Susan O’Brien: “Mindfulness is remembering to come back, over and over again.”

(L to R) Susan O'Brien, Michael Grady, and Sara Schedler

The other day I was being interviewed by a journalist and he asked a question about meditation that comes up very often: “So, when you’re meditating are you going into a trance?”

I said to him that it was exactly the opposite, that when you meditate you’re coming out of a trance. Actually, I could have said that when you’re meditating you’re continually coming out of trances. In normal, non-meditating life we’re constantly slipping in and out of trance states without even realizing it. You’ll recognize what I mean when I give some examples:

  • You’re in a conversation with someone and you’re so busy thinking about what you’re going to say in response to something they said thirty seconds ago that you’ve entirely missed the last thirty seconds of the conversation.
  • You’ve found yourself lost in an imaginary conversation in which you’re really letting someone have a piece of your mind.
  • You’ve just arrived at the place you were driving to and you can’t remember anything about the journey there.
  • You can’t remember where you put something that you had in your hand just two minutes ago.
  • You spend time thinking about your failures, telling yourself how nothing ever goes right.

All of these examples are instances where we’ve been in a trance state, so caught up in our thoughts—so “en-tranced”—that we’ve been in an altered state of consciousness. Common names for these trance states are: distractedness, daydreaming, spacing out, obsessing, and wool-gathering. We don’t think of these as trances because we think that trances are connected in our minds with some kind of mystical and perhaps scary mystical states of consciousness. But actually these trance states are happening to us all the time. We slip in and out of them—and from one trance state to another—without even noticing.

In meditation, what we’re doing is noticing when we’ve been distracted—when we’ve been en-tranced—and mindfully returning our awareness to some mental “anchor,” such as the breath. In other words, our meditation practice involves noticing, and letting go of, trance states. Meditation involves coming out of trance states and instead mindfully observing our experience.

The problem with trance states is that we have surrendered any sense of direction. Trance states (or distractions, in simple language) are like fast-flowing rivers. When we’re caught up in one we’re swept along by the force of the stream of thoughts. We’re so caught up in thinking that we don’t even realize that we are thinking. Mindfulness starts with realizing, “Oh, yes, there’s some unhelpful thinking going on.” We scrabble for the bank, and then, all going well, we can sit by the side of the fast-flowing water, observing it as it passes us but not getting drawn in. Although often of course we start to lose our mindfulness; a particularly compelling thought is passing by and we lean closer in, and then before we know it we’ve fallen in and we’re being swept away, without (once again) realizing what’s happened.

The Greeks had a myth of the Waters of Lethe, which separated the world of the living from that of the dead. Lethe is the Greek word for forgetfulness, and this metaphor of thought being like a river works best if we think of the river as having this quality of inducing forgetfulness. When we fall into the river—when we become absorbed in a distracting thought—we forget our original purpose, we forget that we were meditating, we forget that we have a choice about whether to continue with the particular thought that we’re obsessed by, and we even forget that we’re thinking. Perhaps that’s why the word sati, which we translate as “mindfulness” has the root meaning of “remembering.”

Mindfulness is the opposite. It literally means “remembering.” And we cultivate mindfulness by, as Susan O’Brien says, “remembering to come back, over and over again.”

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