Jul
06

Pulling Apart the Thinking Mind – an Effective Meditation

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I have a new private client who is dealing with sleep issues. He sleeps fine one night but the next night means no sleep and this cycle of sleep – no sleep – sleep – no sleep is exhausting him and making him a bit anxious.

I asked him if, on the “no sleep” night, the mind was rather active. He emphatically said that was, indeed, the case.  And this spinning mind was a real source of discomfort for him.  I initially gave him a meditation that involves focusing on a restful visual experience that the mind does not need to create while also cultivating relaxation in the body. For the majority of people, this is quite effective, but didn’t seem to so be for him. When I asked him to show me how he was doing the technique, I saw the level of effort and tension with which he was adamantly labeling and working. I then encouraged much more ease and a sense of “doing nothing”, which seemed like it was going to work.

A week later, he reported that it helped a little, but that cycle of sleep/no sleep was still firmly embedded. He couldn’t “turn off” the thinking mind!  Okay, so I switched strategies.

The first strategy was about treating the mind a bit like a 2-year-old who doesn’t want to give up a toy. You don’t have a fighting match with a 2-year-old for a toy, you simply offer a new toy in the other hand, and the attention shifts easily and happily as you slip the less-desirable toy away. In a similar way, our mind has the HABIT of chewing on thoughts – especially negative thoughts. (It’s wired that way, so not an opportunity to judge oneself – it’s simply an old habit that was at one point helpful for survival and no longer is. It now needs to be kindly retired to help us to continue to evolve.)

But his mind was not taking the “new toy” (of a restful place to “park.”) It was digging in for battle. Thus, I decided to shift to a strategy of “taking apart” the mind – dismantling it into its components so that it no longer resembles the toy (and also no longer has the “gripping power” to pull our attention.)  Also, I thought this might be a way to take advantage of his driven, over-analytical mind which was stuck on all cylinders – and use it for good.  I thought this might harness that tendency to go over everything that he had so cultivated.

For this, I used a technique from Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system. This is actually part of a technique called “Focus In” which pulls apart thoughts & feelings that create our inner “sense of self.” For now, I just wanted to focus on the mind, so the part I was going to use is something Shinzen sometimes calls “Noting Mind States.”

This was in-between live sessions, so I put it in writing for him, and thus, I thought to share it here. So here’s what I said to my client:

“Okay, so – how do you know you’re thinking? There are actually only TWO components to the thinking process – VISUAL (mental images – of people, objects, places – associated with past & future), and AUDITORY (internal talk that comments or replays something that was said by ourselves or others – including music – or maybe it’s rehearsing something we want to say in the future.) And each has a SPATIAL LOCATION where our experience of it arises.

VISUAL THINKING tends to be just in front of – or behind – the eyes. (And if you want to check this out – close your eyes and visualize a person or object who is not in the room and look to the “screen” where you see that object. In the Unified Mindfulness system, we call that the “Mental Screen.”) The Mental Screen is where PAST & FUTURE are visualized by the thought process. This is almost always active – even when our eyes are open (but we are less aware of it then because the sight of the outer world draws our attention – but if you’ve ever driven a car and not remembered whole sections of the drive – that’s what you were looking at. It doesn’t make you unable to function – like drive, walk, or do simple activities – when you look at it, but that “daydream” does keep us from being PRESENT.  And there is a heck of a lot less suffering when our attention is in the present moment.)

The spatial location WHERE we hear AUDITORY THINKING, which we will call “Talk Space”, will vary a bit more from person to person, but it’s almost always in the vicinity of the head, and BEHIND the Mental Screen (where we see visual thinking.) Usually “Talk Space” is at the ears, outside the ears, maybe behind or above the head, or some people (myself included) have it inside the head – maybe at a central point.

So, for us to be THINKING – ONE or BOTH of these LOCATIONS must have some ACTIVITY.

My first strategy (the first meditation I gave you) with the “Visual Resting Place”, was to take the mind that wants to think, and give it a place to “park” or “rest” – and for the vast majority of people, that works quite well to “UNPLUG” the thinking mind. IF the mind continues to be busy after doing the meditation I gave you – that tends to mean that there is an EMOTIONAL component that is DRIVING the thinking process.

I do not believe that, in writing, I can effectively talk you through the working with that (but I can say that it would involve tuning into the EMOTIONAL BODY SENSATIONS with a kind of childlike fascination and allowing them to MOVE as they will – thus letting them naturally process and release.)  However, the way in which the emotional sensations manifest is different from person to person – and even for the same person with different emotions or at different times of day – thus that strategy is best done in a live session, but I will attempt to write out how to work with the thinking mind, and we can see if it helps at least to introduce you to this powerful technique.

So, at any given moment, there is either Mental IMAGE, Internal TALK, BOTH, or NEITHER. Only those 4 possibilities. And the technique I’m going to teach you is called “Noting Mind States” in which we will note or notice (and maybe LABEL – which for you, I will always recommend) these states. Just to make it simpler (with few labels) we can use the labels:

  • “SEE” for visual mental images that we see,
  • “HEAR” for internal talk that we hear,
  • “SEE-HEAR” for both,
  • and “REST” for none.

So that’s 3 words and 4 labels: SEE, HEAR, SEE-HEAR, REST. This can be done while sitting, walking, lying down, any time, actually – except while operating heavy machinery – like a car. 😎

Now, when you first do this, there will be a period of “groping and guessing” when you’re not sure if something counts as a mental image or talk – so, in those cases, just guess – but to help with that: ANY ACTIVITY on the (visual) MENTAL SCREEN would be considered “See” – whether it’s a clear image, or a flicker of an image or a sequence of images flickering in and out. If it’s just a kind of soothing movement that is very subtle – and IF THAT IS RESTFUL – you have the oprion of calling it “See” or “Rest.”

For mental talk, there are usually 4 “levels” (that I like to number 0-3 in another exercise I developed, but I’ll just use those numbers here to help explain) – “3” would be the most activity like CLEAR WORDS you could repeat, “2” would be “RUMBLING” (like talk is happening and maybe you can hear the tone of voice – or even know the subject but there are no recognizable words – like hearing a conversation by 2 people on the other side of a door), “1” would be a low-level VIBRATION or WHITE NOISE (which you have the OPTION of calling “Hear” or “Rest” depending on how restful that is for you), and “0” would be TOTAL QUIET in the head – and would be labeled “Rest” since that’s a pretty restful experience. Make sense?

So, you will decide if “subtler activity” is restful or not, but basically, this strategy is about “pulling apart” the components of the thinking process on a moment-by-moment basis, and LABELING the ACTIVITY of the thinking process. It will be either “SEE”, “HEAR”, “SEE-HEAR”, or “REST.” Those are the only possibilities.

This turns the processing of thinking into an ADVANTAGE not a DISadvantage – or in other words, we are OPTIMIZING the arising of thought by making it the object of our meditation.

So, with a REGULAR RHYTHM (like a mantra), label:

  • “SEE” if there is mental image activity,
  • “HEAR” is there is internal talk activity,
  • “SEE-HEAR” if both are present,
  • and “REST” if neither are present.

There is a high probability that if Internal Talk (“Hear”) is present, that the moment you note and just begin to label it – it disappears. That’s fine, and not a problem, just keep the noting and labeling going with a regular rhythm. If something disappears, you’ll notice that and when it’s time for the next label, just note what is present at that moment.

I recommend doing this for 5 minutes whenever you feel the mind is particularly active. Then, as you see, we are not trying to stop the mind, but rather track it. This process will have an interesting effect.

Try it until our next session, and please ask me any questions. I have never written it out like this, so this is a bit of an experiment to see if it can work this way – but at least you will have it written out to refer back to instead of the extensive notes you usually take. This time, I’ve taken the notes for you. 😎

So try it out and tell me how it goes.”

And as I have now decided to share this with the world, I repeat what I said to my client – if you feel so moved, try this and tell me how it goes. What happens? Does a shift of some kind take place? I invite you to try it and write your experience below – and we can dialogue about it.

All is written here in hopes of being of benefit to all beings.

Comments

  1. Paul says:

    Research evidence for present focus -> reduced suffering, including driving example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy5A8dVYU3k

  2. Boris says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    How should we apply the idea of the 4 “levels” of mental talk? Should we rate the intensity of it while noting “hear”?

    Thanks,

    Boris

    • Hi Boris –

      Yes, i didn’t really explain that one, I just mentioned it in passing. It’s a way I can have people who have a lot of “internal talk” be able to watch the CONTOUR of their subconscious auditory mental processing instead of the CONTENT in a way that feels kind of like a game.

      So, for that one, yes, you are correct – you are noting “HEAR IN” – i.e. You are restricting your focus to your INTERNAL TALK SPACE. (Not yelling, just no italics here.). And then, with a regular rhythm, like a mantra, the labels would be the ACTIVITY LEVEL – i.e. “0”, “1”, “2”, “3”.

      I have found that people new to meditation can do, find it enjoyable and it really helps them detach from content – as well as get insight into flow and the occurrence of subtler levels of internal talk.

      I created that exercise about 10 years ago. Shinzen loved it but could not find a mathematically precise correlation to it in the other sense gates and did not want to introduce a new technique that could only be used in one sense gate. But I have found it to be quite helpful with my private clients and students.

      My suggestion is to just do it for 5 minutes and then, if you like, let the labels go and just watch the expansion & contraction (which is actually what it is sensitizing you to.). Give it a shot and tell me what you think.

      All the best,
      Steph

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