Semantic Satiation: How to Taste Mindfulness
Zazen, meditation, mindfulness, yoga… take your pick. Every one of these arts has a component of thought observation: the mind must observe itself. It’s a meta-cognitive struggle that startles you the first time you try it.
And that’s the thing – you have to choose to try it. Observing your thoughts is not instinctive. We’re supposed to worry, dwell, and be anxious so that our amygdala can protect this from threats. Only there aren’t that many threats that we need to be protected from. So we end up fearful of nothing, or put another way, fearful of that which does not exist. Observing thoughts lifts you up one level of abstraction, and you consciously stop equating yourself with a thought or emotion.
How to do it
How do you do it? Well, some would say that it’s like observing traffic from a helicopter. Your mind wants to get wrapped up in a thought, but because you’ve decided to be aware, you get out of the thought loop as soon as the thought passes. You don’t grab it back and shake it down for pocket change. If you do this over and over for 5-10 minutes, that is a state of Zazen. If this proves to be challenging, there are some scaffolds, like humming or saying ohm, which is like an anchor that keeps bringing you back to awareness if you find yourself getting wrapped up in a thought. I hesitate to call it a brain hack: it’s not a hack, it’s in the manual no one has read.
I was talking to a friend of mine, a fellow meditator, and she told me that she’s not sure if she is actually doing meditation whenever she does it. Afterward, she’s left with this feeling of I guess that was meditating?I admitted to her that I get the same feeling after I’m done meditating. So together, we figured that that probably is the feeling you’re supposed to get after meditation. Because it seems so simple and straightforward, but can yield such cosmic results, it’s easy to assume we’re doing it wrong.
Words Become Sound
Alan Watts, in one of his lectures, tells the audience to let his voice become more like noise, let the words lose their meaning. Once you start hearing his voice as noise, eventually you can start hearing your own internal voice that way. I’ve never experienced this kind of clarity while meditating, but there is one weird occasion, one specific phenomenon, that I have experienced and it comes very close to this: semantic satiation.
Semantic satiation is the feeling you get when you repeat a word so many times that it loses its meaning. You start to question whether that word is even a word at all, whether it ever had meaning to begin with. You can try this by picking a word (preferably one-syllable) and repeating it over and over out loud. At some point it will sound weird and foreign, like a noise that you kind of recognize but can’t quite place. When you get to this stage, you’re getting a little taste of mindfulness.
Because in that higher level of abstraction, you stop adding meaning to everything. You stop the constant narration. Words are just sounds, people are just blobs of flesh, and there is no you at all, just a series of brain activity being observed with no end goal.
The most interesting thing about semantic satiation is that the practice requires repetition of a word, rather than avoiding saying the world altogether. It’s almost as if you’re trying to convince yourself that the meaning you’ve associated with this word is fairly transient by saying it over and over, and at some point your brain starts believing you.
The more we try to hold on to it, the more it slips away.