Does meditation silence the mind?
My friend Christin, who is usually a serious journalist writing about economics and finances and all these super important things, recently started her own format on Clubhouse, where she dives deeper into questions of spirituality.
I had the great honour to participate in one of her shows dealing with the question: „Does meditation silence the mind?”
Extremely loud and incredibly close
Unsurprisingly, the answer is: mostly not. In fact, it gets really loud at first. When we close our eyes and draw our attention inward, our thoughts seem to double up in volume. It’s now that we come to realise how much and what our mind is saying all day long. It thinks out loud, invents stories, gibbers, comments, asks questions – ad infinitum and in loops. All this usually goes unnoticed in our busy everyday lives filled with tasks, distractions and stimuli. But as soon as we close our eyes and become quiet, all these thoughts rain down on us mercilessly.
To hear the thoughts with such a force, to face them, resisting the temptation to immediately open our eyes again can be very confusing and overwhelming. So it’s very understandable that many people are almost desperately looking for a way to switch off the mind and silence the thoughts.
There is a funny scene in the movie „I Heart Huckabees”, when Mark Walberg and Jason Schwartzman hit each other in the face with a big red ball, which creates a futile yet blissful moment of total silence in the mind. This might be an effective method, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Also, it’s not really the point.
Befriending the mind and the thoughts
There are a few advanced methods which actually do silence the mind, at least temporarily. I know some active meditations which also work. However, you’ll never be able to completely silence the mind for good and it’s also not the real goal of meditation.
Actually, meditation offers a beautiful opportunity to get to know, to befriend your mind and to make peace with it. It’s the opportunity to realise how crazy your thoughts are. You’ll discover that inside your mind you are a real weirdo, a lovable freak, a joker, a scared kid, a big shot, a scaredy-cat, a dreamer – all at once … In short: someone who you really shouldn’t take too seriously. „Don’t believe everything you think.”
We are not our mind or our thoughts, and nothing „they” say should seriously worry or even stress us. Instead, it can sometimes even be quite fun to observe the mind. From a healthy distance.
Self-determination, awareness, acceptance and non-identification
What meditation does, is that it helps us to create more awareness so that we can actually take note of all the voices rattling around inside of us.
Our mind is just doing its job: thinking. But it is up to us to become aware of that and to decide consciously when to listen to it and not. The two very important keywords here are self-determination and awareness.
Instead of trying to silence thoughts, we can practice to cultivate a mindful mindset: to become aware of the moment and the thoughts we are producing in this very moment, accepting them without getting too entangled, without identifying with them or judging them. This can help us create clarity and disentangle the chaos of our thoughts. With such a mindful state of mind, we can prioritise and consciously decide what is important and what not, what we want to focus on and what we choose to let go. We have the tendency to drag along everything, also all the unimportant stuff which just makes life unnecessarily difficult.
Clarity helps us to live more in the present moment. And that’s also what the 7 basic attitudes of mindfulness teach us. Everything is connected.
Having clarity also sometimes means simply to hold what is, without giving in to the also very human urge to get rid of unpleasant feelings and discomfort as quickly as possible.
Or to quote Jeff Foster:
Stop trying to heal yourself, fix yourself, even awaken yourself. Stop trying to fast-forward the movie of your life. Let go of „letting go”. Healing is not a destination. Be here. Your pain, your sorrow, your doubts, your longings, your fearful thoughts: they are not mistakes, and they aren’t asking to be „healed”. They are asking to be held. Here, now, lightly, in the loving, healing arms of present awareness …
Cultivating mindfulness in everyday-life
By the way, you don’t have to meditate or sit on a cushion and close your eyes to become aware of your thoughts and then to distance yourself from them in a mindful and accepting way. It’s a practice you can do any time and anywhere.
So I wish for you to enjoy all of it – the becoming aware, the being surprised by the chaos and non-sense of your thoughts, the befriending of your mind, all of it …
Namasté and see you soon, sincerely yours,
P.S. What it actually looks like for me. Confessions of a meditation teacher …
For everyone who might be wondering whether they will ever manage to reach the „necessary” serenity for this path: Just know I too, even after years of practice, have to sit through the sometimes deafening rumination of my mind when I sit down for meditation. Depending on what else is going on in my life at a given moment, I will need a while to enter stillness, and yes, it takes some patience.
A classic 20 minute session might look like this:
The first 1 – 2 minutes are relative silent while the mind enjoys the new darkness behind closed eyes, my senses acclimatise to the new situation, taking in what can be heard and felt. Then, however, for the next 5 or so minutes, it’s a real firework of thoughts with all bells and whistles. My mind has very important things to do: it has to plan some next steps, conjures up ideas that I absolutely have to follow, concocts the wildest dialogues, brings back memories of past situations and people I’ve known, maybe only met once … In between, it brings up lyrics of songs, pretty randomly. This is a recurring pattern: My head was filled with songs all the way through my very first silent retreat, which didn’t seem very silent to me.
These minutes feel like a very emotional rollercoaster and like I am the only guest in a private screening of an art film project which is played in fast forward mode and these sensations make my heart go noticeably faster. I guess it’s because the chaos somehow scares me and I worry that it might go on forever.
Then, at some point, both mind and heartbeat calm down. I notice that there are longer pauses between thoughts. In this calmer state, my mind starts to quietly perceive what is and the thoughts tend to take on a more commentary character.
It’s only after sitting for at least 10 – 15 minutes that I become calmer. Now I feel a deep silence and a beautiful empty-ish within me, where I can let the thoughts come and go like clouds in the proverbial sky.
Long story, short: It gets easier eventually, I promise. But in the beginning, be prepared for hell to break loose. What helps me a lot is to do some balancing pranayama exercises before I meditate. For more tips on how meditation can be even easier, check out this article: Meditation made easy. Tips for better meditation.