Meditation. When we hear that word, our mind creates images of tranquility, of serene streams with lotus flowers dancing by like silent ballerinas in the crystalline, star-cleansed waters. Of mountains, snow-capped and glistening like polished marbles and pearls. Of having the vast depths of the Universe opening in us, calm, quiet, empty, soothing. Not a bunch of howler monkeys or gibbons hooting and yapping around like kindergartners hopped a three-day binge of too much sodapop, ice cream and jelly beans.
But, the thing is, that’s the natural state of our brains. It’s always thinking. As someone once said to me in humor, “If your brain isn’t thinking, you’re in trouble.”
This six-part series is on aspects of meditation that can initially create confusion or frustration, as most of us come into the practice with a preset idea of what it should or shouldn’t be like. I wanted to start with this one — the busy mind — as it’s the one that usually shows up first and can create the most frustration…or at least a lot.
The natural state of your brain is to generate thoughts. The endgame, if you will, of meditation, is to achieve calmness (through all of your daily life, not just that session), but even seasoned meditators will tell you that there are times when their minds will simply not shut up. And that’s just the way it is for that session. Or two.
Or three…or more.
However, calmness may not mean a fully empty mind. In fact, you never really do have an empty mind as you’re living and breathing. Rather, calmness refers to how you choose to react to whatever your brain decides to do during meditation, as well as what happens to you throughout the rest of your day. The trick, then, is to accept what’s happening and allow it. Fighting a session where it feels like your mind is infested with a whole jungle of monkeys will just make it worse.
Yes, meditation teachers talk about learning how to control your thoughts — but many of us confuse controlling our thoughts with coercing them into something else.
The irony is that when you stop trying to control your thoughts (or all situations that come at you), that’s when real control enters. If you disengage yourself from trying to control your thoughts and let them slide past you like water thick with fallen leaves, you’re still in a meditative state, as you’re applying calmness, even a disinterest.
It’s tempting to think, “Well, fine! If my brain is just going to yap at me, I’m going to use this time to my benefit and go over that proposal I have to give tomorrow, since that’s where my mind keeps going to, anyway!”
But that’s not meditation. That’s thinking on purpose.
If you realize you’ve been sitting there thinking, you’re still meditating. Directing your thoughts into something with intent and purpose knocks you out of that state. It’s all about the disengaging and just letting the thoughts happen.
Sometimes they’ll come in rapid-fire succession, sometimes less so. Yes, the less so is the preferred state, but it may not happen. It will, but it may not for any particular session. Some sessions can go both ways. Sometimes you’ll be restless and antsy. Sometimes you’ll be bored out of your mind. Sometimes random memories will come up. Sometimes emotions come up…whatever comes up as you meditate is best treated with allowance, as what’s happening is a release.
The No Mind sensation can become the more habitual way a meditation session unfolds. But even under that, there’s still a live and active current of thoughts. It’s just that your awareness around them isn’t deemed necessary by your mind for that session. Also, you’ll learn how to disengage from them more fully as time goes on and with practice. The natural rhythm of all creatures is activity and rest. It’s the same for your thoughts. As you learn how to let your thoughts wash over you (again, the run of thoughts/memories/emotion(s) is a release), how to step away from them and apply, as I said, disinterest, the calmness and quiet comes.
It’s like walking away from a noisy crowd of those howler monkeys or gibbons. The crowd is still there, but you’ve simply found a way to get some distance from it. Some days, though, you won’t. And that’s okay. Most of the time the (very random, usually) thoughts rush past in large groups. Sometimes, though, one of those monkeys — a thought — will cling to you. If it does, imagine extricating yourself from it and gently placing it back in with its friends so it can continue on with them. If you can’t, that’s okay, too.
Allow it to happen, disengage yourself from trying to control it, and then just watch with passiveness. (This is called becoming the watcher/witness/observer, which I cover in Part 4). Eventually (maybe not until the meditation session ends), the thought (monkey) that’s clinging to you will lose interest and put itself back into the flow.
Yes, it can be (extraordinarily) frustrating not to have a nice No Mind meditation. But that’s what’s creating the frustration — the attempt to get rid of the thoughts and force the mind to give you that as a meditation session; that’s the equivalent of active thinking. Controlling your thoughts as you meditate knocks you out of meditation. Over time, as you let the thoughts flow and you practice active control when you’re not meditating, you’ll discover that your meditation sessions will feel less monkey-ified, if you will.
Frustration = judgment = not allowing = frustration
Allowing = calmness = ease = allowing
Allowing whatever the session to unfold however it decides to unfold is what releases the frustration and slips in that desired calmness. It will take practice. What a busy mind really means is that your conscious mind has gotten very quiet, and you’re becoming aware of all the thinking you’re always doing underneath (even if you are having a No Mind session, if you listen, you’ll notice you’re still having all those thoughts.
There’s a big difference between a preference for how meditation is, and an expectation for how it should go. If someone is locked into the should way of thinking, they’re in a place of judgment, not allowance. It’s otherwise like trying to control how the elm tree in your back yard decides to grow. Yes…you can trim it and shape it. But, in truth — that damn tree is going to grow how it pleases, for the most part. And that’s exactly how your mind works.
A “No Mind” session merely means you’ve disengaged from them and they don’t feel important). The yippity-yapping you’re hearing is the equivalent of you popping the lid of a soda can or popping the cork on a bottle of champagne — when you do that, the CO2 starts releasing and up come the bubbles. Your thoughts are those bubbles. In time, the soda or champagne will become flat, just as your mind will become empty. But our minds don’t run out of CO2 and bubbles (remember: if you do, you’re in trouble!) We get a constant infusion of them. Sometimes in greater quantities than before, but it’s always coming back in.
If you picture a glass of champagne, the bigger the glass, the wider the mouth at the top, the faster it will go flat. But if it stays in the narrow-mouthed bottle, it takes a lot longer.On any given day your mind’s “valve” will be (very) wide open; on other days, narrow. This is true whether you’re a seasoned meditator or you’re just beginning. What happens is it becomes easier and easier to disengage from the thoughts and watch them from a state of passivity.
Approach these busy mind sessions as if you were a bored CIA agent listening to the humdrum blathering of a bugged room. Much of what tins around in the agent’s ear is useless and random. But, in and around that can come really cool bits of information. Insights. A-ha moments. (If one comes as you’re meditating, let that thought go, too. Writing it down is active thinking again; if it’s really a truly amazing thought, it will return.)
Keep in mind, too, there is no “wrong” or “bad” session of meditation. Neither is there a “right” or “good” one. The session is what ever it is…or isn’t. Either filled with a congress of yapping baboons…or not. Both kinds, and all variations of and in-between, is just whatever that session is. You don’t have to like the session you’re having (or any experience for that matter), but you can still allow it. And if you even allow that you can’t allow, you’re still in a place of allowance.
Allowing it to happen will open a wide door for that desired calmness to enter.
Top image courtesy Freedigitalphotos.net.
Questions? Comments? Email me at heather (at) smallchangelife (dot) org or drop by my Facebook page and leave me a message, leave a comment below or feel free to start up a conversation in the discussion forum.