When you first meditate, you may be surprised by just how much of your inner world is verbal. The mind is a regular chatterbox. It narrates stories about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future, complete with dialogues in different voices. And when the mind is paying attention to present moment experience, there appears to be a non-stop commentary on whatever is being experienced. If you find this distracting, verbal meditation may just be what you need.
Deliberately produce any kind of linguistic utterance. You can verbalize it with your inner voice or out loud for auditory feedback. It doesn’t matter what you say, as long as it is simple enough to remember and pronounce, yet complex enough to be interesting. You could be singing or chanting, or simply repeating a single phoneme, word or phrase. This verbal meditation object is also called a mantra and focusing attention on a verbal meditation object accordingly mantra meditation.
The more esoteric spiritual traditions consider their verbal meditation objects sacred and/or secret. Reciting or chanting holy scriptures, mumbling incantations, or repeating a personal, secret mantra learned from a revered teacher is certainly more interesting to the mind than repeating a meaningless word, and an interested mind is a focused mind. Note how this kind of interest does not require a more complex mantra. However, sanctity and secrecy divide people and often lead to conflict. For that reason I prefer basic words and phrases. You could e.g. meditate on the word “mantra”, or “dhammatime”. Need something more complex? How about “https://www.dhammatime.org”? I’m only half-kidding with this one. Website URLs are kind of complex to verbalize, which requires more concentration than a simple word or phrase. You can also add meaning to your mantra. Thinking e.g. “I am happy” or just “happy” may evoke a pleasant emotional response, which makes the mind more interested in the meditation. If you have a tendency to get really serious about your meditation, try the mantra “I’m just sitting here, having a good time”, and see how that goes. Here are some more words as inspiration for a meaningful mantra: “home”, “calm”, “accept”, “open”, “aware”, “awake”, “love”, “peace”, “letting go”. When you enter a meditative state during mantra meditation, a mantra loses its meaning and its verbalization becomes automatic.
While it may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, being quiet can also serve as a verbal meditation object. Notice the inner silence when no words are being created, and then keep it that way. Whenever the inner voice tries to sneak in a word, you nip it in the bud and return to silence. It’s like playing Whac-A-Mole with your thoughts; “Whac-A-Thought”, as it were. Entering a meditative while playing Whac-A-Thought leads to the temporary cessation of inner chatter.
Mindfulness of Speech
In this type of meditation, instead of overriding linguistic experience, you are aware of it. Listen to the conversation within. Notice whose voice is saying what. Much of it is probably your own voice. This one is usually accompanied by subtle bodily sensations in the mouth and throat, as if the body were rehearsing what to say. Depending on how you read, you may notice that the inner voice is speaking the words you are currently reading. You may also hear other people’s voices echoing in the mind, sometimes repeating what has been heard before, sometimes verbalizing thoughts. These are more connected to the sense of hearing than speaking. Normally, these voices are just as subtle as the bodily sensations of the inner voice, although they can be unusually vivid under special circumstances, e.g. in the hypnagogic state just before falling asleep or when under intense stress. Some people even experience such auditory verbal hallucinations on a regular basis, which is colloquially referred to as “hearing voices”. Mindfulness of speech means calmly and alertly observing inner and outer speech. It’s not important what is being said, and thinking about it will just get you distracted. What matters is that you listen and experience these verbal phenomena as verbal phenomena, i.e. something that arises and passes away within verbal awareness.
Verbally Augmented Breathing Meditation
If you are practicing breathing meditation, and you are often distracted by inner chatter, try and combine it with mantra meditation. Breathing in, think “in”, breathing out, think “out”. To synchronize the mantra to breath, you can either stretch the verbalization to fit the length of the breath (i.e. “iiiiiiiiiinnnn, oooouuuuuuuuut”), or repeat it multiple times (i.e. “in in in in in, out out out out out”), whichever suits you best. While admittedly not very creative, this mantra gets the job done. If it’s not interesting enough, you can make it more complex, verbalize it more deliberately, or choose a more meaningful mantra. You can verbalize one word breathing in and another breathing out, split a longer word or phrase over inhalation and exhalation, or any other combination you find interesting. Get creative! Or, you know, just watch the place in the mind where words are created and whack them back into silence as soon as they stick their heads out.
A related technique is to count the breath. You can e.g. count each inhalation and exhalation, either stretching or repeating the number (i.e. “oooooone, twooooo” or “one one one, two two two”), or you can drop the number into the turning points, which allows you to use this technique in addition to the regular mantra (e.g. “iiiin, one, ooouuut, two” or “iiiin, ooouuut, one, iiiin, ooouuut, two”). Start over if you lose track of the count or upon reaching a pre-determined number.
I find that reading a text while practicing breathing meditation also effectively overrides inner chatter. If you are reading a novel, you may find yourself getting lost in the narrative, which distracts you from the breathing sensations. Less narrative texts work better, e.g. scientific papers or text books. Since you are reading a book right now, why not try practicing breathing meditation while reading the next chapter? For extra credit, combine it with mindfulness of speech.