I was all snuggled up on the couch, ready to brave the stormy night with Star Wars to keep me safe. The iconic yellow text retreated into the star field and I felt completely safe from Dark Forces; I high-fived my Ironman and settled in to watch Jedi Knights restore peace and justice to the galaxy. Without warning the thunderstorm seethed and the sound of hail bashing our house drowned out the unmistakable opening refrain.
First thought: How eerie and scary… Glad I’m safe inside.
Second thought: I’ll check the radar to make sure it’s just hail and not a tornado. No tornado? … Glad I’m safe inside.
Third thought: Oh DEAR GOD my plants are outside!! I didn’t prepare my garden for this! I’m going to LOSE EVERYTHING! Forget about finding Luke Skywalker and restoring the Balance of the Force. I have to do something!
My garden wasn’t in a galaxy, far, far away, it was right down the road being pummeled with frozen marbles. I temporarily lost my mind; my adrenaline revved up to run to the rescue. I imagined myself darting out to the car, driving four blocks in a flash flood, sprinting to my garden plot… and then… what?
What could I possibly do to protect my baby spinach and my unborn beets? Nothing. No rescue plan would be successful. If the storm as going to flood my seeds and pulverize my kale leaves then it was going to do it whether I was on my couch cuddling with Russell Clive or whether I was fighting my way through mud losing my mind trying to stop it. This wasn’t Star Wars and it wasn’t a real disaster. This was just a Midwest thunderstorm.
Sometimes during meditation, the mind does this ‘overreacting’ bit like it’s trying to win a freaking Academy Award. The mind identifies a small problem, turns it into a disaster and then creates an elaborate rescue plan. It’s exhausting.
Thought: I’m feeling sad today. Erroneous catastrophe: If I’m feeling sad right now, then I must be sad ALL the time and I must be depressed. Something is inherently wrong with me. Rescue Plan: I need to call a doctor immediately, check on my health insurance plan for covering anti-depressants and eat a bag of Ghirardelli chocolate chips while I’m on hold.
Thought: I’m feeling tired right now. Erroneous catastrophe: There must be something wrong with my metabolism and I probably have cancer of the thyroid. Rescue Plan: I’ll start planning my own funeral so my cousin won’t feel entitled to play a Prince cover as my eulogy.
Thought: I’m feeling annoyed at this person. Erroneous catastrophe: This person is the bane of my existence and I’ll never be happy if I have to stay on the same project team as him. Rescue Plan: I’ll devise a way to get said annoying person fired so I never have to work with him again. Then, I’ll rule the world.
Sometimes, though, we don’t need to fix a problem, or come to the rescue. Sometimes, we just need to sit back and become a ‘watcher.’ One tool that yoga philosophy gives us the ability to use discernment, or Viveka, to realize that we are not our thoughts. We can have a thought without being defined by that thought.
I mean, we can hit our funny bone and feel a startling pain in our elbow, but we do not become that tingly sensation. Similarly, in meditation, we can have a thought without becoming the thought.
As Sharon Salzburg writes, “Most of the time, we think we are our thoughts. We forget, or have never noticed, that there’s an aspect of our mind that’s watching these thoughts arise and pass away.” Meaning, we don’t always have to create a rescue plan and rush to the scene. We can often allow ourselves to watch the movie and the story will unfold.
The Sanskrit term for this is Viveka. It means ‘keen discernment.’ This is when we hone our ability to consciously discern one thing from another and exercise clear judgement, which can help us avoid unnecessary suffering. Viveka helps us make healthy choices by stepping back, observing the situation, and then acting with clarity in order for our Purusha to shine through.
One impressively simple and deceptively effective way to become the ‘watcher’ and engage in viveka is to use the technique of ‘naming your thoughts.’
For example, when you are meditating, notice what you are thinking about and then categorize it: plan, worry, remembrance, distraction, anticipation, new idea.
It’s easier and harder than it sounds; it is very relieving to know that whatever you are thinking about doesn’t have to be addressed right away. You don’t have to jump up and try to navigate the Millennium Falcon to the Resistance Base. You can just sit with your thought, notice that it is a thought, and then continue sitting and ultimately relax.
Here’s your Meditation Challenge:
“Naming Your Thoughts: Developing Discernment Viveka”
- Find your Meditation seat and set your timer for 8 minutes.
- Take 3 cleansing inhales and exhales.
- Sit with only breath awareness for a few minutes, just notice your breath coming and going without changing it or judging it.
- Notice what thoughts are present in your awareness.
- When a thought arises that is noticeable enough to distract you from your breath, label it ‘thinking.’
- If it is more distinct, then you can label it specifically: ‘planning, worrying, anticipating, remembering, ruminating.’
- Either way, the thought it just a thought. Return to your easy breath awareness.
- And remind yourself: you do not need a rescue plan. Just a moment of breathing.
At the end of the 8 minutes, take a few cleansing breaths and notice how to you feel. If you still feel like there is an impending disaster that needs a calculated rescue plan, then write about it in your journal and notice if your emotional response to this problem has changed after your meditation time.
It’s likely that you will be feel less worried and have greater clarity about the problem. This will help you realize if it’s more helpful to allow the movie to continue playing or if you need to be an actor in the story line by jumping in and fixing it yourself.
Either way, May the Force Be With You.