Q: My biggest problem is my mind. I have an incredibly hard time getting beyond my thoughts, running mental commentary, reverie, internal dialogue — whatever you want to call it. I call it my “mentalogue.” I have been blessed with a very keen and competent brain; however, I can’t turn it off. I have glimpses of a state of openness and clarity. Sometimes moments of clarity last for 15-20 minutes, sometimes for 10 seconds, sometimes I sit for the entire time and fight the mentalogue. Fundamentally I feel that there is some switch that I don’t know how to turn off in my brain.
SALLY: First, don’t fight the mentalogue. Simply notice when a thought comes up, say to yourself “Thought” and come back to the practice you’re doing. This is the basic meditation “sit-up.” It’s comparable to training a puppy. In time, the mind learns that you are serious and begins to let go.
Second, you need to take some extra time to meditate. The idea that the mind should get quiet just because you’ve sat for meditation is a myth. For most people, it can take up to 45 minutes for the mind to quiet down. So, at least once a week, set yourself up so you can sit for a couple of hours at a stretch. You’ll find that there’s a moment when the thoughts quiet down all by themselves. Its like a top running down, or like coke bottles settling in the glass. Once this has happened, that clarified state surfaces. If you can enter that state for a few moments once a week, it sets up a template inside you, and you’ll find that it’s more accessible to you even when your mind is full of thoughts.
It’s also important to realize that the state of meditative clarity, which the Indian tradition calls turiya, or the Fourth State, is not something you can control or make happen. It is in us, but it reveals itself spontaneously, on its own. However, as you notice, it does peek out at you for at least a few seconds when you meditate. If you can dwell on those 10 or 15 seconds of clarity when they come, they gradually get longer.
Moreover, there are certain ways of approaching the mind that actually encourage that state of clarity to reveal itself. Here are some of them:
Find the Space Behind Thoughts
Even in shorter meditations, take a few minutes to focus on the “space” in the mind. One way to do this is to actually look into the “substance” of your thoughts, and recognize that whatever their content, all your thoughts are made of mind stuff. In other words, every thought is just an energetic configuration. Combine this awareness with a practice of letting go of thoughts on the exhalation. Then rest for a few moments in the “space” that remains after the exhalation, when thoughts are still.
The Opening in Your Mind
Another way of accessing this space is to sit, follow the breath, then add the phrase “I am” to your thought-flow. (Or, if you use a mantra, work with that.) Then imagine an opening in that space, and take your attention through the opening. Notice where you are. Feel your way around the space that emerges “deeper” than the original. Create another “opening” and take yourself through that. Notice where you are. Focus on the inner “feeling space”—the inner pulsations or sensations in this deeper place—then with the exhalation, let yourself move “into” them. In that way, you are training yourself to literally go deeper inside. Thoughts will come up. When they do, note them by saying to yourself, “Thought,” and keep moving deeper inside with the exhalation, always having the feeling that you are moving deeper into your own mind space. As you do these practices, you become more and more aware of the fact that your mind is simply a field of energy. The thoughts become less seductive. And the inner control mechanism relaxes.
Even if your mind doesn’t get quiet, just sitting for 20 minutes a day is gradually creating a spaciousness in your consciousness. You may not be aware of this day-to-day, but it is certainly shifting the techtonic plates of your awareness. When we’ve spent our lives doing and thinking, it often takes months of what I call “meditation sit-ups”—the sheer practice of returning your mind to a focal point—to begin to shift the patterns in your awareness. And it works. Your consciousness shifts. Little by little, but still it shifts. This is why regular practice in and of itself is so valuable. As you probably are well aware, this is why meditation teachers through the ages have said, “Just sit, don’t judge,” because its so important just to get ourselves into the position for meditation to happen.