An unexpected book arrived in the mail the other day. A gift from my friend’s at Wisdom Publications. Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird. by Zen Master human form, Robert Aitken. Here the koans are told by and to animals of the forest: raven, porcupine, owl, woodpecker, badger, black bear, and […]
Our brains are little factories. Their chief product is, of course, thoughts. They also manufacture images, memories, and emotions. Best of all, they fabricate stories. Our brains can do this unbidden, without any direction from us. Given the slightest encouragement, they’ll really run with it and those stories can become obsessions, ruminations, and, possibly even, walking nightmares.
A lot of people come to meditation hoping to turn off this ceaseless flow of the brain and become frustrated when it doesn’t happen. In fact, arranging themselves in quiet meditation just makes the flow of the brain all the more obvious.
The goal of mindfulness practice is not to turn of this often surging flow but to learn how to work more skillfully with it.
Picture a big shower, like the one’s you might find in a fancy hotel or spa with one of those rain shower heads. You can stand directly underneath the water flow and when you do, you are inundated, saturated, and in the flow of the water. That’s nice when you are taking a shower at a spa but not so nice when you are forging through your day trying to make headway on your to-do list.
There is also enough room that you can move back from it and stand away. Perhaps you can even sit down and watch the water flowing. Mindfulness suggests a similar relationship to the shower head. Observe the action without getting soaked by it.
I used a similar metaphor in my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness when I talked about the view of Niagara Falls that is possible from down below. There is a place that you can stand and watch the unrelenting flow of the water without getting swept away by its power.
When people come to mindfulness and meditation there is often an expectation that they should be able to turn off the shower. After all, we have been indoctrinated in self-determination and would like to feel that we are the masters of our minds. A bit of meditation practice can be humbling. It is unnerving to see how powerful that flow of thoughts is and how easily we get drawn in.
The desire to turn off the flow and the determination to do it, only results in frustration. “Meditation is not for me” is a familiar refrain. However, if we let the water flow because that is what the brain must do (neuroscientists call it the default mode network) and use our minds to step back from it, we can step astride the frustration. Thoughts, memories, and emotions are not the problem, taking ownership of them is. The brain can produce thoughts with or without the mind’s involvement. Mindfulness invites us to have the option of non-involvement.
If your goal is to stay dry, then mindfulness is the way to go. Of course, it’s rarely an all or none proposition. We are moving back and forth all the time. We notice we are getting soaked, wake up to that fact, and exercise the choice of moving back. We repeat this process over and over again. Almost always, the shower keeps flowing.