What to do with the chattering mind? This is a perennial question in yoga. In this article, Randall Krause tells of his experience with his chatter while on a long silence retreat in India.
I heard a story about a great yogi of vast accomplishment and deepest inner silence, who always kept his television on in his room with the volume at full blast. One of his disciples found that the noise made it hard to hear the Master's voice. So, one day when the Master was teaching, the disciple gently asked the Master’s secretary to turn the T.V. volume down. In response, the Master, ferociously glaring at the disciple, said “Are your powers of concentration so weak?”
This story was told to me by Swami Veda Bharati, my meditation teacher. It was from his personal experience: He was the disciple.
When I heard this story, I wondered why the Master kept that television on. But then it dawned on me that I had a television on all the time too, except mine was inside my head.
At the time, I was in India, at Swami Veda Bharati's ashram, practicing silence. This meant that I wasn't talking and was attempting to cultivate a quiet mind. After beginning the practice, some of the superficial thoughts associated with talking quieted down, and I was no longer distracted by conversations with other people. It was then that I became aware of this constant noise in my mind, that I thought of as an "inner-television", and it was a real nuisance.
This television constantly announced news reports about things that I may or may not be interested in, reported plans for events that might never occur, constantly played scenes of the past and fantasies of a hoped for or feared future, and meanly criticized me and everyone else. Even worse than a normal T.V., this one spoke directly to me, as if the productions were made only for me, and therefore, worthy of my whole attention. Not only did this inner television chatter incessantly, but it also commanded, scolded, taunted, praised, castigated, played music, and made incessant noise.
I wanted to turn it off. But how?
Since I was at a silence retreat, this seemed like a perfect question to ask Swami Veda Bharati. No doubt he would know how to deal with this problem, I thought. Going to his cottage, I handed him a note telling about the existence of the inner television and asking how to turn it off. He looked at the note, and with a calm matter-of-fact face said “everyone has a television in their minds.” That was all he said. His words were nice to hear: At least I was not alone with this problem. But he didn't tell me how to shut the television off.
I went back to my cottage, feeling frustrated, and began searching fervently for a way to turn the television off. But there were no “off”, "mute" or “volume” switches. It became clear that this was an always on model.
Also, it occurred to me that turning the television off might not be a good idea, because, on occasion, this chatter-box said something useful. Also, I wondered if it would be difficult to find my way around, from here to there, without it. The television was good for directions. More importantly, on rare occasions, mysteriously and completely randomly, the inner-television came forth with intuitions that were amazingly useful.
I wondered what to do.
After more contemplation, the idea arose that the solution was in the story about the Master with the loud TV: Just as the disciple needed to direct and concentrate his attention on the Master and away from the television, I needed direct my awareness onto what was useful, and away from the what was not useful. This required discrimination and concentration, both of which needed strengthening in my mind.
I began experimenting with this, and it worked. The more attention I paid to the inner-chatter, the more chatter there was, and vice versa. The trick was to only pay enough attention to the television to tell if there was something valuable on it or not.
The good part about this was that if some gem was on the inner-television, I could make use of it without having to take all the rest of the televised feed.
The challenging part was to up this discriminative vigilance over a long time, without wavering. I got better at doing this over time.
As the weeks passed and I continued to practice the silence, the inner-television became less and less noticeable. In its place, a quiet came into my mind, a quiet that was palpable and delicious. It was so pleasurable that I'd sit for long stretches of time just listening to it. When I'd take my daily walks, this inner quiet seemed to emit happiness, and I began experiencing everything as beautiful.
Although years have now passed since that silence retreat, sometimes I can access the inner-quiet again, for a few moments, as if it abides in my mind underneath all the chatter and noise. Hopefully, when next I'm fortunate enough engage in a long silence retreat, I'll be better at the discriminative vigilance, and will be able to mute the inner-television faster. Swami Veda Bharati says that human personality changes very slowly, and my experience verifies this. So, learning to discriminate and concentrate takes time. Yet, in yoga, each incremental improvement yields great rewards.