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‘I can’t meditate’ followed by ’my brain just won’t shut up’ are two of the most frequent battle cries I hear in my therapy room. The frustration of actually trying to quieten the mind seems to create exactly the opposite effect and tends to send most into a rage of self-annoyance, quickly followed by lethargic despair and resignation that they may never experience inner peace.
The nature of mind
There is so much misunderstanding surrounding such a simple act and I often find myself frustrated by self professed experts who use phrases such as ’quieting the mind’. Nobody can quieten their mind. It is the mind’s natural state to be very unquiet. When we start to practice the type of meditation called ’mindfulness’, we are not trying to stop all thoughts. It’s no wonder that most think they can’t meditate, because thoughts are constant. A continuous stream of bizarre and often uninvited clamour.
In general our minds jump around and play tricks on us, making us believe we are reliving an event or preparing us for some future foreboding incident. Very often we can have a hundred completely unrelated thoughts in less than a minute. If we were to sit and write down a minutes worth of thoughts we would see that our minds can really be likened to a wild untrained animal. In the East they call it Monkey Mind. And if we kept track of the type of thoughts we have on a daily basis we would find much of our internal dialogue is set on a repetitive loop. If this loop is negative then that equates to a lot of stress hormones, damaging not only our emotional wellbeing but also our physical health.
Point of awareness
Therefore the idea is not to magically stop all thoughts, but to find the point of awareness capable of witnessing these thoughts. This point of awareness can be thought of as the blue sky behind the passing clouds of thoughts and emotions. Similar to when listening to a piece of music for the first time and perhaps are so entranced with the piano that it is only on the third or fourth time of listening that you hear the guitar. So we learn to travel between the clouds and blue sky very quickly, giving us another perspective. One that isn’t quite as loud, quite as imperative. It puts distance between our inner sense of self and the thoughts and emotions that often puts a veil over it.
Changing thoughts, changes emotions
When we practice this type of meditation we become much more aware of the types of thoughts and emotions that are rising up within us. From this perspective we are in a position of power to actually change the thoughts. Very often once we have changed the thought, then the corresponding emotion will also change.
Additionally, we can learn to sit and bear witness to emotions that may overwhelm us at other times. For example perhaps the feeling of fear paralyses you in a social situation. If you sit in mindfulness and learn to watch this fear, it becomes less overwhelming, less devastating. It may even be seen as illusory, when it slowly dissipates back into the depths of the subconscious from where it first arose, giving you knowledge the next time it arises that it will at sometime dissolve again.
After a ten day silent retreat, called Vipassana (insight meditation), when I sat in meditation for ten hours a day, I was treated to another perspective entirely. The focus of my attention had been so continuously on the ‘blue sky’ of my witnessing self, that for a prolonged period all thoughts seemed to stop. In reality it was merely that my point of focus had shifted considerably. This experience gave rise to a serene clarity, that we really are so much more than our thoughts and feelings. That there is a part of us that lives within a much more timeless state. That we can understand ourselves from a different perspective which isn’t defined by our constant judgments and condemnations of ourself and others. Returning me to an almost childlike sense of wonder about the world, unclouded by negative thoughts and emotions. The scene around me took on a sharper quality, flowers had more depth of colour, dew drops shone brighter.
Sit in a quiet spot and close your eyes. Focus your attention on the airflow travelling in and out of the nostrils. Give single pointed attention to just the sensation around the edge of the nostrils. We use the breath as an anchoring device to give our minds something to return to. After a few seconds your thoughts will wander off. This is completely normal. The moment you notice your thoughts have wander off gently bring you focus back to your breath. You can even label the thoughts ‘future negative or past positive’. A visual image can be used, a blue flag for past and a red for future. Whatever is helpful. Continue to sit like this for a minute, gently bringing your focus back to your breath.
Like most things in life meditating does not fall in to just the two categories of either being ‘able to’ or ‘not able’ to master. It is not something that you can suddenly ‘do’ or ‘not do’, but a skill that takes time and practice. Yes, for a while it will seem as though progress is slow, however the very act of witnessing your thoughts can be so helpful by itself. Gradually a clearer understanding of yourself will emerge.
In my practice I teach most of my clients to meditate (unless there is a history of severe trauma), as this small tool can often give rise to rapid therapeutic results. It so consistently shows us how we can make small changes in the way we think to produce transformative results.
I have worked with people who have addressed the following issues: