I have been teaching peaceful-abiding meditation for 14 years now, and over that time I have realized that there are many misconceptions about what to do with your mind during meditation. If you have ever sat down in a cross-legged posture, began focusing on your breath, and immediately wondered, “What should I do about all these thoughts?” this is a simple answer.
Before You Meditate
For most of us, we run around all day letting our mind flit from one topic to another like a hummingbird surrounded by bird-feeders. To turn to this hummingbird and say, “Quick! Just sit still!” wouldn’t work. In fact, it would only freak the bird out.
The same goes for us as we enter meditation. If you run in the door after a long day at work, look at your phone, realize you have 15 minutes to meditate, grab some cushions and plop down, your mind will likely still be very speedy. If your mind normally runs at 100 miles per hour, see if you can gently nudge that down to at least 60 miles per hour before beginning to meditate. That might mean having a cup of tea, changing into non-work clothes, or reading a few pages of a meditation book before you begin. Taking these few minutes to unwind allows you to transition into your meditation practice so you enter already beginning to feel a bit spacious.
While You Meditate
One of the common mistakes people make when beginning a meditation practice is believing that it is simply a way to turn off your mind. Your mind is a radiant, brilliant, amazing thing and there is no off switch. Meditation is not about zoning out and becoming a vegetable. You can befriend yourself in meditation, use it to transcend your usual experience, even have a powerful realization depending on what technique you are doing, but let’s be clear that your mind will remain “on.”
Another common misconception is that thoughts are bad and we should rid ourselves of thoughts. Our mind cannot stop producing thoughts. It’s simply what it does. Often when people discover that there is no off switch in their mind and thoughts continue to come they get discouraged and think they are the worst meditator of all time. There have been thousands of years of meditators and I promise you, you are not the worst. Not by a long shot.
Many types of meditation are not about getting rid of thoughts but about establishing a healthier relationship to what is going on in the mind. One of my favorite words for meditation is the Tibetan term “gom,” which can be translated as “become familiar with.” In other words, meditation is a way to become more familiar with what is going on in your mind and more familiar with the types of thoughts that come up throughout your day.
If you engage in shamatha, peaceful-abiding meditation, the instruction is to return your attention to your breathing, over and over again. A big thought will pop up and distract you from the breath. It’s your job to gently return your focus once more to feeling the simple flow of the breath as it enters and leaves your body. If it is helpful you could even silently say “thinking” to yourself.
The process of labeling your thoughts as “thinking” is not to dismiss them or chase them away like you might swat away a fly: “Shoo! Don’t bother me!” The point is to acknowledge the thought. You notice that it came up, inwardly nod at it by saying “thinking” to yourself and, as if it were someone you saw passing by in the street, having acknowledged them you continue on your way, in this case by returning your attention to the breath.
By being extremely gentle with yourself and returning your attention, continuously, to your breathing, you prevent that hummingbird mindset I mentioned earlier. You are, perhaps for the first time all day, focusing on just one thing: the breath. Thoughts about life, fantasies, strong emotions, discursive and subtle emotions will come up. In all these cases we look at the thought, acknowledge it, and come back to the breath.
I have off-handedly mentioned being gentle a few times now and, at the risk of kicking a dead horse, I want to directly ask that you be very kind with yourself while you meditate. It is common to acknowledge a thought and come back to the breath, only to have that same thought come up again immediately. Where you may begin by gently saying, “thinking” to yourself, after a few repetitions you end up inwardly yelling, “THINKING!” The former carries the subtext of “It’s okay. You got distracted. Come on back to the breath buddy.” The latter carries the subtext of “You jerk! How is it that you are so f-ing bad at this thing? What a loser you are that you can’t even stay with the breath.” We judge ourselves in so many areas of our lives; please leave that self-judgment at the door when you begin meditating.
I believe that the inner tone you use with yourself in meditation ends up being the tone you treat yourself with for the rest of your day. If you can use meditation as a time to befriend yourself, to be very kind and sweet to yourself, then you will likely be gentle to yourself for much of the rest of the day. You have attuned your inner voice to give yourself a break when things don’t go the way you want and to return to what’s coming up right now, instead of dwelling on what just happened or how it will affect you in the future.
After You Meditate
When you get up from your meditation, don’t immediately check your email or rush off to your next appointment. Take a moment to stretch, have a glass of water, or take a short walk. Leave your mind at whatever speed it has ended up at, instead of hitting the gas pedal and ramping it back up to 100 miles per hour. Transitioning out of the meditation practice in this way allows you to maintain a clear and spacious mind, one that accommodates anything.