I was teaching a class the other night and after a guided meditation one woman said she’d found it hard because lots of thoughts came up, and she’d get absorbed in them. Then she had to keep letting go of the thoughts and returning to the breathing. Of course I reassured her that that’s absolutely normal. In fact, noticing that we’ve been caught up in the mind’s stories and returning to our present-moment experience (whether of the breathing or something else) is what meditation is about.
Once you accept that fact, you’re less likely to think of yourself as being a “bad meditator” or to think that your meditation practice isn’t going well just because you get distracted. In fact, under such circumstances your practice is going just as it should.
Many years ago I found it useful to watch what you might call “thoughtspace.” Thoughtspace is the physical location of your thinking. Now you might not have thought of your thinking as having a physical location, but try paying attention right now as you say something to yourself internally. I think you’ll find that your thoughts emanate from a particular place (probably inside your head). If you watch that part of your experience closely — if you monitor your thoughtspace — you’ll think less.
This helps to calm the mind. Except … I also found that there was a kind of secondary thoughtspace. Over and over I’d find that I was watching the primary thoughtspace (the one you just identified) carefully, only to become aware that there was a subtle background whispering coming from somewhere else. The thinking that came from the secondary thoughtspace seemed quieter and less obtrusive, however. The primary thoughtspace seemed to give rise to the kinds of thoughts that completely threw me off track and led into unmindful absorption in daydreams and fantasies. The secondary thoughtspace gave rise to subtler, more whispery thoughts, which co-existed with mindful attention so that I could be observing the breathing (or my primary thoughtspace) and still have a running commentary going on. However, those thoughts could shift to become the center of my attention if I wasn’t attentive enough.
You might want to try watching your thoughtspace and see if the same happens in your own experience.
Having just the whispery thoughts of the secondary thoughtspace is a lot better than having the more “in your face” thinking that normally goes on, but sometimes I like to calm and stabilize the mind even more. So one way to do that is to simultaneously observe your thoughtspace and what you could call your feelingspace.
Feelingspace, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, is a name for the area in the body where feelings arise. The point of observing the feelingspace is not to stop feeling arising! It’s just to observe what’s there. Now feelings can arise in many parts of the body, including the solar plexus and the heart. but most often they manifest in the solar plexus, just south of your sternum.
I don’t mean to imply having a narrow focus. If I were to start my meditation just by noticing the space where my thoughts arise and the solar plexus, for example, then this would feel very constricted and might even lead to a kind of “backlash” where my thinking increased. So although I may be focusing on the solar plexus I’m actually aware of most of the area in the body where feelings arise—basically most of the chest and abdomen. Within this, I’ll have a lightly-held focus on where I tend to be experiencing feelings the most at that particular time.
What I’ve found is that if I observe both the thoughtspace and the feelingspace at the same time, the mind becomes even quieter. The mind may not become completely silent all the time, but there are longer periods of calm.
Whatever you do, don’t get attached to the idea of getting rid of thoughts altogether! You can’t control the arising of thoughts, and they will tend to bubble up. If you have the idea that you’re only “succeeding” when there’s no thinking, then you’ll get frustrated. Just try doing the practice and see what happens. It may take you a while to feel your way into it, since there are a bunch of skills I’ve mentioned that you may have to work on developing — e.g. including two different parts of your experience in conscious awareness at the same time. Some people initially find this tricky since they have the habit of focusing narrowly (although not necessarily mindfully!)
The following things are all excellent outcomes:
If you’re making a gentle effort to observe both thoughtspace and feelingspace at the same time. If you’re able to do so, or getting better at doing so. If you find that you’re a bit more aware of your thinking without getting caught up in it. If you find that periods of distraction still arise but they don’t last as long. If your thinking seems lighter and less compelling than it was before. If you notice periods of time, even brief ones, where there appear to be no thoughts arising. If you’re more aware of the area of the body where feelings arise. If you notice your feelings more. If you notice the interaction between thoughts and feelings.
Basically, any increase in awareness of what’s going on inside you is good. Any movement, however slight, toward peace and freedom is welcome. But mainly what you’re doing is just being mindful of the body, of feelings, and of the mind. It’s about process, not outcomes.
You might want to give that a try and see if it works for you.
I’ve generally found that observing two physically separate parts of my experience has a profoundly calming effect (I call this “the perceptual stretch”) but the fact that feelings and thoughts interact with each other may also help this approach to be effective in calming the mind.
Just one last point, when you have a single candle in a large room, it’s not going to light up the whole space; appreciate the light you have, rather than cursing the darkness that remains. Value any moments of calmness that emerge, rather than lamenting the fact that thoughts are still arising. By valuing calmness, you encourage it to grow.
I’m such an idiot! I can’t believe I locked the keys in the car. What am I going to do now? How am I going to get home? I can’t even call my husband because my phone’s in the car and my purse!! I’m totally stuck. I have no idea what to do. I am hopeless!”
I’d like to say that this is a purely fictional situation: that I have never locked my keys, purse and phone in the car, and that, moreover, I would not address myself in such a negative way. But, unfortunately, I cannot.
Firstly, I have found myself in …
Yesterday someone posted a comment about their “failure” regarding a 100 Day Challenge:
I’ve stuck to my challenge only once — ONCE! — in the past 12 days. MASSIVE failure.
So for this person this wasn’t just a “failure.” It was a “MASSIVE failure.” Yikes!
My immediate thought was that this labeling is very, very counter-productive. If you aim to do something like meditate every day, and only manage to do it one day out of 12, why not regard that as a small success, rather than as a massive failure? After all, you made some progress toward your goal!
Here’s the thing: how does it make us feel when we look back and scream “failure!” at ourselves? It makes me feel bad. It probably makes most people feel bad.
And then how motivated do you feel by this kind of self-talk? Perhaps some people do feel motivated by making themselves feel bad, but frankly I find that I just want to put the entire activity behind me. If I was saying there had been a “massive failure” because I’d failed to get a 100% grade, I’d probably give up. Why try, when anything other than complete success is going to result in name calling and suffering?
What’s it like, on the other hand, to look at a track record like the one above and to call it a small success? I’d feel a small amount of happiness!
And what if I was trying to develop a meditation habit, after each meditation I did I gave myself a massive “yay!” What if I rewarded myself by evoking pleasant feelings after a sit? I’d probably feel inclined to do it again. I like doing things when there are rewards.
What if you have a goal of meditating daily, and on one particular day you only had time to sit for five minutes? A lot of people will give themselves a hard time. They’d compare the five minutes to the 40 minutes (or whatever) that they’d ideally like to do, and regard the short sit as being a failure. I saw someone doing this just the other day. But hold on a minute! You kept up a daily meditation practice! You had a tough day, either because of demanding external conditions or because you didn’t feel good that day, and you meditated anyway! That’s fantastic! That’s an excuse for giving yourself an inner party — “yay, you!”
Yeah, but what about the animal trainers? You promised me animal trainers!
You know who uses this technique all the time, very successfully? Animal trainers. Let’s leave aside the ethical considerations of, for example, capturing or breeding wild animals and keeping them in unnatural habitats for entertainment purposes.
All successful animal trainers use rewards, and avoid punishments. Punishments are demotivating, while rewards are encouraging.
And animal trainers don’t just reward huge advances in behavior — they reward small steps. A journalist who studied animal training (and how to apply the principles of animal training in her marriage!) said “The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging.” And you start off by rewarding the sea lion even for just touching the ball with its nose! You reward a step as small as that! A sea lion learning to balance a ball on its nose comes from hundreds of small steps, each one of which is rewarded. There are also, of course, even more “massive failures,” but those are ignored. Why demotivate your (inner) sea lion?
So every time you sit, reward yourself. I don’t suggest rewarding yourself with raw fish (although, À chacun son goût) but with positive self talk — rejoicing. “Yay, me!”
Now in some cultures, including my native Britain, self-rejoicing is culturally taboo. We might, when we’ve done something exceptional, grudgingly give ourselves a “not bad, I suppose” before going on to criticize something aspect of our performance that was less than perfect. But even British people cheer their football teams when they score a goal, so this isn’t a general aversion to celebrating! So when you’ve made any kind of progress in your meditation practice, dear British people (and anyone else who finds rejoicing in one’s own good to be “cheesy” or otherwise improper) just pretend that you’re cheering on your favorite team.
So how do you talk to yourself about progress? Is anything short of complete success a “failure”? Or are you able to recognize small successes and rejoice in them? Give it a go. You might end up experiencing the benefits of meditating every day — or even be able to balance a ball on our nose.