October 18, 2008

Commercial Clutter

This post originally appeared in The Commercial-Free Mind, March 2004.


Many people don’t realize how many useless thoughts they have running through their heads until they try to meditate. Meditation instructors say stray thoughts are the greatest obstacle in teaching Americans to meditate. Most of us, when we try to sit quietly and not think about anything in particular, find ourselves confronted with a rapid-fire sequence of thoughts, perhaps something like:

How can I keep Fluffy from eating Waffle’s food? Laura looked so goofy in that plaid jacket! I hope I can find my library card. When was the last time I checked the mail? What if I can’t get that stain off the dashboard in the car? Why can’t I be rich so I wouldn’t have to work?

One meditator coined the word “yamayama” for the imaginary noise of these incessant thoughts. When such uncomfortable ideas demand attention, meditation is not the relaxing exercise it is supposed to be. It is hardly a surprise that most people who try to meditate find it stressful and feel a strong urge to give up the attempt.

Of course, meditation is not the cause of yamayama. Needless thoughts run through your mind all day, and they become obvious anytime you get quiet enough. To make matters worse, most people think mostly the same thoughts day after day. Meditation is one technique people have used to quiet those thoughts to some extent, but you can start to control the thoughts as soon as you know where you come from.

Yamayama Now on Sale!

If you examine the style and substance of the random thoughts that clutter your mind, you will find that they have a striking similarity to television commercials. Indeed, one description that’s been given for mental clutter is that it is like five televisions at once, all playing different commercials. Television commercials and their commercial agenda are the source of the most recognizable form of mental clutter.

This commercial clutter is more than a distraction that makes it hard to sit still. Commercials, after all, are based on the idea that your life is not good enough. Make that the theme of a stream of random thoughts, and it can make you upset with your life and unhappy with yourself. When your thoughts echo the ideas you’ve picked up from commercials, they break up your flow and can give you the feeling that you’re not getting anywhere.

Living the Questionable Life

Of all the ideas in the commercial agenda, it’s the questions that don’t have simple, obvious answers that have the most impact in the long run. The impulse to find an answer makes these questions seem more important than they are; it’s part of the reason they stick with you. But if you don’t prioritize the questions in your life, you can end up spending time thinking about questions like, “How do you know how fresh your beer really is?” If this sounds like a reasonable question, you soon start to make up your own variations of it.

Commercial questions can lead you to start questioning everything in your life. Commercials are designed to break down your confidence, to make you feel uncertain so that you’re no longer sure you don’t need the product they’re trying to sell. But as soon as they persuade you that everything in your life is questionable, you have questions about everything running through your brain. Most of the questions are just alternate versions of questions from commercials.

These sound like reasonable questions, but you can trace them back to the commercial messages where, in all likelihood, they originated:

  • Which tastes better?
  • Where do I want to go today?
  • How can I get people to pay attention to me?
  • What does my car say about the kind of person I am?
  • Can anyone tell?
  • How do I know I’m getting the best price?
  • What will all my friends think?

Some are more obvious than others, but they all form the basis of multiple commercial messages you’ve seen. Try to spot similar questions as they pop up in your mind, and you’ll probably be able to trace their commercial origins too. As soon as you recognize the origin of a thought, you can decide to think something different.

A Commercial-Free Mind

Make a practice of tracking down the commercial questions in your mind, and your mind will start to get quieter. You’ll be less easily distracted and able to think more clearly about the things that matter to you. Think of it as having a commercial-free mind. The effect of quieting the mind is the same as the beginning stages of meditation without having to take the time to meditate. And that’s what meditation teachers tell me their students really want.

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