A Common Struggle in Starting a Meditation Practice
by Upasaka Upali and Tucker Peck, PhD
You’ve sat down on the meditation cushion, and you’re ready to calm your mind. In previous sits you’ve noticed some tranquility that follows after meditating; at least, more than when you don’t practice. For whatever reason, during this session your mind is anything but calm. It’s racing with thoughts. You try to push them away, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape the overwhelming noise happening in your head. Even worse, meditation seems to be putting you amidst the chaos you were trying to avoid in the first place. The chatter seems to only grow stronger.
Practicing meditation is now feeling like a catastrophic failure because you didn’t achieve what you set out to do: quiet the mind. You’re convinced that you aren’t cut out for meditation and that meditation is best left to someone else who probably wears robes, lives in a cave, and smiles a lot. Other people can quiet their minds, but you can’t.
The misconception that meditation is simply quieting the mind is destructive. It sets us up for failure when the mind does what it evolved to do: it thinks! The reason you cannot force the mind to be quiet is that this is too singular of a viewpoint of the mind. The mind is immensely complex, yet we often envision it to be just one person up in our head, sitting in the driver’s seat, making all of the decisions. Upon a closer look, the mind is comprised of many, many processes. For example, you might notice that despite your best efforts to pay attention to the breath, there’s still part of the mind that grabs your attention and asks, “Remember that hilarious cat video you saw on YouTube?” While a certain part of your mind has a desire to meditate and brought you to the meditation cushion, there are other parts that would rather reminisce, plan, worry, or just be entertained. This is perfectly okay though, because the distracted parts of the mind are exactly why we meditate. We are training them.
Additionally, the process of forcefully trying to quiet the mind causes us to overlook two spectacular things that have already happened. First, you sat down to meditate. Sure, this might seem obvious, but establishing a consistent meditation practice is the biggest step forward you can take on your journey to a quiet mind. Sometimes we forget to take pleasure in our accomplishments because we obsess over the way things should be instead of accepting how they are. Is there any judgment of your practice happening? If you don’t already, try congratulating yourself at some point in your meditation session for sitting down to meditate in the first place. The more we take pleasure in our successes in meditation, the more likely we will want to return to the meditation cushion.
Second, you’ve had a simple but profound insight: the mind is a busy place, and there’s no off switch. The feeling of being overwhelmed by the activity in the mind is common for beginning meditators. For some, it feels as though meditation itself has caused the mind to become busy. This is a frustrating result when the original goal was to quiet the mind. In most cases, meditation doesn’t cause the mind to be busier than it already is. Rather, meditation causes you to pay attention to the mind in a way you haven’t before, highlighting the busyness that’s always been there. In this sense, noticing the busyness of your mind marks a stride forward in your meditation practice. You’ve successfully turned your attention inward and begun to notice the inner landscape of your own mind. This is an accomplishment not everyone can claim.
How do we train the parts of our mind that don’t want to meditate? First, it’s important to start noticing the process that unfolds when you become aware of your busy mind. For example, say you notice that despite wanting peace and quiet, all you can seem to do on the cushion is plan out the rest of your day. You try to stay with the breath, but sure enough, that part of the mind that likes to plan out the day just comes back over and over again. Before you know it, you’ve embarked on a fantastical journey where you not only accomplish everything on your to-do list but you also save the entire world. At a certain point, you become aware of the fact that you’re not actually meditating; your mind has just been going down a deep rabbit hole of thoughts. If you’re like most people, your initial response to becoming aware of the mind wandering isn’t friendly. In fact, it might sound something like, “Oh S***! I’m not focusing on the breath. I’m a failure!” Resentfully, you eventually find your way back to your meditation object only to run into the same issue again, and the cycle of frustration repeats.
There is a way to break this cycle of frustration, but it takes some readjustment. The first step is to reward yourself for noticing the mind has wandered instead of castigating yourself. The part of the mind that remembered that your goal was to focus on the breath is doing something wonderful. It’s reminding you that you’re meditating. Take every opportunity to congratulate yourself for noticing that the mind has wandered. Next, with kindness and appreciation toward the fact that you remembered you are meditating, return your attention to the breath or whatever meditation object you’re using. This exercise of returning to your breath in a loving fashion is crucial towards training the mind to do what we want it to: develop stable attention. The more we become aware of our mind wandering, and the more we practice returning to the breath, the more we will see the benefits grow from our meditation practice.
The good news is that a quiet (or quieter) mind is achievable through meditation, and it’s not as far off as you think. Using positive reinforcement is essential for arriving there. With practice and consistency, we quickly begin to notice the benefits of meditation as we become familiar with and accepting of our mind states. On your meditative journey, it is important to understand this distinction: a quiet mind is not something you do in meditation. A quiet mind is a byproduct of a successfully trained mind.
Upasaka Upali is a meditation teacher based in Chattanooga, TN from a tradition that combines ancient meditation techniques and modern cognitive science. He teaches classes both locally and online and has an upcoming meditation retreat in Tazewell, TN.