Meditation: a well-used yet so often misunderstood word. Yes, it is simple: just calm the mind and be still, breathe, pay attention and be present. But it’s not always so easy! The mind is notoriously resistant to being quiet, and as soon as we want to be still it seems to do everything it can to distract us. Within a few minutes thoughts are wandering, body starts to itch, ache, or want to move, things we need to do suddenly seem vitally important, and because we’re so distracted we soon feel inadequate and no good at it.
The mind is described as being like a monkey bitten by a scorpion and, just as a monkey leaps from branch to branch, so the mind leaps from one thing to another, constantly distracted. Then, when we come to sit still and begin to pay attention, we find all this manic activity going on and it seems insanely noisy. It’s actually nothing new, just that now we’re aware of it whereas before we were immersed in it, unaware that such chatter was so constant.
“When we do, we see all these runaway thoughts that race through the mind, like I wonder if my car will be ready, is my parking meter overdue, will I get a ticket, should I get a new car, is my girlfriend happy? Our minds are filled with these preoccupations, and we don’t even realize it,” says Prof Robert Thurman in Be The Change.
The experience of the mind being so busy is very normal. It’s not as if we can suddenly turn our mind off, that would be like trying to catch the wind. But having a busy mind doesn’t mean we can’t meditate; it just means we’re like everyone else. Even if we have non-stop meaningless thoughts, that’s fine. Thoughts are just thoughts, nothing more.
“Meditation can be intimidating. Sitting there, doing nothing, just breathing can be trickier than it sounds. It may feel strange, uncomfortable, or even put you to sleep. You start to fidget, adjust your seat, clothes, and hair, anything to have something to do,” writes yogini Tara Stiles on HuffingtonPost.com. “Meditation can be like a battle with yourself, your thoughts, your body. But if you stick with the uncomfortable moments, they will start to fade away and cool things will happen.”
That’s why it’s vital that we make friends with meditation, that we see it as our ally. It’s no help at all if we feel we have to meditate and then feel guilty if we miss the allotted time, or only do ten minutes when we’d said we’d do thirty. Better to sit for a just a few minutes and enjoy what we’re doing than to make ourselves sit there, teeth gritted, because we’ve been told that only thirty or even forty minutes will have any affect.
Meditation is not a war. It is a way of making friends with ourselves. Rick Fields
To clear the mind, there’s nothing simpler than watching the natural in-and-out flow of the breath. The mind might become distracted and wander off into different thoughts, but the breath always brings us into the present moment. We constantly come back to that flow.
“Perhaps the most important thing is that we don’t have to stop the mind in order to meditate, just stop paying attention to it,” says meditation teacher Noah Levine in Be The Change. “What we are doing is training our awareness to pay attention to the breath and the body and to let the mind do its own thing in the background.”
We can see thoughts like clouds in the sky moving without stopping and without affecting the clarity or brilliance of the sky, or see them like birds—beautiful, here one minute and then watch them fly away. Apply this to feelings as well as thoughts, and we see how everything comes and goes, nothing stays, nothing is permanent, no matter how strong or insistent the thought or feeling may be.