Even more people tell me that they have tried and are just doing it wrong. “I can’t seem to stop my thoughts”, they say. Or “I just can’t concentrate”. Sometimes I hear, “I can’t sit still for that long”.
The good news is that these are neither reasons you can’t meditate, nor are they things you are doing wrong. In this article, by way of encouragement and hopefully assistance, are some tips relating to these and a couple of other barriers folk encounter.
Don’t Try To Stop Your Thoughts
One of the things that we realize pretty quickly in meditation is that we are special, but no more special than anyone else. I’m sure there is a person out there whose mind is so much busier that meditation really is not possible for them, but I haven’t met them yet, and I can’t imagine what that would actually look like. You see, we all have really busy minds. That is simply the nature of our human mind: it is constantly churning and generating a turbulent sea of thoughts, jumping from one wave crest to another in a disconnected jumble. We just don’t normally pay attention and notice. If you sit and meditate, you are making yourself stop and look at what is going on. You are noticing, maybe for the first time, quite how busy your mind really is. And this can be uncomfortable.
Perhaps even more disconcerting, you are noticing that “you” are not in charge. In fact, given that we are trained to think we are our mind, to find that our mind is running away from us and coming up with all sorts of crazy things we don’t really want to think about can be really troublesome: if “I” am in charge, how can “I” have no idea what “I” am going to think next, and no control over it?
This, then, is actually pointing at the central practice of meditation. It is sitting with your thoughts, sitting with whatever comes up, and just paying attention. As we start to see the reality of our lives, our view of who we are, of what our opinions and judgments are all about, of our place in and relationship to the world, they all shift.
So the corollary to this is an admonition to not try and control your thoughts. Many think that the “goal” of meditation is to have an empty mind and a blissful experience. This might feel good at the time, but it is not a meaningful goal for meditation. To intentionally stop thoughts is to suppress them, and if you suppress them, they will boil over later. I’ve seen this happen, and it means that while the meditator may have a blissful time on the cushion, return to the world is an awful explosion of thoughts. And from the perspective of personal growth and life change, what is the value of occasionally having an empty mind? Think of meditation instead as learning through observation what your mind and body really are; of what happens as you the old mental nonsense and your obsessive, compulsive, judgmental tendancies, slowly, in the light of scrutiny, become visible and start to fade.
Set Up A Space (Physical and Mental)
You decide you have a few minutes and want to meditate. But where are you going to do this? In a chair in the dining room? No, you were using the table for that project last night and it’s still set up. Too messy. On a cushion in the bedroom? But which cushion should you use? And…oh no, the bedroom is a mess. You don’t feel like tidying up. Maybe another time.
And poof! The impulse is gone.
You are far more likely to respond to a whim to meditate if you’ve already thought through these things, and set aside a space. It doesn’t have to be much, maybe just a corner of the bedroom or the living room. But it’s something intentional, a quite, relaxing space which is set up and ready for you.
And you’re also far more likely if you’ve identified a time that works best, so that idea can come up when it’s most convenient. Which is not to say you should have a rigorous scheduled plan. Quite the opposite: I’d encourage you to have a very light and easy plan, and one that you don’t take too seriously. Maybe just plan to meditate for 5 minutes, two mornings a week, right before you shower.
Be Kind To Yourself
So plan to meditate for 5 minutes, twice a week, but don’t take this commitment too seriously. And don’t beat yourself up if you miss it, either through forgetting or through being too busy or through just not feeling like it. It’s fine. To the extent meditation is “about” anything, it’s about practicing awareness. Your forgetfulness, and the barriers you have to meditation are themselves things about which you should cultivate awareness…as is the nature of the emotions that come up when you miss a session. So simply notice, pay attention, and move on. If the intention is really there, you’ll come back. And if not, that’s okay too.
Being kind to yourself is not just a palliative; it is itself an important part of a meditation practice. One of the natural outgrowths that we all see in spiritual leaders who meditate is kindness and compassion. We admire this in others and appreciate it when they express it towards us. Part of your own practice should be cultivating this same compassion, and what better place to start offering compassion than to yourself.
Don’t Separate: This is Your Life
When people first “get into” meditating, it can become something special in their lives. It’s easy to set it up as a sanctuary, to join a group, to buy special clothes to wear.
And in a sense this is okay: meditation can certainly be a sanctuary from the turmoil of everyday life, a place to let all the dirt in the stirred up glass of water that is your life settle down. It can be a place to collect yourself.
But in another sense it is important not to separate. Yes, it is a place where you can collect yourself, but you do so at least in part with the recognition that this allows you to move back into the world as a more peaceful and effective human being. And a human being with perhaps just a little more insight and compassion. And similarly when thoughts of the unpleasant experience at work, or the dreadful thing you said to your spouse that you wish you could take back, come bubbling up in meditation, that’s okay. Allowing the rest of your life into meditation is as important as allowing your meditation practice out into your ordinary life. For at the end of the day, while your meditation practice is special, it is no more special than the rest of your life, and is not different than or separate from your everyday life.
And wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could carry the insight and compassion you experience in meditation out into the world? And conversely if you could bring everything in your world inside the light of your meditation? Sanctuaries are important, but I’d encourage you to think of meditation as a sanctuary within your life, not as a sanctuary from your life. With a little practice, you can bring a flash of awareness to bear when you are about to get angry, you can take a breath, and you can slow down. Or you can realize you’ve just gotten angry and done something you wish you hadn’t, take a breath, and move on.
My daughter reminded me recently of something I said to her many years ago. “Some say that the last great unexplored frontier is space. Some say that it is the deep ocean. But it is neither: it’s your own mind.”
I do think this is true. And I hold this up with something one of my favorite philosophers said, which I remember from a TV adaptation of one of his books: Terry Pratchett’s character DEATH, after stepping outside his usual role in life to essentially save the world, has a reflective moment and looks around at the beauty and wonder he just preserved and says, “We gave them all of this, and they invented…boredom!”
We are trained to feel bored if we sit still with “nothing to do”. But I am a human being, not a human doing. I measure myself not on my accomplishments and the stuff I own or earn, but on my relationship with others, on whether I acted with compassion in a certain situation, and on how clearly I see and understand. We spend so much of our time rushing around and doing things, and seem have forgotten the value of just being. Of sitting on a porch on a summer day, of waiting for a bus and watching the world go by. Yes, it’s easy when you start meditating to see it as boring, but I think much of that is because it’s not easy to be with your unfamiliar thoughts.
Which is one of the reasons to be gentle and not try to meditate for too long. This is like exercising, and you need to build up the muscles. You also need to come to know yourself and your thoughts, and that takes time. But as you do so, and as you start to have more lucid moments when you are aware of yourself, of your thoughts, of consciousness itself, then it can become really fascinating, even extraordinary. I can’t describe this effectively any more than I can describe the experience of eating a banana to one who hasn’t done so, or of watching my children being born, but I can tell you that one of the wonders of meditation is the spaces that it opens up for exploration.
So go on a journey. Set up your space. Sit. And explore!