My mind goes at about a 1000 miles an hour. Always has. It’s exhausting. It is why I talk so much and so fast, it is a sort of escape valve to release the buildup of thought pressure. Thoughts and ideas come in and go out of my head so fast I can’t grab hold of them. It resembles one of those montages in a thriller where they are flicking through a Micro Fische machine looking for information.
It is a Maelstrom in there!
Meditation helps me enter the eye of the storm, the thoughts are still whirling around, but I am in the still, silent centre. It creates space where I can find calmness. Even if for a fleeting few moments.
I may not meditate for days, weeks or even months, yet something brings me back to the cushion time and time again. I notice when I don’t meditate for a period of time I get twitchy, easily distracted, more anxious and less in control of my thoughts and actions (leading to a lot of those extremely unuseful “kicking myself” reflections). When I commit to regular meditation practice I find I can move through life with more grace and elegance, make better decisions and appreciate life more (which is what is all about really isn’t it?). The times that I don’t want to, or don’t feel I have the time to meditate are the times when I need to meditate most. There is an old Zen saying that, if you don’t have time to meditate for 20 minutes, meditate for an hour.
When I am not working away, I meditate twice a day, once in the morning, once mid afternoon. If I am away, I do my best to sneak in a few minutes here and there when I can – wake early and do it before breakfast or later in the evening. After meditating for awhile you will realise everything is meditation anyway, so as long as you go about your day in a mindful and present way, you will be meditating even you are not sat on the mat.
I started meditating a little under 20 years ago. I first got introduced to it by an ex-Buddhist monk in a bar in Cheltenham, since then I have practiced a variety of different styles and sat with many different groups, from the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, to the Sanbo Kyodan school of Zen to some more esoteric and secular approaches.
Here are a few things I have learnt along the way.
Meditation is Pointless
I have spoken above of the day to day pragmatic advantages of regular meditation and there have been widely reported benefits in areas such as chronic pain, anxiety and stress, but as my practice has deepened I have started to recognise that you meditate simply for the sake of meditating. If you go in with a predetermined reason why you are doing it, you will not get those benefits, as you will be too hung up on getting the results. You will crave the results rather than focusing on the present moment.
This is where meditation is counterintuitive to our goal setting, go getting culture. With most other things in life you need to really focus on what you want to get to have a chance of getting it. But with meditation, that forward focused thinking stops you.
This was something it took me years to get my head around. When I started I wanted to be “Enlightened”, but by having a goal, and grasping for it, you are moving further and further away from ever getting it. It is like trying to catch a puppy. If you chase it, it will run away. You have to sit very still and wait for it to approach you.
You meditate for the sake of meditation, that is all. You treat it as if it is entirely pointless! Any benefits you get from it you acknowledge a useful side-effect nothing more.
Eventually you realise the process of meditation is enlightenment (if that doesn’t make any sense, you haven’t been meditating long enough).
It’s About Letting Go, Not Emptying
There seems to be a widely held belief that meditation is about “emptying the mind”, I have people who have never meditated in their lives tell me with absolute certainty that meditation is about clearing your mind of all thoughts.
I have no idea where that believe came from, but it is wrong. Not only is it wrong, it is damaging, it puts people off giving meditation a go. Or they give up very quickly as they claim they simply cannot empty their mind.
It is something I recognise, as it was a similar misconception that drove me mad when I first started meditating. One day I frustratingly told my teacher at the time that I “just can’t stop thinking”. he looked at me with that relaxed, knowing and compassionate look that seasoned meditators tend to have and ask me, “What does your heart do?” I looked at him blankly and eventually answered, “It pumps the blood round my body.”, he then asked “What do your lungs do?” I said, “They breath”, he then asked, “What does your stomach do?”, I said that it digested food. Finally he asked me, “What does your brain do?”, “It thinks?” I replied, “Exactly!” he exclaimed, “Your brain thinks. Meditation is not about stopping thinking or emptying your mind, it is about letting go of the thoughts and simply watch them pass by like clouds in the sky…”.
Meditation is simply that; letting go of the grasping hold of our thoughts, of getting carried away in them.
You may find your mind seems to quieten after you have practiced meditation for some time, to begin with it may be the odd fleeting moment before your thoughts seem to come crashing back in like a wave. In that silence, that space, you haven’t stopped thinking or emptied your mind, you have let go of your thoughts.
Two Types of Thoughts
As far as our mind is concerned, we can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. Don’t believe me? Go and see one of those horror movies with the big jumps that are so trendy right now and continue to remind yourself that is only a movie as you watch, see if the director doesn’t make you jump or scares you at least once.
Because our brains can’t tell the difference we treat our thoughts as if they are real and respond to them in the same way as if what we are thinking about is actually happening to us. We relive embarrassing, stressful or unhealthy occurrences in our lives and have the same responses and emotions as if they are happened again right now. We worry about things that may (but probably never will) happen in the future and have the same responses and emotions as if they are happened right now.
Once you start a meditative practice you very quickly recognise your thoughts for what they are, just thoughts. You disconnect from the emotional response and just observe what is going on.
After you have been observing your thoughts for awhile you notice there are two types of thoughts: Ones that just appear instantly, they bubble to the surface like bubbles in a fizzy drink. Those are easy to just observe and allow to drift past. The second ones are the more insidious ones, the ones that draw you in and drag you down the rabbit hole. Before you know it you are lost in thought and getting all those emotions, feelings and associations. With practice you will start to catch yourself getting caught up in them and be able to gently draw back and just observe them.
Simple, But Not Easy
I have lost count of the amount of people who have told me they have tried meditating, but it was too hard so they gave in. What did they expect?! You don’t have the expectation that, if you want to run a marathon, climb everest or just get fit that is is going to be really easily. Or that getting a degree or a PhD will be a doddle. You accept it will be difficult, hard work, but worthwhile. Why do people think that meditation is any different? It flabbergasts me, it really does! I think it is because it looks, from the outside, that a meditator is just sitting there, it doesn’t look like anything special, it looks quite easy really, just sitting down.
But, with all the distractions of modern life, we are becoming less and less used to just being in the present moment with nothing to do. We crave stimulus and get bored incredibly easily. Just try sitting still doing nothing for 2 minutes, time will stretch out before you and it will feel like it lasts forever. You will become aware of and probably drowned by your thoughts all racing in at ones and long for anything to do to stop the boredom, finding any excuse to do something, anything!
There are times when I sulk and fidget my way through a session, or spend it utterly distracted. I have spent weeks of meditation sessions wondering what on earth the point is and resolving to pack it all in. I have got so frustrated I have even just stopped for weeks! I am not alone. I have spoken to much more seasoned and experienced meditators who say the same. It is hard work and some days it won’t feel like it is worth it, some days you may even feel worse after you have meditated…
Like everything worthwhile it requires effort and dedication. There are no shortcuts, no matter how many “speed meditation” or “mindfulness in the moment” apps, website or books there are offering them to you.
Don’t Do Anything, Just Sit There!
Sit, relax, observe your thoughts, don’t be judgement, just acknowledge them. That is all there is. Practice this on the meditation cushion and bring it with you into your every day life.