Are disturbing thoughts disrupting your meditation?
Does this sound like you?
“I’ve tried meditation but it never worked for me. Why? Because whenever I sit and relax and close my eyes, I get too conscious. That is, I start thinking that I’m trying it because “I’M NOT OK,” and that I’m sick to the point that medicine and western science is not capable of healing me. A lot of these negative thoughts invade my mind and scare the hell out of me! So, instead of feeling relieved, poorly-practised meditation makes my situation worse and worse!! Can you help? If there is anyone in the world who needs this, it’s me.” –from a reader friend (who is a competent professional in his field)
This post is to give some quick, practical help to anyone who has tried meditation in the past, and who has not been successful at it, yet wants to try again. After trying meditation unsuccessfully, on and off, for 30 years, I had a sudden breakthrough. I want to help my readers have this same, quick breakthrough success. If you are short of time, skip to the bottom of this post, where I explain what worked for me.
Meditation, and Techniques of Meditation, are TOOLS
The thing to understand about meditation is that it is not an end, in and of itself. Meditation, and the techniques of meditation, are TOOLS designed to help one achieve a certain state-of-mind, which can later be induced at will. Meditation practice is practice USING THE TOOL. This is the essential point which is often not explained in many books; this is why many people feel like they are wasting their time attempting meditation, because they are told to do it, without being told what they are doing it FOR.
Here is an analogy. Suppose you live in an area far from civilization and a storm destroys your house. You need to rebuild. Suppose someone hands you a hammer, and you have never before used a hammer. When you pick it up and try to learn how to use it under conditions of extreme duress, it is difficult to be successful. A hammer is much easier to use under duress if one has already learned how to use it, and practiced with it many times before. So, too, with meditation. Through short daily practice, one learns to USE the tool, so that when situations of duress arrive, one can pick up the tool and use it effectively.
One type of meditation is like a hammer, another type is like a screwdriver, and another type is like a set of pliers.
1.) Many styles and types of meditation work if you know what you are aiming for (turning off the left brain). These styles can include sitting and chanting, sitting and watching one’s breath, walking meditation (done in a certain style), Tai Chi (moving meditation), among others.
I recommend starting with sitting meditation, watching one’s breath, until you have success (discussed below), before moving to one of the other styles. Moving meditation is more difficult to start with to achieve the right state, but once you have achieved it, and know what you are looking for, then it is possible to achieve it with the moving meditation styles also.
2.) Don’t get confused by rules; they are flexible.
—Do you have to sit in a lotus position? NO. Can you sit in a chair? YES
—For those unable to sit up, can you lie down? YES. (but it is more difficult to do it without falling asleep)
—For those who cannot sit still at all, are there types of moving meditation? YES. (Actually, even monks recommend periods of moving meditation to be interspersed with periods of sitting meditation.)
—Is it necessary to chant a mantra? NO. If using a mantra, is it necessary to use a Sanskrit-word mantra? NO.
3.) Just like learning a foreign language, the beginning is the most difficult; the easiest way to overcome this hurdle is to reduce practice time to only one-to-two minutes (once or twice a day), in the beginning. This will keep you from becoming overly frustrated.
What Did NOT Work for Me, and Why
1.) Attempting a lotus position. Some of us have far less flexibility than others, and the way we are raised in the West often does not promote the same kind of flexibility that other lifestyles promote starting in childhood. Yoga practitioners or others can sometimes develop more flexibility as adults.
2.) Sitting still and chanting a mantra. The mantra is often given by a teacher, which I did not have. Books suggested different mantras such as “om,” or “Om mane padme hume,” (which means “the jewel of the lotus flower”). So, I did not really find it useful to attempt saying the Sanskrit words, even knowing the English meaning. I spent more time wondering about what those English words meant. What IS the jewel of the lotus flower?
Indian meditation masters also suggest in their books for Westerners that one can use the name of God (in any language or religion) as a mantra to chant. They say the most common question, is how does chanting the name of God over and over help anyone? They respond by asking us to look at the question in the negative. Suppose you heard that someone was taking the name of the devil and chanting it over and over. Nearly everyone agrees that would be harmful. Therefore, chanting the name of God has to be seen as a positive energy. Nevertheless, this will not work for atheists, even though atheists, also, can benefit from meditation.
As a neophyte, trying any of these chanting methods left me feeling silly and frustrated. Now that I have had success, I understand how this method works (see below), and could get it to work for me now.
3.) Sitting and focusing on my breathing. This was another method which did not work for me in the past. Yet, this is the method with which I had my breakthrough, and the method I would recommend to others now.
The reasons it did not work for me before is that I just felt silly sitting and focusing on my breathing, as well as that it was just so BORING!! I couldn’t focus on that for more than about five seconds without finding myself thinking about something else, or ruminating on my problems if I was in a time of stress. This was not useful at ALL.
4) Lying down to meditate. I kept falling asleep.
5.) Moving meditation. I did not attempt this in the past, but can see it would not have worked at all because I did not yet know what state I was aiming for. It will work once you have had success with sitting meditation.
What WORKED for Me, and What WILL WORK for You
Sitting and focusing on my breathing (but in a NEW way). The most recent book I read on meditation, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, has turned out to be the most helpful of all, in that it gave a REALLY good description of what happens when most people try to meditate, as well as WHAT YOU SHOULD DO when those things happen.
If someone told you, “Empty your mind of all thoughts,” most people could only do that for about two seconds before thoughts would come in. The reason meditative practices have you focus on ONE THING (whether it is the breath, or a mantra) is that by focusing on that one thing GENTLY (not forcefully), you have a point to bring your mind back to each time it wanders.
So, focus on your breath, in and out. I recommend closing your eyes. Don’t worry about HOW you should be breathing. Breathe normally (if your nose is blocked, breathe through your mouth). Each time you find your mind wandering, or thinking about something else, just bring it back to watching your breath (mentally, if your eyes are closed).
Within ten seconds, you may start to feel very bored. Your mind does not like to stay still and concentrate on just one thing. Just keep bringing it back to your breath. If you find it very frustrating or difficult, just try to do one full minute and stop. Just keep practicing (in different sessions) until you can get to one full minute. Once you are able to do that, try to get to a minute-and-a-half, and then later on, to two full minutes. Then try for three minutes. For me, it took me 30 years to get to two minutes (because no one ever explained that it’s normal that the mind keeps wandering–this is called the “monkey mind”–and that you just have to bring it back). If I had known that I would have been able to persevere through the boredom.
For me, at somewhere between two and three minutes, I found my brain made the switch from it’s normal left-brained mode to the right-brain mode (some call this the switch into alpha waves). In previous years, I did not know that this was was what I was looking for, and I also did not know that it would happen relatively quickly, if I could just get to that point. See Part I of this series for a description of what this shift feels like.
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, here is a description of “Breathing Through Boredom.”
As you relax and your thoughts begin to slow, YOU ARE GOING TO GET BORED. You start to itch. You start to squirm. Your mind starts to tell you that you must just get up and just DO something. I can’t stand it! I have to move! I can’t just sit here wasting my time! (This feeling of boredom will evaporate the minute your brain switches into the right-brain mode.)
Or if you are extremely stressed (loss of a job, or work-related problems; family or personal problems; getting divorced, or breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend), you may instead have thoughts like my reader friend shared at the top of this post–thoughts which are causing you to worry and panic. You mind attaches to these thoughts and runs away with them instead of being brought back to focus on on your breathing.
In other words, Your brain is having a tantrum when you get bored and frustrated with sitting. Your mind just wants to keep jumping and flitting from thought to thought, activity to activity. At this point, hold firm and stay consistent. Refuse to attach to your mental tantrum. It will stop. Simply be aware, “Now I’m having the feeling of boredom.” (use the bubble technique, described below).
The Bubble Technique
This technique REALLY worked for me, both during my normal day when I found myself overcome with anger, and during meditation when I found feelings getting in my way of concentrating on my breath.
If something is bothering you, either as you sit in meditation, or even in your daily life, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living says:
Imagine your distraction is enclosed in a bubble. Give the feeling a name: anger at __________; stress about ____________; sadness because of ____________; physical pain in my ____________ (you fill in the blanks); OR, just plain anger, stress, sadness, loneliness, frustration, irritation, confusion. Watch it float around, imagine the feelings banking around inside it. Concentrate on your breath, and when the feeling seems to have played itself out, take a deep breath, and poof! Imagine blowing it away.
Other thoughts and feelings will surely come up. Imagine them in bubbles, too. Watch them and name them. See them for what they are: just thoughts, just feelings, not necessarily reality or anything that defines who you are. It doesn’t have to control you. Just sit and watch, and blow those bubbles away when you are done observing them.
My main problem was remembering (when I was upset) to use the technique. The first few times I had the intention to use it, I only thought about it hours later. Then one day, I became extremely angry, and remembered to try the technique. I was pleasantly surprised to find that within three minutes, my anger had totally dissipated! Now I don’t have any trouble remembering to use the technique.
Some Final Thoughts
Once you have had success switching into right-brain mode with meditation, it will no longer take two or three minutes to do it. Within three or four sessions, you should be able to switch into right-brain mode within 15-20 seconds. You can feel the switch take place over about five seconds.
Also, I am personally unable to do the walking mediation, which should be done in a certain way (because I am on crutches with a long-term condition). However, I do swim, and found after reading descriptions of the walking meditation, found I was able to adapt it to swimming, and move right into the right-brain mode while swimming laps.
I usually swim laps in the breast stroke slowly and gently, without putting my head into the water. I found that I was able to focus on the movement of my hands in front of me, in the same way I focused on breathing when sitting in a chair. I find that within 8-10 strokes, I’m able to move right into the right-brained mode. I now think many athletes are doing this unconsciously, such as when you hear them say, “I’m in the zone,” or “It’s a natural high.” That’s just what it feels like.
Once you are successful, don’t jump into meditating too long each day, or you will get burned out and stop. Start with five minutes in each session (up to twice a day, such as morning and evening) and add ONLY ONE MINUTE each day (use a timer, if you have one) . In about a month you will work up to two 15-minute sessions (if desired) or to a maximum of two 30-minute sessions (hard-core people). Even if you only do five minutes a day, and stay at that level, this IS ENOUGH to see positive benefits in your daily life.
Lastly, I now see that the purpose of meditation is to be able train the mind so that it does not run away with upsetting or disturbing thoughts, like rough waves on a pond. When these thoughts happen, and when we find ourselves in difficult situations feeling strong negative emotions, we can take control, shift EASILY and QUICKLY into right-brain mode (because we have practiced in advance), and calm the waters of our mind. We come the masters of our minds, rather than the slaves of our minds. Meditation is especially good for gaining control over obsessive thoughts.
I’d be interested to know if any of these practical suggestions help anyone else. Good luck, everyone!