Quieting the mind is thought by many to be the goal of meditation, but what does it mean exactly? And what can we expect from quieting the mind; what will result? Can we make the mind completely quiet – that is, can we actually attain thoughtlessness (a state of no mind)? These are some of the questions that people have when contemplating whether or not to take on a meditation practice.
To quiet the mind is to suspend active thought. The more one can achieve this state, the more one can allow the undirected, intuitive mind to guide them. The yogis call it “living spontaneously,” and along with it come many benefits, from physical to mental to spiritual. Some of these effects can be achieved immediately, while others develop over years. The immediately realized benefits will bring a sense of accomplishment for your efforts, while the more deeply cultivated effects will bring you a deep satisfaction. Not only will you realize the immediate consequences from the benefits themselves, but you will also literally shape your body, mind, and spirit simultaneously to stimulate enhanced genetic expression, psychological expansion, and spiritual development.
What are some of the benefits you can realize by quieting the mind, and what are the obstacles or challenges people face when trying to do so, and how might they overcome them? I will attempt to answer these questions here, as well as give you a sample exercise which you can use right away to practice quieting the mind and enhance your body, mind, and spirit in the process.
What is quieting the mind?
To understand quieting the mind, it is important to understand what happens in the mind that would require quieting. I have described the autonomic system of the body and brain in this article on mindfulness, so I won’t go into detail here. But what I will address is how the mind, in its automaticity, can go into self-referential and mind-wandering loops.
Self-referential thinking refers to a mental process in which individuals focus on themselves, their experiences, beliefs, and feelings. It involves thinking about one’s own identity, self-image, and personal relevance. This type of thinking can include introspection, self-analysis, and self-consciousness. For example, when you reflect on past experiences, contemplate your goals, or evaluate your emotions, you are engaging in self-referential thinking.
Mind-wandering, on the other hand, refers to the spontaneous and involuntary shifting of attention from the current task or external stimuli to internal thoughts and mental scenarios. During mind-wandering (daydreaming is one type), the mind tends to drift away from the present moment and becomes immersed in unrelated thoughts, memories, fantasies, or plans. This phenomenon is common and can happen during various activities, such as work, studying, or even conversations.
Both self-referential thinking and mind-wandering can be natural and occur in everyone’s mind. However, excessive engagement in these thought processes can lead to distraction, decreased focus, and a lack of mindfulness. In extreme cases, they can lead to mental disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and social anxiety.
In depression, individuals may engage in rumination, which is a form of repetitive and negative self-referential thinking. They may excessively dwell on past failures, mistakes, or negative events, leading to a downward spiral of negative emotions and feelings of hopelessness. Numerous studies show a reciprocally reinforcing relationship between rumination and negative affect. Rumination tends to increase when negative emotions increase. In depressive patients, levels of rumination have been associated with the severity and duration of depressive episodes. In other words, the more depressed a person, the more they focus on how bad things are. And vice versa, increased levels of rumination have been found to increase the risk of depressive relapse in remitted patients.
In OCD, intrusive, distressing thoughts (along with repetitive behaviors) may be self-referential, leading to obsessive questioning or doubts about oneself or one’s actions. And in social anxiety, individuals may experience self-referential thinking focused on how others perceive them. They may constantly worry about being judged or criticized by others, leading to avoidance of social situations. It is important to note that self-referential thinking, like its subcategory rumination, can act reciprocally with OCD and social anxiety whereby it is both a consequence and precursor to these conditions.
To quiet the mind, then, one needs to alleviate the constant stream of thoughts and mental chatter that can lead to self-referential thinking, rumination, mind-wandering, and emotional turbulence. The mind can often become occupied with worries, anxieties, regrets, and various other thoughts about the past and the future, which can prevent one from being fully present in the current moment. Quieting the mind involves calming this inner noise and achieving a state of stillness and focus. Practices like meditation and mindfulness play a crucial role in achieving this state of mental quietude.
The Neurological Basis for Quieting the Mind
Is quieting the mind neurologically possible? Can we actually see evidence of our minds slowing down and going quiet? What happens in our brains as we increase focus and our ability to diminish the chatter? Quietening the mind is indeed neurologically plausible, supported by scientific research on the effects of meditation. Numerous studies have demonstrated that meditation can lead to observable changes in brain activity and structure, promoting a state of mental calmness and reduced cognitive chatter.
A study published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience found that long-term meditation practitioners exhibited decreased activity in the default mode network (DMN), the network of brain regions associated with mind-wandering and self-referential thinking. Excessive activity in the DMN is associated with a noisy (mind-chatter) and restless mind. Researchers note that the DMN has been found to be most highly active when individuals are left to think to themselves undisturbed or during tasks involving self-related processing, and less active during tasks requiring cognitive effort. Experienced meditators thus exhibit decreased DMN activity during meditation (and even during resting states), as a result of their conditioned focus, demonstrating a reduced tendency self-referential thinking and mind wandering.
Quieting the mind through mindfulness and meditation has also been shown to impact the brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections. Studies on meditation have shown that regular practice can enhance cortical thickness and increase gray matter density in brain regions involved in attention, interoception (the ability to sense your body’s internal environment), and sensory processing, leading to enhanced cognition, memory capacity, and general intelligence.
“More gray matter is associated with better cognitive function, while decreases in gray matter are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias”
The Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Benefits of Quieting the Mind
So why should anybody care about quieting the mind? Other than some esoteric practice, what can quieting the mind do for the average person? The answer is: A lot! Quieting the mind has numerous physical, mental, and spiritual benefits available to any person who takes the time to cultivate a practice which leads to the state.
Anybody who has delved into the mind-body question knows that the two are inextricably linked. In other words, you cannot separate the mind and body into independent parts. Stress one and the other feels the ramifications, strengthen one and the other strengthens too. The first place you will experience beneficial results is in your physiology. Quieting the mind has been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and symptoms of stress disorder. It does this by activating the relaxation response. Sympathetic nervous system activity (the “fight or flight” response) decreases and parasympathetic nervous system activity (the “rest and digest” response) increases. This shift promotes a state of calm and relaxation.
Quieting the mind also helps reduce stress hormone levels, like cortisol and adrenaline, which are associated with the body’s stress response. It increases vasodilation, a widening of the blood vessels, which helps facilitate better blood flow, leading to lower blood pressure. It improves heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation in time between successive heartbeats. Higher HRV is associated with better cardiovascular health and increased adaptability to stress. Quieting the mind has been linked to improved HRV, indicating a healthier balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity. And finally, it helps reduce muscle tension, a byproduct of an increased fight or flight state. The more one operates in sympathetic stress, the greater the muscle tension. Quieting the mind, however, promotes muscle relaxation.
As goes the body, so goes the mind, and practices which quiet the mind have a multitude of mental benefits. Not only do the physical ramifications of stress diminish when the mind is quiet, but the mental ones do as well. By reducing the psychological effects of stress, we see anxiety diminish. A 2022 study compared patients who took an intensive eight-week mindfulness meditation program to patients who took escitalopram, the generic name of the widely-prescribed anxiety drug Lexapro. They found that both interventions worked equally well in reducing debilitating anxiety symptoms.
Quieting the mind improves mental clarity and focus, as well. When the mind is less cluttered with mind-chatter, it is less prone to self-referential thinking and mind wandering, and thus it becomes easier to concentrate on tasks, make decisions, and engage in activities with heightened attention and presence. Clearing mental clutter enhances productivity, learning, and overall cognitive performance.
Quieting the mind also creates a fertile ground for creativity to flourish. When the mind is calm and free from distractions, it becomes more receptive to new ideas, insights, and innovative thinking (see this article on the Noosphere). By accessing deeper levels of awareness and tapping into your innate creativity, you increase your potential to experience inspiration and novel perspectives.
And finally, although not exhaustively (there is much more), quieting the mind fosters emotional well-being. By cultivating self-awareness and emotional regulation, it enables individuals to observe their thoughts and emotions, label them, and come to understand them more deeply, and ultimately to lead to better emotional resilience.
While not everybody attunes to the spiritual realm, the physical and mental benefits of quieting the mind may be enough; but for those who do seek a greater spiritual awakening, quieting the mind is perhaps the clearest path toward realization. Similar to the physical and mental benefits, the following spiritual enhancements of quieting the mind are by no means a complete list, but they should be encouraging enough for those wishing to cultivate a mind-quieting practice to begin and adhere to a routine.
Quieting the mind creates a conducive environment for heightened Self-awareness and insight. As mental chatter subsides, individuals form a deeper connection to their inner selves, their intuition, and their spiritual essence. This increased awareness will lead to profound realizations about the nature of existence, life’s purpose, and interconnectedness of all things. Quieting the mind is the precursor to the awakening of unconditional love – the “thank you for all that is, as it is” state of awareness.
Quieting the mind also involves moving beyond the ego – the self-centered, identity-driven aspect of our consciousness, or what we call the “I”. By quieting the mind, individuals can detach from the incessant stream of self-referential thoughts, leading to a sense of liberation from egoic patterns. This transcendence of ego can open the door to experiencing a greater sense of unity, oneness, and humility (we are all the same in essence).
Finally, quieting the mind can facilitate a deeper connection to the divine higher self. As the mind becomes still, the channel to our higher mind expands, allowing transmissions of communication between higher (soul intelligence) and lower (neurological intelligence) mind. As a result of this expansion, individuals may experience moments of profound clarity, inspiration, and communion with higher spiritual reality (approximating the highest high). This can lead to a sense of divine guidance and attunement to one’s ultimate purpose in life (dharma).
So, should you take the time to cultivate a quiet mind? If you have aspirations to maximize your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being, then absolutely – it is more than worth the investment. What will it take to attain the ability to quiet the mind? What is a simple beginners exercise to kick-start your mind-quieting regimen? How will I know if I am doing it well? I will answer all these questions in part two of this article coming soon.