I found myself with a little extra time yesterday between commitments. I took advantage of the time to meditate for a bit. It got me wondering about “thought cascades” and the way in which our minds work.
Thoughts appear during meditation, like bubbles. Jon Kabat-Zinn called them in one of his meditations “secretions of the mind.” They just float or bubble up. We don’t need to get rid of them or feel frustrated that they keep coming. We just need to notice them.
One thought leads to another…and another…and another. Really the mind can be quite tedious when we observe it. “Why can’t it take a damn rest?” I wonder, but this is typically when I am trying to get to sleep. I am a lot more compassionate with myself during my daytime meditations, apparently.
Thought cascades tend to produce certain emotional states as well. If we find ourselves ruminating on a problem, or a stressful situation, we bring ourselves back to the breath and the sensations in our bodies. I often notice my shoulders have tightened up or my jaw is clenched. I did not used to notice that. It took pairing yoga with meditation for me to understand it.
On Monday I had an interview for a new contract that excites me. I tried to notice my thought cascades during the interview and afterward. I realized my mind creates a trail of expectations, assumptions and details, making up stories freely as it tumbles along. At least I know from Dr. Brené Brown’s work that this is perfectly normal. In fact, our brains reward us with dopamine as soon as we “tell” an internal story, whether or not it is actually true.
This is why meditation has become such an important daily practice for me. For over two years, I have spent at least 5 minutes a day on this practice. Actually for the past year, it was much more than that, but I started small to make it do-able.
Thought cascades for someone with particular neuro-diverse conditions can be especially problematic. Most people seem to have “brakes” for ruminative thought loops. Not everyone’s neuro-chemistry supports this easy compartmentalization. What is amazing is that focus can be built and nurtured, even for people like me! Meditation is a tool for doing that.
Now the cascades are quiet and flowing. Sometimes they are turbulent and rushing. Every time I bring myself back INTO my body, feel the aliveness in my hands, my feet or my heart, thoughts slow down and the volume descends. There is no greater gift than being able to dial it all down when needed.