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Chapter 5: Exploring Biofeedback


In Max’s book The Awakened Mind, he defines biofeedback as follows: “Essentially, biofeedback is a new way of learning about ourselves, or a way of relearning, or realising for the first time, what the body already knows - how to act, how to feel, even how to heal - if we listen to it . . . biofeedback can be said to provide the means to become aware - acutely aware - of ourselves, and thereby gain the possibility of self-control.”

This interpretation emphasises discovery and learning about ourselves and our emotions which we are unlikely to gain from responding to a signal from a machine.  Max used the term “biofeedback” because it was widely accepted but he preferred the word “biomonitoring” for his way of teaching use of the machines: the subject did the exercise and then, afterwards, looked at the machine to see what change had occurred.  By contrast, the standard biofeedback method registers the change as it is happening so that attention is on the feedback from the machine instead of on the underlying problem.

In the Buddhist view, most of our problems arise from the inability to control our attention. If this is true, a simple biofeedback tone is unlikely to capture our attention.  While it might be better to use techniques specifically aimed at training the attention first, there is usually no time, nor are there people skilled in imparting such training.  A modern biofeedback compromise used, for example, by clinics to help people with attention deficit disorder (ADD) is to make the feedback more interesting in order to capture and maintain the subject’s attention.  The feedback might be a complex video image where the subject has to remain travelling on a road. If the object of the biofeedback training is to maintain alpha, then any reduction causes the image to veer off the road.  These techniques undoubtedly are effective but do not teach, in the words of Dr Lang Stephenson, “the hygiene of a quiet mind”.

As Buddhists teach, our attention needs to be in the present moment, not lost in wishful thinking about the past or hopes for the future; nor distracted by thoughts floating through our mind.  This is easily said but to make it a reality requires the depth and breadth of training which was the gift Max gave to those who came to his classes.

Almost all biofeedback machines are linked to the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) which prepares us to meet danger and relax again afterwards.  This primitive system dates back to the early mammals of 50 to 100 million years ago.  But there is an important distinction between human and animal responses.  An animal in its natural state does not worry about the past and future.  A lion does not sit in its lair, biting its claws thinking: “It’s not my day today, that’s the third deer which has got away.” But humans do behave in this way, and respond physiologically with our ANS to memories of the past or fears of the future.  Today these responses are not usually appropriate: if we are meeting a new boss, we do not need the body responses of extreme physical danger, sweating palms, fast shallow breathing and so on; we need a clear mind unimpeded by such physical reactions.

There are many well-known expressions that arise from physical changes due to activation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the Fight, Flight and Freeze responses, which show that we know very well how our body reacts to stress.  Here are some linked with the preparation of the body to meet danger:

Digestion shuts down in a moment of danger:

Butterflies in the stomach.

I cannot stomach that.

That needs digesting.

Bellyaching about something.

Oxygen intake increased:

Took my breath away.

Breathless with anticipation.

I caught my breath.

Afterwards I breathed a sigh of relief.

Gets up my nose.

If we perpetually have a shortage of breath:

It sticks in my throat.

It makes me choke.

My heart was in my mouth.

Blood goes from extremities to the muscles to facilitate action:

I have cold feet about . . .

My blood ran cold.

Cold sweaty hands when we are frightened.

Increasing blood flow to muscles:

My heart leapt.

My heart missed a beat.

My heart was in my mouth.

Making yourself look larger to frighten off the enemy (an ancient response which no longer functions for us but we still have it):

My hair stood on end.

Made me bristle.

Made my skin creep.

My hackles came up.

Muscles toned ready for action (while this is not directly caused by the ANS, it is linked with the need to be ready for action):

It is a pain in the neck.


Highly strung.

Freeze (and hope the danger will pass you by):

Rooted to the spot.

Paralysed with fear.


When Max began his classes his favourite instrument was the ESR meter.  To give more subtle indication of relaxation, he needed to combine hand temperature with ESR readings but in 1975 his temperature meter was rather large and expensive. When a small, cheaper meter became available, it could be shown that relating ESR and temperature readings enhanced the value of each of the readings; for example, the state of sleepiness could easily be separated from that of true relaxation.

For the well-functioning individual, the ideal value is the high-value ESR reading (in ohms) that he or she can change at will. Hand temperature will be regularly above 30deg C.  It does not mean that all your problems are solved but indicates that this particular link between the mind and the body, the autonomic system, will not be a handicap in the quest for self-knowledge and an awakened mind.

Relaxation and breathing practices

For Max relaxation was not a sleepy state but rather one in which to be awake and aware.  To teach relaxation with subjects lying down is giving the wrong message to the body, he believed.  ESR and temperature meters are able to show the difference between sleepy states and true relaxation.

There have been so many studies of the effects of good and bad breathing habits, this must surely be the point at which to begin.  Here is practice taught by Max based on his Zen training.

Zen Breathing Practice

Sit comfortably. This can be in full lotus position, half lotus with legs crossed, or on a comfortable but firm chair.  Whichever you choose, it is better not lean on anything and to keep the back straight. Imagine that you are being pulled up by the hair at the back of your head then, keeping the back straight, just relax the position.  In this practice try to stay awake, aware and undistracted so do not do the practice lying down because that position suggests sleepy time.

Next the breathing: On the first breath only, empty the lungs by forcefully expelling the stale, old, air, then allow the breath to come back naturally and let this be the natural maximum of the breath.  It should now be possible to take in a lot more air but do not do so.

Now begin to count, on the out-breath only, up to 10 and then begin again at one.  A useful image to add is of a wheel turning; the meaning of this image is that the in-breath is equal to the out-breath and that there is no pause as the breath changes direction.  This practice then consists only of counting up to 10 on the out-breath without going to sleep.  If you lose the count, do not get exasperated with yourself but begin again patiently counting from one.   Your breath rate should drop below 10 a minute if you are doing this practice well but if you begin to feel out of breath then you are breathing too slowly.

If you can claim the time and space in a busy life to do this practice, you will learn more by experience about how energy and breathing are related than this explanation can describe.  You will undoubtedly feel less tired, tasks will become easier and relationships probably less fraught.  Energy though, is more than not feeling tired; it includes zest for life and joy in discovering the rich interconnectedness of being alive (ref 5-1).

Towards the end of 1973, Max acquired a simple, single-channel EEG machine that could be switched in turn to the alpha, beta or theta bands.  He was using the machines with traditional meditative techniques, so he was not concerned with the problem of trying to find out how to train subjects to produce or control their alpha brain wave.  But he noted that the alpha wave appeared during meditation and he gradually uncovered its significance in relation to mental techniques which he knew well.  Though alpha appears during meditation, he did not make the mistake of thinking that the experience in the alpha state was identical to that of meditation.  Early claims, that one could avoid the hard work of many years’ training in the mountains by a little alpha training with a biofeedback machine, were seen to be hollow.  These claims were made by people who had very little experience of meditation.

Since Max had already spent many years studying electrical skin resistance (ESR), he naturally looked to see if there was a relationship between the EEG and ESR responses.  Even with his simple EEG biofeedback machine, he was able to make the following claims:

Beta  + low ESR (in Ohms) =  panic states

Alpha + high ESR                =  meditation

Delta + medium ESR          =  sleep

Alpha + medium ESR         =  hypnagogic state

Theta + high ESR                =  dreaming sleep

Theta + low ESR                 =  mediumistic trance

He published this table in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 1974 (ref 5-2) and showed that the meaning of the brain rhythms was modified by the subject’s ESR reading.  This was a landmark observation in biofeedback research and suggested one reason why many alpha studies seemed contradictory.

Soon after Max acquired this EEG machine, the healer Jose Pogson joined Max’s courses.  He was surprised to find that when Jose was connected to it she produced an output from each of the three bands, alpha, beta and theta, simultaneously. Moreover, he found, the same effect was seen whether the machine’s head contacts were placed over the right or left sides of the brain.  This accidental observation in the early 1970s was the beginning of many years of studying the relationship of the different brain rhythms, and also between healers and their patients.   Many questions arose.  Was Jose Pogson actually showing many rhythms at the same time?   Did healers’ brain rhythms differ from those of other people?  Then Max noted that certain other people did apparently show a multiplicity of brain rhythms.

We could not see a simple solution to the problem of displaying the different brain rhythms simultaneously.  Then, fortunately, an integrated electronic circuit appeared on the market which could drive a row of 16 light-emitting diodes (LEDs). This solved the problem. We used it in the mode of a moving point of light, the position of the illuminated point along each row indicating the amplitude of the signal.  It was ideal to create the kind of display we needed. We called it the Mind Mirror. The prototype machine was rather crude-looking - Isabel still has it for a future museum - but we now could show an EEG response from both the left and right hemispheres, each analysed simultaneously into different channels.

Larger view

It was an exciting moment when we connected the leads from the Mind Mirror to our first subject, during one of Max’s groups, on June 1 1976. We switched the machine on and waited for the rhythms to show.   As Max had noted before with his single-channel EEG, there was indeed a response in all the bands - alpha, beta and theta.  Watching the moving points of light winking along the rows of diodes and forming patterns, indicating the dynamic interplay of the different bands, was magical. It was one of those moments when you expect to be impressed intellectually but what actually happened was an experience, as though outside of time, which foreshadowed the many thousands of patterns we would see in the future.

When Max’s later research showed that the alpha experience depended on what other frequencies were present at the same time, he demonstrated clearly why there was so much disagreement on the meaning and value of the alpha brain rhythm.  The only other researcher  we have discovered who had noted that brain rhythms could appear in mutual relationship when undertaking different tasks was AR Luria, the Russian neuropsychologist (ref 5-3).

Combination of Brain Rhythms

Theta, for example, is found in dreaming sleep. When only theta is present, dreams are often not remembered afterwards.  In the class, during guided imagery, a student would often claim to have fallen asleep.  Yet the Mind Mirror display did not show the delta wave of sleep.  If a theta response was present on the display we could deduce that the imagery had been followed, albeit at an unconscious level.

We now have another clue from the dream state.  It has been noted that if someone is having a lucid dream - one in which he or she knows they are dreaming - then both alpha and theta will be present (refs 5-4, 5-5).  Similarly, when following guided imagery, the subject will be able to learn from the guided imagery and their own reactions to it, if both alpha and theta are present.  From this Max made a pivotal deduction: the alpha wave appears to be a gateway that opens to our everyday awareness levels that are normally unconscious.

This view of alpha modifies the usual description of it as a calm state; our table suggests that it appears alone in the half-waking state when falling asleep (hypnagogic) and waking up (hypnopompic), where the imagery is inconsequential and disconnected.  It can also appear in the fully waking state when it appears to be linked with a pathological state; we found that some subjects, showing alpha only, seemed to have difficulty separating fantasy and reality.  One subject described it as a chrysalis state, very comfortable inside but awful if disturbed.  Mental states linked to alpha alone appear not to be particularly useful; but allied to theta, alpha becomes the royal road opening the unconscious to awakening awareness.

Max called the combination of three responses - alpha, beta and theta as displayed on the Mind Mirror - the State 5 pattern and claimed it was the pattern of the awakened mind.  The traditional Sanskrit name for this experience is Sabikalpa Samahdi (5a) when it is a temporary first experience of the road towards enlightenment; and Nirbikalpa Samadhi (5b) when it is permanent and unshakeable in everyday life.  We found it to be the hallmark of anyone who is particularly competent in what they do. Those who show State 5, we discovered, include sportsmen and sportswomen, television presenters, Indian swamis and healers.

Based on his experiences and studies Max presented a hierarchy of states of consciousness as shown in Table 1. These are explored in The Awakened Mind.




Cosmic Consciousness








Being Cognition  -  Maslow

Psychedelia  -  Gowan

Illumination  -  Bucke

Self-remembering  -  Gurdjieff

God Consciousness – Maharishi’s 6th level

        McState7.gif (7458 bytes)





 Creativity Manifestation

Voidness & Compassion - Buddhism

 McState6.gif (2698 bytes)




 Nirbikalpa Samadhi - traditional

Fifth State - Goleman

Illumination - Fromm

The Awakened Mind - Cade


McState5.gif (3811 bytes)




Sabikalpa Samadhi - Traditional

Lucid Awareness - Cade



Fourth State - Wallace

Meditation - Traditional

Transcendental Consciousness - Maharishi

McState4.gif (2631 bytes)




Waking Sleep - Gurdjieff


McState3.gif (2546 bytes)




Hypnagogic Imagery

McState2.gif (2630 bytes)




Dreaming Sleep

McState1.gif (2503 bytes)




Deep Sleep

McState0.gif (2364 bytes)


Max also was the first to use stroboscopic light as a technique, in 1974 or before, as an aid to relaxation and development of imagery.

In his courses Max very often used guided imagery, some of which he created. Many useful writings on attitude to life, meditation, and exercises may be found in the writings of Krishnamurti (ref 5-6). Idries Shah has collected many Sufi stories (refs 5-8, 5-9). Other sources of imagery are: Passages - A guide for Pilgrims of the Mind (ref 5-10); The Awakened Mind contains many sensory development exercises and guided imagery sequences. (ref  5-11); Anna Wise’s book The High Performance Mind has many exercises that can be validated with biomonitoring machines (ref 5-12).




5-1  Reshad Feild. Breathing Alive, A Guide to Conscious Living. Element Books 1988.

5-2  Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.  1974??

5-3  AR Luria. The Working Brain. Penguin Books. 1973.

5-4 Private Communication from Peter Fenwick, Head of EEG,  St Thomas’s Hospital, London.

5-5 Tyson and Hunt. Psychophysiology July 1984 Vol 21: p 442-451.

5-6 The Penguin Krishnamurti Reader. Penguin Books 1976.

5-7 The Second Penguin Krishnamurti Reader. Penguin Books 1976.

5-8 Indries Shah.  The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin. Jonathan Cape 1968.

5-9 Indries Shah.  Thinkers of the East.  Jonathan Cape 1971, Penguin Books 1974.

5-10 Marianne S. Andersen, Louis M Savary. Passages, A Guide for Pilgrims of the Mind. Turnstone 1974.

5-11 See 1-1

5-12 Anna Wise. The High Performance Mind. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam  1996