“Meditation is warm-up exercise for the mind, so that you can jog through the rest of the day without getting agitated or spraining your patience.” — Eknath Easwaran in Conquest of Mind via Brian Johnson’s PhilosophersNotes
Mindfulness Meditation & Mental Soap Bubbles
Mindfulness is, in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment.”
As you are learning to practice mindfulness or meditate mindfully, Kabat-Zinn recommends a “light touch” when you are confronted with stray thoughts that try to distract you. You simply look at these thoughts as they rise up, notice them, and watch them drift away and pop like soap bubbles. You might say something like this to yourself: “Oh there it goes. I’m worrying… worrying.” Or “There’s another. I’m thinking and remembering,” and so on. What happens when you apply this “light touch” is that the thoughts just bubble up, drift around, and vanish. You don’t engage them in a battle, you don’t give them power, and they simply disappear.
As I noted in my podcast Practice Mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn’s advice to apply a “light touch” to intruding thoughts and his image of soap bubbles popping is the most useful guidance I ever received regarding meditation. Before I acquired this frame of reference I would waste half my meditation time trying to force myself to concentrate while simultaneously gritting my teeth and battling mental intruders. Instead of bringing peace, my meditation time was a kind of silent warfare.
Here & Now Versus the Bubble Machine
When I try to tell people about this “soap bubble” approach they either wrinkle their brows and look question marks at me or they just roll their eyes and quickly change the subject. If this is your reaction, then I’d like to invite you inside my mindfully-meditating brain to witness a typical interaction between My Here & Now Awareness (MHNA) and that annoying character I call Mental Bubble Machine (MBM). Let the mindful meditation begin:
- My Here & Now Awareness [MHNA]: Air moving in and out nostrils, nose hairs moving, feel coolness of morning air going across my upper lip. Feeling tranquil. Ahhh…
- Mental Bubble Machine [MBM]: “How long have I been meditating? I got work to do. Gotta respond to that email from….”
- MHNA [interrupting]: “Worrying… Worrying… We’ll do it later, don’t worry… Let it go…” Back to noticing air moving in and out, in and out, in and out….
- MBM: “Hear that bird song?… Sounds like the mockingbird is back! Must be mating season the way he’s singing his heart out. Wow, did you ever notice that when birds mate it only lasts a couple of seconds! Wonder if they wish it would last longer… Wonder if…”
- MHNA [interrupting again]: “Really? Birds mating? [laughing] Let it go, dude!” Back to noticing air moving in and out, in and out, in and out….
- MBM: “My stomach’s growling. I’m hungry! Why don’t we ever eat breakfast before we do this?”
- MHNA [interrupting again]: “Just a few more minutes and we’ll eat. Now take a deep breath… “ Back to noticing air moving in and out, in and out, in and out….
- MBM: “Hey, I just figured out how to approach that project management article we’re trying to write. It’s all about using grape jelly as a metaphor for…”
- MHNA [interrupting again and reaching for the always-nearby pen and paper]: “OK. Let’s capture your insight. See? I’m writing it all down!” [Quickly making notes, then laying down pen & paper, and closing eyes again] Back to noticing air moving in and out, in and out, in and out….
- MBM: “Geez. I just remembered the way my Dad used to say that, deep down, I am a lazy guy… always wanted to carry a ‘lazy man’s load’ by trying to move a giant pile of stuff instead of taking the time to carry several smaller, more manageable loads. Can that be right? I don’t see how he could say that…”
- MHNA [interrupting again]: “Time tripping are we? [laughing] Let it go, dude!” Back to noticing air moving in and out, in and out, in and out….
Helping MHNA and MBM Peacefully Co-Exist
OK. You get the idea. The key here is that MHNA fully expects that MBM is gonna act like a goofy puppy during the mindfulness meditation and run around, make all sorts of noise and generally be annoying. The key is that MHNA has learned, through frequent interaction, not take MBM all that seriously. There is no dramatic battle for control, nor is there panic that control may have been lost.
Better yet, MHNA knows that MBM can be a fun creature to have around — a source of creativity and spontaneity. Witness that idea-worth-noting that bubbled up during the example meditation session above. MBM does this sort of thing for me quite often when I’m trying to mindfully meditate. And I not only appreciate it, I make sure I capture it so I can put that random (but potentially valuable) idea to use after the meditation is over! (Confession: This article started out as several notes scribbled on a scrap of paper during one of my mindful meditation sessions! Seems MBM was clamoring for attention!)
At the same time, it’s important to remember that most of what MBM serves up is random, useless stuff. And the great thing about witnessing this mental junk and learning to lightly dismiss it is that in the process, I am cultivating a powerful skill that is of great practical value during the non-meditation parts of my life.
For example, when I find myself in a heated discussion with someone and things are getting a bit tense, I often feel the presence of MBM as he starts sending up random resentments from the past and fears of the future that threaten to knock me out of the Here and Now. MBM would very much like me to plug some of this stuff into my discussion and watch the fur fly! But because I’ve had lots of practice ignoring MBM’s nonsense in my morning meditations, it’s easier for me to ignore this stuff when he serves it up in my Here and Now. And this makes for much more focused, grown-up discussions and, ultimately, better relationships and more thoughtful decisions.
So You Don’t Sprain Your Patience
So back to Eknath Easwaran’s quote: “Meditation is warm-up exercise for the mind, so that you can jog through the rest of the day without getting agitated or spraining your patience.”
How very true! If you spend a little time each morning confronting — and learning to laugh at and dismiss — all that junk that’s spit at you by your Mental Bubble Machine, you’ll be far less likely to “get agitated or sprain your patience.”
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