Three Meditation Strategies to Manage Mind Chatter

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)

Impatience

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.

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So to repeat the three strategies:

Be patient.

Develop good humoured and compassionate witnessing.

Assess your thinking and guide it to be useful contemplation.

We Now Live in Three Ecosystems

The Covid crisis has dramatically accelerated the use of digital communications. It is as if a new human ecosystem is emerging.  There is a hot debate about whether this is a good thing. But this debate often ignores a bigger picture, which includes two other worlds, nature and the town.

Like it or not, we are being impelled into a digital ecology of virtual relationships. At worst It  separates us from real connection. We see people addicted to their devices. Inhuman and out-of-balance!

There is of course another view. At its best, digital communication is for many a very comfortable medium, provides genuine connection and has the bonus of being environmentally friendly with less travel and paper.

But many people are concerned about the long-term effects. We may become robots.

But the digital world is not our only environment. We simultaneously exist in two other realms. Nature and Town.

Nature is our world of earth, water, air and fire; mountains, oceans, forests, animals, plants.

Town is our world of modern human society with houses, piped water, electricity, mortgages, education, television, industry and cities.

Historians, sociologists and commentators have long discussed this movement of humanity from nature to town. Looking back, this is the great sweep of human history:

Hunter-gatherer –> town dweller.  

And we can see another great sweep happening right now:

Town dweller –> Digital persona

From this perspective we could suggest that the digital environment is a new human ecosystem.

In a previous blog  I wrote about the ‘Global Brain’, which suggests that the electronic networks across the planet are creating a new cultural, psychological and psychic environment for humanity.

So it is that we now live in all three of these ecosystems: Nature, Town and Digital.

A problem arises if we are not comfortable in all three.

Some romantics may protest that we could be very comfortable if we returned completely to nature. Hm. Okay that may be possible for a few. But I would miss Shakespeare, Venice, the Taj Mahal and Machu Pichu just to begin my list. . .

So let’s be realistic about the facts. There are eight billion people on the planet and we have to self-organise. Towns, ‘civilisation’ and technology are inescapable. One of the most powerful social dynamics is to make this environment good for all of us. And that often means balancing town with nature. Without nature we lose wellbeing and balance.

Another reality. The digital environment is here to stay. It is unavoidable.

So here is my suggestion:  We need to be competent and comfortable in all three spheres — nature, towns and digital. Being too focused or uncomfortable in one or two or all of them is unhealthy, unsustainable.

Keep the three in balance and we can create a harmonious future. That is what I want for us and for our children.

Zoom, Telepathy and Energy Networks – Hope for the New Year

With the greatest respect for the suffering, losses and anxiety caused by Covid and the lockdowns, there have nevertheless been benefits.  In particular, to the surprise of many, there have been ecological, social and spiritual benefits especially with the increased use of online meetings and communications.

I know many technophobes whose dislike of the digital world has been transformed.  

The ecological and social reasons are obvious.

Pollution has been substantially reduced by the limitations on travel and increased online meetings. I pray that our skies will remain so blue. This has been a definite green win.

Less travel has also produced another public good, which is the strengthening of local communities due to a lessening of the number of people travelling into inner cities for work.

Psychologically the blessing has been twofold. First, online meetings are far better than no meetings at all and have introduced many people, previously separated by distance or technophobia, to the connections available in the digital ecosystem. This has created new layers of community.

Second, online meetings have proved easier for many people who are introvert, shy or anxious in real-life social or work gatherings, where they may be intimidated by those who are noisy, pushy or hog the airtime. The device screen provides a filtering distance, as do the tools of mute and invisibility. There is also an equality: everyone’s image is the same size. Introvert friends have told me how comfortable they are in online meetings.

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Then there has been the pleasant surprise of those who are empathic, sensitive or psychic, particularly healers and meditators.

Historically there were always people who did distant healing and meditation and could sense the subtle connections and changes in vibration. In the online meditations, trainings and workshops now available, this sense of subtle energies has been amplified. Many of my colleagues and students have commented on how strongly they sense these energies when working online. Personally I find it easy, graceful and rewarding to work in this dimension.

It is as if the planet’s energetic network — of prana and qi — has been made more tangible. Is this an evolutionary step forward for Gaia and humanity?

Some of you may remember the core concept of Peter Russell’s book The Global Brain.

The opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the Global Brain reads:

‘The global brain is a neuroscience-inspired and futurological vision of the planetary information and communications technology network that interconnects all humans and their technological artifacts.  As this network stores ever more information, takes over ever more functions of coordination and communication from traditional organizations, and becomes increasingly intelligent, it increasingly plays the role of a brain for the planet Earth.’

This reflects one of the core tenets of esoteric philosophy and ancient wisdom, which suggests that our planet and solar system are beings in their own right, entities on their own paths of growth and development.

What I want to underline here, following the concept of the global brain, is that the energy network of the planet is coming more fully alive.

This approach is also shamanic and elemental.

Water is inhabited by undines. Air by sylphs. Fire by salamanders. So too the worldwide web of electromagnetic connections can be seen as vibrant with its own life —elementals of telepathy and energetic connection.

Over the last year, therefore, we could suggest that there has been a new evolutionary convergence of human consciousness with the worldwide web of electromagnetic connections.

To put this another way, the global brain is no longer just a technical artefact. It is now filled with the subtle vibrations of human consciousness.

And it is worth noting that all of this — humanity and technology — emerges from Gaia.

Perhaps Gaia knows exactly what she is doing.

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Perhaps humanity is achieving a new level of sensitivity and telepathic rapport.

But if that is the case then the global brain needs to be balanced by the heart.

The new sensitivity needs to be fully grounded in ethics and compassion  — in a dynamic dedication to green healing, inclusivity and social justice.

Then all the challenges of the last year may prove to have been a blessing in disguise.

As always, the transformation relies on and begins with us.

 

Wishing you and all beings a wonderful New Year.

I was Prince Phillip’s Body Double

Just to change things up here is a bit of random autobiography.

In 1963 when I was fifteen years old I visited Buckingham Palace three times in order to pose as Prince Phillip’s body.

One of my mother’s best friends was the portrait painter, June Mendoza. I cannot recall who had commissioned her, but it was an unusually relaxed portrait compared to the usual ones in which he wore a uniform.

He did not have enough time to sit for his body, so my being a similar shape June asked if I would do her the favour of coming to the palace, putting on his clothes and posing for his body.  

I have enjoyable memories of this event.

The first is that of entertaining myself on the walk of fifty metres from the main gateway, where the tourists all stand, across the forecourt to the palace. I experimented with walking slowly, walking dignified and walking with a swagger. I knew that I was being watched. I knew that the tourists were asking Who is this important man? For a fifteen-year old with a sense of the theatrical and self-importance this was such a treat.

On the second visit, before entering, I first loitered amongst the tourists, irritating many of them. I then swaggered through the gateway. The policemen acknowledged me with a salute and I walked the fifty yards to the palace very slowly. Was I a prince of the realm?

Inside the palace I was ushered up into the Duke’s private office where I put on his jumper and sat quietly in his chair for an hour while June painted.

Another good memory is of meeting all the Queen’s corgis in one of the long corridors and then a frantic hustle as the ushers quickly shifted me into a side room so that her majesty did not encounter a stranger.

I mused that I might have By Royal Appointment tattooed on my chest.

*

Several years later, when I was 23, I was riding a very beautiful chopped motorcycle across London. I came from Trafalgar Square up The Mall and then to the roundabout of the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace.

Unfortunately there was oil on the tarmac and I was possibly riding too fast.

My bike slipped and fell.

Fortunately I managed to jump off and avoid any danger, but the bike continued to slide across the road towards the crowd of tourists waiting for the changing of the guard. I froze watching this horrible scene, but the bike stopped before hitting any of them.

In a strange way it was graceful — the way I had jumped off and not fallen; the way the bike had slid to a gentle halt.

Two bored policemen were watching this whole pantomime. I looked at them wondering how they would react, but they had a sense of humour, laughed and applauded. No one was hurt.  

I pulled the bike back up and rode away.

*

More poignantly years later I was told by a friend that they had seen Princess Diana coming out of a bookshop holding a copy of my book ‘Psychic Protection.’

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It is a small world.

What do spiritual teachers and leaders do when no one is looking?

What do spiritual teachers and leaders do when no one is looking?

Out in public they lead, worship, support and teach. But what are they up to when home and alone?

Over the decades I have hosted and met many of them. From experience I know that they all do the same thing. Away from their audiences, their students and congregations, they take quiet time to connect more deeply with their spiritual source.

It does not matter what their tradition is — mainstream religion, pagan, shaman, healing, yoga, meditation, dance — they take time day by day to deepen their spiritual connection. Without exception this is done quietly and humbly, with an appreciation of how small they are in the context of the cosmos.

Yes of course, after the outbreath of public service, they need to regenerate and fuel themselves. And Yes their legitimacy as a spiritual leader comes from the authenticity of their own spiritual practice. But this is not their primary motivation for ongoing spiritual practice.

Their primary motivation is their own inner calling. The core of their spiritual lives is not public outreach, though being of service is crucial. The core is their private and internal vocation — to greater connection with all that is, more love and compassion, expanded consciousness.

Think of any spiritual teacher you like and contemplate their life at home.

Be realistic. Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Amma, the hugging saint, is not hugging everything in sight but is quietly allowing herself to be hugged by spirit. The shaman is not continually transported by plant medicines and trance-dancing but sits quietly in landscape. The Dalai Lama spends hours in meditation. The Pope is not ceremonially processing around his apartment in robes and mitre but is in contemplation and prayer.

This was always their real calling. Release all the teaching and leadership. They are solid in their spiritual practice.  

Some of their ambitious followers and students may seek to be like them, also leading and teaching. But they may be missing the point, the essence. All the different spiritual paths and styles lead to the same thing — the individual’s personal spiritual calling and practice. Repeating myself now, that essence is:

— Deeper connection with all that is

— More compassion and love

— Expanded consciousness

Spiritual growth may sometimes happen serendipitously or with a wave of grace. In reality it requires dedication and daily perseverance, a rhythm of quiet opening and connection.

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So I wonder if for some of us there has been a silver lining in this Covid crisis. It has provided a time and focus for spiritual practice. We do the same then as all the teachers and leaders. We are called to an ever-deeper relationship with the wonder and energy, with the awe and mystery of all that is.

Each Breath New Patterns

Each Breath New Patterns

One of my problems, like everyone, is that I get stuck in habits and opinions.

And these habits slow down, even sabotage, my development as I seek to become more connected, more conscious and more loving.

My opinions and my sense of self are the worst ruffians.

Just because I have a particular opinion I am attached to it. These opinions are both very shallow and very deep.

At the shallow end I have a sense of aesthetics and culture. So for example I think people should enjoy certain television series and not others, wear colours that suit their skin tone and not own motorcycles of a certain brand.

Less shallow, I am opinionated around politics, social and cultural affairs. It does not take long to identify me as an anarchic green socialist with strong tendencies to intellectual snobbery.

I also have distinct opinions about metaphysics, esoterics and spirituality. These inform much of my daily life and practice.

And then so much deeper is this sense of self, this particular William.

Being glued into any of these opinions — I use the word ‘opinion’ lightly and deeply — blocks the flow and expansion of my growth.

So a while ago I wrote a prayer-poem to help me.

I share it with you now:

EACH BREATH, NEW PATTERNS

Life within me

Life around

Unfold within me now the

Power of growth

Wisdom of love

Intelligence of being

Let me find integrity in the

Service of liberation

Let my inner life be proved in the strength of silent action

As each breath creates new patterns

Give me rhythm to embrace unfoldment

May I know beauty in every difference

Welcome change in every crisis

And give compassion to every cry

Consciousness joins all in life

Earth to cosmos

Soil to stardust

Human to divinity

Let love flame within

Freedom is with all