In this essay I start by detailing my experience with additive meditation. I then connect it to a theory of emotionality that makes sense of my experience.
My Experience with Additive Meditation
About a month ago I unblocked the ability of playing around with meditation levers. For some reason – which I don’t fully grasp yet – I was blocked on even considering doing anything but mindfulness meditation. I am not anymore, and so it is time to push the new found levers.
I started with additive meditation last weekend. I sat and did my own thing: cleared up a space, and increased my feelings of warmth, of safety, of being held, of being loved, of being cared for over 10 minutes. As I did it I felt warmer and warmer and started to spontaneously smile.
My flatmate came in and we chatted for a bit. He was visibly enraged and I failed to get enraged. I wanted to, I wanted to sympathise, but I just couldn’t access that even though the situation described would usually make me enraged.
The next morning I talked to my flatmate again and had a very Focusing-like conversation. I felt brilliantly, acting as the resonator board my flatmate needed, and he at least made inner progress with the issues he was dealing with.
I went out of the house and went to the city center with a book. I read, and observed, and listened to street bands, and admired street dancers and interacted with people. People were notably more cheerful interacting with me. Reading was difficult because every single sentence would spring dozens of ideas. Observation was more acute: as if my field of vision was larger and more precise. I could take more pleasure out of listening and observing the street artists. This effect gradually disappeared as the day went by, having lasted for a (presumed) total of 36 hours.
It was extraordinary – one of the best days of my life in terms of how it was experience, despite their being no clear outer reason for that – , and thus I had to comprehend it.
Intellectual apprehending the experience
The Broaden-and-build theory of positive emotionality
The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotionality maintains that emotions trigger self-perpetuating cycles. For example, positive emotions lead to the building of resources, which leads to an increase in overall well-being, which leads to more positive emotions, which leads to higher resilience, which leads to increased well-being and so on. Thus, positive emotions lead to a broadening of outlook that leads to a building of resources.
In the same way you can get int downward spirals: spirals of negative emotionality which are pretty much the opposite of the one described above.
Says the author: “The varied good outcomes empirically linked with positive affect support the broaden-and-build theory, which asserts that positive emotions are evolved psychological adaptations that increased human ancestors’ odds of survival and reproduction (Fredrickson, 1998). The theory holds that unlike negative emotions, which narrow people’s behavioral urges toward specific actions that were life-preserving for human ancestors (e.g., fight, flight), positive emotions widen the array of thoughts and actions called forth (e.g., play, explore), facilitating generativity and behavioral flexibility. Laboratory experiments support these claims, showing that relative to neutral states, induced negative emotions narrow people’s momentary thought–action repertoires, whereas induced positive emotions broaden these same repertoires (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005).”
The theory explains why I was more aware and precise, and why I had so many ideas: the broadened outlook that the positive emotionality gave me allowed me to shift attentions away from the here-and-now threats.
The theory also claims that you can have multiple spirals going on at the same time (that is multiple concurrent self-perpetuating systems acting in different directions) and that upward spirals counter downward spirals.
This general theory, of course, has added use in making sense of success spirals and the growth mindset as special cases of positive emotionality reinforcing itself.
(I am told that videogames have long discovered these spirals and call them “streak”s or “combo”s)
I am all for a varied emotional repertoire and adequate emotional responses. I hear the criticism of positive psychology for making one stuck in and fetishising a particular shade of emotionality. I am all for being fluid and recalibrating and dynamic equilibrium. And yet I think there is space, a lot of inner space, and if you can add positive emotionality there, all the better.
And if we take assume the broaden-and-build theory, then the use of additive meditation become clear. It works as a bootstrap into a positivity spiral, a reinforcer of ongoing positivity spirals – with all the benefits that brings: resources, wellbeing, resilience.
For some (like me?) who are by nature defaulting to the stress of the here-and-now focus additive meditation is very promising. Go try it.