Are you one of those people who think, “Oh, I could never meditate. My mind’s too busy!”?
I’m here to tell you that having a busy mind is the very best reason to meditate, not a reason to avoid it! After all we start going to the gym because we’re out of shape, not because we’re already fit. Meditating helps our busy minds become calmer.
Of course, just as when you start going to the gym the first thing you notice is how out of condition you are, it’s often a shock when we first meditate to discover just how unruly our minds are. But that’s OK. That’s something we just learn to accept.
As we meditate, we start to recognize that it’s OK to have a lot of thinking going on. We learn that when we try to fight with or repress our thinking, it just makes us tense, and gives us a sense of failure. A lot of what we do in meditation involves paying attention to our breathing. Of course we quickly lose our focus and get distracted, but whenever we catch ourselves having got caught up in a train of thought, we let go of the thinking and return to the breathing again. We learn to see this as a process: follow the breathing, get distracted, return to the breathing. Rinse and repeat.
Those moments when we notice that we’ve been distracted and return to the breathing are very important. Our first instinct may be to curse ourselves — “Aargh! I’ve been distracted again!” — but what’s really going on is something worth celebrating: you’ve returned to mindful awareness. You’ve come home. So you can remind yourself to appreciate these little successes. This helps you to feel good about meditating. In a way, the more you get distracted, the more opportunities you have to feel good about coming back to the breathing again!
Something I want to stress is that a very ordinary but very amazing thing has happened when you realize you’ve been distracted. Your consciousness has changed its state in a subtle but quite radical way.
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When you were caught up in a train of thought you had no choice, no free will, no mindful awareness. You hadn’t decided to think about whatever was on your mind. You weren’t aware you were doing it. You had no ability to disengage from the thoughts. You were on automatic pilot. You were in a trance-like state.
This kind of distracted thinking is rather like dreaming. It was only when you “woke up” and mindful awareness, for whatever reason, re-emerged, that you realized that you were caught up in a story-line and were able to make a conscious choice to let go of it. In that moment of awakening from the daydream, you became free.
People think that meditation is some kind of trance. But it’s the opposite. It’s waking up from the trance of distracted thinking.
The moment you step back into mindful awareness, you move from being a kind of automaton to being more fully human. You’re free to choose where to direct your mind. You’re free to return your attention to your breathing rather than to engage in distracted thinking that, for the most part, makes you angry, tense, anxious, or depressed.
You became capable of taking responsibility for your own mind and even your own destiny.
You’re also free to change the emotional quality of your mind. You can choose not to be impatient, and to accept that it’s OK that you were distracted. You can choose to be kind to yourself, and to be kind to your mind, returning your attention to the breathing with patience and gentleness, as you might return a baby bird to its nest.
Choosing to go back to the breathing, rather than to be distracted, changes the mind in the long-term. Choosing to be patient and kind with ourselves also changes the mind long-term. We become calmer. We become kinder. We become better able to deal with life’s difficulties.