As we slide/tiptoe/crash into this new month (with an extra hour of sleep to boot), I’m tempted to give some commentary on all the reasons I haven’t been writing here, but instead I’m just going to slide/tiptoe/crash back in and hope my words might have something to say to you wherever you find yourself this Nov.
In a class I’m taking we have been studying and practicing meditation and our professor suggested a book called “Into the Silent Land” by Marin Laird. In general, the word “meditation” usually involves a stilling of the body in order to still the mind, which can bring peace, calm, clarity and connection to one’s life. My personal reason for meditating, as a follower of Jesus, is as a form of prayer. It’s not the only way I pray and it’s not the main way I pray, but it is one way I pray that has had effects on my overall health.
What I’m interested in talking more about here is one of the specific skills in and benefits of practicing contemplation, which is recognizing and learning to separate from the chattering and constant replay of the stories in our minds. Learning this skill can give greater insight, acceptance and understanding of ourselves, which in turn leads to greater compassion and understanding of the world. I think these thoughts are applicable to anyone who might want to listen, wherever you find yourself on the spectrum of comfort with meditation.
Here’s the thing. I believe with all my heart that the words we use have the power to give life and to take life, even kill. I believe that people are dying all around us (literally and figuratively) because of words they tell themselves and words they put into the world. This book has helped me see the interplay between these things, and I’ve learned how to recognize this crazy thing I (we) do, how to stop the process and how that can actually change the way I live my life.
If you believe the mind works both in a logical, reasoning way and in an intuitive way (non-logical, just “knowing”) way, it is this intuitive part that we are trying to get to in contemplation or meditation. The difficulty comes when the reasoning part stays so loud it prevents us from hearing beyond it. If this reasoning part of our mind is “not engaged in its primary task of reason, given half a chance it fizzes and boils with obsessive thoughts and feelings”. Don’t you find that true? It can happen when trying to fall asleep, when driving or when we have a rare minute to ourselves- anytime we don’t have an immediate task to focus on.
Let me give you an example from the world of running (surprise?)! that anyone can likely identify with. As you start up a hill, or you feel a twinge in your knee, or hit a point of exhaustion, your mind starts talking to you. It says things like: “See, you always do this, you’re just weak and lazy” or “What were you thinking?! You’ll NEVER be able to make it up this hill?” or “You might as well just stop and walk, it doesn’t matter, you were stupid to think you could do this anyway and now everyone knows you’re a failure” or some other variation of this.
At this point you have a choice.
You can either choose to listen to the story, spinning it round and round as usual, OR you can go to your mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase chosen beforehand that you grab onto at the first sign of the chatter. You notice the commentary has started but you give your mind something else to focus on instead. The mantra helps you get to that inner place that keeps going even when it is logically told to stop. You knew when you picked your mantra that this time would come, just as you knew then that you COULD do whatever it was you were attempting. You can find story after story of people who use this to get them through seemingly impossible situations, running and otherwise. A third option here is to intentionally CHANGE the words we say to ourselves. Instead of just repeating a short mantra, which some might call “zoning out”, others find help by choosing a different story for their reasoning mind to tell themselves. My friend C recently had to complete a run in a set amount of time, and by first recognizing the familiar words, then changing the story they usually spin, she allowed her mind to “tell” herself a new story. As a result, she was able to run more quickly and confidently than ever and came out of the experience empowered rather than discouraged!
Learning to combat these stories takes practice. The first step in the process is learning to become aware. When we begin to feel anxious, angry, scared etc we have to recognize the chatter when it begins. We learn to “observe the fear or the anger or the envy- whatever the thought-feeling- and not the story we spin about” it. In addition, “This watchfulness also applies to our tendency to add thought upon thought upon thought. We notice, for example, our anger and how it is quickly followed by another thought that judges it: “I should not be having this angry thought” or “after all these years I still can’t let go of my anger” or “ I thought I dealt with this years ago.” This aggregate of thoughts must also be observed and we must each see for ourselves that part of the reason we can’t let go is that we whip these thoughts and feelings into a great drama that we watch over and over again.” YES!! I do this! (Do you do this? Because I do!!)
The thing is, left to itself our minds will always start the commentary. The mind will use “one of its millions of hands” to grab onto something (real or imagined). This grabbing, and it is lighting quick, produces the story we tell ourselves about our anger…”
After developing awareness, the next step is learning to “meet the thoughts with stillness instead of commentary.” For me, this has been the absolute hardest part of this process, because many of the stories are only a few years younger than I am. Instead of spinning stories, we recognize that behind the story is a feeling and the story is only “a mass of thoughts and feelings and an unpleasant tension in the body” We have to learn to see that we are NOT in fact our feelings or thoughts or the stories we create about them or “we go through life simply reacting to what is going on around us, with little awareness that we are even doing this or that life could be otherwise.” If we can find a way to notice the thoughts and feelings without letting the stories take over, we can see that “without the story, the feelings don’t have power.” “The bottom line is this: “minimize time given over to chasing thoughts, dramatizing them in grand videos, and believing these videos to be your identity. Otherwise life will pass you by.”
Here’s another real-time story that might help explain.
My October was an overly full month of travel, work, classes, meetings and various other activities and I finished it out with three full days of work an hour’s drive away. I headed home this past Friday afternoon with another 24 hours of work to finish in the following 18 hours. No big deal, except that I was supposed to run in a race with my friends R and R on Saturday; I had even talked P into coming! I went to bed late and got up early but just couldn’t finish it all in time and although I knew it Friday, I waited until the last minute to admit it because the stories in my head had started. “You always do this. You are slow and lazy and don’t manage your time well. Now you have to back out of something and everyone is going to think you are not dependable and that you are lazy and don’t want to run in the rain. You are always finding excuses to explain your inefficiency and it serves you right if everyone is mad at you because you should have planned better.”
You get the point.
I was too tired to notice when the story started spinning or I could have used my new-found tools of recognizing the feeling behind the story, refusing to listen to the story itself and instead filling my mind with my prayer word as a way to center myself. Instead I let them spin and spent the afternoon inefficiently working and telling myself that no matter how hard I try, “some things will never change.”
After finishing my work and going for a run with my wise friend A, I began to acknowledge the hours-long movie I’d allowed back in. I spent some time thinking about the feelings behind the story and pondering why I had fallen for my mind’s sneaky tricks. I realized that I was sleepy and hungry and emotionally tired from a long month. I acknowledged that being seen as a dependable person, someone who always keeps their word and will “be there for you” is an important part of my identity. I realized I felt like I had let my friends down and they would be mad (not true, they aren’t those kinds of friends) and that not showing up for something I paid for and signed up for tempts me to call myself “wasteful”, “selfish”, “lazy” and “rude.” I realized “it is precisely this deeply ingrained habit of meeting thoughts with commentary, sometimes frenzied and obsessive commentary, that creates the noise in our heads, a good deal of suffering, as well as the sense of being separate from God and isolated from others.” I was experiencing anxiety and guilt and shame and while the stories tried to convince me that I AM those feelings, the truth is I’m not any of those things and I get to choose whether or not I believe them about myself.
Not surprisingly, the next step in this whole process (if you are interested J) is realizing that whatever story it is we are telling ourselves about our feelings is usually rooted in some place of past hurt or brokenness or pain. I’m not suggesting we dredge up past pain for the sake of drama or that we dwell in all the ways we’ve been hurt in our lives, but I am suggesting that connecting my need to be seen as dependable and hard-working goes way back in my life and effects the decisions and choices that I make daily. As Laird then puts it, “The practice of contemplation teaches us how to be in this wound. When we discover the silent core of this wound, we discover a place of noncondemnation, of silent, loving communion with God and of compassion for all. “
One of the most interesting parts of all of this is the way in which this compassion with ourselves, as we learn to notice our thoughts/feelings but not start the commentary and stories about them, actually works to make us kinder, more patient and more compassionate with those around us. When we “realize we are …not the drama unfolding in our awareness, our lives are freer, simpler, more compassionate.” When we are more compassionate with ourselves (or if you feel better saying we “give ourselves a break” it’s that same concept) we learn how to also have more patience and compassion for others.
I’m guessing a few people didn’t make it to the end, a few have no idea or interest in what I’m saying and many already have this figured out. For the rest of you, hopefully you can remember that we have a choice in the words we tell ourselves and those words ultimately affect the way we live our lives. Is there a different way you’ve found that helps you stop the commentary in your mind? If so, I’d love to hear!
(All the quotes in this post are from the book mentioned above.)