by Michel Spruance: “It’s not working. I just can’t stop thinking.” I hear this all the time from new meditators…
And after years of a reasonably regular meditation practice, I confess I still have days I think, “I’m wasting my time.” I may look calm from the outside, but inside my thoughts are racing the Indy 500.
So how do you know if meditation is “working?” Are you actually getting all those touted benefits of mediation when it feels agitated and chaotic? Yes, you are. The very fact that I could observe the thought,“I’m wasting my time,” that I stayed seated and returned to consciously doing my mediation practice, that’s meditating. The magic is happening.
Meditation is not about how the practice feels at the time you are doing it. It can feel miserable and still be a worthwhile practice. The key is that you are watching what is happening in your body and mind, and over time, you react to it less and less. Your foot is asleep. Ok. Your thigh is throbbing. Ok. Your arms feel like they will fall off. Ok.
Or perhaps your mind is the source of your perceived misery. “I left the coffee pot on without water. I must get up now.” You stay. “Did I send that urgent e-mail last night, or is it still in drafts?” You stay. “I have my book idea – it’s brilliant. I should start writing right now.” You stay.
It’s as simple as that. Whatever style of meditation you use, the process is working when you watch thoughts, sensations and sounds, stay put, and return to the focus of your meditation. Even if you get entangled in a thought and it takes 10 minutes to get your mind refocused on the mediation practice, you are doing just fine.
Mediation is not stopping the flow of information across your brain. It is giving your mind something to rest your attention on (in yogic terms, it’s a Drishti). From this vantage point, thoughts, sensations and sounds are just stuff happening in your peripheral vision. You know it’s there, but it doesn’t get your attention and reaction.
When it does command your attention or reaction, that’s a perfect part of the process. When we are stressed, anxious, or depressed, thoughts will have more command over us. Over time though, you will return to the focus of your mediation more and more quickly. This is phenomenal training for focus and non-reaction in day-to-day life.
Beyond this very practical application, there are benefits of staying in mediation even on, and perhaps especially on, the days it feels like a struggle. The struggle comes because there is a disturbance in one or more areas of your life. When you sit still, the turmoil bubbles up to the surface and you see it boldly. You might feel an intense need to deal with things right now.
Staying in mediation, and little by little learning to watch that turmoil rather than react to it, provides a very important separation between you and the disturbance. Even on the days I have to call myself back from angry, fearful or anxious thoughts, sometimes upwards of 60 times, the practice always builds a space between me and the source of the anxiety. In this space, I often discover creative responses to my challenges, rather than simply reacting out of my past patterns.
Lastly, we know that meditation changes our brain waves, even when it feels anything but peaceful. As you observe your mind swinging like a monkey from thought to thought, your brain waves change. As you stay still and rest your attention on the point of meditation, you shift your brain waves from the gamma waves of activity and input, to the Alpha and Theta states of ease and quiet.
In the Alpha state, you downshift toward calm. You feel more reflective and quiet, and the right and left hemispheres of the brain balance, create neural integration. In the Theta state, you move from planning toward awareness. Your intuition is amplified and you experience a sense of wholeness. This doesn’t happen every time, but every time you practice mediation, you create the conditions for your brain to drop into these states more readily.
As Pema Chodron says, “We can stop thinking that good practice is when it’s smooth and calm, and bad practice is when it’s rough and dark.” It’s all practice, and it all works. It’s like training for anything, whether playing a violin concerto or running a marathon. The only way to train is to “Just do it.”