But, we tend to miss it due to our frustration.
Lying in my bed I hear an alarm ringing. Dazed, I sit up and look for my phone. It’s lying right where I put it five minutes before.
Wasn’t I supposed to be doing something?
As I switch off the grating alarm it suddenly hits me — I was supposed to be meditating!
Or, more specifically, counting my breaths, which I realized, I had failed at epically. I’m not sure exactly when my mind had spiraled out of control, but it was somewhere in between breaths three and four…
I was understandably frustrated. I thought I’d squandered an opportunity to do something good for myself. What’s worse, I didn’t even know what had happened in my mind between that fourth breath and the alarm ringing!
Had I fallen asleep? Actually, now that I was thinking about it, I vaguely remembered my mind running through all that had happened that day.
That was not what I was supposed to be doing, I thought angrily.
This was my first meditation experience nearly 10 years ago. Following this, I meditated on and off for seven years before committing to a daily practice. Part of the reason it took me so long to make meditation a regular aspect of my life is because I missed the point.
I thought that meditation would bring me results just by doing it. But, this is like starting to play a sport you know nothing about and not seeking any guidance or coaching — it would be hard to know whether your actions help or hinder the game.
With meditation, it can be difficult to understand the point. To continue with the sports analogy, it’s often not clear whether you’ve “scored” or been “scored against.” There’s little to give you any indication of progress or success — no scoreboard, no other team, no fans cheering.
Sure, you might improve over time through trial and error, but improvement would be lackluster at best.
Worst of all, you might give up before you get anywhere.
What I’ve finally realized after almost ten years is that a profound lesson was available to me on that very first meditative experience. That lesson was quietly staring me in the face while I was too preoccupied with “failing” to see it.
What’s the point of meditation?
There are many great science-supported reasons to meditate, like stress and anxiety reduction, greater self-awareness, and sharper attention. But, it’s been my experience that these are outcomes of a more basic purpose — investigating the workings of the mind.
A lot is going on in our minds that we don’t notice, mostly because those things are mundane. Our brains do a great job of filtering out “ordinary” experience from consciousness so that we can focus on what’s “important”. Unfortunately, what’s considered “important” and “unimportant” by the brain does not always align with our best interests, in particular our mental and emotional well-being.
Meditation helps to break through the filter of the mind so that we can be consciously aware of things that we ordinarily miss. This is mindfulness in a nutshell.
What did I miss 10 years ago?
The profound truth I missed on my first meditative experience was both simple and obvious: I was unable to focus my attention on my breath.
Let’s unpack this observation.
Instead of counting my breaths as I intended, I was whisked away on a train of thoughts and emotions. I had not consciously decided to get onto this train, yet there I was, riding the train and taking in the view as if it’s what I intended all along.
The question is, if I had never intended to be on that train, why was I there?
This is where many of us defer to the concept of being lost in thought. It’s so ubiquitous, so normal, that most of us never stop to ask, what are the implications of this?
I had decided to count my breaths for five minutes. This means I hadn’t consciously picked a destination, bought the ticket, commuted to the station, or hopped on the train itself. In fact, I’d consciously NOT wanted that to happen!
Starting to get the picture?
Our minds are out of control in a way that seems very natural. So natural we don’t ever question it. And it feels natural because we’re so used to it. Remember how we stop consciously noticing things that are ordinary? We’ve stopped noticing how out of control our minds are because they’re always like this!
But, we do notice when we try to control our minds by, say, focusing our attention on our breathing and our brains refuse to submit to our demands. Unfortunately, we take this as a “failure” rather than as an insight into the workings of our minds.
Recognizing our inability to control our minds is to see the basic nature of our minds. Here, we have an opportunity to acknowledge a fundamental truth — we aren’t as in control as we feel like we are.
This little fact has massive implications for our lives. But, it takes years to unpack, understand, and apply. At least, this has been my experience.
What is so life-changing about meditation is that it can help you jump off those trains of thoughts and emotions that so often carry you away to undesirable destinations.
This is why many people call this journey “waking up” — because it’s an awakening from a life filled with runaway trains and dreary locales.
What do you wake up into? Amazingly, a world where the mundane no longer seems mundane.
If you are frustrated by your meditation practice, recognize the truth behind your frustration. Your mind isn’t what it seems.
There are few lessons more valuable than this.
Thanks for reading!