“Meditation is about stopping thoughts, and I find it really hard to empty my mind.”
“I’ve been meditating for years and nothing’s happened. Meditation doesn’t work for me.”
It’s easy to recount comments I’ve heard – and spoken – over the years that come from misunderstanding meditation practice; I’ve heard – and said – many more about mindfulness. I don’t have any expectation, in this brief piece, to expound on a comprehensive theory and practice of meditation and mindfulness. But I believe many (most?) of the readers of this series have some form of contemplation practice, so I thought it might be helpful to explore some of the common misconceptions I encounter.
First, “My mind is too busy.” Well shucks! Mine is too! The same is true for everyone I’ve spoken to about meditation. And that’s actually the starting point for the whole contemplative process. We begin by simply recognizing quite how busy our minds are, and slowly growing into awareness of the extent to which the busy-ness of our minds just happens without our conscious intervention. Left to its own devices, the mind becomes is a swirling sea of ideas and concepts and images and problems and solutions and solutions debunked….it just spirals on and on. The starting point for a meditation practice is just to notice this.
Next let’s look at the idea of stilling the mind. This is hard to do and counterproductive. To intentionally still the mind is to create another mental construct, this being one of suppression. It’s a form of internal mind control. When our concentration effort stilling the mind comes to an end, a mass of suppressed thoughts come bubbling up. It’s even worse! If, rather than suppressing our thoughts, we simply look at our them with interest and curiosity – “Hello…where did you come from?…really?…oh, here’s another, hello,” – and let them pass, they start to lose their power. Instead of hiding from or suppressing thoughts, start to notice the arising, abiding and decaying of our conscious world – not just of thoughts, but also of noises, pins and needles, movement out of the corner of our eye…and of the feelings these bring up. Start really noticing and something magical happens.
We start to develop an awareness of ourselves that we can view as sitting “on top of” or “underneath” our consciousness world. We notice that we are getting angry or sad or happy. We notice our reactions to stimuli as each reaction is happening. In a sense we as we start becoming aware in this manner of the conscious world that we have always just accepted as who we are, we gradually shift our sense of being and identity away from this and into a place of awareness. It is an awareness arises that can slip between the conscious thoughts and let them pass without interfering. This is a very subtle shift and hard to notice. It doesn’t require meditating hours a day every day, but rather just a few minutes occasionally will open the door. More important than the duration of any meditation session is a regular routine – twice a week for ten minutes, daily for fifteen…
Moving on….when someone tells me, “Nothing is happening,” and we talk, we often uncover that they have been practicing some form of thought control (suppression, redirection, etc.). But at other times we uncover instead that change actually has been happening, although the person has not noticed it. We uncover that awareness has been slowly developing. But because this awareness allows us to see our faults and our habits more clearly, it has already been working invisibly to shed old habits and behaviors that we didn’t realize we had, and to soften us from a hardness we didn’t know was there. How could we know, if we were trapped in our consciousness?
So this takes us to mindfulness and what I think are the more subtle misunderstandings of that practice. Conversation on mindfulness seems routinely to fall to “Just be in the present moment.” At one level, duh! Of course! But at another level I’ve always found – and still find – this to be a supremely unhelpful suggestion. A monk or nun eating his or her food may be in an enviable state of living in the present moment, but I suspect your average mass murderer is also living in the present moment at the time of one of his (or less often her) crimes; as is a high school shooter; or a baseball player at the plate; or a surgeon in OR. Being in the moment is important, but I find it both misleading and not enough.
I have spent years practicing mindfulness in lots of ways: paying attention to the minute details of the sensation of my fingers on the wheel of the car, my feet on the pedals; or trying to cultivate a broader awareness of the people and vehicles and buildings and trees around me; or even intentionally keeping my thoughts in the present moment. All of these can be useful, but I have come to the conclusion that the richest and deepest form of mindfulness is trying to abide in the awareness I described above. I find that mindfulness is an opportunity to cultivate the ability to observe my very consciousness itself. This is a practice of identifying the persistent “I” with this quality of awareness rather than with the conscious world of my experiences.
So to the last misconception I want to address. This shift into awareness of our consciousness is not a cold, sterile movement, but rather one of profound beauty and love. “I” start to see myself more clearly, and from there can start to develop real compassion for my good and my bad qualities. I can really start to love myself. And in the same way, if I start to look at others not from within the realm of my conscious world of judgments, but from a place of awareness, then I start to see them in a different way as more lovable also.
I am very excited about “A New Business Mindset,” a project that includes writings, courses, presentations and a podcast/radio show. If you’d like to learn more about this project and find out how to get involved, visit the “A New Business Mindset” page of my website or sign up for the mailing list