A new technology allows us deep inside the brain of a meditator!

A pretty place for a (not-so-)still mind!

Hello! I just got out of a seven-day silent meditation retreat!

If you haven’t dropped off already (!) for fear I’m going to either be all zen or try to convert you, I imagine you’re thinking something like: I can’t do that meditation crap for seven minutes, never mind seven days.

I anticipated you might think that, so thanks to just-launched machinery (the pandemic has really accelerated technological innovation!), I recorded one of my meditation sessions so that you could see just how it’s done. That’s right, I’ve got a transcript of what actually happened inside my brain! I don’t mean to brag, but I think you’ll be quite impressed by how zen my brain gets:

(mind): Ok, brain, we’re going to meditate now. Body, get yourself comfortable so that we can sit still for a half an hour.

(body): On it! How about we sit cross-legged?

(mind): Erm, are you sure that’s a good idea? We usually get sore when we’re cross-legged.

(body): But that’s what meditators do, don’t they? We can do it! Promise!

(mind): I don’t think it’s necessary, but okay. Brain, you’re on. All we’ve got to do is let our thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky.

(brain): Got it! Clouds in the sky. Wait, what kind of clouds? Cumulus? Shoot, what are the other kinds of clouds? And are cumulus the happy ones or the rainy ones? Damn, I wish we could google right now. Only six more days and eight hours until we can use the internet. How will we ever know what kinds of clouds the thoughts are in?

(mind): Brain, it seems we’re chasing thoughts, not so much letting them go like clouds in the sky. Remember the metaphor: the mind is like a blue sky. It’s always calm, regardless of the clouds (those pesky thoughts) passing through it.

(brain): Riiight. I remember. So what I’ll just do is visualize every thought ‘catching’ a cloud and riding it away.

(mind): Um, that feels more complicated than it needs to be...

(brain): It’s perfect! Although really that means they’re not happy clouds because they move too slowly. It needs to be storm clouds. But not a full-on storm because you can’t really see one cloud versus another. Just clouds that precede…

(mind): Brain! I think that metaphor is not helping. Let’s use a mantra instead. Just keep repeating the mantra.

(brain): Ok, mind! I’m on it. A mantra is easier….. <mantra>… <mantra>… <mantra>…


(body): Sorry to disturb, folks, but I think our left foot may be asleep.

(brain): Oh NO! That’s awful. How long can a foot sleep for without causing damage? We must move it!

(mind): No! We learned that a still body leads to a still mind. Just note sensations as pleasant or unpleasant. Brain, label that sleeping foot and move on.

(brain): Got it, mind. Sleeping foot: unpleasant. Unnnpleasant… UNPLEASANT. Agh, body, move that foot before it falls off! We can’t lose our foot over a meditation!

(body): On it, brain! I’ll just…

(mind): No! Body, leave that foot! Brain, remember we don’t have to believe every thought that comes our way? Our foot is not going to fall off because it’s asleep.

(brain): If only we could google. We’d know for sure!

(mind): Sigh.

(body): Wait, it’s awake. Crisis over.

(mind): SIGH.

(brain): Where were we? Happy clouds? No, slightly stormy clouds.

(mind): No! Clouds didn’t work! Mantra, brain, mantra!

(brain): Ah, right. <mantra>. But, mind, do you think we’re almost done? It feels like it’s been an hour…

(mind): Brain, all you have to do, your one job, is to say the mantra. The bell will ring when it rings. Mantra. It was working.

(brain): <mantra>…<mantra>…<mantra>…<mantra>…

(body): I know we’re just getting it here, but I think there’s an ant crawling up our leg. I’m pretty sure it’s a fire ant. We can’t let that bite us…

(mind): Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!

I’m so sorry, but the rest of the recording got cut off when (body) jumped up in fear of the ants, knocked over the fancy recording device and smashed it (they don’t make technology like they used to!). But trust me, it was a full 24 minutes and 12 seconds of a completely still body and no thoughts in the head.

(mind): I don’t think that’s how it…

(brain): Shh!

So, you see, it really is quite simple. For those of you whose brains cannot perform the feat of stillness recorded above, I’m so sorry. Perhaps you just need a better meditation cushion (I’m sure you can google that).

For the avoidance of doubt, it’s important to note that not all meditation sessions feel like that.

Sometimes they’re worse.

I wrote this article to help dispel the belief that meditation means having a still mind. As best I understand it, the whole point of meditation is to practice being aware of when the mind wanders, so you can be aware of your thoughts and not overcome by them. In the example above, every time (mind) stepped in was a moment of awareness. It doesn’t matter that none of it was particularly pretty. While stillness is certainly nice (on the rare occasions when it happens), it’s not the goal. Awareness is the goal. So, for those of you whose brains also do things like this (those of you with brains!), rest assured you’re not doing it wrong. You’re just being human.

(mind): easy for you to say, narrator. I myself could have really just used a moment of peace. Calgon, take me away…

Amy Bonsall is the founder and CEO of nau, a business focused on increasing the humanity in workplaces. She’s also an IDEO alumna and she’s training to be a meditation teacher. More blog posts are here.