This is a serialisation of a guide to meditation for programmers that I first posted over at CodingMindfully.com. If you can't wait for the full series to be published, head on over and download your free PDF copy!
Meditation, thoughts and the nervous system
A conundrum that modern humans face is that we have an ancient nervous system that is, in many ways, poorly adapted for the environment we live in today.
Because the mind has more sources of information to process than ever before, modern minds are in overdrive.
Pretty much every person I teach meditation too feels that their mind is busier than a typical mind! It’s a near-universal sensation.
Here’s one of the big reasons - the environment we live in has rapidly changed to be very different from the environment in which our minds evolved. Our brains are still adapting to the changes.
We receive so much input in the form of emails, social media, television, work and so on that it overloads our ability to process this information. The sensory input will get “stored up” in our minds and bodies for later processing.
Our minds race, we feel like we can’t think clearly, that we can’t keep up with the pace or see the clearest way forward. All because we are thinking excessively.
One of the biggest struggles most people have with meditation is excessive thinking. It’s easily solved by realising that:
- Thoughts are never a problem in meditation;
- We can change our relationship with our thoughts by recognising they are just “mental events” - happenings in our consciousness that we can give more, or less, attention as needed.
With a bit of time, the mind eventually “settles itself” - in fact, this is one of the main reasons people come to meditation in the first place!
How meditation helps excessive thinking
The nature of thinking
Have you ever considered why we have thoughts? As humans, we identify so heavily with our thinking that it’s possible to go through your entire life without wondering why this is the case!
Thinking is pretty amazing. I love being able to think. But it wasn’t until a number of years ago that I ever considered just why it is that I think, and why it seemed to get a bit out of hand on occasion.
From the point of view of evolutionary biology, the ability to think is an advantage that allows us to solve the problems we face in the world. This in turn allows us to ensure our survival as an individual and hence as a species.
According to evolutionary psychology, the mind and its subtleties are adaptations that help us to survive and thrive in our environment. Every feature of your mental world is an adaptation concerned at a basic level with keeping you alive.
The most obvious way that your mind does this is by giving you killer problem solving abilities. You have the superpower to think your way out of (and in to!) tricky situations. You can do this using the power of abstract thought that eludes most other species.
In times gone by, this might have been as simple as figuring out a safe way through a ravine to get to water or food at the other side.
In more recent times, we’ve applied our ability to think in ever more sophisticated ways – for example:
- Carrying out calculations that allow planes to fly;
- Figuring out how best to deploy the resources of a team in a company;
- Planning major construction projects;
- Attempting to understand the complexity of nature and the human body;
- Developing the software that powers our favourite websites.
All of which further the existence of individuals and the species.
Thinking. Powerful stuff indeed!
The ability to think, when harnessed correctly, is a source of major benefits to humanity. But sometimes our capacity to plan, predict, calculate and create can work against us. Especially when it feels that that’s all we ever do!
Sometimes, traits that have evolved in one environment can become a little less effective when the environment changes. This is known as maladaptation. In certain circumstances, the thinking mind can behave in a maladaptive manner.
There are three features of our current world that make our mind go into overdrive:
- The type of threat we’re faced with is, for the most part, imaginary. The majority of us live safe lives, where problems like food, shelter and water are mostly solved. Yet our mind still desires to direct its problem solving capacity at something. It preoccupies itself with our day-to-day difficulties, which are usually not life threatening, and directs the full extent of its abilities at them, resulting in excessive thinking;
- We’re bombarded with way, way more information than in the past, so our thinking, problem solving mind (which LOVES information, and loves to process that information by creating thoughts) is overstimulated. This constant stimulation means we can magnify the severity of our problems, turning everyday situations into sources of stress and anxiety. We become overwhelmed with excessive thinking. Everything becomes a problem to be solved, or goal to be achieved. This can get pretty tiring;
- We don’t live in a way that our nervous system is unwound through physical activity as frequently. Excessive activation of the stress response causes tension to accumulate in the mind and body and we don’t give ourselves time and space to release it, leading to long-term accumulation of stress.
Thinking is just fine. Do as much as you need to, do it well, do it clearly.
Overthinking, on the other hand, is often a sign of stress. It’s frequently experienced as racing thoughts, worst-case scenarios, living completely inside your head, or negative self-talk (for example, I’m a terrible programmer – often manifesting as impostor syndrome).
Frequently, we’re thinking in terms of “should” or “must” or “have to”, putting enormous pressure on ourselves for things to be different from how they are now.
Which is no fun, and gets us nowhere!
Imaginary threats and information overload make us prone to overthinking. Since thinking is designed to solve problems, it can feel like EVERYTHING is a problem!
The mind, which evolved to solve the problem of how to keep us alive – to help us to ensure our safety – is doing anything but! In fact, it can feel like we’re constantly UNSAFE – even when, objectively, we’re perfectly secure!
Meditation and excessive thinking
The preoccupation with survival often means that our minds are caught up with the past and the future. Because it is so concerned with our survival, our mind likes to predict where threats will come from. It also likes to reflect on the past, analysing events to see what it might learn from them for next time something similar occurs.
You can easily verify by observation of your own mind. Take a second to observe what you are thinking right now. Chances are, you are engaged in some form of thinking about the future (predicting) or the past (learning).
Worry, anxiety, fear, regret, bad memories - the mind at its worst is full of these! They are uncomfortable, distracting and aren’t always useful.
The Standard Meditation Algorithm gives us a practice that helps us to connect more with our Present Moment Experience.
If we’re faced with the problem of being consumed with the past and the future, it makes sense to practice this overlooked aspect of our experience - the what’s actually going on right now.
It’s important to emphasise that there is NO NEED to actively eliminate thoughts and thinking when practicing the Standard Meditation Algorithm. Instead of an active, task-based approach to solving the problem of excessive thinking, by making the decision to direct our attention elsewhere, we are starving the thoughts of fuel.
Most people find that thoughts will settle themselves, to some extent, without any action by themselves, by simply choosing to focus and refocus on the present moment during a meditation session.
If you haven't already tried the short guided meditation from Part 2, I suggest you go ahead and do it now!