Garabaldi Lake, near Whister, BC. Photo by Tim Shield’s son, 2010
In the previous post Inviting Stillness we discussed about the importance of stillness in order to have clarity and overcome the filter of perception. We discussed about the challenges of becoming still, and the supporting practices. This post will again discuss about these.
Three possible reaction when we are trying to become still and meditate:
- Mind becomes dull & sleepy – and then turns off – zzZZzz time
- Mind becomes agitated, running all over the place
- Mind rest in the stillness, alert and clear
The ideal outcome is number three – yet as anyone trying to meditate know, it is not easy to get there.
Lets look deeper into the two challenges.
Dullness & sleepiness
Without stimulation, mind is bored. We modern humans are generally tired – due to many things: lack of quality sleep, too much distraction, poor nutrition, etc. The mind, when sensing there’s no stimulation, knowing it’s in a safe space (no predator or dangerous situation), decided to go to sleep because it knows the body is tired and needs sleep. How to tackle this problem? First thing we can do is make sure we get enough rest & sleep, and fed properly. When the body is well rested, at least there’s no actual demand for sleep.
But even when body is well rested, when we are trying to become still and meditate, sometimes the mind still switches off. This is dullness, losing the clarity. Some of the things we can do to overcome this challenge:
- Arrange the meditation time so that it’s not after a big meal. After a meal more blood circulation goes to the digestive system, and less blood in the brain area, resulting in sleepiness
- Do some yoga asana or stretches before sitting down to improve energy circulation. In my personal experience some inversion & backbends helps.
- Do some energizing pranayama like kapalbhati or bhastrika
- During the meditation itself, when we catch ourself becoming sleepy & dull, use the inhalation to refresh. Deepen the inhalation a few times and return to the object of focus (breath/sound/guide etc)
If the mind is not dull & sleepy, there’s a possibility that it will go to the other extreme – becoming agitated, jumping around, running all over the place. When the mind is not focused or holding attention to something, there’s this function of the brain called Default Mode Network that usually becomes active.
What is this Default Mode Network? I’m no expert in neuroscience, this is my simple understanding of it. Default Mode Network is a function of thinking about self, thinking about others, and thinking about past or future. It becomes active when the mind is not focused or holding attention, and it seems like it serves like a background process of assimilating, comprehending & understanding of all the inputs from the outside.
So when this DMN is active, then the mind ruminates about something (usually related to self, others, past, future, or sometimes even random) – and this thing triggers another thought, and another, and another. Any meditator knows this – suddenly we catch ourself thinking about something else and totally forgot we are meditating.
How to overcome this? By holding that focus and attention at the object of meditation in a ‘just enough’ way. Not gripping, but also not too lose. Balanced. When we’re gripping, there is tension. During meditation this can be felt in the physical body – the body or the face is tensed. Release the tension with the exhalation, and relax. When too lose, the mind tend to start to wander & ride along the DMN, generating many new thoughts. As we notice we are sidetracked, first be happy that we noticed we were sidetracked, and then relax, release the thought, and return to the object of meditation.
One of my meditation teacher use this analogy – imagine the thought like a butterfly that settled down on your arm. Just notice “Oh there’s a butterfly on my arm / Oh there are thoughts on my mind”, and without needing any force or violence, gently blow it away.
Like still water
With consistent practice, gradually the mind will be trained to rest in stillness. Alert, aware, and focused. In this stillness, clarity comes. With clarity, comes the realization that it’s all perception (judgement, assumption, expectation, belief, hypothesis, conditioning, etc). When we realize that it’s all perception, we have the opportunity to take that perception filter off, and see things as they really are. Like still water, reflecting the surrounding as it is.
Read more about Default Mode Network here:
Image from Tim Shield’s flickr