Sit Down and Shut Up

First: I am unapologetically stealing the title from the fab Brad Warner‘s book. OK? OK.

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how meditation just isn’t for them, that they can’t do it, that stilling their mind just doesn’t work.

It drives me up the wall.

Not the idea that some folks aren’t particularly suited for meditation or don’t find it helpful – that’s definitely true, and folks with serious issues in the mental health department should consult their medical advisers before trying it (and should almost certainly only study it with a teacher rather than alone).

No, the thing that bugs me about it is this: meditation isn’t about stilling your mind. Getting your mind to shut up isn’t what meditation is about.

It’s about sitting down and shutting up – literally. Sit. Don’t talk. That’s about it.

If you notice your brain starting to talk to itself, mentally label that thinking or talking and then let it go. Don’t get mad about it, don’t give yourself a hard time, just… stop. It’s easiest to do this if you have something to focus on. I usually use my breath, but you can also use a mandala or other image, your heartbeat, a mantra, whatever.

I’ve had a Zen-ish sitting practice fairly steadily since some time in 2006, when I started studying with T. Thorn Coyle. Before that, I’d toyed with it a bit, mostly learning from books. My sitting practice is kind of a mashup of Thorn’s teachings and the things Brad Warner has said in his books (aside: I love his take on Zen and on life in general, and strongly recommend reading his stuff).

I’m currently doing standard breath-counting (“one” on the in-breath, then “one” on the out-breath, then “two, two” and so on, up to four; then back to one), but I’ve also done metta (a compassion-focused form of meditation) and a few others.

Brains don’t really do still, especially not at first. Even after all these years, my brain is still super-talkative. A huge part of my practice is not getting mad at myself for losing focus. I played music pretty seriously for a long-ass time, so I can simultaneously count and do other things (including, much to the confusion of my physical therapists, reading a book), so my counting sometimes winds up parallel-processing with other things, when my brain doesn’t derail from counting entirely. If you could put a mic between my ears, you’d probably hear something along these lines:

One, one. Two, two. Three, is it time to stop yet? Thinking. One, one. Two, two. Three, three. I should figure out a way four, four, to track health stuff in my bullet journal, five, five, what? five? Thinking! It’s okay. More thinking. One, one. Two, two. Three, three. Four, four. One, one. Right on, got it this time. Two, two. That was thinking back there. This is, too. One, one.

For me, at least, meditation is about the practice of letting go and refocusing. It’s training my brain to focus on one thing, even one boring thing, for however long I decide to do it. This is a really useful skill to develop, given how often I need to focus on things I find disinteresting.

It’s also useful because my brain is often full of shit, and I need the ability to identify the shit and let it go without fuss. Any investment of energy, for or against, reinforces the shit.

For example, I use this technique with my impostor complex, which now, as a result, bothers me a lot less than it used to. My brain will start fretting that I’m going to mess up and everybody is going to see that I’m a total poser and a fraud, and and and – but once I notice what’s happening, I can take a breath and think, “ah! Impostor complex!” and let it go. Getting mad at myself about it just reinforces it, makes it dig in. Noticing it and letting it go with no fuss takes discipline – which I build with my daily sitting practice.

This applies to a ton of things, not just sitting and impostor complexes. Our brains just kind of natter to themselves pretty much constantly, and it’s important to be able to discern important stuff from the background noise and identify bullshit when our brain starts spewing it so we can stop. Getting quiet and focusing on something simple enough that you can really notice what your brain is saying (and practicing letting those trains of thought go) is an incredibly useful practice, even just for five minutes once a day.

Again: meditation isn’t for everybody – but don’t give up because your brain won’t shut up. Your brain shutting up isn’t the point of meditation.

Learning to refocus is the point of meditation.

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