“You will know (the good from the bad) when you are calm, at peace. Passive.
A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”
Yoda

Meditation and Trains of Thought

by Dr. Sam Schikowitz

When I think about meditation, I think about sitting in an airport or train station watching people go by. Or perhaps sitting on a hill or beach on a windy day and watching the clouds move across the sky. Except, they are not people in the station or clouds in the sky, they are choo-choo trains. Trains of thought.

I imagine thoughts, feelings and sensations as choo-choo trains. They travel in certain directions, can be long trains or short trains, they have different weights and speeds, and some are changing their speed. Normally, most people hop on and ride most of the trains that enter their brain. We compulsively think every thought. 

Practically, this means we behave in reactive and needy ways, and make compulsive and emotional decisions.

Our brains are like little accountants and record keepers. Originally, it was all about where sources of food were, where predators were, who in our group was nice and who was mean, who owes you a favor, good ways to solve specific problems, or managing the needs and survival of children. This accountant has adapted to manage our careers, our house keys, our facebook connections, shopping, cooking, directions to the store, and on and on. In a sense, you can imagine that each of these topics is like a train of thought, or a fleet of trains, and that they are actually choo-chooing around. 

When we get on a train, it moves faster, and when we are not really riding one, it slows down or stops. Sometimes we ride trains in our dreams, or jump on different trains for a minute here and a minute there throughout the day. Sometimes we ride the “planning” trains and think about the future. Sometimes we ride the “memory” trains, replaying past experiences in an effort to get some insight into ourselves, others, or the way things are. 

The problem is that all these thoughts can be overpowering, especially when you don’t have the power to get off when you want to. People just hop from train to train all day and never actually touch the ground. I think of meditation as strengthening your ability to touch down when needed, to sit comfortably in the “Observer Seat” and not compulsively react or engage with thoughts, feelings, or sensations you experience.

Meditation is not about pushing our thoughts and feelings out of our heads. We live in, at times, a messy chaotic world, and pushing it all to the side is not often practical. Instead, think of empowering our “Observer self” to sit calmly and unreactive in the midst of the chaos. Thoughts and feelings are noted, not suppressed, because in the big picture, thoughts and feelings are almost always there for some generally helpful purpose. 

Bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to make the right decision in the midst of fear. Justified anger coupled with a cool head is the source of all important change in our lives and in society. Sadness, when coupled with perspective, helps us see the true value in what we have. While we don’t always choose the best strategies to handle our thoughts and feelings or meet our needs, ignoring, or worse still, judging them, is not helpful either. 

Our thoughts and feelings can be like “big bulls;” powerful and overwhelming. The Zen saying “If you have a big bull, give it a big field” is the general approach. “It is easy to be enlightened on the mountain,” but a world of escapists is not what meditation is seeking to accomplish, and not we are aiming for in our own lives. Instead, we are looking to increase our ability to be present to current reality and have the freedom of thought to choose the best strategies to handle the situations we are presented with, instead of reacting compulsively and emotionally.

You can think of our attention as a flashlight that lights up whatever it focuses on. We really only have two options:

  1. We can focus our attention on the sensory experience coming through our senses in the present moment, or 
  2. We can focus on the imaginary sensory experiences of thoughts and memories. 

When our attention focuses on thoughts and memories, the experience of the present moment diminishes, and visa versa. As it turns out, there seems to be some health benefit from paying attention to the present moment. In fact, in an overly simple way, we could call excessive attention spent concerned about the future as anxiety, and excessive attention spend concerned with past memories as depression. Studies have shown that meditation reduces stress (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), controls anxiety (9, 10, 11, 12, 13), promotes emotional health  (14, 10, 15, 16), and enhances self-awareness  (17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22).

Meditation helps us to intentionally pull our attention back to the present moment, including the current sensations, thoughts, and feelings. The ability to decide where our attention goes is the key to having focus. Studies show that meditation helps individuals to lengthen their attention span (24, 25, 26,) and sustain that focus even during the most tedious of tasks. People well versed in meditation perform far better than others do on concentration tests, and concentration is a key indicator of focus. 

I sit and I notice thoughts, feelings, sensations in my body, songs in my head just like I notice choo-choo trains. I notice whether or not I get on the trains, whether or not I actively engage in the thoughts or feelings. 

At first, we usually don’t notice that we are engaging in thoughts. Then, with practice, we notice, and we might get upset about the fact that we are jumping on the trains. Then we just notice that we are jumping on trains, but with less getting upset about it. With practice, we can see the trains and not jump on them more often. The goal is not the absence of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but to observe our thoughts, feelings, and sensations non-reactively.  

There are different ways of meditating, Some involve listening to music or special sounds, repeating sounds or words in your head or out loud, special breathing, or specific postures or movements. I think they are mostly all OK because they cause you to focus on something other than your thoughts. 

For me, however, the simplest is the most powerful. If you have a practical goal of becoming better at not reacting compulsively to your thoughts and feelings during your daily interactions, it seems to me that it is better to practice in a way that reflects that actual purpose. During the day, you are less likely to have the special sounds playing, you may not be in a place where repeating words or sounds, special breathing, or doing specific movements would be practical. However, during the day, you can notice your thoughts, and notice whether you are engaging with them or not.

So, at Peacemaker Academy, we follow a simple process:

  1. We sit with our backs straight. If your hamstrings are too tight to sit with your back straight, sit cross legged using more pillows so your legs are lower, or sit in a kneeling position.
  2. Your hands can rest on your thighs palms up or down, or hang toward the ground.
  3. Eyes are gently open, looking forward and slightly downward but focusing on the peripheral vision, not the center of your vision.
  4. We notice thoughts, feelings, sensations in your body, songs in our head. If they are overpowering, it can help to label them: “There is a thought” or “There is a song.”
  5. If you have a lot of important reminders coming up in the beginning, keep a notepad and write them down as they arise.

 

A little (like 5 minutes or more) each day is better than a lot (like 20 minutes or more) once in a while.

References:

Reduce Stress 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Control Anxiety 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

Promotes Emotional Health  14, 10, 15, 16

Enhances Self-Awareness  17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22

Lengthens Attention Span 24, 25, 26

Reduce Age-Related Memory Loss 27, 28, 27, 29

Generate Kindness  30, 31, 32, 33

Help Fight Addictions  34, 35, 36, 37, 38

Improves Sleep  39

Helps Control Pain 40, 1, 4

Decrease Blood Pressure 41 ,42, 43