Should it be so hard to clear the thoughts from my head?

Question from Julie M in Michigan:

Hi Lynn,

Life is very stressful right now and it’s starting to interfere with my effectiveness and concentration. I’m always worried. I thought I’d give meditation a shot based on everything I’ve been reading, but to be honest I’m not sure I’m doing it right. I tell myself to relax and stop thinking, but it’s not working. Should it be so hard to clear the thoughts from my head? 

Lynn answers:

Hey Julie,

Great question. From what you’ve described, you are looking in exactly the right direction. The short answer to your question is a resounding YES! It is virtually impossible to clear the thoughts from your head. Stop trying. More specifics on that in a minute, but let’s first address your overall concern, that business of,  “Doing it right.” This comes up a lot in my classes and many practitioners share your concern. That’s no surprise, given the recent buzz about the benefits of practice popping up everywhere.

If you waded through the multitude of instructions available in books, magazines, online, classes and instructional DVDs on the topic of meditation, some of which are excellent*, you might conclude that it is a practice bound by certain rules of behavior. You may think, for example, that it must be done sitting in a certain position with arms placed just so. Or that one should block all thoughts, while achieving an empty quality to the mind. You may have also surmised that there is a certain way you should be breathing or that the overall sensation in the body is that of calm serenity and relaxation.

As someone who has meditated through both the darkest and happiest times of my life, even typing that paragraph makes me smile.

Meditation can be really helpful in stressful times, more helpful in my opinion than almost any other yogic practice. It helps us to be less reactive in general and to find our way “home” to ourselves in times of stress. But the truth is, meditation can be hell. That’s right, hell. When you really need it, it’s often the last thing on earth you feel like doing.

At times you will close your eyes only to discover there’s a party going on in there. And you have not been invited. Other times you may feel so agitated by circumstances and in such a heightened state of fight-or-flight that the very act of closing your eyes will feel impossible. And sitting quietly? Puhleeze. (And for my money, if you are doing a seated practice sit comfortably. That’s it–the entire instruction on how to sit.)

Getting back to the question of clearing your head now. That’s a common misconception. What you really want is to observe your mind, as well as your body, breath and energy. You want to see what’s going on from a place of compassion and acceptance. And what you see is what is there. It’s not right or wrong. You are simply observing what’s going on in your mind and body, and by extension observing your reactions.

That awareness does not arise from thinking about it, or talking through the “story.” It comes from simply taking a pause and observing what is. Or settling your attention on a different point of focus–your breath, a mantra, a candle, a sound. Your thoughts will not magically disappear, but you may find that not actively engaging them gives you a new perspective.

For example, you may observe a lot of worried thoughts whirling around about a situation in your life. This could lead to an understanding of why you’ve been a bit short-tempered with your kids. Or a sensation may arise within you that makes you aware that you have unfinished business with a loved one that you thought you’d resolved. Now you have some information that you can act on in your non-practice hours.

Even the happiest times in our lives—transitioning to a bigger job, having a new baby, moving–can provoke anxiety and churn in the mind. Cultivating awareness of the state of our inner space empowers us to better manage what’s going on externally.

A mindfulness-based practice provides that opportunity to observe our response to the events in our lives and illuminate options other than letting the stressors take over. It’s not that challenging thoughts or emotions will disappear. On the contrary, this practice may elicit them. You will simply choose not to engage them.

The idea of observing your thoughts with detachment and resisting becoming embroiled in the drama can be a challenge. Working with a skilled teacher can be very helpful in that regard, as could be joining a meditation group. Look for options in your area or check this link to an international directory of sanghas.

By the way, it’s entirely possible that sitting is not the best practice for you right now. When you are in an active state of worry, a movement or sound-based practice may be more helpful. A walking meditation like the one outlined here or a call-and-response type of chanting called Kirtan may provide a much-needed break from your thoughts.

A very powerful practice for stressful times is a loving-kindness meditation, called metta bhavana. The term can be translated to mean cultivating love and it’s a soothing tool for reframing because it puts your head and your heart in a compassionate place. If you’d like to try it, here’s a very good instruction.

So really, how to tell if you’re doing it right when you meditate? There’s an easy self-test for that. At the end of each day, ask yourself this: “ Did I make it to the “cushion” for at least a minute or two today?” If the answer is yes, congratulations, you are doing it right! There is no specific output or result expected beyond that.

One last point: As you observe yourself endeavor to do it “right,” consider what that means in the context of the rest of your life. In my work, I often find that people who experience chronic stress, tension and pain often place great demands on themselves to be good at everything. They set unforgiving expectation levels that are exhausting.

Who wants to go deep when lying in wait is a judgmental inner critic ready to rattle off a shopping list of flaws? Quieting that inner critic with compassion and cultivating acceptance–even affection–for our flaws is one of the greatest gifts of practice.

And that is the key word here. Practice. In all things yoga is no perfect, there’s only practice. You may as well eliminate getting it right from your worries because there is no such thing. You just do what you do and observe what happens. But if you allow yourself to go with what is and let go of your notion of how things should be, you may be surprised at how freeing it feels.

In sum: Meditation is not what you think!

(*If you don’t know where to start, a few of my favorite books on meditation include anything by Thich Nhat Hanh, anything by Pema Chodrun, Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, and Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance.)

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