Tame Your Sabotaging Self-Talk, Part 1
An introvert’s path to quieting the monkey mind
Posted May 01, 2015
You may have heard the expression “monkey mind,” which refers to the way that our minds are all over the place. To learn more about how to be present with the inner chaos, I turned to Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., mindfulness expert and author of The Awakened Introvert. Below is the first in a two-part interview in which he shares insights into what a mindfulness practice offers introverts.
NA: How do you define mindfulness, and what is the default mode network (DMN) of the brain?
AK: Mindfulness has become very popular and often refers to paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Mindfulness is a quality of attention and also a set of meditation practices that can promote mindful attention. To be mindful is to move attention away from what neuroscientists have identified as the default mode network of the brain. We know the DMN as self-talk, that internal chatter, commentary, and opinionating that may be constant in our headspace. We may not even be aware how much we are talking to ourselves.
An important question is how much of this self-referential storytelling of the DMN is useful. Turns out not much of it, because it is: 1) repetitive, and 2) conjectural—it projects itself into the future and reimagines the past, often with bias.
So, another definition of mindfulness could be: how it feels to be in the world without the activity of the DMN predominating. Instead of storytelling, we are more connected to our senses and the activity of the moment. Interestingly, neuroscience research shows that mindfulness meditators can extricate themselves more effectively from the DMN, and the parts of the brain devoted to sensory and bodily awareness become thicker with the growth of neural connections.
Now, we can go even deeper with our definition of mindfulness. When the stories of the DMN are not holding sway, we can be with our experiences without a sense of attachment. The desire to cling to what is pleasant gives way to the moment-by-moment unfolding of our life. The tendency to push away what is unpleasant falls aside and we are able to open up to whatever is present. This ability to be present to what is happening, without clinging or flinching, gives us a greater degree of freedom to live in the world without stress, anguish, and dissatisfaction.
When we take the meditation practices seriously, we will notice these forces operating in our experience and how much stress arises out of this constant pulling toward and pushing away and identification with the person—“me”—doing all the straining. When we can allow things to be as they are and embrace a sense of loving interest toward every experience, we are bound to feel a sense of equanimity, peace, and tranquility because there is no sense of “me” for the tension to adhere to.
NA: You say that because introverts already have a higher level of activity in their brains, they can become overstimulated and perhaps even overwhelmed with the same level of stimulation that extroverts enjoy. What can a practice of mindfulness offer introverts?
AK: Vincent Suppa said in your previous post about meditation, “As an introvert, you're already inclined to go inward. So instead of ﬁghting this tendency, use it to your advantage by performing one of the most ancient forms of preparation: meditation!”
Being able to sit quietly with yourself is already something you are comfortable with as an introvert. However, being withdrawn from the stimulations of the world can still leave your mind very active—telling stories and firing up the DMN. Mindfulness can teach introverts how to navigate this inner territory with more skill, leading to an outer and inner quiet. Mindfulness can also increase your tolerance for certain kinds of stimulation because they are no longer experienced as aversive. We can become interested in things that previously would have annoyed us.
NA: What do you mean when you describe introversion as a double-edged sword?
AK: The sword is the tendency to go inward. One edge of that sword helps you to be self-sufficient, comfortable keeping your own company, and not compulsively following every sensation. The other edge of that sword is a tendency to engage worry and regret, perhaps even to the point of rumination.
NA: What is the concept of dukkha, and how does it apply to introverts?
AK: I allude to dukkha in my definition of mindfulness. Dukkha afflicts introverts and extroverts alike—it is the sense that something is off in every moment of our experience—that constant pushing and pulling and the sense of self that owns it. Dukkha is often translated from Pali as “suffering.” You might also see it translated as “stress,” “anguish,” or “dissatisfaction.” All of these terms capture an aspect of it, but not completely. The Buddha used a metaphor. Dukkha means "bad wheel." Think of a wheel that is bent and out of true. If you are riding your bike on that wobbly wheel, every moment of the ride will be affected by it.
Another way to think about dukkha is contingency. That is, what are the conditions that need to be present or absent in order for us to be OK? Often, the things we think we need are not things we can control, such as what other people think of us, or do, or how things go. Introverts and extroverts have different contingencies, but ultimately we need to let go of the desires and aversions that keep us anguished. There is a growing recognition that the storytelling of the DMN is what drives all this dukkha and puts that wheel out of true. When you are less affixed to the storyteller and more attuned to the lived experience of your life moment by moment, you’ll be happier.
NA: You tell an endearing story from the renowned meditation teacher Ajahn Brahm. Would you share it here?
AK: It’s the story of a dog that keeps showing up at a neighbor’s house every day to take a nap. The house is peaceful and owned by a quiet woman who is very likely an introvert. Curious, one day she puts a note on the dog’s collar and gets this note back in response from the dog’s owner the following day: “My dog lives in a noisy house with my nagging wife and four children, two of whom are under 5. He comes to your house for some peace and quiet and to catch up on his sleep. May I come, too?”
NA: What a great story. Many an introvert could use a quiet refuge!
In the second part of this interview, Kozak will share some of his favorite facts and tips about mindfulness meditation.
Copyright 2015 © Nancy Ancowitz
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