Meditation is the practice of “cultivating” our minds to be aware of our experiences as they happen and to gain an understanding of how our minds function. There is a bit of a paradox involved in the effort, however. While practicing meditation can help us train our minds to recognize when we are engaging in “wrong thinking,” this faulty thinking often gets in the way of us meditating in the first place. One strategy for navigating these thought patterns is to replace them with something more helpful.
“I’m no good at this.”
One type of faulty thinking centers on our tendency to judge our endeavors as successful or not. Our fear of “failing” at something often prevents of from trying something in the first place. Or maybe we are willing to try something new, but as soon as we flounder- we step on our dance partner’s feet, or hit a wrong note on the piano-we decide that we’re not good at it and that we’re wasting our time. Thus, we quit before we ever allow ourselves to begin.
With meditation, the practice itself is a study in success and failure. We set our intention to focus on one thing -the breath, a mantra-and we proceed to focus on anything but for the duration of the practice. No matter how many times we try to refocus, we lose our focus again and again-and we deem that a failure. Yet, every time we notice that our minds have drifted, we have regained our focus. We have become mindful of our wandering mind-we can deem that a success.
So, instead of thinking you’ll never be “good” at meditation, try this thought instead:
“In meditation, there is no success or failure. There is only practicing or not practicing. As long as I’m practicing, I’m good.”
“Nothing is happening.”
Maybe you have heard stories of people having transcendent experiences during meditation, or have come up with the solution to a long-standing problem during their time on the mat. You may begin meditation wanting those kinds of experiences. Sometimes people do experience a sense of peace, relaxation, or a deep insight. It’s great when that happens. Yet, mindfulness and meditation are not results-oriented endeavors. The practice is about learning to be aware of and to accept what presents itself to us in each moment.
Very often, meditation is uneventful. But, it’s just as valid to experience restlessness, boredom, or frustration as it is to feel that something “big” is happening. It may feel like nothing is happening, but remember that every time you sit down and meditate, you are building up your ability to respond to stress more skillfully. Through meditation, you are learning about how your own mind operates. Try this thought:
“Nothing has to happen for my meditation practice to be valuable. Anytime I slow down and pay attention is time well spent.”
“I’m sooo uncomfortable!”
Feeling physical discomfort during meditation can be distracting. It can be hard to keep our attention on our breath when our knees feel creaky. One approach to responding to this discomfort is to use the sensation as an object of focus. It may seem counterintuitive to focus our attention on being uncomfortable, but focus is not to be confused with attachment. Attachment occurs when we start to have a story about the discomfort - My back always hurts. Why am I so out of shape? I have bad knees like my father had. What other undesirable qualities of his do I have? Attachment happens when we start to identify the feeling as being part of who are instead of something we are simply experiencing.
Focus without attachment means noticing the fact that you feel discomfort, without judgment or evaluation. It means just being aware of what is true in this moment. “Oh, there’s that twinge again.” We can observe the quality of the discomfort. Is the feeling tingly, hot, tense? Is it deep, shallow, large or small? Notice whatever information presents itself and let it go, without judgment. “Oh, it hurts in the tiny spot between my fingers.”
So, instead of telling yourself a story about your discomfort, which then leads to experiencing suffering about the discomfort, try this:
“Oh, there’s discomfort again. I wonder what I might notice today.”
These are just a sample of the many things we say to ourselves that get in the way of our meditation practice. It can be helpful to have some more skillful responses ready when we approach our practice. Through continued practice, meditation itself helps us recognize these kinds of thoughts and let them go. Once we do that, we have the freedom to choose a different way of thinking altogether.
Muesse, Mark W., Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation, The Great Courses, 2011
Yalof Schwartz, Suze, Unplug: A Simple Guide to Meditation for Busy Skeptics and Modern Soul Seekers, Harmony Books, 2017.