“Quiet, please,” is a phrase I say to myself in almost every meditation session.
Those exact words, I mean, taken from the semi-famous phrase uttered by Wimbledon umpires to hush up an over-enthusiastic crowd. Even the tone helps: a little British, a little decorous. Not hostile. After all, British.
But also: British. Firm. Clear. Not putting up with any of that nonsense, that chitter-chatter from the crowd, the unruly cheering. The first Wimbledon tournament took place in 1877, and there are still places for manners in the world.
I say this phrase to myself, of course, because the mind is not quiet in meditation. Indeed, probably the greatest misconception about meditation is that your mind is meant to be quiet. That’s why it’s often illustrated by very peaceful-looking models whose brow is un-furrowed, whose face is the epitome of calm.
That’s also why many friends of mine have given up on it. Who can quiet their mind for fifteen minutes? Or even fifteen seconds? It’s impossible. And yet, since everyone seems to agree that a quiet mind is the point of meditation, I must really suck at meditation if I can’t keep my mind quiet.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Meditation is definitely not about forcibly quieting the mind. It’s about noticing whatever comes and goes, gently – repeat, gently – coming back to the object of attention, letting go of thoughts. Letting go of thoughts: not not having them in the first place. Brains think; that’s what they do. Thoughts arise, but it’s possible to also let… them… pass.
Eventually, yes, the mind does get quieter, not because thoughts never arise, but because they’re not a problem. They blip in, blip out. In-breath, out-breath. That can be very pleasant: there is a lot of calm, happiness, bliss, and ease. The mind is healthy and happy. You feel refreshed afterward. It’s great.
More importantly, a calm mind is one that’s able to see itself at work. When the mind is calmed and focused, it can gain tremendously valuable insights into its own workings and into how our relationships, and really our whole reality, are impacted by it. This is the real point: to gain those insights into how things really are.
But none of that can happen if I’m fighting with how things are – wishing the mind were quieter than it is, for example, or scolding it for not being quiet enough. Which is where “Quiet, please” comes in.
A lot of the time, when I catch my mind wandering during meditation, there’s a tendency to yank the mind back to the breath, or whatever other meditation object is being used. Sometimes there’s outright hostility: “Dammit! Stop thinking!” I sometimes say in my head. (My actual words aren’t suitable for a family publication like this one.) Or, “Dammit! There I go again!” Or maybe, have you tried this one? “Dammit, I suck at meditation!”
It’s kind of a tragic little irony. Because I’m not calm, I make myself less calm by yelling at myself to be calm.
“Quiet, please,” with its firm but gentle English tone, often does the trick. On the one hand, I notice that my mind has been wandering and guide it back to the focus of meditation. On the other hand, I do so in a way that’s polite. It’s the right balance for me.
And, like the other skills I build in meditation, I find it also works well “off the cushion,” so to speak. I might say a little internal “Quiet, please” when I’m tempted to say something that I know I shouldn’t say. I say “Quiet, please” when I delete a Facebook comment before I post it. I even say “Quiet, please” when I hear some old, internalized voice criticizing me for not being good enough, successful enough, whatever enough.
Fighting aggressive voices like that one with more aggression – well, it’s a cliché, but it’s fighting fire with fire. It just doesn’t work. The antidote to judgmental stress is not more judgmental stress.
Finally, lest I give you the wrong idea, “Quiet, please” sometimes doesn’t work. Sometimes the stream of jabbering in my mind is just too intense to be quelled by a polite umpire from Wimbledon. I might still be saying the words “Quiet, please,” but I’m saying them through gritted teeth, and what I really mean is “SHUT THE F UP.”
At which point it’s time to change tactics. Maybe I’ll just note “thinking,” sit back, and let the parade of thoughts just happen on its own. Maybe I’ll zoom back into a different form of meditation, like ‘open awareness,’ that doesn’t actually require the mind to be quiet at all. Or maybe I’ll just do some loving-kindness meditation for myself, since after all, it’s no fun to be locked in a room with a chattering mind.
And maybe, after a little while, the mind will go back to its ordinary level of disorder and chaos, I’ll turn my attention to the breath, and when the mind pipes up with some thought about the past or future, I’ll just say “Quiet, please,” and take the next breath.
Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".