I sat down to meditate the other morning after a short run. I like to meditate immediately after running because of the sensory overload that happens as blood pumps through your body and into your face. I particularly like the way you can feel the pulse of your energy as it flows through you, and you can almost immediately calm your respiratory rate in just a couple of mindful short breaths. You can feel the sweat coming out of your pores to cool you down. If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it… but this is not the point of this musing.
The point is that with most of my mindful practice, at the beginning of a session, I find that my mind is like a spotlight. It is focusing my attention on something and zipping to and from whatever is entering my consciousness. It might be the things I mentioned above, or it could be the birds singing in the trees. It is common practice to attempt to focus on the breath, but then in a short time notice that your thoughts have shifted to something else. As time progresses, the mind calms and attention focuses closer and closer to the bubbling up of the next thought. It seems that at this point in the meditation, many of the people who guide meditation suggest trying to find the gap between thoughts. To try to perceive the sensory input data without judgment or without interpretation.
The other day, when I got to this point, I felt like I had a small contextual breakthrough. It was not that I instantly became a better meditator, or discovered the truth of the universe, but I did experience the lightbulb flickering on and off as I got closer to comprehending what is happening in my monkey mind. My revelation was that it comes down to being able to differentiate data from meaning. Let me ‘splain.
As we transition from infancy to childhood, we are taught to identify and name things. We learn language and the meaning behind the objects and experiences we encounter in our everyday lives. That sound is a bird. That reflection of light is your face in a mirror. That other reflection of light is a sunset, and it is beautiful. That low hum is the washing machine, and that smell is sautéed garlic. As we catalog and file this information away, we build associations between our past experiences and the things we are currently encountering. The smell of cedar trees reminds me of home, and those freshly baked cookies remind me of a cold winter night close to Christmas. The words your friend just said, are similar to a quote from a particularly funny movie. We build these automatic connections and meaning throughout our entire lives. It is not until we begin meditating that we start to see the way we get lost in assigning meaning to things. It takes intense focus to realize that our mind is naming and interpreting every stimulus that the spotlight of our attention illuminates.
It is no wonder that separating the data input from the cascading thoughts of meaning and interpretation is so difficult.
It seems like a really important skill to develop is to be able to take in all of these data inputs, to notice where the attention spotlight is illuminating, but to resist the urge of naming. This is not to say that we name them differently, that when we hear a sound we say, those are just sound waves entering my ear drum. That is still naming, just a different name than bird song. The idea is that we just experience the stimulus with intense focus, but without language. To turn off the narration so that there is only experience.
This is much harder than it seems. This is also why it takes practice.
Perhaps, and I am admittedly not to this point yet, but if we can get to the point where we can identify when the narrator steps back up to the mic, and become familiar enough with the feeling of being non-reactive, then perhaps when the narrator starts talking nonsense or stoking the flames of anger, we’ll be able to realize that the data really doesn’t have any meaning, and our interpretation of the stimulus is what is causing all the trouble. Perhaps at this point, we can choose our reaction, and possibly discover that if our reaction is causing additional suffering, that we don’t need to let that particular interpretation hijack our minds. We can allow other, more positive/productive thoughts to do the hijacking. Either way, it seems that in processing experience one voice needs to narrate. I guess the goal is to have some say in which lens we don while cataloging and viewing our life experiences. After all, the way we perceive our lives is the only perspective that truly matters.