Memorization for Meditation and Mindfulness

“The mind pumps out thoughts like the heart pumps out beats.”

Unfortunately I can’t recall where I first ran into this comparison of the mind to the heart, but it has stuck with me.

There is oft cited research by Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University, that on average, we have 60,000 thoughts per day. 90% of them are repetitive, and 80% of them are negative. I haven’t been able to locate the original study so take that stat with a heap of salt, but as surprising as it is to see those numbers, it is less surprising when we critically examine our own thought life.

The Buddhists talk about, “taming the monkey mind“, and the Christians prescribe, “taking every thought captive“. Though their proposed solutions are very different, they describe a common problem we all experience while wrestling with our thoughts.

I’d like to re-introduce a tool that has been collecting dust for most of us. It is hiding under the shinier tools of meditation, mindfulness, and breathing exercises that are more commonly reached for today, and works regardless of your religious or philosophical worldview: Memorization.

I don’t mean memorizing and repeating a positive mantra or phrase, though that approach has similarities, I’m talking about longer passages. The longer, the better.

Memorizing and rehearsing any passage will point your thoughts in a focused direction, but since you are doing the heavy lifting of memorization anyway, get extra leverage by memorizing high-quality, uplifting material. You can use that positive script to override a portion of that 80% negativity that is looping in your brain. Congratulations, you are down to 79% negative thoughts, but don’t despise these small beginnings!

Once you’ve downloaded these positive scripts into your brain, you don’t need an app, electronic device, headphones, battery power, or reading light to be able to use them. You can hit play on these high quality scripts while ruminating in bed, waiting in a line-up, raging in traffic, or walking to clear your head.

I’m going to resist going down the path of highlighting the many physiological, psychological, and all-around performance benefits of strengthening your memorization, or “retrieval” skills. Or how memorization is a missing puzzle piece in modern education. For now, suffice to say that in this age where we have outsourced this skill to Google & Siri, it is more important than ever to exercise this muscle.

There has been much debate on whether or not we can “control” our thoughts. While we may have limited control over what thoughts the mind pumps out, we can certainly influence them once they appear. And just like we are confirming (in lab settings, even), that we can develop far greater influence over our autonomic nervous system than science ever believed possible, my hunch is that we would be surprised at the level of influence or control over our autonomic thoughts is possible. Like breathing seems to be the gateway to influencing our autonomic nervous system (it is an autonomic process you can consciously manipulate), the stimuli you provide your mind, like memorization, is one of the levers you can pull to direct your thoughts.

Bonus: if you ever find yourself in a book-burning cultural moment, this skill becomes infinitely more valuable. I can’t overstate how important memorization has been for those who have had to memorize in order to preserve knowledge, culture, history, and wisdom.

What to memorize? There is no shortage of good material to work from. For me, passages from the Bible pass all my quality filters, and below is a list of passages I’ve enjoyed memorizing. You may find some good jumping off points in here:

I hope this post encourages you to experiment with more memorization, I’d love to hear how you make out in the comments! What passages have you, or would you like to memorize?

“Unless we manipulate our surroundings, we have as little control over what and whom we think about as we do over the muscles of our hearts.”

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Bed of Procrustes

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