Meditation isn’t about suppressing your thoughts and emotions.
note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the end of this article (no email required).
As someone who teaches and writes about mindfulness and meditation, I spend a lot of time addressing misconceptions. There are many out there, and they are often repeated.
Even more disheartening is that a lot of teachers and resources spread these misconceptions, which makes it critical for people coming to mindfulness and meditation to find proper instruction.
Some of the more prevalent misconceptions are:
- Meditating is about stopping thoughts or clearing your mind.
- Meditating is about forcing yourself to think certain thoughts (or, block certain thoughts).
- Meditating will make you “detached” and non-caring/non-feeling.
- Meditating can cause more thoughts, and make depression and anxiety (and other conditions) worse.
All of these are false, and I’ve addressed them in past articles.
Recently, the misconception I’ve seen most is “meditating causes (or instructs) you to suppress thoughts and emotions.” I’ve witnessed heated debates on this topic, and read a lot of erroneous information. It stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what meditation is.
When you meditate, you strengthen awareness of everything that appears in consciousness: thoughts, emotions, urges, sensations, etc. You develop the skill of noticing it all without getting caught up in it (without indulging it).
On the other hand, suppress is defined as “forcibly put an end to; prevent.” Meditation is the opposite of that definition — when you meditate, you aren’t trying to forcibly end or prevent anything. To the contrary, you accept it all non-judgmentally.
Put another way, meditation is embracing whatever is happening in the present moment. The distinction is that meditating isn’t wallowing in thoughts and emotions. Nor is it dwelling on — or analyzing — them.
Wallowing, dwelling, and analyzing are more mental gymnastics, and they perpetuate being caught up in your mind.
But, as mentioned earlier, the reason we meditate is to stop being caught up in our minds. We do it to stop following our minds down the same old paths that culminate in conditioned behavior and habitual actions and reactions.
Consistent practice leads to direct experience of mind-made activity. We come to understand none of it is permanent — it arises and passes if we don’t cling to it and make it “mine.” Instead of “x” thought leading to “y” emotion leading to “z” action, awareness creates space that allows you to observe this process as it unfolds.
As a result, meditation presents a new path that’s not dictated by the next thought, emotion, or urge that pops into our heads. This new path leads away from a life lived on “autopilot,” where we impulsively react to whatever happens in our minds.
A few words on the process — when you meditate, you focus your attention on an anchor. At some point, you will become aware of (notice) thoughts. When you do, return your attention to the anchor. This is how you develop the aforementioned skill — you notice and return, over and over again.
Some might argue that the act of moving from thought back to your anchor is suppression, but that is not correct. You aren’t “forcibly ending” or preventing anything. Instead, you acknowledge what arises and move your attention away from it.
Instead of suppressing, you let what arises be as it is, independent from you and your attention.
Compare this to moving your attention away from a sound. There is a never-ending background noise to our lives: people moving about, traffic, nature, conversation, the hum of machines, et cetera. If we didn’t select where to put our attention, we would be overwhelmed and unable to function.
Short of putting on headphones or using earplugs, however, we don’t suppress it. We choose to move our attention to something else, but the sounds we don’t focus on are still there regardless. It’s no different with your thoughts and other mind-made activity.
In conclusion, don’t try to suppress thoughts and emotions — meditation doesn’t teach that. Don’t try to stop or control your mind-made activity in any way — meditation doesn’t teach that either.
What it does teach is to become aware. It teaches you to notice thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them. It teaches you to let them be as they are, independent of you and your attention.
In short, it teaches you to stop blindly following your mind wherever it leads.
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment…non-judgmentally. — Jon Kabat-Zinn
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