Sit!: Meditation and The Voice In Your Head

But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember—was kind of an asshole.
―Dan Harris, 10% Happier

I’ve been meditating, on and off, for something like 30 years now. There was plenty of “off” time in there, and that’s generally when I’ve gotten into trouble. When I’ve had problems with my work and started blaming people, I wasn’t meditating. When I’ve found myself trending towards a could-this-be-a-problem level of alcohol consumption, I haven’t been meditating. And when I finally melted down, went to a shrink, and begged to be put on anti-depressants, I don’t think I’d sat in years.

During what I like to call The Dark Times, I first starting seeing a therapist because it was becoming clear to me (what had been clear to everyone else for some time) that I had attention issues. I’d struggled through school, always scraping by on stress and caffeine. I’d lived a life of lost homework, lost keys, poor attendance, and constant frustration with not being able to complete a task for being distracted by… SQUIRREL!

Not long after that, my marriage hit the skids. Well, the truth is, it had taken years of neglect, but we’d finally painted ourselves in a corner that we could no longer get out of. I had two young boys to parent, and the attention thing was now diagnosed by my shrink as “textbook severe attention deficit disorder” but wasn’t getting any better, unless I was on the drugs.

All of that led to a nasty bout of depression. I had officially become a depressed, single-parent spaz. Ladies, the line forms at the left.

The ADD medication was like a miracle drug. I had laser sharp focus like I’d never had. The basement got cleaned out, my files got organized, and I developed little systems to track everything– timers, lists, labels. I’ll admit that stopped taking the anti-depressants pretty quickly when I read that side-effects could include “premature ejaculation and seizures”. They were clearly not going to help anything.

Still, what was the scenario? That I take this stuff for the rest of my life? When I’d go somewhere, I found myself running back into the house to take a dose, just in case I didn’t get back in time, and I rarely even take ibuprofen for my headaches. No, I couldn’t see myself living on a diet of Ritalin and Bupropion for the rest of my days.

While I’d meditated as part of my participation in martial arts and always understood it as a necessary part of really learning to focus the mind on the moment, I looked at it as a tool– a way to “swing second, and hit first”. Even when I practiced kendo in Japan, I meditated more in the pursuit of the remarkable reaction times of my teachers than any sort of long-lasting benefit to the rest of my life.

Oddly, to me anyway, it was Eckhart Tolle who got me back on the cushion after so much time away. I say ‘oddly’ because I’m such a cynic by nature. Tolle’s “Power of Now” and “A New Earth” are full of the kind of stuff that Dan Harris calls in his book, a “riptide of bathos and bullshit peddled by the self-help subculture”.

But, I’d gotten to the point where I was willing to try anything, maybe even religious faith if need be, to get myself out of this funk. Right at that moment, my brother suggested to me that I listen to Eckhart Tolle, the latest self-help guru. Tolle had hit on a way to repackage Buddhism so that it was digestible to the Oprah generation. His approach to the material allowed me to take a fresh look at it. His example of people muttering to themselves on subways being just like all of us jabbering in our heads was like someone turning on a light for me.

Ultimately, I couldn’t get past all of Tolle’s “pain body” and “vibrational frequency” pseudo-science metaphysics, but there was a lot of truth in what he said. Cut it all down to the present moment, shut off the constant judging and comparing, and most of our problems go away. I recognized that this was really 2500 year old advice being reworked for a modern audience, and I’d heard it all before.

I went back to the source. Reading Buddhists like the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, and Yongey Mingyur and western mindfulness writers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield taught me to re-examine ideas like compassion and identity in a way that now made real sense, even to my cynical mind. I began to understand that meditation, mindfulness, and enlightenment were layers of an onion that I’d only seen the outer skin of.

Many of my attention and depression issues were rooted in my inability to stay present and focus on the moment rather than go off on tangents about goodness, badness, unfairness, better things to be doing, what was next, etc. If I could train my mind to stay on task, I could increase my ability to remember where I’d put things and why I’d just run into the kitchen. If I could learn to recognize when the voice in my head was telling me stories about how sub-par and unfair everything is, maybe I could let go of my road rage, resentment, and boredom.

The key to all of this was my old friend, meditation. So, 30 years after my first meditation in my first karate class, I find myself sitting again but for reasons that have nothing to do with defensive reaction time. I sit, usually for a half-hour a day, and practice a variety of approaches to rewiring my brain to run less on auto-pilot and a pissy narrator and more on dealing with what I know is real right now.

When things go right, I catch myself drifting off into an old, repeated complaint, regret, or George Costanza fantasy about what I’m going to say when I see that jerk from the parking lot again… and just let it go. My practice makes me happier, more observant, less likely to react, and able to find just enough space to recognize when the asshole in my head starts up.

Pema Chodron likes to compare it to John Nash’s experience in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”:

I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them.

I know that chattering voice will never go away, but meditation helps me choose not to acknowledge it, and that leaves me free to be a happier, more productive person.

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