It’s one of the most reliable assumptions in meditation – that inner chat is a bad thing and we must make it shut up in order to do the good and worthwhile spiritual stuff. It’s an approach that I bought into myself, and it is there in my Druidry and Meditation book. (On the whole, I still think it’s a decent book and worth your while, but there’s so much I’ve learned since I wrote it. Perhaps one day, a sequel…)
What is that inner chatter? I’ve started listening to it when I sit or lie down to contemplate. It isn’t empty noise. It is things I’m trying to figure out, worries, things I am keeping track of, stuff I must remember to do. It’s fragments of observation and making sense of things, feelings and memories. The noise in my head is my life. Sometimes there isn’t so much noise – this is the case when I’m on top of things, and have done my processing and got to grips with everything. A long walk will often enable me to achieve such a state.
That noise does get in the way of meditation and spiritual work. However, I’m increasingly convinced that methods for shutting it up aren’t the right way to go. This isn’t irrelevant or nonsense. This is the stuff of day to day existence. Squashing it just leaves it undealt with, festering, bubbling away in the background. Some practices encourage you to notice and let go, but this also treats the thoughts as not so useful or relevant.
What I’ve been doing for some time now is sitting with my thoughts, noticing them, letting them run and finding out what they are. Often it’s just the case that I need time to work a few things through. There are feelings I need to digest, experiences I need to make sense of. Once I’ve got that, the brain noise eases naturally and I can move on to something else if I need to.
Dealing with what’s in my head improves my mental health. Ignoring and suppressing my thoughts increases my overall stress. Taking my thoughts seriously improves my self esteem and listening to my own thinking enables me to take better care of myself. Acknowledging problems and dealing with them is better for my spiritual work as well because it frees up more brain space and energy.
I do have an obsessive mind, and I can run round in anxious circles. I can become focused on worry about the future and grief about the past in all the ways meditation is supposed to free us from. However, my present moment experience is shaped by the past, and informed by where I think I’m going, and to deny either seems ill advised, to me. I have a relationship with time that is not purely linear, and where any moment of experience is held in relation to other moments, past and future. I’ve found it is more useful to recognise this and work within it. I do not calm obsessive thinking by trying to suppress it, I am more able to scale it down by entering it deliberately, making time and space for it, and finding out what I need.
Too often we’re sold the practice of meditation based on the idea that we are not good enough and need fixing or improving. This is in-line with how capitalist advertising frightens us and makes us feel insufficient so that we buy more stuff. We need to get this kind of thought-invasion out of our heads and reclaim our minds and lives. So, if how meditation is pitched to you makes you feel inadequate, the problem isn’t you. Meditation is something to enjoy and to feel relaxed about – it should feel spacious, generous, and uplifting. If you have to beat yourself up a bit to do it, you’ve been miss-sold. What you may well need is more time for self care, rather than more discipline.