The art of mindfully talking to yourself

A lot of people find it easier to practice with guided meditations than when they “fly solo.” And that’s not surprising. When we have a guide then we have a voice coming in from the outside, bringing with it skills that aren’t yet our own.

The guide’s voice also performs the useful function of interrupting our distracted trains of thought. Without those interruptions reminding us of what we’re actually meant to be doing in the meditation practice we’d remain in distracted states for much longer. A lot of our distractions involve us talking to ourselves.

Generally, then there’s a big difference between the effects of our distracting inner voices and the helpful outer voice of the teacher.

But what if we could get our inner voices to be more helpful? What if they could help us to stay on track, and to be less distracted?

Meditate Like a Train Conductor

In explaining how we can do this I’d like to share with you the Japanese art of shisa kanko, which literally means “pointing and calling.”

Shisa kanko isn’t a meditation technique. It evolved in noisy and distracting working environments where it was important not to make errors. But it does have the aim of helping people to be less distracted and more mindful — especially when they’re doing repetitive tasks that they’re very familiar with. Shisa Kanko the mindful art of talking to yourself.

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Japanese railway workers have been using this tool for more than a hundred years. A train conductor pulling into a station will talk themselves through the procedures involved, pointing at things they need to check and naming them out loud. It’s a mental checklist that they’re reciting to themselves as a mindfulness aid.

It’s a remarkably effective method of performing a task mindfully. A 1994 study showed that “pointing and calling” reduced mistakes by almost 85 percent when doing a simple task. In fact, using this method, there were only 0.38 errors for every 100 times a task was done.

Reducing the “Error Rate” in Our Meditation

Now consider that meditation is a repetitive task. And it’s an internal one, without the kind of external and objective demands that a task like bringing a train into a station imposes. If a conductor were to forget to unlock the doors, the passengers would soon remind them. If you start thinking about work during your meditation, your mind can wander a long way before you remind yourself of your intended task.

We don’t talk in terms of “errors” in meditation, but if we did we’d say there was a very high error rate — maybe in the range of 40 to 80 percent for the average person who’s been meditating for a few years. If only we could get down to 0.38 distractions in meditation for every hundred breaths!

As you know, I’ve led a lot of guided meditations. And one of the things I’ve noticed many times over the years is that my meditation practice tends to be more effective while I’m leading a sit. And that’s maybe not surprising, since I’m doing, in effect, shisa kanko (minus the pointing). While I’m leading others in meditation I’m also leading myself.

How to be Your Own Meditation Guide

So sometimes when I’m meditating on my own I offer myself a few words of self-guidance. Often this is just a few words. As I’m settling in to meditate I might say to myself, “Poise … dignity … softening.” Each of those words acts as a trigger for a cascade of inner changes, both physical and emotional. The words poise and dignity trigger my body straightening, my head coming to an effortless balance on top of the spine, my chest opening as I breathe into the sternum. “Softening” triggers the release of unnecessary tension.

I have a little mantra that I drop into meditation over and over: “Soft eyes … open field of inner attention.” Saying “soft eyes” triggers a deeper relaxation response. It also calms my mind, reducing the amount of thinking that’s going on. “Open field of inner attention” leads me into an awareness of the whole body. As well as saying that phrase at the start of meditaion I’ll drop it into my mind any time I realize that my attention has begun to wander.

So this is an example of inner speech that takes me deeper into my present-moment experience rather than distracting me from it. It’s me guiding myself into (and through) a meditation session. And it has a powerful effect, especially with repetition, because of the way that the words trigger particular responses.

I’ve suggested to other people that they try doing this, and they’ve found it helpful too.

Using This Outside of Meditation

This technique is something I’ve used outside of meditation as well. Like many people right now, I’ve sometimes found myself waking up in the middle of the night with my mind racing. So I’ll keep saying to myself, “Soft eyes, senses wide open.”

This is similar to one of the phrases I use at the beginning of meditation (“Soft eyes … open field of inner attention”), but here I’m triggering openness and acceptance in all my senses, outer as well as inner, so that I’m aware of the space and sounds around me, for example. Usually this leads to me falling asleep quite quickly.

So this is something I recommend to you. Find phrases that can help you as you go into and during meditation. Maybe the phrases I’ve suggested will be helpful. Maybe you can come up with your own. Give it a go and let me know how you get on!

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • I often end up with a mind that wants to get up and do something in the midle of the night and often find it hard to go back to sleep. Some times meditation does help, other times not. Still looking for answers

    Reply
    • Sometimes it doesn’t work for me either. I’m not even sure what the relevant factors are. Sometimes it seems to depend on how strong the underlying emotional turbulence is. If it’s strong — which happened last night because I’m experiencing the distressing after-effects of an online conversation who seems to think that slavery wasn’t really a bad thing or much different from being an agricultural worker in England at around the same time — then sometimes the best I can do is to have a more restful night with waves of thought arising and then dying away again as I practice various forms of mindfulness and self-compassion. Other times I manage to get to the point where dreaming kicks in and I go under.

      When I woke up around 4 this morning I started looking at the “transparency” of the feelings I was experiencing. Basically just looking at them and seeing that there was no “thing” there that could be grasped. Sleep almost happened a couple of times, but I jerked awake again. But the uncomfortable feelings did become much weaker, and I started to experience a lot of joy. If it wasn’t for my partner’s alarm clock going off, and then the dog waking, I might have gotten a second round of sleep.

      Reply
    • Hi Tom Ive found that when I awake with the ‘washing machine of the nameless dreads’ at three in the morning the best thing to do is get out of bed as soon as you recognise them and make a cup of tea (I am a brit…). This seems to disrupt the WMOTND’S and I generally fall asleep when I get back into bed. And I wake up feeling less fatigued than if I had stayed i bed tossing and turning.

      Reply
  • Tony,
    I’ve been contemplating your idea and I see what you are doing. I tend to get a cup of decaf coffee also, but then I turn on the computer which is probably a stimulation.

    Reply
  • Patrick De Castro
    July 15, 2020 1:18 pm

    Just wanted to say thank you

    Reply

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