If you’ve experimented with meditation at all, you’re probably familiar with one of the proposed goals; to ‘quiet the mind.’ The mind doesn’t make any noise, though, so what does this cryptic directive mean?
To help us find an answer, we’ll look to an interesting source; science 🙂 – neuroscience to be specific. Two specific brain networks tend to show up in scientific studies on meditation; the Task Positive Network (TPN) and the Default Mode Network (DMN)
The Task Positive Network represents the regions of the brain that are engaged and communicating with each other when we are actively engaged in a task. Meditation can be one example of such task. In contrast, what’s known as the Default Mode Network is often active when we’re not actively engaged in a task.
The Default Mode Network is responsible for some really important aspects of humanity like self-reflection and empathy. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to learn from our mistakes or experience compassion.
On the other hand, when the Default Mode Network is too active it tends to cause effects like mind-wandering, obsessing over the past and future, and over-analyzing one’s own or others actions.
Unsurprisingly, an overly active Default Mode Network is associated with depression and anxiety disorders. Several studies on meditation have shown that practitioners can change the way their brain operates in relation to these two networks – even when they’re not meditating.
For many of us, the Default Mode Network is active often throughout the day, perhaps even when we’re performing routine tasks that don’t require our concentration or attention. This is responsible for what we think of as ‘mental chatter’ and is the very activity we are trying to reduce or suspend when we ‘quiet the mind.’
Many meditation traditions start practitioners with ‘breath meditation’ a minute-to-learn exercise that has us draw our attention to various aspects of the breath. As noted earlier, our intense focus on the breath pulls us out of our Default Mode Network and engages the Task Positive Network. I love breath meditation. For a beginning meditator, however, a directive to ‘focus on the breath’ may not be enough to anchor our attention.
Although all meditation practices that use breath meditation as a starting point emphasize that the expectation is not that individuals will be able to solely focus on the breath for the entire meditation, that part of the point is to train the attention to keep coming back to the breath. Even so, the experience may be frustrating for beginners if breath meditation is the only tool in their kit.
Below are a few ideas to help supplement your meditation practice (or help you start one if you haven’t yet).
Start by finding something that requires intense focus
Provided we don’t live an overly sedentary lifestyle, we can probably think of some activities that require our active concentration. Playing a sport or an instrument, driving in the snow, and cooking might be some examples. The key is that these activities must require our active attention. Cooking a recipe we’ve made a hundred times before may not qualify.
If you’re struggling to come up with an idea, remember that doing something new, especially an activity that requires you to pay attention to your surroundings may be a good place to start. I believe this is why many people find intense physical activity to be mentally cathartic – it gets us out of our heads for awhile.
In high school gymnastics, we girls noticed that we best performed our routines when we simply doing. After a slip-up, a teammate would often explain by saying, “I started thinking.”
Try to notice when you aren’t thinking. When you have found one – or more – activities that put you into this ‘zone,’ look for ways to bring them into your daily routine. Even though you aren’t actively ‘meditating’ you’ll be increasing the amount of time overall that you spend with a ‘quiet mind’ and this can help bring your Task Positive Network and Default Mode Network in balance.
Expanding on the Quiet Mind
Once you’ve found an activity that ‘quiets’ your mind, try to expand on it. Try to ‘catch’ yourself ‘not-thinking’ and then immediately pull your attention to the breath to gently hold (or ‘be in’) that open, silent space.
If you catch yourself ‘not-thinking’ you may think Oh No! Now I’m noticing I’m not thinking – I’m going to start thinking again. Don’t panic! J You can re-engage your quiet mind my bringing your awareness to a particular aspect of whatever activity has engaged your attention.
Are you cooking? Bring your awareness to the smells around you – don’t worry about categorizing them, or identifying them, or determining whether you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ them; just smell them. Bring your awareness to the temperatures around you. Are your hands warm? Are your feet cold? Focus on stirring a pot or allow yourself to watch the bubbles rise in a boiling pot of water for a few moments.
Maybe you are engaged in a more active pursuit; playing a sport, for example. You can expand on a quiet mind during physical activity by bringing your awareness to your body. What muscles are being used? How do your feet move? Or your hands? What is your breathing like – fast? Halted? Are there sounds of shoes on a gym floor, squeaking? Clothing rustling? People yelling?
We sometimes think of meditation as a mental activity, but it’s actually the opposite. In my experience, meditation brings us out of our heads and into contact with our present existence – an experience that is largely sensory in nature.
Two areas associated with the ‘Task Positive Network’ in the brain are the “Internal Sensor” and the “External Sensor.” Thus, if we’re using our senses, if we’re actually paying attention to the information they bring in, our mind will automatically quiet down.
Using a ‘Visual Aide’ during Meditation may help
If you’ve tried the first two ideas successfully, but are still struggling with an actual sitting meditation, you might try a visual aide. When my mind is churning during a sitting or breath meditation and wants to rehash events of the day, I visualize a point of mist expanding outward and gently ‘pushing’ thoughts to the side.
I keep my concentration on the central point where the mist expands from, rather than on the boundaries where all the thoughts are. Another angle on this same concept would be to imagine water droplets in the center of a still pond, the ripples of the waves pushing thoughts to the outer reaches.
If it feels more relevant or powerful, the expansion can be tied to exhalation. Each exhalation gently pushing thoughts further and further to the outer reaches.
By focusing on the point from which expansion starts, the mind has an image to work with. As the mist or water expands from the center, the ‘open’ space in the mind, too, feels larger, more spacious and free.
I know that many mindfulness experts instruct the beginner to ‘watch’ the thoughts without attaching to them. The phrase “Let them come and let them go” comes to mind. That’s fine. If that works for you, by all means keep doing it.
In my personal experience with meditation, however, having thoughts running around in my head gets in the way of a deep personal connection with my energy and my body. For me, thoughts are not all that helpful during meditation so I prefer to just move them out of the way altogether. Some find there way in here and there, but largely it’s quiet.
If you have difficulty not attaching to your thoughts during meditation, you might want to try some variations of the practices listed here and see if they help.