Eternal Chatter of the Thought-less Mind

Yesterday, I attended two separate events that each included some meditation.  In so attending these, I bumped up against this fundamental principle that colors a whole lot of what we humans do here on Planet Earth.  That principle is this:

Anything  — any skill, any endeavor, any undertaking — requires practice if you wish to excel at it.
If you practice, you will improve.
This improvement will almost certainly happen in the form of a series of alternating periods of 1) no apparent growth despite your best concerted efforts, and then 2) an upward plateau (sometimes a very sudden one!) to a new, higher level of facility…followed by another seemingly static phase, then another upward plateau, and so on.
If you cease practicing, your current level of ability will sink back toward your natural baseline level…and this will most likely happen a lot more quickly than the build up to your higher levels of facility did.

This probably all seems pretty obvious — “Practice Makes Perfect” is a well-known and widely-repeated phrase for a reason — so it’s not like I’m unveiling the Secret Of Life (TM) here or anything.  But this is one of those life lessons that’s so simple, and also so all-pervasive, that it’s really easy to lose sight of it.  When’s the last time that you really thought about the air that you’re walking around in?  Yeah…it’s like that.

Air: we live in it, we breathe it, we move through it...but even when we make conscious use of it, we're probably thinking more about that usage than about the air itself...
Air: we live in it, we breathe it, we move through it…but even when we make conscious use of it, we’re probably thinking more about that usage than about the air itself…

So this “Practice Principle” applies to meditation.  It very much applies to meditation!

See, for a while, I was keeping up a pretty good practice, myself.  I’m no expert, but I was doing a morning burst of meditative work when I’d rise each day, and then at least two or three evenings a week, if not more, I’d build in another session.  However, I suffered a disruption in all of that because first I moved across town, and then I got sucked into jury duty for a couple of weeks, and instead of sticking to the practice, which likely would have been of great benefit, I allowed it to drift down to the cutting room floor, in large part for reasons that don’t stand up to any scrutiny at all when enumerated (we’re talking about weak, whiny things, like, “I don’t have time right now,” and maybe even worse, “Wah!  I just don’t feel like it!”).  I still did a bit of a morning thing, but it was pretty cursory at best, all things considered, and my overall time spent on meditative work kind of plummeted over the last month and a half.

Which brings me to yesterday…

Regarding my return to meditation yesterday: I was about to suffer a rude awakening along the lines of what this poor sleeping kid has in store for him here (art by Harrison Weir)...
Regarding my return to meditation yesterday: I was about to suffer a rude awakening along the lines of what this poor sleeping kid has in store for him here (art by Harrison Weir)…

So to first explain the two events I attended.  Briefly, in the morning, I went to a Reiki workshop put on by a friend of mine (Reiki is an energy-healing modality that I enjoy) which involved an initial period of group meditation…and then in the evening, I finally made it to this crystal singing bowl sound bath/meditation that a different friend of mine hosts every Sunday night.  Both events were coordinated by people I know, both were held in spaces I’m familiar with and comfortable with, and I was in fine shape for these kinds of undertakings in general — that is, I had no special stress, no physical gripes, no emotional traumas, nothing heavy on my plate overall.  Both events were even geared toward enabling good meditation!  And yet…oy!…the chatter of the mind

This was my mind yesterday.  I hadn't really sat in silence with just it for company for quite some time, and *wow*, did it have a lot to say...
This was my mind yesterday. I hadn’t really sat in silence with just it for company for quite some time, and *wow*, did it have a lot to say…

This is, of course, one of the biggest hurdles anyone faces in achieving a good meditative state: getting past the often inane babble of the mind.  If you sit still, and try to relax your own perpetually running conscious thought…the ego-voices rise up in a screaming chorus of protest.  The ego-self wants to be center-stage at all times, and when you tune out all other distractions — sights, sounds, conversations with others, TV, music, the internet, food, the body — it has that much less competition.  It wants to hold forth on all manner of subjects with great self-importance and pomposity, with you as its poor captive audience.  And the ego-self certainly plays a valuable role in your life, so it’s not like you want to get rid of it.  But during meditation, you kind of do — or I kind of do, anyway — want it to just mercifully shut its trap for a little while.  When it won’t shut up, you can’t get all transcendental.  And not that you necessarily want to be working toward that as your goal and end-all/be-all endpoint, but a bit of oneness here and there isn’t such a horrible thing to hope for, I don’t believe.  Mostly, meditation is about getting into being here, now, and not strictly learning to levitate or what have you…but even just simply sitting and being can be tough when your mind keeps poking you like a little kid in the back seat, going, “Are-we-there-yet-?-Are-we-there-yet-?-Are-we-there-yet-?…”

But here’s the thing: with a bit of practice over time…that mind-chatter does become easier to deal with.  It’s really helpful to remember that your very first initial attempts at meditating — or your first ones back after some absence from it — will, with occasional exceptions every once in a while, be your very worst ones in terms of fending off the yammering ego-self that’s bored, and wants you to play with it, and pay it all of your attention.

I’d actually gotten pretty good there for a while at slipping past the first burst of chatter to a quieter state, and then staying there, kind of just being, the way some of my resources on meditating had told me I could.  And if the chatter rose up at some point, I was also getting pretty accomplished at quelling it, or dodging it, or letting it roll off of me like water.

But then cutting back on my practice clearly saw the atrophy of those burgeoning skills.  I tumbled down some sort of metaphorical hill, back down to almost my inherent baseline ( = “low”) levels of meditative skill, because I wasn’t practicing.  I think that in this context, there’s a sort of metaphysical “gravity” that operates much like our physical gravity does, and it will definitely pull you back down unless you exert some effort toward climbing up.  If you stop lifting weights, the amount you can bench-press will decrease, right?  So it also goes with activities that have less tangible results.

However!  The good news: as with fighting gravity, and as with muscle-building, etc., etc….recovery is more than possible!  As I return to more regular mediative practice — which I do now intend to do — I know that I’ll have to endure an initial early period of what will seem like ridiculous amounts of that insidious and semi-deafening mind-chatter…but then my ability will plateau upward.  And the chatter will lessen just a bit.  I don’t know how long it will take me to lever myself up to that next level, but that doesn’t really even matter so much — I know it will happen.  And then I’ll stay at that new level for a while…but then I’ll plateau up again.  And again.  And if I keep at it, who knows how outstanding I can become at the practice?  And I’m sure I’ll reap benefits along the way.  I’ve said it here before that I feel like good meditation can “tune” us as beings in much the same way that musical instruments get tuned.  Part of the trick is to not be discouraged that the first few twists of the tuning peg don’t immediately result in perfect harmonic resonance — just stick with it, and turn that peg a few more times…and a few more, if necessary…  And you’ll get there.  I aim to get (back) there.  And the more of us that do this…well, the better music I believe we’ll all make together in this symphony of humanity in which we’ve all been invited to play…

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