The Truth About Meditation and Thinking
As a meditation teacher, the topic of thoughts and meditation comes up a lot. “Oh so you’re a meditation teacher? I’d love to meditate but I can’t stop my thoughts”.
It seems that even if meditation is new to us, most of us have some vague idea of a monk sitting in a cave in the Himalayas completely serene, with no thoughts, just being. His mind is clear, lucid, like the calmest lake, and he has no worries and he’s a witness to everything going on around him.
For most of us, living a life that is so busy and frantic, we see this and something inside us says, “OMG I need some of that now, I’m so stressed out, my thoughts are crazy, I’m so glad someone can’t read my mind. If only I could stop thinking for just a moment, it’s just a non-stop flow up here!”
And of course, we have that When Harry Met Sally moment of “I’ll have what’s she’s having”, and get frustrated when we sit for some calm and quiet and you’re mind is like, “Mmm meditation, so calming, so relaxing, let’s do this, “Ok so what are we doing? Should something be happening? What about now? Oh I wonder if I should go on that date with Henry? Ah I haven’t replied to that email about Thursday’s meeting! Oops I’m meditating. Better not think. Maybe I really need to go to India, or live in a monastery. Mmm a banana would be a nice snack right now. Okay, so are we finished yet?! Eek”
So many meditation attempts go like this because we are just giving it our best shot, but like anything in life it helps so much if we have guidance and have an understanding of some techniques.
WHAT YOU RESIST PERSISTS
There are countless meditation techniques and whilst they all do aim to create clarity in our mind (the analogy of a smooth lake with no ripples) the journey to get there is not to “try” to stop thoughts. Rather, most techniques take you on a journey that you then come to place after some time where the calm has ascended on you. It’s a paradox – the more you try to stop them, the further away you are.
Meditation is a journey, and in a modern society that is so high speed and work focused, many of the traditional techniques are really only suitable if you have been practising yoga for years, just like if you were running a marathon that you’d trained hard for.
In Buddha’s time, people were living less from their minds, there was way less information overload, and watching thoughts was probably a more interesting thing to do than it is for us now. We take on so much information on a daily basis and are so mind-focused that watching our thoughts can be a difficult practise, especially when you’re just starting out.
Thinking is a function of the mind, like the heart beating. You can’t make your heart stop beating. Your mind is constantly sharing information about your environment with you and processing information from your senses.
Thinking really is a SENSE, like smelling, tasting, touching etc. except we identify so much with our thoughts we think we are our thoughts and things get tricky.
SO HOW DO WE ‘STOP’ THINKING?
The mind has different functions and this is a BIG revelation for most people.
People often talk about the mind as if it’s one thing, with only one function, but the mind is complex and understanding this can be a massive gamechanger. In Tao, they talk about the mind of fire and the mind of water.
THE MIND OF FIRE AND THE MIND OF WATER
The “mind of fire” works in time, this is the thinking part of your mind. It needs past and future so it can happily think away. This is why meditation encourages you to come into the present moment aka ‘the now’. In the now, there’s no past and present for the mind to think about and so it comes to a standstill.
If you’re having trouble forcing your mind to stay in the now, you can switch to the “mind of water”. The mind of ‘water’ is when the mind is functioning with spatial awareness – that means sensing the space around and within your body, and feeling it. When we use our mind to help us sense space and to feel, it automatically comes into the present moment. So by feeling into space you’re automatically diverting your mind away from time and thinking. It’s subtle but you’re no longer trying to stop anything, not resisting anything, simply shifting focus and the way your mind works.
TECHNIQUES THAT DON’T INVOLVE WATCHING YOUR THOUGHTS
Below are some techniques that divert your attention rather than telling yourself not to push the red button aka “don’t think”.
- Feel the space around you when you meditate. Feel your lungs expand and contract. If you really feel with all your attention, then it’s hard to think. So if you’re still thinking, you’re not feeling hard enough! Let go and put all your attention into feeling. This is why, in one sense, watching your breathing is so effective as it’s diverting your mind and allows you to naturally stay in the present moment.
- Listening to music can also be used as an exercise to stay in the present moment (but in deepest meditation silence is important). This practice is called deep listening. Listening deeply or very attentively to music is interesting as you can’t take in a whole song at once like you can view a picture. With a song, you have to wait for each note and simply by listening very attentively you can turn off your busy mind. So often we have music as the background to life, so listening to it with full awareness can be a great tip.
- If you don’t think that you will be able to successfully practise these techniques on your own at home, pop along to one of my Electronic Music Meditation classes for a guided meditation where I teach using both of the above techniques.
Of course you’ll drift, thoughts will come and go, but you will get gaps of stillness in your mind. Plus, the more time you spend at the spiritual gym, exercising your meditation muscle (your attention), the longer the gaps will get.
The mind is so used to stimuli that it gets bored very quickly, so you need techniques to divert its attention. This is akin to throwing a dog a bone – and through the listening or spatial awareness you’ll eventually have some breaks of stillness – and these techniques act like training wheels for you in the beginning.
RESETTING YOUR MIND
Another really important thing is to not get angry or frustrated with your mind. Your mind is an amazing supercomputer that has performed so many amazing functions for you throughout the day. The more you get annoyed at your mind the more it will turn up the volume (what you resist will persist!). So instead, always tell your mind, “Thank you and it’s time to take a well-deserved break now”. Many people love using this computer analogy – just like when a computer is overloaded and not functioning and we reset it, we also need to reset our mind.
Meditation has many levels, but what’s important is starting. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Having some understanding of how our mind works is like mapping a jail so you can plan an escape route. That’s why it’s important to have some base level understanding and really invest in learning meditation if you want to truly journey deep inside yourself.
If you want to learn how to meditate, and have a framework and techniques that help you so you can make real progress, I’m running a live meditation course called Addicted To Being starting 16th March.
Belinda Matwali is a meditation teacher and electronic music enthusiast who is passionate about making meditation accessible and fun for all.
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