Sitting meditation

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. 

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.