The point is not to “blank out” your mind.
I hated meditation the first time I tried it.
Besides the fact that I was super skeptical about meditation, the moment I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing my mind exploded with activity.
I thought about what happened earlier in the day. I thought about what I was going to do later. I thought about how hungry I was, how bored I was, how restless I was. I paid attention to all the things, besides my breath.
I was relieved when my phone timer finally went off. It had only been two minutes, but that had felt like an eternity. I sprung up from my bed where I had been “meditating”, desperate to engage in something else, anything else.
All this made me think, meditation is just not for me.
I had no idea that meditating would be like that. I always thought that meditating meant switching off the mind to achieve perfect calmness, like a still lake on a clear summer morning.
Is that will you think meditation will give you? An escape from the endless stream of thoughts and emotions bombarding your every waking moment?
This is where many of us are wrong about meditation. We are not silencing or “turning off” our minds when we meditate — we are observing our minds.
And these are two very different things.
Turning Off the Mind
If your expectation when you sit down to meditate is that your mind will suddenly stop thinking and you will feel relief, you’re in for an unhappy surprise.
There were 7 years in between that first time I meditated and when it became a daily practice. One of the reasons it took so long was that my expectations didn’t match my experience.
My advice to you is this: don’t have expectations. By carrying expectations with you into a session, you do nothing but hinder your progress.
But, it’s still natural for you to be dissatisfied when your mind inevitably acts against your will and wanders incessantly. When this happens, remember the words of Sayadaw U Tejaniya, a senior Buddhist monk and meditation teacher practicing out of Yangon, Myanmar:
When the mind is thinking or wandering just be aware of it. Thinking is a natural activity of the mind. You are doing well if you are aware that the mind is thinking. When you feel disturbed by the thinking mind, remind yourself that you are not practicing to prevent thinking but rather to recognize and acknowledge thinking whenever it arises.
~ Sayadaw U Tejaniya (taken from the podcast Insight Hour with Joseph Goldstein, Ep. 03)
By reminding yourself that you are not practicing to prevent thinking, you permit yourself to think, which many others mistakenly consider failure. This one small change in perspective will remove a huge burden from your practice.
Observing the Mind
The point of mindfulness meditation is to develop the skill of mindfulness. But, what is mindfulness?
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered by some to be the godfather of Western mindfulness, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
To put a finer point on it: mindfulness is not practiced for its own sake — mindfulness alone is not enough.
Mindfulness is practiced in the service of self-understanding and wisdom, which is only gained through observing how your mind is.
As easy as this sounds, it’s not at all. Our minds are tricky. They easily distract us, confuse us, delude us.
But seeking this understanding is worth the effort.
As far as my journey goes, it’s been extraordinary. Meditation, mindfulness, and the search for self-understanding and wisdom have transformed my life. Observing my mind and understanding how and why it behaves as it does has released me from much unnecessary dissatisfaction and suffering.
So, the next time you sit down to meditate, remember what you’re there to do. You’re there to notice how your mind works, not to quiet it.
If you pay close enough attention, you might even find wisdom in witnessing how, why, and when your thoughts arise and pass away.
So, what are you waiting for? There are mysteries to be understood and they’re right in front of you, waiting for you to notice them.
Thanks for reading! Much of the ideas presented here are taken in some form from Joseph Goldstein’s podcast Insight Hour.