Quieting the Tumult Between Your Ears

Over the past year I’ve had a meditation practice. It’s one of those things that makes a noticeable difference when I practice consistently but is easy to forget about when I don’t. There have been months when I practiced daily, and stretches when I didn’t practice at all. Recently I’m trying to get back into the groove of consistent practice and it’s reminded me of an important truth: there is a lot of noise going on in my mind.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a confession of insanity or hearing voices. We all have noise going on in our head. The degree to which we recognize it for what it is can be an indicator of the strength of our mental muscles. Why? Just like our physical muscles become stronger through exercise, through practice and repetition we can learn to turn down the noise and control it.

A corollary to the truth that we all have noise in our heads is that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts may flit through your mind, but just because they appear in there doesn’t mean you put them there. Just because thoughts are in my head doesn’t mean that those thoughts are who I am. This is part of the human condition and learning to control the noise, the torrent of thoughts, is one of the important skills that we all need to learn.

During my practice today I felt like I was playing a word association game:

focus on the breath – that book Breath that I read last week was really good – I need to read more books – Hunt for Red October is one of my favorites – Sean Connery was in Red October, I’m sad he passed away – we’re all going to get Covid and die – why am I sitting here again? – where did that come from? so morbid – focus on the breath

Should I feel like a failure? Of course not. It certainly wasn’t a meditation session that I’ll win any medals for, but then again I’ll never win a medal for meditating. I think it’s more like one thread in a grand tapestry. If every thread is the same it’s going to make a boring tapestry. It’s the variety and variation that makes the whole interesting.

When you feel like the tumult and noise is too much, simply recognize that it likely is. Focus on your breath, appreciate the small victory of recognition, and know that your mental muscles have grown just a bit stronger.


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Awareness of the Waterfall of Your Thoughts

One of my favorite vacations was a camping trip in Taiwan where I got to go River Trekking. This is hiking upstream in a river. It’s very intense and calls for you to climb over boulders, swim through deep spots in the river, push against the current, and generally have a great time playing in the water. At the end of our trek, a small 10 foot waterfall fell into a deep pool. My friends and I swam over to the waterfall and spent a few minutes playing in and around it. I’ll never forget the feeling of the water pounding down on my head, the power of the waterfall, and how it blocked out all other sensations.

Our thoughts are like a waterfall. Sometimes they trickle and sometimes they pound down, but our thoughts never really stop. The commentary running in our heads is relentless. When we focus on it, our thoughts have the power to completely absorb our reality.

You are not your thoughts.

That voice in your head, the constantly running commentary with the force of a waterfall, is not who you are. It seems amazing that I made it into my late 30s before I learned this simple fact. Just because my thoughts are in my head doesn’t mean that my thoughts are who I am.

One of the keys to mindfulness is learning to observe and be aware of your thoughts. Just because there is a waterfall of thoughts running through your head, it doesn’t mean you must stand beneath it and be pummeled. It’s possible to observe and be aware of your thoughts without getting caught up in them. It’s like watching a waterfall from the shore rather than standing beneath it.

This is incredibly liberating, though of course it’s easier said than done. Being aware of your thoughts means you observe the things running through your mind without interacting with them. Since you are not your thoughts, there is no reason to judge yourself based solely on your thoughts. Watch them as they float by, be aware of them. As you do this you’ll be struck by how varied, strange, and absurd your mind can be.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise when you think about the wild and outlandish world of your dreams. We’ve all had dreams that make us shake our head in amazement when thinking back on them, right? It shouldn’t be a shock then that our conscious thoughts can wander into strange places too.

Training our mind to be aware of and observe our thoughts is just as important as training our body through exercise. Take time each day to practice mindfulness, whether through meditation, solitude, or any other way that works for you. Enjoy the waterfall of your thoughts from the shore instead of from under the waterfall.


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