‘It’s Sensations, Stupid!’
Got this question:
“Roger, I keep losing myself in daydreams while meditating. I get so lost sometimes I even forget I exist, and the more I try to focus, the more intense the daydreaming gets. Any suggestions?”
This question kicked in a memory of a phase I went through one time, when I was struggling with an attention that kept darting away to lose itself in daydreaming as I was meditating. I was in the middle of a month long silent retreat in Thailand at the time, and as the daydreaming got worse, I got to feeling like I was wasting my time.
Then, one morning, as I was struggling yet again, a seemingly irrelevant memory popped into my mind. It was a slogan that former US president Bill Clinton used in his first election campaign – the one that brought him to the presidency. The slogan was devised by his campaign manager, to help keep Clinton on point in his electioneering.
The slogan was, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’.
As I remembered this, it reminded me of the maxim it was derived from, which the US Navy used to keep their engineers on point – that being, ‘Keep it simple, stupid’.
As my daydreaming mind dredged up this seemingly extraneous snippet of information, I realized my mistake with meditation.
I was too focused on my mental reactions to what was happening in my body.
For example, if I felt tired, my attention would be preoccupied with how much I hated the feeling of being tired. And that would dredge up all kinds of thoughts about why I was tired, and what was causing it, and so on.
And this same ‘mentalification’ would take place with everything, such that whatever I felt in my body would trigger even more thoughts, memories and reactions. And they in turn would dredge up all kinds of other memories, daydreams and stories from my unconscious, and so on – a cesspool of mentality which would overwhelm me and crowd out any awareness of what was actually happening – in real time, in my body.
So, as I remembered Clinton, and the maxim he used to win his election to president, a variation occurred to me, which cleared things up perfectly – and I stuck to it every time I felt like I was losing my way.
The maxim was: ‘It’s sensations, stupid!’
So here’s the thing – everything that happens in meditation begins as a group of sensations and feelings in the body. We feel all kinds of things before we think about them.
In this, every feeling we have in our body is like a magnet, attracting compatible thoughts up from the unconscious mind, which in turn attract other thoughts and stories, and so on.
For example, we’re all familiar with how a feeling of sadness or anger or depression super-charges the mind, attracting all kinds of stories about how we feel, and why we feel that way. Similarly, feelings of elation or happiness draw up elated thoughts and memories from the unconscious. Even subtle feelings of boredom or frustration or anxiety can trigger their own thought storms.
So each time I found myself drifting, or daydreaming, I’d note, ‘It’s sensations, stupid!’ and focus on the root cause of what was happening – sensations in my body.
I’d switch my attention to how I felt – searching for the tensions or patterns of sensations beneath whichever emotion or mental reaction I might be feeling, however subtle – and I would pay attention to that.
By constantly switching my attention to what I felt in my body, and going to the cause of whatever my mind was distracted by, and working to loosen whatever tensions I found in the body, the thoughts and mental stuff would disappear on their own.
As Acharn Tippakorn, a wonderful teacher, once told me: ‘Beneath all thinking are feelings. Feelings create thinking. If we did not have feelings, we would not think. Sometimes the feelings are subtle, so the thoughts are also subtle. But if the feelings are very strong, then the thoughts will also be strong, and very hard to let go of … so look past the thinking into your heart and into your body … in this way, you go to the cause, not the effect. Look for the feelings that are causing the thoughts, then work with those feelings.’
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)