[dc]S[/dc]o, if you read my first article on meditation here, and tried my suggested plan, you have gotten a taste of meditation. (To recap, I suggested sitting for five minutes twice a day, and simply watching your breath go in and out.) What happened? If you’re like most people, you probably found it surprisingly challenging. Sometimes, five minutes seemed like eternity. One of the biggest reasons people fail to follow through with meditation (and I’m raising my hand here since this one got me for many years) is because their mind constantly wonders and the experience becomes frustrating. In this post, I want to talk a bit about that frustration, and I will leave you with a few suggestions for how you can begin to take your practice a little deeper.
Part of the problem with meditation, and maybe life in general, is that we have unrealistic expectations. We compare ourselves immediately to “advanced” meditators who have been doing this for years and imagine the imperturbable, superhuman focus they must have sitting in front of a tree for nine years. In the beginning, and for a very long time after the beginning, interruptions are normal. Failure is normal. It is normal for your mind to wander because that is what the mind does! The nature of waking consciousness is that the mind makes many connections and draws together many different threads. Depending on your processing style, most people are pretty good at holding a core thought and also branching out to think about related ideas. From a cognitive standpoint, this is rewarding: we can solve problems by thinking about different solutions, some nearly at the same time, and discarding branches when they no longer seem fruitful. A bit down the road, maybe something we discarded suddenly turns out to be relevant, so we can return to that branch and now incorporate lessons from other branches. This is incredible, and your brain is very good at it, but it is disconcerting, to say the least, when you first face this processing machinery in meditation.
Some traditions speak of the “monkey mind”. (Think of a hyperactive monkey grabbing at everything it can see, playing with it, banging it with something else, and throwing it away for a new shiny.) Now, think back to your experience trying to sit in one place for five minutes. Chances are, your monkey mind won. The good news is that people have used the metaphor of monkey mind (or something very similar) for thousands of years—you have just tapped into a universal vein of human experience. So, your frustration in those early stages of meditation was a bit misplaced; you simply met your mind, and maybe saw it differently than you ever have in your entire experience as a human being. Meditation is about quieting the monkey mind so you can see what is underneath. You have to be gentle and patient and invite the mind to unfold. You cannot force it. Meditation is about the power and clarity of pure awareness. Meditation touches on different ways of knowing and different ways of being, but first, we have to quiet the monkey mind.
And I have more good news: that frustration you felt last week was wrong for another reason. Every time your mind wanders, every time you lose the thread of your breath and get stuck in a chain of wandering thoughts—every time that happens is an opportunity to learn and to grow. Every single time. All you have to do is bring your mind back to the focus on your breath without tension, anger, or frustration. Release any of those counterproductive feelings, give a little bit of gratitude that you’ve had this interruption and that you have this opportunity to learn and to strengthen your mind, and then gently bring the mind back to focus on the breath. Beginning meditators often make very fast progress compared to more experienced practitioners, and I wonder if one reason is that these beginning meditators have more interruptions and, so, more opportunities to grow.
I also want to suggest one more small refinement. Last week I said that you could count your breath. That is a crutch, and if you find yourself extremely distracted it can be a useful one, but it is far better to simply sit and be aware of the breath without counting. Do not try to change the breath; don’t breathe deeper, more slowly, hold the breath, or change it in any way. Simply observe. If you need to focus your awareness on a spot, two that I could recommend are the tiny spot where your two nostrils meet your upper lip. As you breathe in, notice that spot gets cooler. As you breathe out, you can feel the warmth and the moisture of your breath. Try it right now—spend a few moments just focusing on that spot and noticing. Have you ever noticed that before? Interesting, isn’t it? This has been going on, literally right under your nose every moment since you were born. Even something so basic, most of us never notice. If that spot bores you, another idea is to focus about an inch below your belly button and into the center of your body. Just keep your mind on that spot as you breathe in and out. The specific spot and focus is not so important as the fact your mind is focused somewhere on the rhythm of breathing. And what are we going to do when you find yourself thinking about where you left your car keys? That’s right, gently invite the mind back to the rhythm of your breathing.
This week, let’s try to stretch to 10 minutes twice a day. If this is hard, maybe you only do five minutes some sessions, but those hard sessions are probably the ones you really need. You can’t force your way through it. Don’t approach this as a prize fighter with force and conflict. Rather, invite yourself to sit. Invite your mind to open up and quiet and gently, once again, bring your focus back to your breath. Next week, we will talk a bit more about sitting and look at another way to tweak this practice. Last words: only reading about meditation does nothing for you. This is something that must be experienced, so, please, accept my invitation to sit a few moments each day, and bring the mind, with focus and clarity, back to the rhythm of breath.