Students who take Wildmind’s online courses have the opportunity to talk about their practice and get personal feedback from the teacher. The following is a recent exchange from one of our meditation courses.
A student asks: My sit didn’t go well today. I was really distracted, and couldn’t get rid of my thoughts. What am I doing wrong?
Sunada replies: Well, I’m afraid we all have days like that. You aren’t doing anything wrong at all. You’re just experiencing your mind more closely than you ever have before, and discovering what it’s really like! A bit of a shock, isn’t it? Believe it or not, this is GOOD news. You’re becoming more aware.
And really, I don’t think it’s possible to get rid of our thoughts, nor is that an aim of meditation. (Actually, I think the only people with no thoughts are dead ones!) Especially since you lead a very busy life, it makes sense that your mind can’t come to a standstill the minute you sit down on your cushion. A friend of mind described our minds as like electric fans. If you leave a fan on high for a while, then yank the plug out of the socket, the blades will keep spinning for a long time after the power’s been cut off. Our minds can be the same way.
So my first suggestion is to not get into the habit of evaluating how “good” your sits are based on whether you were able to reach a feeling of calm and relaxation. Meditation isn’t like a pill that we take to make us still and happy every time we sit. It doesn’t work that way. It’s more analogous to working out at a gym, where over the longer term our mental and physical constitution becomes more inclined toward calmness, and less thrown off by the ups and downs of life. So on a day-to-day basis we’ll have our “good sits” and “bad sits,” just like some days when we go to the gym, we feel terrible and aren’t able to get through our workout without gasping. But it’s still worth doing, and doing regularly, because it’s the cumulative effect that brings the benefit.
One of the things you can do to counteract a restless mind is to start with a fairly lengthy preliminary stage of body awareness and relaxation. When I start each sit, I imagine what it feels like to flop down into my favorite easy chair at the end of a long hard day — when I’ve done everything I could, the day is nearing its end, I feel good about what I’ve accomplished, and all I need to do is let go, relax, and get into that “ahhh……” sensation. It’s that physical sense of letting go, plus focusing on the breath, that helps to calm my body as well as my mind. Give that a try and see if it helps.
If a thought comes up, then see if you can imagine touching it lightly, like touching a bubble with a feather, and labeling it “thinking.” Don’t engage with it, don’t get on the train of thought, but don’t try to push it away either. It’s simply part of your present experience, to be observed with kindness and curiosity.
And there will be some days when those fan blades just keep spinning madly, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can slow them down. If that happens, see if you can watch that busy mind, as it is. A good sit, in my opinion, is one in which every time we find ourselves having wandered off, we bring ourselves back with kindness and patience. It’s not a contest to see how long we can go without getting distracted! It also doesn’t matter how many times we have to bring ourselves back – even if it’s a million times. Because that means we brought ourselves back a million times, and that’s a million moments of awareness! Let’s keep the focus on what positive things ARE happening, and not get discouraged about being far from an ideal we’ve built up in our minds that may not even be realistic.
Having established her own practice while working full-time in high tech and then in arts administration, Sunada understands the challenges of balancing a meditation practice with a busy life. She has been teaching online meditation courses with Wildmind since January 2006, and has impressed students with her practical and friendly approach to teaching meditation. She also runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, that helps people navigate the choppy waters of their own spiritual journeys.
Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.