There are lots of different kinds – and depending on your preference, some are amazing and some are downright nasty! You might love the chocolate covered nuts and be totally grossed out by the fruit flavored crèmes like I am. That doesn’t mean the fruit crèmes are inherently gross – they can be totally gross to my palate while they are the favorite of someone else. Just like a candy or chocolate sampler – not every person will like every kind of meditation. Some kinds might just feel icky to you while you easily fall in love with a different approach. That’s one of the best things about the diversity that life has to offer… different strokes for different folks as they say. If you don’t love your first several exposures to meditation, please stay open to trying different styles with different teachers. Meditation has so much great stuff to offer.
Have you thought about trying meditation before and just didn’t know where to start? Have you tried to meditate only to give up within a day or two of starting the practice because it was too hard or you felt like you couldn’t do it right? Have you heard that meditation is hard and you feel too intimidated to give it a try?
Here is the trick about meditation – and most other experiences in life. Coming to any experience with expectations of how it “should” be is setting your self up for feelings of conflict and disappointment. Expectations also limit what you will be open to experiencing.
Go in with no expectation for what the experience should be like.
The whole “clear your mind” idea about meditation is a common obstacle to many people starting their own practice. The good news it that it isn’t a real thing.
The idea that to meditate you simply sit down and “clear your mind” by sheer will is a common misconception. Expecting no thoughts isn’t realistic. Minds are made to think and they are good at it. The fact that thoughts occur in the mind is not inherently problematic. The problem occurs when we are so deeply into the stream of thoughts that we get washed away from the banks of our steady, grounded presence. This is when our thoughts are controlling us and we feel constantly bombarded by the onslaught of rapid-fire thoughts on our mental conveyor belt. Meditation is about training our minds to be a beautiful tool in our service rather than the mental equivalent of some crazed chattering monkey jumping from tree to tree and throwing poo.
What is the goal of meditation? I believe meditation is about beginning to learn how to observe our human experience. To create distance between us and our thoughts. This comparison arose for me in a recent meditation session. All of a sudden my nose felt itchy. I sat with the feeling for a moment, waiting to see if it would pass. It did not. I still had an itchy nose. I was contemplating the choice of continuing to sit with the itchy nose and see if it would pass or choosing to scratch that itch. Ultimately I scratched my nose and carried on with observing my thoughts. It struck me that this whole itch scenario helps to illustrate the benefits of meditation. It is common to feel an itch and then automatically scratch it. I have definitely had this experience. Reflexively scratching an itch can be compared to any reactive behavior where we respond automatically without taking the time or space to see and feel what is really going on before deciding if we want to act and how. This process of noticing an “itch” or a trigger of any kind, acknowledging that you feel “itchy,” considering many possible actions (including inaction), then consciously choosing the response that really feels like what you want to do is exactly what gaining space around your thoughts is all about. Without the space and perspective it’s automatically itch/scratch or thought/reaction.
Observation is my personal favorite style of meditation. I am someone who appreciates making more space between my thoughts and finding out what’s actually rolling around up there in the ol’ noggin. Another way to think about this approach is to think of it as watching your thoughts. Meditation in its most simple and direct form is this – Avoid distractions. Get grounded. Watch what happens.
This means find a spot to practice. Move any electronics/projects/etc away from you. Turn off the tv/radio. If complete silence makes your skin crawl at first, play some soothing music without words in the background. Find a comfortable position that works for you. Settle in.
Notice your breath. Where do you feel your breath moving in your body? Feel your body. What sensations are you aware of?
Watch what happens.
Wait for any thoughts that show up. I know some of you just heard that needle scratch right off the record. Thoughts? When you meditate aren’t you supposed to not have those? This is a common critical misstep that can derail a meditation practice.
Meditation is not about the cessation of thoughts. When we practice meditation we are learning how to make space between and around our thoughts. We are gaining perspective. We are trying to decrease knee jerk reactivity based on the assumption that our thoughts are true. With more space around our thoughts, we can begin to ask questions like – Is this thought true? Just because I think a thought, it is not automatically true. It can be surprising how often our thoughts reveal our unconscious fears and can teach us what “programmed script” we are running in the background. In order to learn from our thoughts we have to learn how to observe them without being strongly identified with the story they tell.
What if, upon inspection, we decide that a thought is true? Even if a thought is true, we always have a choice about whether we want to entertain it. Just because a thought crosses your mind does not mean you have to become involved in it’s story. Ask yourself “Do I want to engage it now?” and if the answer is no, allow it to move along. It is liberating to realize that just because a thought has crossed your mind, it does not mean that you have to become involved with the story surrounding that thought. Thoughts are just like our encounters with other people. Have you ever wanted to have a particular conversation with someone and then decided that now was just not the time for that particular conversation? Our thoughts are just that… a conversation with our self. There is nothing that says that a particular conversation can’t be tabled until a later time.
A friend of mine was recently telling me about how she took a meditation class. I asked her how her practice has been going since the class ended and she told me about how she has been trying to meditate, but that she just can’t do it. When I asked what she meant she described several instances of sitting down and her dog coming to join her, trying to shoo her dog away and find a quiet, still, picture perfect zen experience. She told me she keeps trying but that she doesn’t feel like those attempts count.
The truth is that the stillness and the zen experience may come. There is no guarantee that it will ever come, though it likely will begin to flit in and out for the person who develops a regular practice. For every transcendent experience, there are countless distracted ones. Even when we are crabby, easily distracted and accompanied by furry companions our practice still “counts”. Any time we are showing up, observing and learning more about ourselves, we are practicing meditation.
There are many other kinds of meditation besides simply watching your thoughts. Some other forms include Metta, Mantra, Visual focus (on a candle/mandala/nature/distance gazing), and Movement based (yoga/tai chi/walking/labyrinth/running/dance). Prayer is also a form of meditation too. I think of prayer and meditation as two halves of the same conversation. Prayer is when you talk and meditation is when you listen. I’ll write more about some of these approaches in the future.
For now, if you would like to play with watching your thoughts, I would recommend setting a timer (that doesn’t sound harsh or jarring to you) for a short amount of time and starting there. 3-5 minutes may feel like a good amount of time, or you may want to try longer or shorter intervals. If you bring a spirit of light hearted curiosity to your practice, it will serve you well. Keep in mind that you can’t do it wrong. Remember to be kind and gentle with yourself while learning this or any skill. When your mind wanders, because it will and that is what minds do, very gently direct your attention back to your breath and watch for your next thought. Simply by showing up and watching what happens, you will be very successful in your meditation practice.
My challenge for you:
If you already have a meditation practice, please share what you appreciate the most about your practice in the comments below. If you had the opportunity to share some advice with a person who is new to meditation, what would you tell them?
If you are new to meditation and decide to give this whole “watching your thoughts” experiment a try, please share about your experience in the comments if you feel up to sharing. Your comment might inspire someone else to feel bold and give it a try.
Thanks for reading! As always, if you love this article, please share it with your peeps. I appreciate your feedback and shares very much!