A few years ago, I inadvertently opened an email that unleashed an insidious virus on my laptop. My screen immediately became a minefield of pop-up ads, hundreds of new windows opening and overlaying each other to fill the screen with flashing images and alarming beeps and pings. I could no longer see the important documents beneath the riotous pixelation, could hear nothing but alarm bells.
This memory came to me in technicolor detail this morning as I was meditating. The more I tried to quiet the thoughts in my head, the more pop-up windows my mind opened.
I thought about how little I understand the situation in Ukraine, wondered what the balance is in being informed and protecting my peace.
I mentally practiced the opening guitar lick in Edge of Seventeen.
I worried about getting everything done in time. What was everything? Who knows? Then I worried I was missing something.
I listed five-letter words that would be good openers in Wordle.
I thought about what I wanted for lunch, reminded myself to call in a prescription at the pharmacy, rehearsed what I would say in class later that day. I thought about cheese, about covid, about clouds.
Just like the white-winged dove, sings a song sounds like she’s singing. I circled back to Stevie Nicks.
I catastrophized, compared, planned, pondered, strategized, stressed, remembered, and reminisced, one pointless mind pop-up after another.
This doesn’t make me bad at meditating. It only makes me human. We were designed to have a lot of thoughts — more than 60,000 per day. And most of them are complete garbage. But with so many thoughts, how do we pick out the ones that are important?
How do we hear the call of our hearts beneath all the external noise?
Turns out, we have a biological mute button in our brain. The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a part of the brain responsible for selective attention. Ever heard of the cocktail party effect? It’s the psychological phenomenon that allows you to be in a room full of talking people and focus mostly on what the person in front of you is saying. That’s the RAS in action. It turns down the ambient static and right-turns the volume on the person you’re speaking to. It gives preferential seating in the brain to those things you choose as important.
Being able to attend to one stimulus and ignore other irrelevant sensory information is a superpower. But, of course, it takes practice to defrag our cognitive hard drive.
In meditation practice, we often use “sensation anchors” to help steady the mind. The anchor you choose could be a sensation, like the movement in your belly as you breathe or the warm, loaf-of-bread feel of a dog in your lap. The anchor can be a particular thought, choosing to focus on one idea while attempting to ignore the others (this is what’s happening when we repeat a mantra). The more you focus on the anchor, the quieter the rest of the garbage thoughts get. The less you get lost in the thought stream. The thoughts are still there, for sure. But we can selectively choose to mute them a little. It closes some of the unhelpful mental windows so that we can see the important documents beneath all the pop-ups.