the ocean is?”, and you have some genuine curiosity, the question can guide your behaviour and attention towards finding the answer. You’ll naturally start ‘foraging’ the internet or your friends to find the solution.
That’s how self-enquiry works. You pose the question to yourself, e.g., ‘what am I?’ and then you forage for the answer within this very moment. The attention and the overall machinery of the mind then moves itself in the general direction of the answer. But it can’t be found in thinking, because you’re asking about something more fundamental than thinking.
You’re just allowing the question to bring you deeper into what already is. You’re using it to basically guide the stream of thought to its own source, wherein you may just get lucky and pluck out the very seed. You’re releasing the question into your being so that it might nudge you towards greater peace and presence. Always maintaining the attitude of relaxation, of letting go of control and grasping.
The mind is built hierarchically, somewhat like a pyramid. So you could say that the enquiry ‘boosts’ the foundations of the pyramid, which are more stable, grounded, and present. It boosts that iamness, that simple beingness. It boosts hereness. It boosts calmness and, on occasion, it boosts insight and revelation. This is partially explained in our paper here.
There is also that groundless ground that lays beyond the pyramid. And there is also a certain element of mystery to it all, and that makes it fun.
Nothing can be forced, so it’s best to enjoy it.
There are ten-thousand things that I could say about the magic (and science) of self-enquiry, but I just wanted to share this little practice that helped me on this, and most, mornings. You can do it until you feel empty of troubles and tension, empty of graspiness, empty of intention, and ultimately empty of everything: Choicelessly aware.
That is a very free place from which to move about the day—an availability for a full and natural expression of life. But even allowing the ‘coffee and enquiry’ to chop down a few layers of the mind’s abstraction-tree can give you a fresher start to the day. It can make you a bit more pliable to life’s offerings.
Even moving about with a few less knots can be very nice.
Thanks for reading.
PS - a word of warning: Because of caffeine’s capacity to ‘boost’, I also suspect it makes us more prone to over-confidence in our own beliefs and ideas. Evidence for this is reviewed in our recent paper here. So, as with all meditation, it’s not about new ‘contents’ of consciousness. It’s about insight into the nature of those contents and the capacity to go beyond them. And to enjoy them. But not to be used as a tool for even more hubris. Note to self.
Also, Sri Nisargadatta, an absolute behemoth of self-enquiry, is pictured at the top of the article. His teachings are expressed in one of my all-time favourite contemplative books (I am that). I saw some evidence online that he drank coffee, which would make sense considering how much he loved cigs:
“Went back at 5.00. Maharaj was alone drinking coffee. He gave me half of his cup of coffee! Tomorrow at 8.00 a.m. he will give me my mantra.”- Jean’s Journals
Aho! Coffee first, then mantra.