Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there —buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day. — Deepak Chopra
On most days we either begin or end our day with a meditation practice. It has been hands down our most consistent and reliable resource for mindbody health and happiness. We always feel better afterwards. That is not to say that we don’t experience the typical mind chatter or busy mind that so often accompanies the endeavor of experiencing a quiet mind. Following a recent meditation, we shared with each other the mind chatter or busy mind that we experienced and we had a good laugh over it.
Over the past 20 years of teaching meditation we have found that it is this chatter that stops most people from meditating. Rather than embracing it as part of the journey it is often seen as a sign of personal inability to experience a quiet mind. During meditation, the goal can be said to enter into the silence and listen to the wisdom within. A surrendering is often called for during meditation as we are confronted with our excuses, our distractions, and our ego telling us that so many other things are more important and that sitting still is a waste of time.
Meditation Mind Chatter – The Busy Mind
Here are the 7 most common voices of your ego trying to distract you from your spiritual connection during meditation:
- Impatient voice: Why isn’t anything happening yet? I’ve been sitting here for five minutes already and nothing is happening. No lights, no bliss, no peace, just nothing!
- Task-master voice: I don’t have time for doing nothing. I should be productive. There are so many things on my to-do list.
- Distractor voice: This is boring. What’s the point of this whole thing anyway?
- Perfectionist voice: I must be doing it wrong. Nothing is happening. I don’t feel calm yet. I feel busy inside. This can’t be right.
- Blamer voice: This stuff just doesn’t work. Only people with nothing important to do can do this type of stuff. Who got me into this anyway?
- Failure voice: I just can’t do this. I don’t know how. My mind won’t stop.
- ‘What is wrong with me’ voice:Uh oh, I am still thinking thoughts. What is wrong with my mind? Why can’t I control myself?
Solution = Awareness & Acceptance
The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance. – Nathaniel Branden
If you’re aware of the potential for this type of mind chatter, it will be easier for you to overcome the temptation to stop meditating when it occurs. These voices are a reflection of the egos discomfort with silence and surrender. Instead of letting your ego sabotage your practice, acknowledge and accept the thought as a distraction and bring your awareness back to whatever you’re focusing on, such as your breath. As you focus on your breath you re-engage the meditative mind.
Acceptance looks like a passive state, but in reality it brings something entirely new into this world. That peace, a subtle energy vibration, is consciousness. – Eckhart Tolle
Thoughts Flow Like Water for Peace of Mind
Imagine your thoughts are like a flowing river and you’re standing on the river’s edge watching them float by. As you continue to retrieve your mind’s attention and focus on your breath, you will soon experience the numerous benefits of meditation. It doesn’t matter if you find yourself retrieving your mind 10 times or 100 times during your practice. It just matters that you keep retrieving it and refocusing. Over time, the mind chatter of the busy mind lessens and an overall peace of mind and calm body sets in. At times, meditation seems easier than at other times. With consistent practice, meditation offers the tools to accept whatever arises rather than resist it. This single factor brings an ongoing and even overflowing experience of peace of mind.
Regular Meditation Practice Builds New Neural Networks
Perhaps more important than the type of meditation practice you choose is that you actually practice a method regularly. If you have a goal to become a great piano player, you would likely dedicate time and energy to piano lessons and consistent practice. You wouldn’t expect to perform in a world-class concert without committing to years of training and practice. So too with meditation. Through regular practice, you develop neural networks associated with the state of internal calm and happiness. Each time you engage in your meditation practice you reinforce and build on the last practice session and overtime the experience of a quiet mind will naturally begin to arise.
Meditation Strengthens Vagal Tone
You literally strengthen your vagal tone, the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system located in the brainstem. Regular stimulation of your vagus nerve strengthens neural pathways that connect your mind and body and instills homeostasis. Situations that used to trigger stress and tension are now viewed from the filter that says, “I can handle it.” Stimulating the relaxation response is like sending a message through your entire body that says, “All is well. You’re safe. Everything will be OK.” These are vital healing messages to internalize in every cell.
During meditation, you create three types of memory:
- Muscle memory of relaxation
- Cellular memory of receptors releasing healing hormones and neurotransmitters
- State memories of calm emotions and quieter thoughts
It’s ideal to allow at least two weeks of sincere meditation practice before you can expect to improve your focus muscle or feel less stress overall. You will likely see results sooner, but for good measure, two weeks is a fair minimum to notice initial benefits of calm, relaxation, and focus.
Numerous meditation practices elicit the relaxation response. Selecting a practice right for you is essential. To generate the multitude of health benefits associated with the relaxation response, the four conditions outlined by Benson are key criteria. Some examples of meditation practices include deep breathing exercises, focusing on a mantra, visualization, listening to soothing music, tai chi, gentle yoga, passive prayer, and chanting.
Four Guidelines for Successful Meditation Practice
- Posture: Make sure your posture is comfortable. You can sit on a cushion or in a chair or lie on the floor. Most important, your spine should be comfortably aligned. Envision a string extended from your tailbone to the top of your head. Maintaining a good posture allows you to feel more energized throughout the meditation because your breath flows more easily and the energy centers in your body are more open and unrestricted. Sitting upright stimulates the part of the brain responsible for wakefulness and awareness, the reticular formation. Comfort is a good word to use when thinking of your breathing posture. Com means “with”; fort means “strength”— sitting comfortably, then, means sitting with strength.
- Breath: Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, is one of the fastest ways to instill relaxation. It fills your body with healing oxygen, stimulates the body’s natural relaxation response, and soothes muscle tension. The brain uses approximately 20 percent of your oxygen. As you breathe deeply, you energize your brain. Breathe so that your abdomen expands as you inhale and gently contracts as you exhale. Place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest to connect with the feeling of your abdomen’s rising and falling with each breath. If you notice the hand on your chest moving more than the hand on your belly, do your best to shift your breath and your full awareness down into your abdomen.
- Mental focus: Center your mind. When you’re calm on the inside, your life tends to be calm on the outside. Combining good posture with relaxed breathing and a centered mind allows you to feel calm on the inside. As you practice quieting your mind throughout this meditation, you strengthen your ability to access a sense of peace and tranquility in many life circumstances. Many people consider their mind to be quite active, and this process presents a great opportunity for creating greater peace.
- Time: Research has shown that once the stress response has been activated, it can take 20 minutes to shift the body back into a homeostatic, relaxed state. This is one reason 20 minutes is the most commonly recommended time frame for daily meditation practice.
Create a Sacred Space
Create a sacred space in your home where you can connect with yourself, rest, and rejuvenate. Adorn this space with your favorite scents, a candle, pictures, or symbols. Many people create an altar from a tabletop or dresser surface. The size of your altar is not important, just that it’s meaningful to you. You might have a chair in front of a window or inside your home or in your backyard. Wherever this sacred space is, it’s important that it’s a space just for you to be quiet and still. Turn off the phone, close the door, and put out the “Do not disturb” sign. Do your best to give this gift to yourself by creating a quiet space of solitude. This is your time to be.
Coaching & Counseling
Hilary Stokes Ph.D. and Kim Ward Ph.D. have been a team for 20 years, specializing in mind, body, spirit psychology. They are the authors of the bestselling books The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness and Manifesting Mindset: The 6-step formula for attracting your goals and dreams and founders of Authenticity Associates Coaching and Counseling. They are passionate about combining the best of holistic and traditional approaches to health and happiness. If you are interested in learning the answers to the most frequently asked questions on how to decrease stress and increase happiness sign up for their free video series.
Excerpts from The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness. Click here to learn more about The Happy Map
Stokes, H. & Ward, K. (2014).The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness. San Diego: Bonsai Press