More and more people are hearing about the positive effects of meditation on their physical and mental health and are trying it on for size. I’ve talked to quite a few folks who are new to the practice, and I often hear some variation of the following comment: “I’ve been trying to meditate recently, and it really helps me relax, but I just can’t get my mind to stop thinking.” Which prompts me to think: “No, of course you can’t, because that would be like trying to get a fish to stop swimming.”
Minds think; that’s what they do. Trying to get them to stop only makes them desperate, and when minds get desperate, they do what they do best: think. It reminds me of this classic example: if I tell you not to think of a purple elephant, what’s the first thing you do? You imagine a purple elephant.
It’s really hard for us humans to stop doing something when the only instruction is to stop doing something. For some reason, our brains automatically want to go there. That’s why meditation guidelines often instruct new students not to quiet their minds, but instead to focus on the breath. If you’re focused on your breath, you’re less likely to be paying attention to all the chatter between your ears.
But beginning meditators still get it in their heads that if they’re thinking, they’re doing something wrong. It’s like their mind is a great net filled with a never-ending supply of helium-filled balloons. The mind keeps releasing hundreds of balloons every minute, and these poor folks are trying to chase down every balloon and bury it in the back yard. It’s a hopeless effort.
The thing is, thinking is what the mind does. It’s not a bad thing. We only get into trouble when we start identifying with every thought and believing everything we think. That’s when we get stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, and confused. We don’t need to shut the machine down to get freedom from it; what we actually need to do is to accept it for what it is.
If we can come to peace with the fact that the mind is going to think, that our thoughts will not disappear, and that our mind may be out of our control, then we can practice that fine spiritual skill of acceptance. Most of our suffering comes from not accepting things as they are: trying to change ourselves in ways we can’t, trying to change others, wishing things weren’t the way they are, or thinking that if only that one thing were different we’d be happy. In meditation, we have the golden opportunity to accept things exactly as they are. The point of meditation isn’t to be peaceful–it’s to notice what’s going on and let it be. It’s to let those dang balloons fly off as far as they want without following them. Ironically, when we notice what’s going on and accept it, a little peace and serenity usually follows.
Here’s an example of this from my meditation this morning. Sometimes when I find that I’m having a hard time settling down, I do a body scan by focusing my attention on what each part of my body is experiencing, starting with my right big toe. Paying attention to our experience does not give the mind much to do. It gets bored, restless, and needy and starts demanding attention the way a needy younger sibling might. In this case, it tried to usurp the body scan process. As I directed my attention to my toe, my mind started adding its two cents: “Yes, that’s great, because focusing your attention on your toe will help you learn to concentrate more, and that’s very helpful. Now be precise about what you notice, and don’t move on too quickly. Hmm…you’re not really feeling a whole lot. You must not be doing a very good job today. Settle, please. Settle! Focus! And stop thinking, would you?”
I started to get frustrated. Then it suddenly occurred to me that I was acting as if things weren’t supposed to be this way, that my mind wasn’t supposed to be this way. But really it is. This is exactly how my mind is supposed to be.
After remembering that, I settled a bit more. But my mind kept going, and I had to keep redirecting my attention to my experience, treating my mind like a needy but lovable younger sibling. I noticed that it was particularly active and grew curious about why that might be, but I didn’t engage or get carried away by it.
After a while, my brain’s antics grew less frantic and it started to just pitch in now and then. And miracle of miracles, when I accepted my mind and noticed what its behavior told me about my current experience, its random ramblings became more valuable. They drew me deeper into my experience rather than carrying me away from it.
The mind, more than any other part of us, is terrified of no longer existing. Of course it’s going to fight for its existence if we try to wipe it out. But we don’t have to wipe it out. We can find freedom simply by acknowledging it and learning from it without being overwhelmed by it.