Step # 9, Mind – Day 2 In the last podcast, we mentioned that Day 2 of this step would focus on concentration, which we would usually generate with specific meditation exercises. In the last round, we offered a candle meditation, in which focusing on a flame supports one’s mental steadiness. We’d like to go at it from a different angle today. Let’s consider the word concentration. In meditation, we think of this word as meaning exclusive attention to one object… the way we hold our attention steady on the breath or on a flame during a candle meditation. But what if we consider the aspect of concentration that means densely packed and apply that to the nature of our thought stream? We can ask ourselves, “Are my recurring thoughts concentrated on a particular subject or on a particular line of thinking… maybe worry, maybe judgement?” “What are my thoughts focused upon?”
We don’t mean default to the negative, but it is often the worrying mind or the critical mind that gets in the way of keeping the mind attentive to the present moment. When something is concentrated, it is gathered closely together. This is what happens to the brain when we think the same thoughts over and over; we can’t help but concentrate on them and that’s because our recurring focus on these thoughts has made well traveled neural pathways or well-worn tracks in the mind. Did you know that humans think 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day and that 90% of those are the same thoughts as the day before? We’ve packed the earth so densely beneath these tape-loop mental machinations that the brain automatically defaults there as it searches for thoughts to think. It becomes more than just a habit… it becomes fundamental in creating our perceived reality.
In Michael Pollen’s incredibly insightful book, How To Change Your Mind, a neuroscientist makes a wonderful analogy about this same scenario. He writes, “Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds sliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill, a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into the preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time, it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction. Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.” Yes, psychedelics; in this case, they are treating depression, anxiety, and addiction with them. Interestingly, throughout the book, again and again, the author provides examples in which meditation provides the very same results as psychedelics in brain scans. What is anxiety if it is not recurring projections on the future? Similarly, depression is often held in place by excessive rumination, often about past events. Thoughts produce feelings and feeling in turn produce thoughts that match this felt sense. We simply get stuck in a loop that rarely lands us in the present moment. Does this sound like your mind during meditation? Sometimes? Personally, yes, it does sound like mine at times!
So in today’s meditation we will pay deliberate attention to the path our mind defaults to when it wanders. Is it fretting? Is it remembering? Is it fixing or planning or reprimanding? As we allow the mind to simple express, and simply observe it, without judgment, we create space for new types of thoughts… we generate gentle snowfall, filling in the well travelled tracks of the mind and opening ourselves up to a new pass through the landscape. Sledding, we go!