Not so long ago, I was on a podcast talking about mindfulness and meditation, and one of the callers came up the single most common objection to doing meditation for sleep and calm…
“When I try to meditate, I just talk to myself, replay memories, worry about something, ruminate on something someone said to me or anything. The one thing I don’t get is any peace.”
Well, when you put it like that, it hardly sounds therapeutic at all, but this is the experience of many a would-be meditatator. Instead of meditation bringing you any peace, it flings you into a tornado of conflicting thoughts and feelings. You sit there trying to “clear your mind” and the moment you take your eye off the ball, you zone out and float off into some train of thought.
Then, you come back to the exercise and vow to push out all thoughts as you meditate… and you end up thinking intently about how to push out thoughts. You catch yourself lost again and attempt to get back into morning meditation but frustration is creeping up upon you. You finish your meditation and conclude, perfectly understandably, that you quite simply are incapable of meditation.
I am going to disagree with that last conclusion, but first, I’m going to tell you my own meditation for calm story:
A few years back, I was in a hotel room in New York. Let’s just say that this hotel was on the economical side. The air-conditioning unit in my room made a complete racket and, despite its best efforts, only blew out a tiny puff of cool-ish air. I decided to turn it off and open the window instead.
A gust of hot summer air rushed in and blew my neatly stacked pile of printed flight information all around the room. As I scrabbled around on the floor trying to collect my papers, I was suddenly struck by the fact that I could hear a cacophony of voices. The window I had opened faced onto an indoor patio. The guests in the surrounding rooms must have had the same useless air-conditioning as I did because absolutely everyone had their windows open.
The voices echoed loudly around the patio, and I actually became rather engrossed in the seeming chaos of the crossed conversations.
Some of my neighbors were stressing out about work, one was on the phone with who I assume to be her new boyfriend, one was singing (great voice I might add), and finally there was a blazing row emanating from the top floor in a language that may or may not be Russian. Amazing!
So, all of that had been going on while I was completely oblivious to the fact as I pottered around my room, lost in thought…
Oh, and with the world’s loudest air-conditioning.
When bedtime arrived, I had to close the window to keep this chaotic chorus at bay. To my disappointment, the noise was somewhat muffled, but I could still hear everything. I even put the air conditioning back on and, once again, noticed that I could still hear the voices. Why hadn’t I heard them before? I had spent hours in that room with absolutely no awareness whatever of those voices. This time, though, the voices were ever-present. It even might appear to the casual observer that it was my turning off the air unit and opening the window that caused the voices to begin. No. The voices were always there. You just never heard them before.
End of story.
Inside your head, there are dialogues and debates, storylines and arguments.
But we are normally so distracted that we are barely aware of them at all. Meditation, then, is somewhat like switching off the noisy air-conditioning and hearing the raging arguments of the neighbors…
We can make the comparison even more relevant if we imagine that the voices of the neighbors had the power to control the way you see life and the way you respond because of your habitual way of thinking… the constant babbling of the “neighbors” has a colossal impact upon the way you experience life.
If that were the case, it would be very beneficial to hear what they were saying. Indeed, we should open the window and listen very carefully. Maybe then, we can decide which of those voices we believe, and which to doubt.
And this is meditation.
Just as you would never mistake the opinions of a motley crew of hotel guests for your own, those voices popping off in your head are not necessarily your opinion either. A meditator recognizes that thoughts arise from the mechanisms of the mind, but don’t always represent the truth in any way. These thoughts, erroneous or not, can still have the power to influence your experience of life.
Some thoughts disparage us and put us down. Other thoughts tell us we cannot do something, and yet another thought might sing the song of “I’m not worthy”. It would be good to step back and simply bear witness to the thoughts as they arise. You identify with your thoughts no more than you would with the utterances of my shouty neighbors. Without wishing to beat my hotel analogy to death, when you meditate, the air conditioning is off and the window is wide open.
Back to that podcast: The caller said something like “So these voices have been in my head all this time?”
The answer was a resounding “Yes.” I told her my fantastic hotel story, and she seemed to have an “Aha” moment. Never mind trying to quiet your mind. All you have to do is pay attention, and in that precise instant, you are being mindful.