What is Mental Noise?

Shut the $%#@ Up!

I’ve been considering the question “What is mental noise?” and more importantly, “how do we deal with it?” If you look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Sutra 1.2, basically the start and foundation of the whole thing, reads in a variety of translations “the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga” (trans: Satchidananda), “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions” (trans: Desikachar), and “Yoga is the control of the thought-waves of the mind” (trans: Prabhavananda and Isherwood). But what are all these out of control modifications, distractions, and thought-waves that taunt us so? What is all this mental noise?

Of course, we know and experience it paschimottin a variety of forms. We have racing thoughts that prevent us from sleeping. In the middle of an event we should be enjoying, we are thinking about an argument we had yesterday. We replay insults and injuries from years ago over and over again in our head, coming up with the perfect retort to snide remarks made to us when we were teenagers. And so on and so on – but what is going on here?

The Great Simulator

I prefer to look at some neuroscience to lead the way. Without getting bogged down into it, we have to first understand that what our eyes take in and our other senses detect doesn’t directly get projected into what we ‘see.’  Our minds simulate our perception of reality based on the sensory inputs of our eyes, ears, skin, etc. as well as our memory of what has happened before. Basically, our brains run personal virtual reality machines that do their best to represent the world around us with the sensory tools we have available in our human bodies. What we see is a representation of reality, but not necessarily the whole thing. Furthermore, this ‘simulator’ of the brain can get quite creative and start losing its link with the present moment. Rick Hanson explains:

For our ancestors, running simulations of past events promoted survival, as it strengthened the learning of successful behaviors by repeating their neural firing patterns. Simulating future events also promoted survival by enabling our ancestors to compare possible outcomes – in order to pick the best approach – and to ready potential sensory-motor sequences for immediate action. Over the past three million years, the brain has tripled in size; much of this expansion has improved the capabilities of the simulator, suggesting its benefits for survival… The brain continues to produce simulations today, even when they have nothing to do with staying alive. Watch yourself daydream or go back over a relationship problem, and you’ll see the clips playing – little packets of simulated experiences, usually just seconds long.

As we simulate and replay past events, especially with negative emotions attached, we reinforce and strengthen their hold on us. Especially if we convince ourselves that all of these fantasies are based in absolute truth. Similarly, as we obsess over the future, we get locked in a state of permanent emergency that keeps our nervous systems on edge. These simulation patterns have an evolutionary foundation, but is there a way out? Much of spiritual, mindfulness, and happiness seeking teaching begins here!

Seeking Nowness

Buddhist Psychology, as expressed by Chogyam Trungpa, outlines the functions of our sense organs, our consciousness of them, and then the confusion that layers on top as our mind begins to build simulations and projections wrapped up in emotions and delusions from past experiences or future anxieties. Much of his work and the work of his student Pema Chodron, from whom I take much of my teaching, is about stripping away these delusions and stabilising our consciousness at the level of our senses to have a direct experience of reality as much as we can. To move us beyond animal instincts and evolutionary patterns and live an enlightened life in what Trungpa coined ‘nowness.’ Thich Nhat Hanh, with his take on Buddhist psychology, adds:

Our practice is to be aware of the manifestation and the presence of mental formations and to look deeply into them in order to see their true nature. Since we know that all mental formations are impermanent and without real substance, we do not identify ourselves with them or seek refuge in them. With daily practice, we are able to nourish and develop wholesome mental formations and transform unwholesome ones. Freedom, non-fear, and peace are the result of this practice.

There is no way in a single workshop or blog post to give an all-encompassing tactic to work with these formations, modifications, and out-of-control thought waves that make us suffer. That is what thousands of years of spiritual traditions and voluminous texts and teachings are for. However, we can make a start.  Here’s what I suggest:

Work with the Body

Back to Rick Hanson’s teaching on neuroscience and mindfulness teaching, I return again and again to this powerful paragraph which throws some reality in the face of our mental noise:

Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It’s embodied: you feel it in your body, and it proceeds through bodily mechanisms. Understanding the physical machinery of suffering will help you see it increasingly as an impersonal condition – unpleasant to be sure, but not worth getting upset about.

In his insightful book, Buddha’s Brain, he goes on to outline tactics to stabilise the nervous system and end the permanent state of emergency which triggers evolutionary patterns that bring about loads of mental simulations and noise. Functionally, we train the body to relax through a variety of tactics prevalent in yoga and meditation settings, including slow and rhythmic breath, mindfulness of the body, and physical positions of comfort that stimulate rest and digest responses. When I suffer anxiety, stress, or whatever it may be, I try not to linger on the story and simulation in my head about what’s going on, but ask myself “what is my body feeling?” and then try to work with those physical symptoms.

Pull Weeds and Plant Flowers

FlowersWhen we have begun to stabilise our nervous system we can more clearly see our tendency to replay past events. We can see the negative bias we usually assign to them. Again, as an evolutionary pattern we linger over negative memories in an attempt to learn from them to survive a harsh wilderness. This simplistic tactic works well when we’re running from a tiger and want to avoid its hunting ground, but less well in navigating more complicated emotional geographies. The simple act of infusing positive emotion, experience, and memory into negative memories or learning to dwell more on positive events can change the wiring of your brain. When you recall negative memories you can change them by recalling in response the positive experiences and perspectives that are its antitode, as Hanson teaches. I’m not making this up as some airy-fairy way of overlooking trauma. The creation of positive memory and thinking patterns can powerfully affect the brain. As much as we work with suffering, we must work with joy and cultivating its ability to blossom within us.

Practice Equanimity and Expand your World

Meditation is the most powerful way of all of rewiring and retraining the brain. As we learn to sit with what arises, breathe with it, calm the nervous system around it, decrease our stress responses and mental simulating, we can begin to develop a state of equanimity. Deep meditators can produce measurably changed brain patterns representing openness, spaciousness, and enlightened consciousness. This is where we start moving beyond what is seen by our limited sense organs or simulated in the brain and into what Pema Chodron calls ‘groundlessness’ – where we are free of delusions, illusions, and can find the magic of our world.   We can experience ‘profound inner stillness’ as studies have shown. For me and my overactive mind, I have to make sure I work with the body’s stress symptoms first before I am stable enough to sit and be with what arises.