A common misconception I regularly hear from early meditators is the belief that the goal of meditation is to stop all thought. They think expert meditators dwell in some sort blank space, like a sort of self-hypnotic trance. Just existing, breathing, no mind. And when that does not happen for someone new to meditation, understandably, frustration arises. They think they are doing something wrong, they think there is something wrong with them, and the mind spirals into all sorts of spaces and places of self-judgment: this isn't for me, I can’t do this.
Look at it this way: if you are not aware of thoughts, you are either asleep or in a coma. Thoughts occur. Like breathing occurs. Trying to control your mind so thoughts do not occur is a losing battle - it’s like trying to hold your breath. You can do it for a little while and then your breath just explodes. Because the job of your lungs is to breathe. The job of your mind is to think. Having thoughts means you are conscious. And thoughts appear on that consciousness, like slides on a screen. In my experience, meditation helps you is to better understand there is an enduring consciousness behind thoughts. You begin to sense you are not your thoughts, and so ultimately you can better befriend your thought process. This allows some spaciousness, simplicity, curiosity and rest around repetitive and stressful thoughts. It’s often the thoughts about the thoughts that are creating the most stress.
Before you attempt full meditation, perhaps try one of these mindfulness tips to slow your thinking and notice what’s different. I encourage you to try these tips a few times before deciding if they work or not. You need to be able to run 100 yards before you can run a mile, and well before can even think about a 10k. You’ve had a particular relationship with your thinking most of your life, it takes time to sort out a new one.
Let’s say you have a lot to do. You are trying to focus on one task, but your mind is jumping from one idea to the next and you feel overwhelmed. A practice I recommend is writing down everything you are thinking about in a list. Call Ruth. Email Victor. Pay bills. Tommy is failing math. Need orange juice. Who will care for my mother? I ate too much. My neck hurts. I need to go to bed early. As you re-read every item on the list, take a slow, deep breath and say to yourself “Uh-huh,” “I see,” or “Got it.” “After you have re-read it, breathing deeply, put your hand on your heart and close your eyes and take a couple more deep breaths. Tell the list (and your mind) I’ve got everything recorded, we’re okay. I’m okay. You may find this helps you relax into a different space. Sometimes you may find items re-prioritize or fall off the list, like “Yeah, I don't need juice today.” Or you suddenly realize that Jack will take care of your mother.
You can also pick one of the most stressful thoughts, and give it space to just drift around untethered in your mind. Thoughts are like a train coming into the station. With time and practice you will come to see you can usually make a choice: you can get on board and really engage with the thought, or you can simply acknowledge the train arrived, decide it is not a trip you want to take right now, and let it leave the station. Let’s say you have the thought, Call Ruth. Instead of running through the agenda and content of this call, basically pre-imagining, and having the call now in your mind, just tell your mind. Yes, yes, call Ruth, I know, I see you. Call Ruth. Put your hand on your heart. Breathe slowly and deeply several times, focusing entirely on how your breath feels going in and out of your lungs. Notice if it makes you feel clearer and calmer. You might just feel inspired to call Ruth right now, or you might realize you don’t have to call her, or that it can wait until tomorrow. Sometimes thoughts are like little kids pulling on your shirt, they just want to say hi and be acknowledged, and then they go away.
If nothing else, any time you are feeling stressed, try this simple but powerful action: put your hand on your heart, close your eyes and say to yourself, “I’m ok.” Or “I got me.” (I do not recommend saying “It’s ok” or “I got this” because it takes you out of yourself into an expectation or outcome). Many people deeply exhale automatically at this point, but it you don’t, take a deep breath through your nose and exhale audibly, and your nervous system should relax.
All of these tips are just little ways to start creating space in stressful thoughts, instead of either completely believing them, or going to war with them, which is what many of us do. Slowing down is a huge part of this process. Breathe into stressful thoughts, slow them down and give them a chance to show you what they are really pointing to. Maybe the call with Ruth is stressful because she never follows through. So in turn, you tune her out. Maybe that dynamic is pointing out to you something you need to look at in yourself. Maybe the thought arises: are you following through for you?
My next post will address slowing down thinking in another way. Say tuned . . ..