What I hear most often from people who have tried to meditate and find it difficult is that they can’t stop their internal mental chatter. They set themselves up for failure by making this their litmus test of whether they are meditating or not. I find this so sad and frustrating as it is such an unrealistic expectation.
The mind’s job is to think. Just as the lungs breathe and the heart beats, the mind generates thought. We wouldn’t even consider asking our hearts and lungs to stop doing their job, yet we feel fine about making this request of our brains.
I think it’s partly that people turn to meditation as a way of getting away from themselves, especially their busy minds and lives. And there certainly are times in meditation when this does happen, but for most people, most of the time, there’s a whole lot of sitting through their thoughts that happens first.
Just as in deep states of meditation the lungs and heart slow down considerably, so does the mind, but generally not on command. I teach my students to allow their thoughts, as well as all the rest of their experience, rather than fighting them. When we push our thoughts, or any experience away, we are creating tension and resistance. These are not the optimum conditions for cultivating inner peace.
In contrast, by allowing our experience to unfold naturally in a framework of acceptance and curiosity, our minds can find their own way to calmness. In the process, we also get to observe how our minds work, their habits and conditioning, as well as their relationship to our bodies and emotions. This is an incredibly valuable process.
As an example, imagine you are sitting down to meditate and your mind is agitated from an interaction with someone you had earlier. As you sit, you keep going over what he or she said and then what you said, etc. I’m sure you’ve had this experience before. It can be annoying and feel obssesive, but your mind just won’t let go of it.
At first you might be caught up in these thoughts and the story, but after awhile you notice the agitation and anxiety underneath driving the whole process so your attention goes now more to your body. Your shoulders and jaw are tense and as you look deeper you can feel the sense of righteous anger you are embodying in that moment. And in a flash of insight you ask yourself who you’re trying so hard to convince that you’re right. What’s at stake? With this question something inside you relaxes and lets go.
Before you know it, the whole scenario drops away and you sink down into a deeper state of relaxation. Your breathing gets slower and you feel yourself wrapped in a warm cocoon in which the outside world does not exist for awhile. Ah…this is “real” meditation now. Of course, this ideal state does not last forever. After awhile something pulls you out of it, but when you recall the situation that had you so upset before, it doesn’t have the same effect. It’s like looking at it from the other end of a telescope…
I hesitate to get too concrete in describing the process that can go on in meditation because it is always different. This is only one way of many possibilities that it could go. I’ve also had students sit in a state of agitation through an entire meditation period, as have I at times. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. And there’s value even in that as well. It develops courage and patience.
What we learn from sitting with ourselves in this way is that we don’t have to be afraid of our thoughts or judge and hate ourselves for whatever experiences we have. We come into a friendlier relationship with our minds and hearts. And because in the way I teach, people talk afterwards about what went on in their meditation, nobody goes away feeling like a failure, like he or she is not doing it “right,” or the only one with such an unruly mind.
I love teaching meditation in this way because of how liberating people find it. Sometimes it’s just our ideas about what meditation is that is getting in our way.