This blog has three insights to help us manage mind chatter in meditation.
They come from fifty years’ experience of practising and teaching meditation. Monkey mind is one of the most frequent concerns.
But first be realistic and less concerned. Mind chatter is completely normal.
Our brains are hardwired to create thoughts and narratives about every perception, cognition and experience. The average brain, it is estimated, has 100 billion neurons; and each neuron has 7000 synaptic connections with other neurons. They are busy interacting, buzzing and thinking and they continue their activity, as dreams, even when we sleep.
So when we go into meditation and withdraw from external stimuli, it is completely natural that we will meet the whirring electrochemical activity of our grey matter and its billions of internal connections. It is naive to expect this all to stop just because we close our eyes and sit still.
Unfortunately newcomers to meditation often have this unrealistic expectation that their minds will easily calm down and they feel like failures, often not continuing with their practice.
This expectancy has also been fuelled by an error in how meditation is often taught in the West. When eastern concepts were first translated into English, the concept of the void (sunyata) was frequently interpreted as meaning an empty and completely silent space. In fact, the void refers to an experience of cosmic spaciousness in which everything and nothing exists, and everything and nothing is welcomed. It is infinite and like an ocean.
When it comes to managing mind chatter the actual issues are:
- Can you calm your impatience?
- Can you step back with compassion and good humour to observe what your mind is doing?
- Do you know how to assess your mind’s activity and guide it into something useful?
(The image is Hieronymous Bosch: Visions of Tondal)
There are a some crucial life skills needed by meditators. One of them is the discipline and motivation to get into the groove of regular practice. Without regular practice we cannot develop the muscle memory and neural grooves that support our meditation practice becoming a comfortable and habitual rhythm.
But inside the discipline of regular practice the essential life skill we also need is patience. Patience — so that we continue to sit even when we feel triggered by irritability and feelings of impatience. So that we continue to sit and breathe even when we are jibed by internal judgments that we are wasting time or cannot do it properly. Patience when we are frustrated by monkey mind and find it difficult to flow into being at ease and calm.
All experienced meditators know that we have ‘bad’ days when mind chatter just does not stop. Any wise honest meditation teacher will own up that this happens to them sometimes. In my case it still occasionally happens after decades of practice. Why does it happen? There are several possible reasons. Unresolved karma and trauma in our psyches may be arising. We have been overstimulated by events. A global mood is influencing us. All this stuff is normal for human beings – and meditators are human beings.
To repeat, the most important strategy we can use here is patience. If we become impatient, it triggers neurochemistry which further stimulates the brain’s 100 billion neurons, just making things worse.
To help us develop patience there are many strategies, such as watching and guiding our breath, or repeating a mantra. Their core effect is an attitude of patience that then spills over into a calm mind and body.
One minute of patience, ten years of peace. Greek proverb
Witnessing with Good Humoured Compassion
Then there is that fundamental core part of meditation, which is the ability to mentally step back and observe everything and anything with compassion, care and good humour. This includes witnessing all the many sensations that arise in our bodies and, of course, being able to observe our own thoughts.
For many of us, therefore, the real issue with the chattering mind is not its chattering. The real problem is that we not able to step back and watch it with good humoured compassion.
One of my earliest teachers once said to me that there are two types of meditator — those who require the mind to be silent and those who can happily meditate with the mind burbling in the background. What is certain is that we have to develop that part of our psyche that can observe our minds at work. What shall we call it — higher mind, witness, observer, big mind, soul . . .?
In some militaristic schools of meditation there is a cold, abrupt and disciplined approach to developing this witnessing bigger mind. It is bootcamp enlightenment. Wake up! Observe! Witness!
This patriarchal approach to mindfulness has its source, I surmise, in those meditation traditions that are related to martial arts and to hierarchical monasteries and abbeys. This harsh approach of shock consciousness awakening can work well providing it is balanced with love and compassion.
The better, more appropriate and, I suggest, easier way into good-humoured self-observation is to develop an attitude of tolerance and kindness.
When stuff arises and the mind chatters, do not amplify the speeding brain electrochemistry with criticism and irritation. Instead drop down into an ambience of love and friendship. Ah. There I go again. Bless. And this attitude then becomes the foundation and the mood that support our ability to witness.
Assess and Guide Your Mind
Finally there is a strategy that usually surprises students and colleagues.
When your mind is chattering away, ask yourself a simple question. Is my chatter useful? If the chatter is useful, let it continue and appreciate its value. If the chatter is not useful, then guide it into something that is constructive.
In my meditation today, before I started to write this blog, I found that my mind was exploring what I should write, contemplating different approaches. This is ironic, I thought. My chattering mind is chattering about managing chattering. However —I assess that this is useful and creative. Where better to contemplate writing an article on monkey mind and meditation than in meditation?
This is the essence of contemplative meditation. We deliberately allow our minds to contemplate a subject for which we welcome insights and wisdom. This is classic meditation practice. The most profound school of Christian meditation, the Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, is precisely a series of contemplations on the life of Jesus. Buddhist meditation is sometimes described as enquiry.
In my own daily practice I welcome my mind contemplating what is happening in my life. I think of this as clearing my desk. I have many things in my life that deserve careful contemplation and consideration. Where better to ponder these things than in a meditative state where I am at ease, connected, watchful and caring? For example, difficult relationships can be explored in meditation, where there are no external stimuli muddying our clarity. In meditation we can contemplate our psychologies, patterns, woundings, ‘hungry ghosts’ and bring loving awareness to them.
And if you find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner, you can assess whether that is a useful contemplation. It might be useful if you guided your thinking to include diet and wellbeing. The choice is yours. This is one of the great gifts of meditation. Inside the privacy of your silence you can do whatever you assess to be best for you.
I once queried an abbot who taught meditation and emptying. In your silence, I asked, don’t you contemplate your fellows and your visitors and explore what might best serve them? Of course I do, came the calm smiling response.
And there we have it — the internal emptiness has space for wise contemplative enquiry. We just need to be watchful and carefully guide ourselves.
So to repeat the three strategies:
Develop good humoured and compassionate witnessing.
Assess your thinking and guide it to be useful contemplation.