As a new meditation teacher, I’m evangelical about the practice, asking just about everyone whether they’ve tried it.
“No, I think too much,” is the most common answer. Or something like, “I gave up because I couldn’t clear my mind.”
I want to grab their shoulders and shake them — but that wouldn’t be so on-brand of me, would it?
By judging their experience, they’re missing the exact point of meditation — that it helps you accept whatever state your mind is in, whether it’s ruminating, worrying, planning, reminiscing, etc.
That’s the practice: accepting that your mind never stops and gently guiding your attention back to the present moment, over and over again.
Notice. Accept. Come back. Notice. Accept. Come back. That’s it.
After a few minutes of this, your mind will begin to wander less. You’ll be able to keep your attention for longer periods of time on your breath, noises around you, and sensations in the body. You’ll be a little more mindful. Your mind won’t be clear but full — of feelings, sounds, smells, and tastes.
But meditation isn’t just about enjoying your senses.
Neuroscientific research is revealing that meditation produces structural changes in the brain. Studies have found that regular meditators can experience thickening in areas related to cognitive processing. There’s also evidence that meditation can shrink the amygdala, the “fight or flight” part of the brain that processes emotions like anxiety, fear, and aggression.
That accepting part of the practice has an additional benefit: you learn that you don’t necessarily have to believe your thoughts.
Some thoughts are useful, most aren’t. You’re planning what to make for dinner and the thought of grilled chicken reminds you of what your husband ate at Denise’s birthday dinner last weekend, which reminds you of that awkward conversation you had with Denise’s new boyfriend, which makes you think that you’re a socially awkward person, which…
We spend so much time glued to the movie screen in our head, believing whatever we think — not as truth, necessarily, but as if it were real.
I remember the first time I realized that I could choose whether to believe the movie. It was in my mid-20s, just as I was starting to become curious about meditation.
My girlfriend at the time invited me to a class led by psychologist Tara Brach. She was joined by a Buddhist monk from Nepal named Tsoknye Rinpoche, a short, surprisingly young man with thin, metal-rimmed glasses and a fresh buzzcut.
Rinpoche guided us through a 20-minute meditation and then talked about how mindfulness can help calm overwhelming emotions. I noticed myself tune out right as he finished his first sentence with the words “essence love.”
Judgements flooded my mind: I’m better than these people. I don’t need this hippie stuff. I’m normal.
But then he cracked a joke: “If you want to go to India, either stay in the cheapest hotel or a five-star hotel. Because the cheapest hotel is also no good.”
I wrote that night on a personal blog I had been keeping: “His stories and ideas lulled me into pondering large questions, and then, with his humor, he shook me out of that thinking before I could get comfortable. He didn’t let me tune out in my normal way of believing I am bigger or deeper than the situation I am in.”
Looking back, it wasn’t so much about what Rinpoche had said. This new experience — being able to notice when I was leaving the present moment by thinking — likely had more to do with that I had just meditated.
For the first time, I had a sense that I could choose whether to believe what was on the movie screen, or as Brach calls it, a “trance.”
“Our conditioning is to pull away and avoid direct contact with raw feelings,” she says. “The result is a trance — we are split off from the wholeness of our aliveness, intelligence, and capacity to love.”
No wonder you feel so scatterbrained, unable to focus on work, your relationship, friends, all the things that matter to you.
You get so wrapped up in the movie that you forget to breathe fully, feel your body, and pay attention to what’s around you. You go on autopilot, leaning into the future, which gives you a never-ending sense that something is wrong, missing, incomplete.
Working out, drinking, deep conversation, sex, etc. can give you focus — but only for a few minutes or a couple hours at best. Your mind’s wandering ways come roaring back in a flash.
You think, I can’t stop thinking, which is yet another judgment that takes you away from the present moment.
Then you sit down to meditate for the first time, and the movie doesn’t stop. You try to focus on your breath, relax, bliss out, but the thoughts keep coming. You think, why can’t I just relax? Maybe this meditation thing isn’t for me. I think too much.
Tragically, you fail to see these judgements are simply more thoughts. Instead, you believe them as if they were part of the movie, 100 percent real.
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