Meditation Tip: Turn Off Your Storylines

People will sometimes ask me for tips how to meditate, why I meditate, or benefits of meditation. It’s fair enough; I’m at approximately 700 days straight of meditation and likely prattle on about meditation often enough.

I figure I’ll start (in)frequently posting some tips or ways to think about meditation on here. Perhaps some benefits, for those more intrigued in the question of “so what?”

Here’s the tip: Stop listening to the part of your brain that creates stories.

Those who have tried and failed to meditate will be the first to note the immense difficulty of this task. Hell, seasoned meditators will too.

As humans, we find ourselves a free-association thought game and we’re caught somewhere between the thinker and the thinkee, always somewhat uncertain of our role. Where do these thoughts come from and why are they so destructive or funny or boring?

Our thoughts move from the strangest corners of the mind to the most benign, from how we fucked up at work last week to the last time we had sex to our thoughts on trigger warnings to, well, what if more houses were purple? to a memory of childhood to…

It goes on. Or it does if you let it.

It’s natural for us to do this, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. Getting lost in thought means letting your own thoughts control you, seemingly the basis for anxiety as I’ve experienced it. What’s helped cut through my own personal anxiety has been the ability to keep the storylines out of mind and be able to see them form as I meditate. Thoughts pop up, seemingly forming from inside my own head somewhere behind my eyes. I see them for what they are, harmless thoughts, I let them pass by, and I quickly move back into a blank state, simply feeling the moment.

To help you understand, let me bring in a guy who knows what the fuck he’s talking about. Here’s a section from Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps the Score.” Van der Kolk the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts and has studied the effects of trauma on the brain for years. In this chapter, he is speaking of the two different forms of self-awareness humans possess:

[…] Neuroscience research has shown that we possess two distinct forms of self-awareness: one that keeps track of the self across time and one that registers the self in the present moment. The first, our autobiographical self, creates connections among experiences and assembles them into a coherent story. This system is rooted in language. Our narratives change with the telling, as our perspective changes and as we incorporate new input.

The other system, moment-to-moment self-awareness, is based primarily in physical sensations, but if we feel safe and are not rushed, we can find words to communicate that experience as well. These two ways of knowing are localized in different parts of the brain that are largely disconnected from each other.

Here’s the key: Focus in on that moment-to-moment part of your brain. Do this by first breathing deep, inhaling, pausing at the top, and exhaling slowly. Feel what you feel throughout this. Be unafraid of anxiety, sadness, and anything else you may feel. Become engrossed in your breath. Give it your full attention.

If you have an attention that’s constantly moving, find something else to focus on after a few breaths; just keep the focus as this part of the brain. This could mean focusing on:

  • How your body feels
  • What you are feeling emotionally
  • Pressure from sitting and where it lies
  • Areas of the body where you are especially calm
  • The temperature of the room
  • Any sounds in the room
  • How your body feels; how that changes with breath and time

Allow yourself to feel these things – sans storyline, free-association or connections –  and notice what happens. Language, stories, personal histories will likely pop up. Allow them to. See where they come from with that moment-to-moment part of your brain, but don’t allow them to intrude.

Don’t assign storylines to the thoughts, feelings, fears, joys, or sexual urges. Instead, simply see them for the moment they’re around and watch them leave. Realize that they are simply thoughts, not some odd definition of yourself. They’re an input, gained over time, that your brain now processes. Do this with disinterest, completely unbiased, and see what happens.

Give it a try. Let me know what you think. I’m still relatively new at this meditation game and hope to be for as long as possible, so I’m happy to read suggestions or anything else you want to send my way.

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