Ep #30 Why You Can’t Stop Thinking During Meditation: Insights and Solutions

by | May 23, 2024 | Core Centering, SCA Podcast, Stress Relief

The Somatic Coaching Academy Podcast

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Ani
Hi, and welcome to the Somatic Coaching Academy podcast. Hey there, Brian. Hello, Ani. Hi there. I’m so excited because in about two weeks or so, We’re going to be at Kripalu. If you’re listening and you don’t know what Kripalu is, it’s a world renowned center for yoga and health. And it is such a wonderful place to be. And we are privileged to be teaching at Kripalu in June, our core centering program. So if you haven’t checked it out and you’re interested in coming and hanging out live and in person with us and Our community of just amazing people. We have just the coolest, amazing people in the Somatic Coaching Academy community. Come get some core centering skills, relax, enjoy the grounds, the wonderful food, get a retreat. You deserve it. You deserve a few days out. Come on over and check out Kripala. If you go to our website and you go to Events, you’ll see the link to check out Kripalu there. I’m so excited to do core centering with people. Brian, one of my favorite things when we teach the core centering program is the epiphany that people have around meditation. It happens so often.

Ani
And that’s what we’re talking about today in this episode.

Brian
Yes, Ani. So the idea for the episode, first of all, we hear this a lot, like you indicated. And what was the other little push for me It was a couple of weeks ago, a few weeks ago, I was leading a public class on course centering for anxiety. When I asked the people in the class, What do you do for anxiety? What are your go-to things? One person responded, I attempt to meditate.

Ani
That’s such a great way to put it.

Brian
I thought, Okay, so I hear you there. I said, So what’s up with the attempt? She went on to elaborate say, Well, we can’t stop our mind from thinking, and all those kinds of things why we typically hear from people of why they don’t meditate. One of the typical things we ask, they say, I’d love to meditate, but I just can’t stop my mind from thinking.

Ani
Yeah, I just can’t do it.

Brian
I just can’t do it.

Ani
Yeah. And so in this episode, we’re talking about the biggest problem with meditation. You know what? I think, Brian, I hear from people all the time that they’re going to go get a meditation online, whether it’s insight time or something else. They’re going to go get a meditation. And what people are talking about, and people get so excited about that, it’s almost like adult candy to get a meditation. Oh, free meditation. I am not eating gluten, dairy or sugar, so that just seems delicious.

Brian
Which is interesting, right? Because we get the dopamine hit, and we’re trying to meditate, and we’ve got dopamine coursing through our…

Ani
Well, but part of the thing is that what we’re talking about when we get those things is guided meditation. And so it actually really puts aside some of this stuff. First of all, you get different benefits, but also it’s different than this actual practice that people talk about so often, I’m wanting to read the benefits of meditation practices. When we talk about guided meditations, because we can be distracted or get lost in our visual apparatus.

Brian
Correct.

Ani
As we have something to distract ourselves, Don’t get me wrong, I love the meditation candy, too. I can totally be found downloading a new meditation. And it is this escapist thing where I can get lost in the visualization or whatever. I was a serious meditator in my 20s. And by serious, you know me, if I get my mind on something, I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right. And I was going to do meditation. Right. And so Actually, back up a little further, I was trying to think for myself, why did I even do this? I think I did because when I was a kid, my mom was super into meditation. And back in the ’80s, people don’t do this, but I think it was popular in the ’80s, she had one of these gurus that she followed around. Every once in a while, she would go see. She called him the guru. That was the word. She gave me, when I was was probably around seven, a mantra and told me, This is your meditation mantra. She wanted me to use it. But I don’t remember if we’re being instructed about it, but I do remember almost being served up to other adult friends like, She has a mantra.

Ani
They were like, She has a mantra? That’s amazing. Golden child. I didn’t use it. I didn’t know how to use it. There was a tape. But I think that that actually piqued my interest when I got out of the house and had a little space to be able to go, Okay, I think there’s probably something about this meditation thing. And I was definitely raised in an environment where it was a worthy aspiration to meditate. And so I started following in the tradition of Thich Naha, mindfulness meditation in the tradition of Thich Naha. And I started going to, they call them sanghas, they’re like meditation communities, regularly. And because this was before I had kids and I was a young adult, I had plenty of time to really do this. I went every week or more than once a week, and I would go on Sundays, and I would go to workshops, and I actually got to the place where I was leading sangha practice myself. I both loved it, but I was also pretending a little bit. Because remember, I said I wanted to start meditating so I could get it right and do it right.

Ani
But I hid did for years from my meditation instructor that I wasn’t actually doing it right because I would sit to meditate and I couldn’t stop the thoughts in my head. It took me years to admit this to my meditation teacher. And finally, with great shame, I did because I still didn’t feel like I was getting it right. And I really, truly wanted to, at that point, by that point, I wanted the nirvana. I wanted the experience of whatever that was going to be: timeless, spacious, oneness, whatever that promise was of when I could shut my brain up. And she said to me, after all of these years and feeling like I was a failure, you’re not supposed to stop the thoughts. You’re supposed to watch the thoughts. And in that moment, week after week after week, after week, after week, after years, after years, after years, I thought to myself, What? Why am I even sitting here? Because I can listen to my thoughts all day long. I want some peace. I want some actual peace. And it wasn’t until I started doing moving meditation that I started to actually have that experience that I was going for in seated meditation to actually have peace of mind, to actually feel what oneness might feel like, to taste the divine or whatever, what the nirvana experience that I realized I was looking for as a seated meditator.

Ani
It wasn’t until I started moving meditation that really I started to have that experience was like, Oh, thank God, this is it. This is it.

Brian
Yeah. So you’re really speaking to something really important here, Ani, in terms of what’s the biggest problem with meditation That most people say is, again, they can’t stop thinking. I think if we go back a little further, I think the biggest problem with meditation is people aren’t doing it, period. They say, I’d like to. I was the same way. I used to say, I think about meditating. I think about meditation. And thought because I read about the process of meditation, I knew the steps. And I think, as long as I know the steps, aren’t I getting the benefits of it? Until my health tanked, and then I realized, Oh, I got to get serious. I got to actually get serious about practicing meditation, which was much harder than reading about it. Shocking. I ran into that same problem. The biggest problem is the idea that we can’t stop our minds from thinking, which is what you ran into. And then your instructor gave you that great piece of advice. It’s about watching the thoughts, not about stopping the thoughts. When people say to me, I can’t stop my mind from thinking, I’m like, Great. Would you ever want your heart to stop beating?

Brian
Would you ever want your lungs to stop breathing? Like, your heart is supposed to move blood. Lungs are supposed to move air. Your brain is supposed to think. I mean, that’s what it does. So we would never want it to just stop thinking altogether. So that goal or aspiration of itself sets us up for failure just from the start. We let go of that. Let’s let go of that as an idea that that’s supposed to happen. As an ideal.

Ani
As an ideal. Yeah. It reminds me of I’ve had a few clients actually tell me when they come on program that they don’t want to be angry anymore, ever again. And it’s like, okay, that’s not reasonable. So what I’m hearing you say is, let’s not set ourselves up for inhumane, unreasonable ideals. Let’s be human beings.

Brian
Yes. So when we talk about meditation, there’s loads of research around how beneficial meditation is for you. And there’s a couple of different types of meditation. We have concentration meditation is about when you’re focusing on a certain mantra, as you mentioned, or focusing on your breath, or you have some objective focus where you keep bringing your attention back to. And then there’s mindfulness meditation, where you are witnessing what’s going on. You’re not really trying to control anything or bring your attention back to anything necessarily, but you’re in a state of distant witnessing, watchfulness from what’s happening. And either way, whether you’re thinking about concentration meditation or mindfulness meditation, really what meditation really is about, it’s about being present, being fully present right here in the present moment. It’s about being able to or practicing just redirecting our focus or our attention.

Ani
There’s a lot of reasons why people might want to meditate. I mean, for me, I was looking for more of a spiritual transcendence thing. You started meditating because you had health issues. Whether you’re going for mind, body, or spirit result. Meditation is a fantastic way to help you get where you’re going.

Brian
Yeah, absolutely. And so how do we make meditation easier? Which is you had such a great story around that, and you found ways to make it easier and went with movement, movement to help create a state of a meditative state. There’s also a good amount of research around mindful movement as just a research category. If you’re looking, Hey, I want to dig into the research or see what mindful… Just plug that into PubMed or something, and some research does come up for a mindful movement. Linda Larky actually is a colleague of ours who actually does research in that area, which is really fantastic. So how do we make meditation easier? Maybe first, we can just really quickly talk about the benefits of meditation. They’re broad, they’re vast, but they do affect our physiology on multiple levels. So they help to decrease muscle tension and muscle tone. So it can be very helpful for chronic pain. That’s research has been shown. It also has neuroendocrine impacts also. There are certain hormones that elevate when we meditate. There are hormones that go down when we meditate. Some of the elevates that come, hormones that come up are like DHEA, which is around longevity, how long we’re going to live, how healthy we’re going to be.

Brian
The one hormone that you would want to measure for that is DHEA. It actually goes up when we meditate. A cortisol and adrenaline goes down when we meditate. When we have what you might call a successful meditation practice. So how do we make it easier? And you really point to something important is what if we made it easier not by going head on and trying to sit down and sit still? Because most people when they think of meditating, think about sitting cross-leg on a cushion and just being quiet. Tuoughing it out. And I tell you, most people who start off meditating that I’ve met, that’s really antagonizing for folks. It’s almost impossible to do.

Ani
Especially when they’re first starting. In the beginning, you said something about the most important thing with meditation is that you do it. If you really want to get to the place where you’re a person who can sit on a cushion for a few hours and meditate, awesome. That’s not why most of us go at it. I might. That’s not why most of us go at it. And when you’re starting, just like starting anything, I so often talk about when I learned to ski as an adult because it was so challenging for me. It’s just so challenging to learn how to ski as an adult. But you didn’t put me at the top of the mountain. It took me three years to get to the summit. You put me on the smallest hill, which just to be clear, in the Adirondacks at Whiteface Mountain is still a very big hill, but I digress. So start with it making it easier on yourself.

Brian
Yeah. So let’s talk about making it easier. To have a successful meditation practice, one where… And by successful, I don’t think there’s one successful practice, but let’s say A practice where you actually get changes where your muscle tone comes down, where you have neuroendocrine changes, where you have more longevity hormones in your body, where you have better melatonin, more serotonin, more beta-endorphin. If you’re actually were measuring the physiological effects of meditation, what Herbert Benson called the relaxation response, that’s what I would consider a successful meditation experience because you’re actually getting the physiological changes with it. So how can we help you have that happen? Well, there has to be certain parts of the brain that are actually functioning well in order to have those things happen. And this is a part of your brain that Bessel Wendel calls the mohawk of self-awareness. It’s actually the midline structures in the brain, the prefrontal cortex. There’s some different regions of that. And then over the top of the middle of the brain, and then to the back of the brain, to the posterior cingulate gyrus. These parts of the brain need to be active in order for us to have that experience of peace and presence.

Brian
Here’s the problem. When we have a lot of stress in our lives, we have a lot of that sympathetic nervous system is really going haywire, really going crazy? We’re feeling really buzzed up. Or we’ve been to Starbucks for the fifth time today, and we’ve got a lot of caffeine, a lot of stimulants in the system. A lot of us are addicted to Red Bull, energy drinks, stimulants, Mountain Dew. All that stuff is just activating the sympathetic nervous system. When that happens, those parts of your brain actually don’t operate really well. It’s very difficult to just plop down to try to have a meditative experience when it literally feels like engine is going a thousand miles an hour.

Ani
I was thinking the engine, the exact same analogy. If you’re in a car like,.

Brian
It’s really agitating to stop. The little analogy I like to use is, imagine if you were driving down the highway at 90 miles an hour, and maybe you’re late for something. If you’re driving on the highway at 90 miles an hour, and you come behind a school bus that’s going 10 miles an hour, that is like, aah. Because your nervous system does not like to change that fast from going really fast, all of a sudden, just the brakes are slammed on. That’s synonymous to, I’m feeling really stressed. I’m going to sit down on this cushion and meditate. Your nervous system is like, What are you doing? It’s just too much of a contrast. But if you were driving down the highway at 90 miles an hour and you came behind a car going 88 miles an hour, you might not even realize it. Then over time, if that car slowed down to 85, to 80, to 75, to 70, over time, you might be like, Oh, okay, we’re slowing down, but it’s never aggravating to do it, which is why that idea of movement is so important. Because when we move, we do a couple of really important things.

Brian
We meet the nervous system where it is, however fast it’s going, number one. Number two, movement helps to vent off the chemicals associated with the stress response. All the chemicals, hormones associated with the stress response are designed to make the body move, fight or flight. They’re designed to make the body move. If we have hormones in us that are designed to make the body move and we try to sit down and sit still, we’re trying to use a lot of self control to do that. Different parts of your brain are now working really hard to try to get you to sit still, and you’re never going to be able to access part of your brains that are necessary for relaxation and meditation.

Ani
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I’m just imagining if I was in a room with a bunch of toxic… You said vent off. It makes a lot of sense because if you’re in a room with a bunch of toxic chemicals or something, you got to get out of that environment. It’s like trying to get yourself to do something while you’re in there. It doesn’t work, and I think it’s unkind. And then what we end up doing is saying to ourselves, there’s something wrong with me. Correct. No, there’s nothing wrong with you. Your car was going 90, and then it went down to 60, or you just got a bunch of stuff you got to vent off. There’s nothing wrong with you.

Brian
Actually, your nervous system is working pretty well. Because if you’re still in that toxic environment, nervous system has a responsibility to stay upregulated in order to protect you in whatever way it can in that environment. Bingo. I always like the question I have is, what would your nervous system say about this? It’s not really what it says about me. It’s what does it say about my nervous system.

Ani
I love that question. That’s such a great question. What would my nervous system say about this?

Brian
Movement is a really important part to start with. There is research to show that if you’re practicing mindful movement, you actually get the same results from meditative practice that you do if you’re sitting because you’re starting to balance the nervous system now. You’re starting to change your neurohormone profiles. You’re starting to release tension in the body. You’re starting to oxygenate the body more with these somatic practices around movement. So that’s one thing. The other thing that people will try to do is do breath practices as a meditation. These are also really, really powerful. We’ve talked about this in other podcasts as well, Ani, that if you have adrenaline in your body, if you have adrenaline in your body, and you just try to do breath practices to slow down your heart and slow down your breathing with having that much adrenaline in your body, that’s going to work as long as you’re paying attention to breathing that slow. But as soon as you stop breathing that slow, it just goes right up again.

Ani
Okay, so you actually have to keep doing it.

Brian
You have to keep doing it forever. Because your body, because the neurohormones and tension in your body is always feeding back to your nervous system a state of imbalance. And so what your body is doing is changing your heart rate and your breathing in order to manage the state of imbalance.

Ani
So balance the system first. Correct.

Brian
It’s much easier to use your breath to begin opening up and balancing your thinking and your your brain processes if your body is already balanced. So we like to start from the bottom up, balance the body, and then access the breath, and then meditation becomes actually pretty easy.

Ani
It’s so easy. And so that experience that I used to have sitting on the cushion where I couldn’t stop my thoughts from thinking, and I wanted to so badly, I started the moving meditation. And not only could I experience that peace I was looking for during the movement, but then after I would have these periods of quiescence.

Brian
Yes.

Ani
That was actually what I was looking for in the first place. Correct.

Brian
Yeah. That piece that you were looking for. Yeah. So one of the biggest problems that we find people just try to jump right in to quiet sitting meditation, even though their nervous system is really ramped up and really activated. And then that creates a lot of self-defeat, a lot of self-judgment, a lot of self-criticism. That’s certainly the experience I had, too, when I first started practicing meditating. I tell this little story that I had really high blood pressure, and that was the impetus for me to really get really serious about meditating. And when I started meditating, my blood pressure actually went up. It was supposed to go down, but it went up. I was like, What is going on here? Then I really realized that it went up because when I would sit down, my thoughts, I became way more aware of just how busy and cruel my thoughts were to myself. The self judgment, cruelty, the denigration. Those voices in your head. All those voices that I wasn’t… I’m sure I had noticed them beforehand, but I was so busy that I wasn’t really paying attention to him because I was busy doing stuff.

Brian
I was busy doing stuff most of the time to appease those voices anyway. Totally. Working really hard.

Ani
Totally. That’s one of the things that really bothered me about meditation was I understood that it was about listening and watching the thoughts, is I also had some wicked mean voices in my head. Then I would sit for whatever amount of time it was, whether it was five minutes or it was a half an hour, and listen to the crap that was going on up there. I didn’t, at that time, have any tools to transform the thoughts that I was thinking or the feelings that I was feeling. So all I did get off the cushion and be like, damn, I suck.

Brian
If that ever happened I’d beat the hell out of myself. This isn’t fun. This doesn’t feel peaceful. So my blood pressure actually went up, and I was like, wow, you got to do something about this. A lot of the things that I figured out how to do are now part of the core centering program. So we talk about this a lot with core centering, and the way that we’ve developed the program and the way that we’ve developed the methodology within the program is that easy entry into meditation so that even people who’ve never meditated before have a meditative experience during the program. That’s the thing, right? They can say, Oh, my God, I feel so much more relaxed, more present, being kinder to myself, I’m more empathetic to those people around me. I’m getting all these benefits, but I don’t really sit, to meditate that much. But they’re still getting all the benefits that you would get from what have been talked about from sitting meditation for a long time. And we really believe, and we know now that having this integrated approach to it is really critical to being successful.

Ani
Yeah. So I encourage listeners to think about why you want to meditate or why you think meditation is important, because for each of us, it’s something different. Maybe it’s something physiologically like Brian that you’re trying to achieve in terms of lowering your blood pressure Maybe it’s something more spiritually aspirational, like myself, trying to reach the promised land. For each of us, it’s something different. And the cool thing about that is that sometimes people know and want meditation as a way to get to their result. Sometimes people don’t know that meditation or that quiet mind in that presence is actually part of their path. For some people, for example, they don’t want to be so angry or they want to be more responsive rather than reactive or something. But for some people, they wouldn’t put, I have to meditate as a part of that equation. But you can still get so many of the positive results that you want when you can actually do some meditative practices, but you don’t have to sit on a cushion to do it. You don’t need to make yourself. It can be easy. Not only that, it can be fun and actually provide relief and a little vacation in the moments that we do it through the process of core centering.

Ani
Yeah.

Brian
So if this sounds like, Hey, I would love to be able to meditate successfully, not feel like I’m chained to a cushion to have to do it. If I want to do that and it feels really good to do that, great, I’ll do that. If you’re looking for some more tools to be able to help other people have an easy access and easier road to inner peace and quiescence and empathy and resiliency and all those amazing things that happen when you feel fully present, join us for course centering, especially at Kripalu in just a couple of weeks.

Ani
Yeah, join us at Kripalu, join us at a virtual program if that works better for your schedule. We are really excited to be at Kripalu. So, Brian, I will see you in that place of presence. I’m actually, as life and business partners, Really looking forward to being able to experience that with you. It’s not just fun to teach, but to also be able to be in that space of cultivating presence with you is super fun.

Brian
Thanks, Ani.

Ani
Looking forward to that, too. Looking forward to that. We’ll see you next time. Bye-bye.

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