Where’s your head at?

You know how it feels to think about absolutely nothing? To have your brain completely cease producing thoughts, and your mind just empty out? Yeah — LOL. Me neither. Because it can never actually happen, not even during meditation. But, “how do I get my thoughts to stop?” is probably the number one question I get from my meditation students. The answer, of course, is “You don’t’,” but that doesn’t mean you throw your hands up and just let them take over. I mean, it’s your brain after all.

Asking your brain to stop thinking is like expecting to be able to stop your ears from hearing or your eyes from seeing just by wanting them to. They’re just doing their job, the best they know how, and they do it whether you want them to or not. Covering them only muffles their work — usually imperfectly — and takes a lot of continuous effort on your part. So, nah, you’re not going to get your big, brilliant brain to stop doing its thing, either. After all, it’s too smart for that, right? It will always find a way to keep churning out those thoughts. It’s what you do with them that makes the difference, though.

Mindfulness, including seated meditation but also other activities like mindful walking, yoga, and visualization, isn’t about stopping your thoughts, it’s about noticing them. It’s about strengthening your ability to have that moment where you can say, “Oh, that’s a thought,” and see it instead of engaging with it. It’s about not following the thought into a train of related thoughts, or letting its very existence give you reason to feel like you’re “bad” at mindfulness. It’s simply, and only, about coming back to your breath, or to whatever your point of intentional focus is, without struggle or judgment. “Hey, there’s a thought,” let it be, and come back.

Here’s a little secret for you: the coming back part is the meditation.

Keep going, a few minutes a day, and it will start to feel more natural. It may never feel easy (it doesn’t for me, and I teach this stuff!), but it is work worth doing.

We spend a lot of our days lost in the swirl of thoughts in our heads, and confuse them for being a complete and total reflection of ourselves. But thoughts are tricky. They are influenced by a lot of things outside of ourselves, and they tend to like to find comfortable and familiar paths as they flood your brain. They convince us to see things, people (including ourselves) and situations a certain way, and to respond reflexively instead of consciously. And you know what? That’s all ok, and you don’t have to be mad about it. It’s just the brain doing its job, and trying to be efficient about it. You don’t have to let it take over, though.

Mindfulness helps you create an awareness of what your brain is up to. It allows you to get to know the quiet space inside you from which you can just observe how your thoughts work, and also give yourself a little break from them. They will continue to make noise, but you can let them do that without giving them your full attention. It’s like taking out a pair of earbuds — they’ll still blare sound, and occasionally that sound will try to pull you back in even from a distance — but your breath will help bring you back, as often as needed. It’s always there for you. No judgment — just inhale, exhale.

The coming back is the meditation. It’s not perfect, it’s not easy…it just is, and like your breath, the opportunity to try, and then try again, will always be there for you, head full of thoughts and all.

Photo credit: Tim Wright