By Jai Thade, Head of Content
When we hear the word “meditation”, we tend to think of behaviours like sitting alone with one’s eyes closed, taking deep breaths, and chanting mantras.
While all these behaviours can be a part of meditation, it is useful if we instead think of meditation as simply being a different way of relating to our thoughts, feelings & experiences. Different in what way? Observing our thoughts & feelings with openness and curiosity and without judgement or evaluation.
Think of it as the difference between standing in the middle of a traffic jam and looking at it from a few hundred feet in the air – the traffic jam is still there, but your experience with the traffic jam will be very different from this vantage point.
Let’s see how we can put this interesting concept into practice.
A prerequisite is to curb our desire to control negative thoughts & feelings. The worlds of personal development, self-help and spirituality often promise that if we try hard enough, we can conquer negative thoughts and feelings completely and replace them with positive ones.
While there isn’t anything bad with positive thinking, getting pulled into this battle between the positive and negative is like getting caught up in a game of chess with infinite pieces. Sure, the “negative” side might lose pieces, but there will always be new ones to replace them.
Why is this? Our brain has evolved to help us survive in the wild, so one of its primary functions is making us pay attention to problems and potential dangers rather than things that make us happy. Thus, our thoughts will always have a natural tendency to skew to the negative.
So, what steps can we take to relate differently to our thoughts and emotions? To answer this, there’s an interesting concept we need to wrap our heads around.
Read this next line slowly and carefully. Notice how you are involved in the act of reading – notice your eyes moving, your vision jumping from word to word, your inner voice speaking these words. By slowing things down in this way, one thing may become clearer – there is a part of you that reads, but there is another distinct part of you noticing & observing you read.
Now try this – in your mind, count from 1 to 6. Now do that 4 more times.
What most likely happened is that the voice in your head was counting aloud the numbers 1 to 6 in your mind. But there was another part of you observing yourself doing this and keeping track of how many times you’ve done that.
As you can thus understand, we have a “thinking self” and an “observing self”. The “thinking self” is represented by our inner voice and imagination. This part of us plans, thinks, judges, compares, imagines, visualises, remembers & daydreams. The “observing self”, on the other hand, simply notices the thoughts, the words, the images, the mental movies and even the sensations that your body and “thinking self” send your way.
Meditation is about tapping into this “observing self”, as this allows us to:
- Create a sense of distance between us and troublesome thoughts
- Contain negative emotions
- Connect more deeply to the experiences of our present moment
Getting caught up with our “thinking self”, causes us to become “fused” with our thoughts. This is when we start to react to our thoughts as if they’re the same as reality – we imagine a future conversation going poorly and this becomes a source of stress – we have a negative thought about our abilities, and this becomes a source of self-doubt. In other words, we start to take each thing that our “thinking self” sends our way very seriously.
When we’re in touch with our “observing self”, we take such negative thoughts less seriously. We’re able to look at them from a distance, and we start to see them as merely images and words our thinking self is concocting – “stories” which we can choose to not take seriously.
What can we do to help create this distance?
When it comes to troublesome inner chatter, you can try simply naming the thought. For example, if you find your thinking mind saying, “I’ll never be able to meet this deadline”, you can think “I am having the thought that I won’t be able to meet this deadline”. Another unconventional tool to make negative self-judgemental thoughts (e.g. “I’m bad at managing people”) lose some of their power is to sing them to yourself in a silly tune, or to say them to yourself in a humorous voice (e.g. the voice of a famous animated cartoon or fictional character).
When it comes to troublesome mental movies, you can imagine them playing on a TV screen in your mind’s eye. Once you do that, try playing around with the images you see – flip them, play them backward, in slow motion, or in fast forward, change their colours, etc. You can even experiment with adding funny captions or adding a musical soundtrack to the mental movie.
Remember, the intention of such approaches is not to help you get rid of unpleasant thoughts. While this may happen, there is no guarantee of this. Instead, the intention is to help you realise that the thoughts that are bothering you are nothing more than sounds and images in your mind.
Our “thinking self” also causes us to start judging and evaluating the emotions we experience. For instance, we may scold ourselves for being anxious about something inconsequential, or guilt-trip ourselves for feeling lethargic on a busy day.
Tapping our “observing self” helps us to recognise how all emotions are ultimately nothing more than sensations in our body, sensations to nudge us to take a particular action. Resisting, fighting or trying to escape these sensations adds to their unpleasantness, whereas observing them with openness and curiosity takes away some of their stings and allows us to decide whether we want to take the action they nudge us towards or not.
How can we tap into our “observing self” when it comes to unpleasant emotions?
By doing things like trying to observe where we feel the emotions in our body & what it feels like, dissolving muscular tension and allowing the sensation some “space to move around”, or even leveraging our “thinking self” to help us out by saying things (e.g. “I don’t like the way this pre-interview anxiety feels, but I can accept it, etc.)
Lastly, repeatedly tapping our “observing self” trains our ability to connect to the present moment without being led astray by thoughts & emotions. We can savour happy moments and manage difficult situations more effectively.
Any approach to meditation helps us to, thus, strengthen our ability to connect with our “observing self”.
With all this in mind, how are you going to experiment with meditation today?
Liked this article? Share it with your network: