Meditation appears to be a simple answer to this: Just calm the mind and pay attention to the present. But why isn’t it that easy? “My thoughts are driving me mad! My mind will not be quiet! I can’t relax!” Sound familiar?
The mind is notoriously resistant to being quiet, so as soon as you sit still, it seems to do everything it can to distract you. Habitual thinking kicks in, and within a few minutes, an internal dialog takes over, the body starts to fidget and trivial things that need to be done suddenly appear vitally important. The mind has often been compared to a “drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion.” Just as a monkey leaps from tree to tree, so the mind leaps from one drama to another, constantly distracted.
When you start to meditate, you’ll find all of this chaotic activity going on. It seems so noisy that you believe you cannot possibly be still. Actually, it is simply because you are now becoming aware of the noise, whereas before you were so immersed in it, you were unaware that such chatter was so constant.
In our book Be the Change, professor Robert Thurman writes: “The first step is to try to focus our mind on something, like counting the breath. When we do, we see all these runaway thoughts that race through the mind, like I wonder when my car will be ready, is my parking meter overdue, will I get a ticket, is my girlfriend happy? Our minds are filled with these preoccupations, and we do not even realize it. But we can just let them go and bring the mind back to something we do want to focus on. This is a beginning, calming, waking-up step. But more important is to choose positive thoughts to focus on, such as I want to be more loving to that person who annoys me, I want to be more content, I want to be more friendly, peaceful, happy, and I no longer need to suffer.”
Having a busy mind is very normal. Someone once estimated that in any one 30-minute session of meditation, you may have upward of 300 thoughts. After years of distraction, the mind is not always so ready to be quiet. You cannot suddenly turn your thinking off; that would be like trying to catch the wind. But having a busy mind does not mean you cannot meditate, it just means you are like everyone else. What you can do is make friends with your mind, thereby changing it from being an enemy to your ally.
Meditation takes awareness and a willingness to keep going. The good news is that it is not possible to fail! As you continue, it will begin to feel more natural, and cool things will start to happen. Being still happens in a moment, but it may take some time before that moment comes. Remember, it is a great gift to yourself!
In other words, meditation is a letting go of resistance, of whatever may arise: doubt, worry, feelings of inadequacy or endless dramas and desires. Every time you find your mind is drifting, daydreaming, remembering the past or planning the future, just come back to now, come back to this moment. In meditation, paying attention is both the key and the practice. To be with what is; nothing else is going on.
One way to become more focused is to label the thoughts. If you drift off into thinking, silently repeat, “Thinking, thinking.” Ed likes to repeat, “Monkey mind, monkey mind,” when meaningless thoughts appear. If you get distracted, simply label it, “Distraction, distraction.” You can also see thoughts like clouds in the sky, just moving through the sky without stopping, or like birds and watch them fly away. Everything comes and goes—nothing stays, no matter how strong or insistent the thought or feeling may be. There is no need to struggle; meditation is really your best friend.
Sit comfortably with a straight back so you can breathe easily and freely. Hands are resting in your lap. Eyes are closed or lowered. Take a deep breath and let it go.
Now simply focus on the natural in and out flow of your breath without trying to change it in any way. Let your breathing be normal and relaxed; your attention still and focused.
If you find you are getting distracted or caught up in thinking, simply label your thoughts as distraction or thinking and let them go, or see them as birds in the sky and let them fly away. Do your best to do this for at least 10 minutes. Just breathing and being.
When you are ready, take a deep breath. Gently open your eyes.