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The Human Mind in Meditation: A Little Less Color, A Little More Play-by-Play

June 18, 2012

I have been a sports fan for as long as I can remember. Riding with my dad in his light blue Rambler station wagon on the windy roads of Sonoma County in Northern California on a fall Sunday afternoon, with the sounds of the Oakland Raiders on the radio. Or tossing a baseball with my brother in our backyard while listening to the transistor radio as my idol Willie McCovey and our beloved San Francisco Giants took on this or that National League foe. These warm memories are as much of the voices of the sportscasters as they are of the actual athletes and teams. When you think about it, unless you are there in the ballpark or stadium to witness it directly, most sports come to us via the conduit of these silver-tongued professionals who describe and elaborate on the actual event.

It struck me the other day that our minds could be said to be the “sportscasters” of our direct experience. What happens to us and around us (and even within us), just happens. And then our minds try to make something meaningful of those experiences. It’s not a bad thing really. As a matter of fact, it is this process that makes us uniquely human. But it does have some pitfalls. And personally, I think the culprit is John Madden.

Well, OK, not John Madden specifically, but the part of our minds that provides the so-called color commentary on our experience. It is not the stalwart Pat Summerall or Al Michaels who dutifully (and mellifluously) provide a moment by moment account of what unfolds in the game (i.e. our lived experience). It is the John Maddens and Dandy Don Merediths who pontificate, explain, extrapolate and speculate that create our suffering.

Have you lost me? Let’s see if I can explain. You are sitting and breathing, minding your own business so to speak, and “trying” to meditate (a misnomer in and of itself, but a topic for another time). You ride the flow of the breath into your body, you feel the rise of your belly as your diaphragm draws the air in, and then the settling of the belly as the air leaves. Woohoo! You just managed to be mindful of one whole breath! “I did it!” you proclaim to yourself with some sense of self-satisfaction and pride. “I usually have more trouble than this! I think I’m getting better at meditating,” you note analytically.

And that’s when your trouble began! Mr. Summerall reported the in-breath, the belly movement, the out-breath, all with an air of authenticity and trustworthiness that you have come to expect. And then John jumped in and “BAM! BOOM! You did it! You were RIGHT THERE IN THE FACE OF THAT BREATH!” Pride balloons to epic proportions, you recall a few previous experiences and you can already hear it. The familiar strains of that song, you know the words. You’ve heard that off-key Texas twang before: “Turn out the ligggghhhhhhtttss, the party’s ovvvvvverrrrrr . . .” Thanks Dandy Don.

My sense is that we are practicing the art of “Intrapersonal Play-by-Play”, noticing the unfolding of experience as an impartial witness to what happens as we sit, as we work, as we go about our daily lives and contend with all that we are faced with every day. Noticing what there is to notice, in the external environment, this body of ours, and the vast mindscape within us. But there is a part of us that wants to provide context, story arc, suspense, drama, anticipation. That is our own John Madden. Our own private color commentary.

And imagine the worst case scenario: we are used to having our color commentators chosen for us by media executives because of how they might enhance our experience or engage us positively in the game. But you and I don’t get to choose our color commentators for our intrapersonal play-by-play. They are assigned by history, experience and random forces beyond our comprehension. What if your color commentary is provided by, say, Eeyore or Chicken Little or Dr. Laura, for heaven’s sake? What then? Are you doomed?

I don’t think so. Those commentators can’t easily be silenced (and in fact the more we start to argue with them, the louder they get, and while we are arguing we are actually missing the game/our life). What are we to do?

Perhaps we can simply go back to the play-by-play. Drop into the breath, notice that while our own color commentator yammers on and on . . . and on, we can simply turn our attention to the game itself. Notice the action, check the score, feel the familiar tension in the pit of our stomach at the critical junctures, and appreciate the beauty and brilliance of the game unfolding.

And when the color commentator comments colorfully on you or your experience, thank him or her for the observation and return to the fullness of this precious moment that blooms on its own, with or without commentary, analysis or clever metaphors. It just is what it is.

It can sometimes be helpful to give your color commentator a persona, especially if it can be someone whom you take lightly like a crazy uncle or a ridiculous radio or television personality. I tend to prefer Rush Limbaugh, but perhaps that reveals more about me than necessary . . .

Who does YOUR commentator resemble? Can you imagine their face and voice issuing forth with the critical, hurtful and undermining inner dialogue with which you are exhaustingly familiar? Share your stories of the inner commentator here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2012 1:01 pm

    Oh my, so very descriptive of what happens in my head!! Color commentator…never thought of ‘the voice’ as that before. For a long time the voice was my mom, sometimes it’s my therapist, sometimes it’s me. I have conversations in my head with a variety of people.
    I like your football analogy.
    The more I meditate, the quieter that chatter has become. I am having more times of noting and letting go without getting angry and telling the ‘other’ to shut up and let me be! I am learning to BE with whatever is. Some days easier than others. Whatever is, is what it’s supposed to be.

  2. October 23, 2013 9:21 pm

    Our retreats are held on Isla Amantani, a mystical island in the middle of the sacred Titicaca Lake. We will travel together from Cusco to the island on the morning of the introduction day of the retreat.

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