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How To Stop Thinking in Mindfulness Meditation

Publication date: 18 November 2011

Admittedly this title is somewhat provocative – a more important question is, should we even be trying to stop thinking in mindfulness meditation? And the answer to this question is no.

Recently I read Andy Puddicombe's book, 'Get Some Headspace', and he points out, as lots of other writers do, that it's a common misconception that meditation is about stopping thinking. People get frustrated because the more they try to silence the thinking mind, the more their thoughts come back at them – a classic example of the “quicksand” dynamic that I mentioned in an earlier post.

But it really begs the question, why should people think meditation is about silencing the thinking mind? After all, good mindfulness teachers make it clear that it isn't. Perhaps it's more that people naturally seem to want to shut off thoughts. I confess to being in this category. It seems that a quiet still mind is a natural feature of what are sometimes called peak experiences. Most people can point to experiences where their mind was very clear, alert and present, but thinking, even self-consciousness, was strangely absent. They were wholly absorbed in what they were doing.

Timothy Gallwey, who I referred to in my last post, writes about being “in the zone”, which is the sporting terminology for the same kind of state, and further, gives us his advice on how to get into the zone, or quieten the mind.

In the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness meditation, we learn about a hierarchical system of higher states of consciousness called the dhyanas. In the higher dhyanas, thinking, at least the grosser forms of thought, apparently dies away. (I hasten to add that in Buddhism the dhyanas are not equated with spiritual attainment – they don't involve insight or wisdom and are not permanent.)

Peak experiences, or flow states, were investigated in depth by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his classic work, “Flow”. Csikszentmihalyi spent years going round the world interviewing ordinary people about their peak experiences, and distilling the common qualities of flow states from a wide variety of contexts. I think his ideas are really useful for mindfulness practitioners, and I plan to return to them in a future post, but for now suffice it to say that he also pointed to this quality of mental quiet or stillness.

So I think it's natural that we want the mind to be still and quiet in mindfulness meditation – we want our meditation to be a flow state. Of course that's not to say that the purpose of mindfulness is to enter flow, and we have the intent to enter flow, we need to hang very loose to it, for fear of getting trapped in the “quicksand dynamic”.

What conditions are conducive to quieting the mind? No doubt lots could be said here, but I'll confine myself to one topic: mind-body dimension of the chattering mind. When we go off on an internal dialogue, we tend to (subliminally at least) activate the speech muscles. (I personally have a very strong tendency to inner chatter, so I speak from experience here.) This activation of speech muscles can be detected objectively by measuring something called EMG. This brings me to one way that biofeedback can support mindfulness practice. You can place EMG sensors in contact with the forehead and they will pick up muscle tension from the whole head and face, including the speech muscles (i.e. tongue, jaw, etc.) When I use EMG biofeedback in mindfulness practice, I set the software to ring a bell whenever my head tension exceeds a certain threshold, as it does when I lose my awareness to a train of thought. The biofeedback acts as the proverbial Zen master's stick. When I'm present and focused, the feedback doesn't intrude and I'm free to focus on my immediate experience. Being wired up to an electronic device isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I find it works very well for me personally, and I know it does for some of my clients too.

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