On the surface, it seems silly to expect our brains to quieten into a thoughtless state. Evolution has worked for millions of years to architect a device that is supposed to constantly churn thoughts. These thoughts come in different flavors but for a moment, let’s characterize them binarily: useful and not so useful thoughts. Thoughts that arise while reading, writing, solving a problem, playing a game or making love are different not only in content but also in their effects on different parts of the brain. More importantly though, the amount of inessential chatter or noise that one helplessly thinks of while engaging in these activities is also different.
The frequency of these inessential thoughts seems to be a direct function of two things. First, the nature of the activity itself and how engaging it is for the person performing it. If the person happens to be in a flow state while playing piano or writing a novel, for example, the frequency of these thoughts tends to be lower compared to an activity that doesn’t require focused attention.
Second, the nature of the wetware designed by a person’s genes and their historical environment. An autistic person may have better focus while performing “engaging” activities compared to someone without that condition. A student who has been trained over the years (by parents or mentors) to study for longer hours, may perform better when it comes to disallowing unwarranted thoughts.
The intensity of these discursive thoughts (DT henceforth) especially seems to increase when a person goes in an “idle mode”. Thought after thought keeps appearing in consciousness without any particular intention. We are all aware of the experience of daydreaming. Such states of mind are extremely fertile for DT.
The practice of Mindfulness asks us to force ourselves into this mode and pay non-judgemental attention to it. As i mentioned, DT are always lurking around, even when we are engaged in an activity. These engagements never really allow us to pay attention to DT’s control over us. With non-engaging activities like daydreaming, waiting in a queue or traveling to office over a memorized route, DT flood our brains with such force that we end up thinking without realizing that we are thinking. Its almost as if someone played a movie for us on the screen of our minds. If feels like we are just the passive audience reacting to the contents of the movie.
Sitting down and asking our minds to pay attention to the breath or a single source of sound (like white noise) or even just focusing on counting numbers with our eyes closed, is akin to forcing your dog to let go off its favorite cookie while it sits right in his food plate.
All instincts immediately start disallowing such absurdity. The activities that our unconscious mind is so good at, don’t deserve much attention – let alone full focus – from our conscious mind. You start the practice and within first few seconds, unknowingly, your mind moves from observing breath to DT. You notice this distraction and try to become mindful by resisting this invasion for next few seconds but the DTs push back again. This back and forth happens for few minutes before you eventually give up and allow your mind to be taken over by a barrage of DTs waiting for the end of this ludicrous exercise. And the next thing you know, the alarm rings signifying the end of another unsuccessful session.
Mindfulness meditation is hard. It is supposed to be hard. Like regular exercising or dieting, it asks us to engage in an activity that our brain and rest of the body isn’t comfortable with. What makes matter worse is that there is almost never a tangible positive feedback at the end of a single meditation session. This lack of positive reinforcement forces us to think of long term benefits and blindly hope that maybe someday, something good will come out of this dull and painful practice. Nothing might. You may end up crossing your legs and engage in discursive thoughts, session after session, for more than a year and not notice any benefits. But you may also end up experiencing states that only few humans have ever witnessed and therefore acquire an ever-present set of beautiful lenses that transform your perception towards your own mind and rest of humanity.
And hence, curiosity is the primary reason that makes me motivated to try this deceptively simple personal experiment. Is there an aspect of our subjective minds that most of humanity never gets to observe in the default state of operation? How does it feel to lose one’s sense of self and observe the world without an ego? What is it like to feel genuine compassion for someone who happens to be a terrible person. Yes, there are also pragmatic benefits like better focus and control over one’s emotions that are marketed as primary benefits for exercising mindfulness. And these may very well be experienced earlier than uncovering of the true nature of our minds. But I only think of them as bonuses picked up along the way while striving for the actual objective of experiencing selflessness.
P.S. : To learn a little more about different kinds of meditations, its usefulness and problems associated with it, I highly recommend two conversations between Sam Harris and Joseph Goldstein - The Path and the Goal and Why Meditate