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I’m a Longtime Meditator and Still Don’t Have a Clear Mind

A psychologist and meditation teacher answers readers’ questions about life and practice. Here is his advice for quieting the mind for meditation.

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Dear Dr. Rettger,

“I have been meditating for more than five years, but I’m still unable to stop the constant chatter of mind. The more I strive to stop the thought process, the more I get an influx of thoughts. I feel totally lost! What should I do?”

Sincerely, Searching My Soul

Dear Searching,

This is an excellent question and one that (I believe) all meditation practitioners work with in their practice more often than not. I will frame my response to your question according to a variation of the mindfulness strategy known as “RAIN” practice. In brief, RAIN is an acronym for recognize, allowing/accepting, inquiring/investigating, non-identification and nourishment. I learned of the RAIN practice from the teachings of Buddhist psychologist and author Tara Brach. I will apply each of the steps in the RAIN practice toward the question of working with excessive thinking and cultivating a clear mind in meditation.

R: Recognize (What Is Happening)

Before we jump toward the recognition that the mind is spinning seemingly out of control, I want to first make space for empathy and compassion. Perhaps that is the “meta-recognition” here. As a meditator myself, and as a person who teaches meditation and yoga, and a person who talks lots of shop about meditation, I can assure you that you are not alone in this meditation quagmire of seeking a clear mind. I can certainly feel your frustration and sense of helplessness. I am here to assure you that there is indeed a way of finding direction in what feels like a dark night.

Let’s get to the recognition piece. The good news is that you have accomplished this already, you are able to recognize the wandering of the mind. There is a teaching I once heard that went something like: “Each time the wandering of the mind is observed and attention is brought back, is a step toward awakening.” The next steps on this path are how you choose to respond to the mind wandering.

A: Allowing and Accepting

I invite you to take the next step forward in your journey by allowing the stream of thought to play out in your mind like old fashioned movie reel tape. The acceptance piece comes in where we work toward the realization that it is the nature of the mind to produce thought, to wander and chatter. The key here is to not struggle against the stream but to flow with it. The meditation practice becomes about staying awake and alert to this thought stream and to be able to be a constant witness to its occurrence and be able to step out of it and not get swept away by it. Some teachers suggest a simple self-statement of “thought is occurring” in these moments is enough to maintain this observer role. The next part of our RAIN practice involves more of an active awareness.

I: Investigate/Inquire Within

As a meditator, I find the “investigation” aspect of the practice to be exhilarating. Here is a question I would like you to consider: What would it be like if you held the thought torrents as “teachers” or “messengers” rather than holding them as “enemies” to be silenced? What if the thoughts were beautiful messengers from deeper realms of yourself inviting you toward greater self-knowledge? Notice the effects in your practice of transforming these “enemies” into “friends.” I recommend really taking time here in your practice to feel the liberating effects of “befriending” your experience.

Try to approach the thoughts that come up in your practice with a sense of awe and curiosity. Try it as an experiment. See if you can study the thoughts instead of trying to push the “off” button for a clear mind. Invite yourself to really dig into your role in meditation as a keen observer. You can even go so far as to imagine yourself a scientist whose project it is to see so completely clearly and describe in such pristine detail the features of the thoughts. It is essential to notice how this way of being is distinct from being the “thinker” or the “narrator” of the thoughts. Those roles involve subjectivity. To be a scientific observer of your thoughts you aspire toward objectivity. Objectivity is free from judgment, it is free from emotion, free from desires, attachments, clinging; it is essentially free from all of the things that limit your freedom. See what it is like to conduct this type of experiment in your practice.

N: Non-identification and Nourishment

The practice of non-identification is akin to the practice of letting go. It is a way of releasing experience, not clinging to moments, and doing our best to not confound our identities with the objects of our thoughts, emotions, body, and experiences. It is to realize all that is truly sacred about our humanness. It is to realize the beauty of our human spirit exactly as it is and to know that everything is always in motion and always changing. This practice sounds idyllic but it can be a gritty process that takes time, patience, and practice. This is where I believe the practice of self-nourishment comes in and is so vital to our existence. The past couple of years I have been holding an intention in my heart of letting my first response to all situations be one of compassion. For me that is an example of practicing nourishment. I do my best to remember that at times life involves fallibility, tragedy, and on the other end, joyfulness, bounty, and beauty. Mindfulness and meditation are practices designed to teach us to approach the full spectrum of human experience with grace, ease and equanimity.

My closing statement to you is to always remember meditation is a practice. The practice itself is perfection already, so there is no need to strive. You have done an amazing job of staying on the path for five years, so keep your heart set toward self-kindness, compassion, and lovingkindness and as the great yogi Sri K. Pattabi Jois taught: “Do your practice and all is coming.”

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