One of the most helpful insights I ever heard from a meditation teacher is this:
There are two types of meditator.
Those who require a silent mind. And those who do not.
I was in my early twenties, just beginning my meditation practice, and was confused because my personal experience contradicted what everyone was teaching, that meditators must have a silent and empty mind. In fact, many of the books and teachers asserted that an empty mind was the real outcome and reward of meditation. But that was not my experience.
Early on I had discovered that I could go into a very mellow, centered and watchful space, with my mind, the proverbial monkey-mind, continuing its chatter. I was, it seemed, one of those meditators who did not need a silent mind. But importantly, I did need to manage it.
This blog then is about managing mind-chatter and comes from my experience of practicing and teaching meditation over five decades.
The crucial factor is whether you are able to observe your mind-chatter with friendly kindness. Compassionate equanimity. If you can step back and witness your chatter, then your consciousness has expanded; and expansion of consciousness is one of the wonderful outcomes of meditation.
As an observer then, like a supportive therapist, you can watch with friendly interest what arises in your mind-brain. With patience, emotional intelligence and benevolence you can usefully interpret the chatter and guide it.
The Saboteurs of Impatience and Self-Criticism
Watching myself and many others, my experience is that the main saboteurs of managing mind-chatter are impatience and self-criticism.
These two attitudes are usually the result of bad teaching. You may well have been taught, like I was at the beginning, that your monkey-mind must be silent. So, understandably, you may get judgmental and impatient when your brain is still creating thoughts.
Much of this erroneous teaching derives from the frequent misinterpretations and mistranslations of Buddhist terms like ‘sunyata’ or Christian ‘emptiness.’ The void, the emptiness of meditation, is not a frozen space with nothing in it. It is an infinite, vast dimension, ocean and space that contains everything. It also moves and flows.
The void contains the whole cosmos, Buddha consciousness, Christ consciousness, Nirvana, mysteries and levels of awareness beyond our human understanding. It also contains us. We ourselves are in the vast ocean of the void. Nothing is excluded. Nothing can be excluded and that includes our mind-chatter.
You may appreciate too that any meditation tradition and teaching that comes out of a mainly male, militaristic, martial arts, monkish, background may tend to reflect that culture and be emotionally frigid, stern and insisting on an absolutely silent mind. Don’t move. Obey. Be quiet. Empty your mind. Be a good and obedient soldier of your tradition.
Anchorperson, Host and Compere
A helpful teaching here is that you can imagine your mind, your consciousness in meditation, to be the world’s best host at a great and wonderful party, the infinite party of the void. One of your guests at this extraordinary event is your mind-chatter. As a great host, you are not just at ease with the chatter, but you warmly welcome it with friendly and supportive curiosity. In meditation you are the experienced anchorperson and compere of this extraordinary event, which is your psyche in relationship with the cosmos.
Your Brain is Endlessly Stimulated
Here’s a biological angle that may help us better understand our mind-chatter.
From one perspective our brains are like flowers sitting on top of a trunk, a shaft, a stalk, of nerves and chemistry. This trunk runs from the base of the spine, up along the gut, then stomach, lungs, heart, mouth, nose, ears and eyes, into your brain. This central nerve also branches out through every cell in your body, including your skin. Your brain, sitting on top of it all, is triggered into activity by endless chemical and electrical events, which are themselves triggered by endless events, experiences, stimulations, conditionings, memories, senses and perceptions – some strong, some very subtle – that arise from every part of your body.
Your biology is designed for survival, with the brain as one of its major functions, perpetually noticing and interpreting lived and felt experiences. No wonder your brain keeps churning out thoughts as it is aroused and stimulated by relationships, money, oven on or off, digestion, pains, itches, tensions and every other major and minor trigger that sends ripples through your neuroendocrinal system.
There is often too much information, overload. In particular, the brain is designed to keep functioning until there is a satisfactory interpretation and closure, so that all possible threats are ended.
All of this is to articulate that, of course, your brain keeps creating thoughts. That is its job, and it sits in a complex and vulnerable endocrinal vehicle, your body, that itself sits in a never-ending culture and society of events, perceptions and stimulations. In meditation we calm the whole system.
Many Strategies, One Universal State
Because of this biological reality many different strategies have been developed to help people drop into a state so that they can meditate. These many strategies include breath, movement, reading sacred texts, mantra, body awareness, emptying and more.
Whatever the tradition or strategy, they all result in a universal experience that we call meditation. This experience does not include the frigid silence of the mind. This universal state can be summarized as including:
- Your body is at ease and not stimulating the mind-brain.
- Your mind-brain is at ease, maybe burbling, but not causing anxiety, tension, or impatience in your body, your neuroendocrinal system.
- Your mind-consciousness is able to step back and observe everything, body included, with compassionate equanimity.
- There is a sense of connection with a benevolent Oneness (there are many words and terms for this.)
Some Hints on Managing Mind-Chatter
This still leaves the challenge of finding the right strategies for managing the brain-chatter. Remember. The issue is not to silence the brain-chatter. The issue is to develop your compassionate and wise observer. So here is some advice, which I hope you may find helpful.
Develop your ability and your attitude to be affectionately curious and interested in what your mind-chatter is saying. This is also useful personal development that can spill over into the rest of your life. Be patient and friendly towards yourself – and others.
Contemplate and reflect.
Learn to assess whether the mind-chatter is useful. For example, perhaps you really have not switched off the oven, so get up and check. Perhaps it may be a good use of your meditation time to contemplate a difficult family relationship, or a financial problem, or your next steps in personal or professional development.
This is one of meditation’s greatest gifts. When you are quiet, at ease, observant, and with a sense of connection, you are in the best possible state for wise contemplation about yourself. Know thyself. This is good contemplative, reflective practice. Where better to look at the challenges in your life? You can then guide this reflective contemplation to a close when you have had enough.
Use your mind in other ways
It is very useful to know that many meditation traditions actually teach activities that the mind can practice. This is to say, do not close down your mind. Use it in other ways. Well-known practices include prayer, healing, seed thoughts and reflective contemplation.
So when you assess that you have had enough reflective contemplation on your mind-chatter and its meaningfulness, you can direct your brain into one of those other activities. It is, for example, always good to pray for the relief of suffering.
Always, always, dissolve your impatience and develop patience.
Finally, over the decades there is a consistent piece of advice that I have given to students, colleagues and to myself. If you are experiencing challenges with your practice and your mind-chatter, meditate longer. If your usual time is twenty minutes, stretch it to thirty. If your usual time is thirty, stretch it to an hour. Stretch through the discomfort and develop your skills and capacity – more love, more consciousness, more compassion.
The groove of meditation is highly enjoyable and I always smile at Yogananda’s assertion that one good meditation is worth a year of ordinary human development.
This blog was triggered by my friend, Jan Cisek, who nudged me to look at Arnaud Delorme’s new book ‘Why Our Minds Wander: Understand the Science and Learn How to Focus Your Thoughts’