When I Can’t Keep Images Out of My Head

When I first started my mindfulness meditation journey, I was taught to use the breath as the point of focus. It is a reliable anchor, always there to return to when you inevitably drift off into thought. It is a stable grounding force that keeps us present.

But there are times when it’s hard to focus on the breath. Perhaps when the mind is especially busy. At those times, I switch to other bodily sensations, such as tingling in my hands or pressure from contact with the surface that I’m sitting on. I wrote a post about moving between two points of focus to help the mind maintain concentration without wandering off. That helps too.

Some days my monkey mind is particularly loud and attention-seeking.

And sometimes my chattering “monkey mind” calls for a switch to an auditory focal point such as gentle music, singing bowls, nature sounds or even simply street noises. Those will keep me present as long as I don’t fall into the trap of making stories about the sounds.

But some days are extra tough.

I tend to avoid meditating with my eyes open. Doing so only reminds me that I need to clean my desk or vacuum the carpet (“guilt-guilt, blame-blame”). However, I am a very visual person with a vivid imagination, and opening my eyes immediately grounds me if my thoughts get too pervasive when my eyes are closed.

Sometimes a thought will trigger an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking feeling simply because a seemingly-innocuous scene has been associated with a disturbing event. The scene flashes before my eyes andbefore I know it I’m down a rabbit hole. Monkey mind is activated.

While staying with bodily sensations would be preferable, some days there are too many opportunities for my monkey mind to run away with me. It can get exhausting and counterproductive to “dodge” these visuals. Yes, we are “supposed to” let the thoughts pass by us without getting caught up in them. But there are days when they agitate me too much and throw me off track.

Tree!

So I’m cutting myself some slack and turning the “problem” into the solution. On those difficult days, I focus on an image of my own choosing. Something that I can visualize clearly so that it keeps the monkey occupied while at the same time keeping me away from troubling scenes. You could argue that I’m “avoiding” the thoughts. But I see this differently–I’m giving myself a little break from them.

What works best for me? An image unencumbered by potent associations–this is different for each person. A tree, for example, works for me. It might be a thin white birch tree or as majestic and meaningful as Yggdrasil. The tree itself doesn’t matter as much as that I choose it according to what suits me and what soothes me. I can focus on its rough bark, veiny leaves and thick canopy and the sensations that these things evoke to keep away from creating stories.

And if this results in greater concentration, I have the option of hopping back to the breath. Or not.

This might not seem like an earth-shattering revelation. There are relatively popular mountain and lake meditations, so this concept is not new. But with all the emphasis on feeling into your breath in an effort to calm the thinking mind, sometimes it’s simpler to not worry about the “shoulds” and instead see what your own self needs to help it let go and settle into peace.

Mental Grounding Through the Roof of Your Mouth

Okay, this is going to sound weird, but I’ve found that this really works.

A little background: in the midst of a stressful situation, I struggle with staying present and grounded. While I try to focus on and slow my breathing, that can be ineffective, since my heart is often beating quickly and, you guessed it, focusing on my breath brings me to close to my heart. It’s hard to ignore the pounding.

I’ve written before about turning attention to the extremities, in particular the hands and feet, feeling into the sensations there, since they are as far as you can get from your heart and still be in your body.

But most of us are very aware of our hands and even our feet since we get signals from them all day long as we manipulate objects and walk around. It’s not a new sensation. Even digging your nails into the palm of your hands may end up as a stressor of its own (ow!).

Granted, we’re not hippos. But IF we were, we would have a whole lotta palate to explore!

However, one place in our body that can still elicit novel sensations is the roof of the mouth. Even for someone like me, who often scratches my palate with hard veggie stems and uses my tongue to feel around up there, the ridges and other surfaces still seem new and unexplored.

Imagine that you’re drawing a topographical map of the inside of the mouth: feel where the teeth sit in the gums, and the hard area to the inside of the teeth traveling deeper in, how that hard ridge drops off into the concave part of the hard palate, curving up and then softening into the soft palate.

One of the supposed benefits of stroking the roof of the mouth with the tongue is that doing so can purportedly stimulate the vagus nerve, and thereby the parasympathetic nervous system, because the vagus nerve rests close to the surface of the inside of the mouth. All of this may have a calming effect, which is exactly what you’re looking for.

Just thinking about the sourness of biting into a lemon makes my salivary glands go bonkers!

It’s also worth noting that in the throes of stressful situations, our mouths tend to dry out. Something to try the next time you’re anxious and cotton-mouthed: elicit salivation by simply thinking about something extremely sour–imagine biting into a slice of lemon. Try that now, visualize it as realistically as you can, and chances are your salivary glands will respond. Mine are just writing about this!

When you are able to focus on bodily sensations you bring yourself back to the reality of the here and now. It removes you from the fear of what may be, and gives you the opportunity to come back to Earth, take a deep breath and carry on.

So next time you are feeling overwhelmed, see if you can allow the novelty of the roof of your mouth to buy you some breathing room.

How Do You Want To Feel?

I’ve really been enjoying a guided meditation on Insight Timer by Australian trainer and life coach Emma Polette, entitled “Morning Visualisation Meditation”. In fact, it’s been the first meditation that I’ve done every morning for the past month. What makes me like it so much? It reminds me that I can choose the emotional state with which I enter into my day.

Emma facilitates this by instructing the listener to “allow yourself to feel how to want to feel today.” I love this concept! So many of us want to be calm or happy or courageous, but we look at it as a cognitive endeavor and get nowhere with it. Emma reminds us to actually feel what it feels like. If my goal is to feel peaceful, then I imagine what it would feel like, if I were actually peaceful – I generate those feelings in my body.

By feeling into the sensations of a positive state, we can lessen the severity of negative emotions. It takes consistency and practice, but is worth the effort.

This takes practice and focus, but the payoff is wonderful. Think of it as establishing a new habit – repetition is necessary in order to seal it into your daily routine. The more you bring up those feelings in your body and really feel into all the different sensations associated with them, the easier it is to invoke that feeling the next time. And that next time might be a time of stress, when you’re in particular need of soothing.

Just as you may associate a meditation cushion with a sense of grounding, or a certain time of the day with a mindful mood because that’s when you always meditate, you can also improve your ability to bring up positive sensations that help keep you present and calm. All it takes is consistent practice.

I should mention that this is not to suggest that if you’re feeling strong negative emotions or succumbing to anxiety it’s a flaw of some kind. There will be numerous occasions when we get swept up by distressing thoughts. Sometimes it will be hard to release them. And that’s okay.

But I find it very empowering to start my day in a positive frame of mind, knowing that I am not helpless against stressors. Just as how in mindfulness meditation when we realize that we’ve lost focus and have slipped down a rabbit hole, we simply return to the breath, we can also notice how it feels in our bodies to experience stress or anger or whatever negative emotion settles down on us.

It might be a tightness in the chest that shortens our breath and sends our heart racing. It might be a cold sensation in our stomach and lower abdomen that elicits nausea, or it may be a hot flush that toasts our cheeks. With the awareness of what we are experiencing in the moment, we can gently breathe through those bodily sensations, relax the agitation and then remember how it would feel to feel the more pleasant sensations that we’ve practiced every morning.

How would you rather be feeling right now? Can you feel it?