Have you ever left a meditation unsatisfied, wondering why you can’t seem to quiet the mind, frustrated with restlessness?
You’re not the only one. The common credence is that a good meditation is still, the mind is quiet. A meditator’s paradise is the ability to have thoughts at a standstill, and anything less than that is a difficult or bad meditation.
So what do we do? We equip ourselves with the tools and techniques and drive the road of meditation with a continuous rehearsal of refinement and self-analysis. At first, this road can appear overwhelming – the scenery is new, exciting, perhaps even beautiful – but it eventually might swerve into the bumpy, mechanical, and scientific (proper breathing, appropriate posture and prop selection, visualization & focus, mantras, mudras, the list goes on…). Suddenly our seated session passes by and we realize we were thinking the entire time; the judgement ensues.
Thinking is not the enemy of meditation. Thinking, in fact, is essential to our lives. We need it to make important decisions, to plan, communicate, and to grow. The problem isn’t so much that we think; the problem is thinking that our thoughts are new when the actual act of thinking is fixed.
For example, once I believed that I was to blame for my father’s disinterest in having a relationship with me. I came up with all the evidence to prove it: I wasn’t good or smart enough, I didn’t follow in his religious footsteps, I took on more of my mother’s traits than his, I should have persisted in pursuing him in spite of my step-mother’s control – the inner blame went on. Then my own defense would kick in: you called, you wrote, you text, you visited, you pretended to accept the hurtful, insensitive teasing and judgements, you cried, pled, and even moved closer to him. Enough is enough. “Oh, but the regret if something ever happens to him.”
This is an example of how thinking tends to be for or against, one over the other. We think that thinking is the problem when, actually, it is the quality of our thoughts. This is why meditation is so important – it brings clarity and direction.
Rather than overcoming the feat of thought-elimination, one of the most fundamental skills to develop in meditation is to be able to identify and suspend polarized thoughts – calming the impulse to be at war with opposition. One relative example is relaxing the body. You physically want to be still – you know it’s beneficial because it’s been proven to foster less stress and mental activity. Yet, the body struggles because there is resistance that the complete opposite will occur.
If meditating removes the thought of thinking, you may find meditation difficult because the feat of removing thought can cause tension and resistance. This makes meditation frustrating; it creates a space for self-critique. Furthermore, attempting to focus on, “I am not going to think” will feed into more thinking. This teeter-tottering is what most of us do when we make decisions, communicate, and plan. We weigh the evidence and choose the best option.
However, one of meditation’s goals is to liberate thinking, to allow ourselves a space where the thoughts do not control us rather than us attempting to control the thoughts. This is where techniques are fruitful – they give us something other than thinking to focus on. It offers the mind something to do rather than letting it freely do as it usually does. It further elevates our consciousness, too.
Most techniques fall under posture and breathing. This is why it is so important – especially for beginners – to find a path and practice that fosters a connection with one’s self and the divine. Once you feel connected to a certain teacher or guru, the more likely you will invest energy and commitment. This aspect of devotion is equally if not more important than the techniques.
When you sit and feel your shoulders slumped, ask your thinking, “How can I improve my posture?” “How does this affect my breathing, and how can I expand it?” Does the chest feel contracted or caved in? This is indication that thinking is doing its thing, and when you’re thinking notices that, draw the shoulders back. Broaden the chest, and lengthen the spine. Sit up straight! You can have your thinking count breaths; practice the simple strategy of measured breathing. Here’s thinking at its best – it is working for you and not against you.
One approach is to give your thinking a task. Mantras, mudras, and chanting are useful. Set a practical goal. For example, I am going to “Aum” 25 times at my spiritual eye. Or, visualize spaciousness and breath in the heart chakra. You could even picture your guru, your spiritual guide, sitting next to you and ask for guidance and support in meditation.
When you’re not sitting, exercise your thinking muscles. Ask yourself the “big” questions, such as “What do I really want in life?” All of these activities keep thinking occupied in a productive way. It beats the approach of sitting and trying to enter a sudden void. In a sense, you invite your thinking to join you in meditation rather than exclude it. It’s more likely, then, that your thinking will collaborate and harmonize with you.
Another way to make friends with the mind is to remind it that you are checking out temporarily. You are not abandoning the mind completely. You are merely asking the thoughts to take a time-out from its busy tasks. Directly ask your thinking to leave you alone – the judgment, attachments, gossip, and opinions – so you can meditate. Agree to check in afterward to listen to what your thinking has to say; you may find that it actually likes to meditate!
Watching the mind obtain a state of quietness is like cleaning a pot that has sat for a long time. At first it just seems dirty, but then we add clean water (our awareness) and begin to scrub. We see it become what seems like an even bigger mess, as now we’ve “disturbed the bees nest” of our mind. The clean water is now full of debris. Only as we continue to scrub (concentration) and rinse (devotion) do we see the result we wanted – a clean pot – and a mind that is calm and deep.
In the end, never make a part of yourself the enemy. Going into overwhelm or state of war creates resistance. Find a balance of ease and resilience. Doing so helps strengthen will power and break through preconceived limitations. The mind and its thoughts are constantly discovering ways to engage, create, and enjoy. Through meditation – and welcoming what seems like intruding thoughts – we are able to live, awaken, and transform our lives. Thinking is not the enemy; it can be a significant spiritual friend.