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Inverted Meditation: Fill Your Mind

Every morning, I spend a straight half hour with my thoughts. I’m aware that I’m supposed to be clearing my mind while I’m on the yoga mat. The nice woman on the screen* tells me to clear my mind; empty it. Just concentrate on my breathing. That is very hard to do. I am a thinky sort of person. I like thinking. Telling me to clear my mind is like telling me to eat non-vegetarian food. It’s not as if I can’t, per se. But I don’t eat animals so I would likely vomit if I tried to eat meat… or not think…

I would have a brain vomit.

I’ve stopped fighting my brain’s tendency to run through thoughts, and I’ve instead embraced my yoga time as a thinking time.  I know that makes me a bad yogi.  I mean, the whole point of yoga is to train your body so you can spend long periods of time meditating.  The fact that I can’t even clear my mind while I do yoga doesn’t bode well.

In the same way that I go through various physical poses during yoga, I alter between types of thinking based on where I am in the routine.  During the opening stretches, I’m usually thinking about my current life: things I must do, things worrying me, things that will happen that day.  It’s like a little warm-up routine for my brain.  I mean, yes, it stretches my mind a little to wrap itself around all my fears so early in the morning, but it’s a good stretch; that yummy sort of pain as the brain goes into a pose that feels completely familiar.

In the middle of the routine, when we’re doing things like “camel,” I’m thinking through whatever scene I’m writing in the moment.  I’m mentally playing around with characters and trying out bits of conversation.  And finally, when the routine switches to the stillness of gasp-inducing stretches such as “folded pigeon,” I move into daydreaming.  Which is like nightdreaming.  Except I’m awake.  Or I take someone else’s characters and act out a little piece of mental fan fiction.

So a half hour of thinkiness.

Josh told me about an article over the weekend that found that people would rather administer electrical shocks to themselves than sit alone with their thoughts.  One of the authors of the study is Daniel Gilbert who wrote Stumbling on Happinessi09 reported on the study, and I love this quote: “But what is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 min was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

Granted, I am doing something when I am thinking through yoga, but I also sit and do inverted meditation — that’s what I call when I sit still and instead of emptying my mind, I fill my mind — several times every day.  Like just sitting on the sofa and staring at the cushion and thinking.  I don’t think I’d opt for the shock.  I mean, I really don’t like shocks.  I really do like thinking.

Even when I’m thinking about things I don’t like to think about.

Because I don’t look at thinking as doing nothing.  I mean, thinking is thinking.  It’s something.  Nothingness would be real meditation: getting to a state of not thinking and not doing.  That would probably drive me mad.  But thinking; that’s productive.  Even unproductive thought (like circling the same fear for the third time) feels productive.

Do you mind being alone with your thoughts?  Would you always opt to do something rather than nothing?

* An unrelated side note: I love the Yoga Studio app even more now with the new update because I can upload my yoga music to play underneath the woman’s breathy voice. This app has changed my life.


1 a { 07.08.14 at 8:37 am }

I don’t mind being alone with my thoughts (i.e. spending some time thinking), but I don’t know what I would do with the shock thing. When I’m alone with my thoughts, I’ve usually got something else going on – walking, driving, knitting, half-listening to my daughter ramble on about nothing. I’m never truly alone with my thoughts without some sort of side activity, unless I’m trying to fall asleep or angry/depressed. Then, being alone with my thoughts is annoying.

2 Serenity { 07.08.14 at 8:55 am }

The idea of meditating scares the shit out of me, frankly. Because I am ALWAYS thinking. Except for when I’m out on a run – somehow the physical activity, the DOING something with my body, slows down the trickle of my thoughts and they come here and there. But sitting in one place and trying to make it so that I don’t think? Yikes.

Though I have heard that meditation is more being mindful of what you’re thinking – that is, stepping back and giving yourself some distance so that the you are more AWARE of your thoughts, rather than being yoked to them so that our minds are running our lives. I suspect that your yoga practice is a lot more mindful and therefore closer to meditation in that you consciously CHOOSE to fill your mind with your thoughts and sort through them. Sort of like mental and emotional inbox filing.

Me, personally, I think I could be happy sitting alone and thinking for 15 minutes. I’d be curious about the shock and how it feels, though. Is it bad? How many could I do?

I wonder, though, if the people in the study were TOLD it was only 15 minutes, versus going into it having no idea how long it would last. I think people have more issue with sitting and doing nothing if they have no end point.

Also, I wonder if the reason people were shocking themselves was more that they were curious about how it would feel, that is, the doing was PART of the thinking process.

3 knottedfingers { 07.08.14 at 10:48 am }

I try and be alone with my thoughts and meditate daily. I don’t mind it at all. After a while you just let the thoughts come but you don’t internalize them. But just kind of watch them pass by like cars on the road

4 A. { 07.08.14 at 11:08 am }

I’m not really surprised that people are uncomfortable with the idea of sitting with their thoughts, but the stuff about the electrical shocks–that’s quite a powerful aversion. During shavasana, I’m pretty guilt of veering off into fantasy and reverie sometimes; I guess I let it flow whichever way the wind blows, and some days I want to think while others I want to just clear out and breathe. I will say that I signed up to do this Vipassana retreat in my twenties, which is 10 days of no talking, minimal eating, and straight sitting and trying not to think. I totally chickened out!

5 Mel { 07.08.14 at 11:17 am }

One note is that the participants KNEW how the shock felt. They first gave them a shock, then asked them if they would pay $5 to NOT feel the shock again. The ones that agreed to pay were then asked to sit alone with their thoughts. So they had already stated that they hated the shock enough that they would pay to not experience it again. And then they shocked themselves over and over again just to have something to do.

6 Sharon { 07.08.14 at 11:29 am }

Hmm, I don’t know that the idea of meditation is really to completely clear your mind of all thoughts. I mean, yes, ideally, but I think that many of us are like you, Mel, and have difficulty with this. I think that letting your thoughts simply come and go as they will, without dwelling on them, may be as much as many of us can do.

Oh, and I am totally fine with being alone with my thoughts. I could sit on a beach, in a meadow, on a mountaintop. . . or even in a fluorescent-lighted laboratory. . . and just THINK for a long period of time if I had to. (I’d even WELCOME it these days.)

7 GeekChic { 07.08.14 at 1:36 pm }

Whether I like being alone with my thoughts depends on how my bipolar is doing at any given moment. Sometimes being alone with my thoughts is dangerous. 😛

Meditation, though, is something I enjoy. When I started out as a teenager decades ago I only lasted a few minutes. Now I regularly do an hour each time of focus on my mantra or (more rarely) on an empty mind. It’s very freeing and negative thoughts don’t enter the picture.

8 Serenity { 07.08.14 at 2:47 pm }

Oh wow, thanks for the note. Yeah, I didn’t know they knew what it felt like; clearly I missed that detail when I read about the study.

9 Persnickety { 07.08.14 at 5:52 pm }

Hmm, I think part of it is that many people don’t like to be alone? I do use my weekly yoga as a chance to think, and I use my walk to the gym as that time too. I do have music on though. I am very attached to that walk- my husband tries to convince me to take the car on cold/dark nights, and I just won’t. That chance to sort through the day, the week and any issues is very helpful.

10 torthuil { 07.08.14 at 7:11 pm }

Having gotten an electric shock once through an exposed outlet, I have no desire to repeat the experience again. I don’t mind being alone with my thoughts at all unless I am feeling very anxious and then I can be my own worst enemy. Maybe in a really bad situation (like when I didn’t know if I was or wasn’t going to miscarry) I would choose to be shocked rather than live through that. On the other hand I think I would rather deal with the thoughts in some other healthy way. 🙂 Reading that people prefer electric shocks to sitting and thinking is scary; it makes me wonder what kind of thoughts exactly those people were having.

11 Battynurse { 07.08.14 at 10:38 pm }

I don’t mind being alone with my thoughts (good thing since I seem to spend a lot of time that way) but have often wondered if other people feel like they can’t turn their brains off. I’m horrible at meditating and emptying my brain. It just won’t do it. I remember when I was younger having a hard time praying or listening in church or much of anywhere else as my mind wanders so much. I have learned to mostly live with it although if I’m trying to do something that isn’t interesting to me it’s a constant battle to force concentration. My only complaint is the occasional insomnia I end up with as a side effect of my brain not having an off button.

12 JustHeather { 07.09.14 at 4:18 am }

I don’t mind being alone with my thoughts, although, I’m not sure if I’ve always felt that way. Being in Finland, Finns are able to sit in groups in absolute silence at times for quite a while. It’s not awkward or uncomfortable. It just is. Knowing and experiencing this, I would think most Finns spend a decent amount of time with their own thoughts… there are times when I would prefer to be without my thoughts, but that is usually when I’m really sad or in a bad mood, but then again, it isn’t always that way.

13 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.09.14 at 5:21 pm }

I think (!) there’s a difference between mind-chatter and creative inspiration. I have flashes of insight during yoga class sometimes, and I think (!) it’s because I’ve cleared away the chatter. The worry, the wringing, the useless, the chitta vritti.

That resulting space is what allows inspiration to enter.

I’m thinky, too.

14 Rachel Lewis { 07.10.14 at 2:16 am }

I like sitting with my thoughts too. MOst of the time. Sometimes, I find myself reaching for my phone (ie, mindless distraction) too often. My favorite places to think are in the car driving. And taking a shower. If my kids do so happen to interrupt me while I’m trying to think — I’m not going to lie. I’m not the happiest of mamas when I respond.

15 It Is What It Is { 07.14.14 at 7:27 pm }

I don’t mind being alone with my thoughts, but I can’t not think. Yoga failed me or I it.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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