Meditation for Neurotics
A crash course in meditation for those who think too much
I despise vagueness. Tell me to let something go, and I will ask for a bulleted how-to guide for letting things go. Suggest that I be myself, and I will ask if you’re referring to my pre- or post-coffee self. Say that love will happen when I least expect it, and I will ask if Friday at noon is a good time for me to least expect love.
Let me guess: You’re going to tell me to just relax. Brace yourself.
Yes, I know I should just relax. But how?
Let me guess: You’re going to tell me to meditate.
Ok, sure. Eight billion self-help books agree that I should meditate. But how, how, a thousand times how!?
From the neurotic’s perspective, this is where most meditation guides fall short. The common advice is to sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and breathe deeply — and this is 100% correct. However, this advice is nowhere near specific enough for the man or woman who rehearses what they’ll say to their dog when they get home.
Paradoxically, these over-thinkers are often the individuals for whom meditation could do the most good. Their brains are always on. They’re probably the type to read Medium articles about avoiding focus-stealing traps ( 🙋 ). If they are, they’ll run into Evernote’s summary of Daniel Goleman’s mental focus “reps”:
- Focus on your breath
- Recognize that your thoughts have drifted off
- Let go of your current thought
- Focus on your breath again and stay there
Evernote treated these mental focus reps as distinct from meditation. However, most guided meditations advise practitioners to cycle through the same steps in almost the same words. For that reason, Goleman’s reps struck me as a great four-part introduction to meditation.
But still, these steps could stand to be more specific. Imagine repeating any of them to Woody Allen. Would he be satisfied with the simple instruction to focus on your breath? Hell no. He would ask for further instructions on how to breath, preferably with examples.
That’s what I intend to deliver. Drawing on my own meditation practice and mindfulness techniques, I’ve put together the following breakdown of Evernote’s accidental four-part introduction to meditation. Here’s a guide to meditation basics for the Woody Allens among us.
1. “Focus on your breath” = Focus on your nose, chest, or belly
For most of us, the breath is a barely noticeable pneumatic metronome. A central conceit of meditation is that the breath is a goddamn marvel. Meditation teachers talk about breath as if it’s a rare, complex, and ever-changing phenomenon worthy of study. But if the breath is so complex, what part should you focus on?
I’ve written before that meditation involves focusing on your body. When you breathe, you usually feel your breath most acutely in three parts of the body:
- The nostrils and the tip of the nose. Here you feel the coolness of the in-breath and warmth of the out-breath playing on the delicate skin around your nostrils.
- The chest. Here you feel your chest rise and fall, and your ribcage expand and contract, as you breathe in and out.
- The belly. Here you feel your belly extend on the inhale and go soft on the exhale.
For most of us, one of these sensations will be easier to focus on than the rest. For example, I prefer to focus on my chest because I’m more sensitive to the feeling of my ribcage expanding than I am to the feeling of my belly extending. I find my ribcage’s expansion and contraction interesting enough to study for a few seconds, so that’s where I direct my attention. I also just plain don’t like the word nostril, so that’s out.
2. “Recognize that your thoughts have drifted” = Label your thoughts
I love that you’re only truly meditating if you fuck up. Let me explain: Thoughtlessness is not the goal of meditation. The goal is to notice and redirect your thoughts. You can only notice and redirect your thoughts if your mind wanders. Ergo, if your mind wanders, and you notice it wandering, and you redirect your thoughts — Congratulations! You’ve meditated.
One of the best ways to notice your thoughts is to give them a nonjudgmental label. I like Mark Coleman’s technique of filling in the blank:
“______ is like this.”
For example, if I catch myself planning my day while I’m meditating, I might say, “Planning is like this.” If I catch myself fantasizing about a Cinque Terre vacation, I might say, “Fantasizing is like this.” Labeling thoughts helps me step outside of them for a second. That gives me the perspective I need to determine whether a thought is serving me.
Here are some labels you might use with your own thoughts. Remember to end each with “…is like this”:
3. “Let go of your current thought” = Imagine a cloud, bubble, or leaf
I don’t know what people mean when they say “let it go.” I do know that, if I ask people what they mean, I instigate a vicious cycle of misunderstanding:
Well-Meaning Friend (WMF): Let it go.
Me: What do you mean?
WMF: Just let it go!
Me: WHAT DO YOU MEAN THOUGH?!?
In writing and in meditation, I prefer figurative language to abstraction. So instead of telling myself to let something go, I try to imagine my thought as either a cloud, bubble, or leaf. Specifically, I envision the thought — the planning, worrying, or obsessing thought — as:
- A cloud floating away. It’s easy for me to imagine my mind as a sky and relate thoughts to clouds. Thoughts and clouds can seem daunting, but they’re really insubstantial things that will inevitably pass.
- An underwater bubble that pops. Sometimes I imagine my mind as a deep ocean (“deep” might be giving my intellect too much credit). Bubbles, like thoughts, have a way of grabbing my attention. It’s good to remember that they’re immaterial and that I can pop them with the least bit of effort whenever I want.
- A leaf falling onto a stream and slipping away. At times it feels like my mind is a rushing stream of feelings, concerns, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia jokes. It helps when I imagine a distracting thought as a leaf that falls onto the surface of my stream/mind and is quickly carried away.
As with focusing your breath, you’ll probably find one of these visualizations more effective than the others. You might even make up your own visualization. The important thing is to return to your metaphor of choice whenever you’re feeling stuck on a thought, and to use the metaphor to visualize the thought floating away or disappearing entirely.
4. “Focus on your breath again” = Visit the Museum of Breath
Now that your distracting thought has slipped down the stream of your own consciousness —and I promise to never write a sentence like that again — you can return to the breath. Redirect your attention to the physical sensation of the breath of your choice — the nose, chest, or belly — or alternate among those points of sensation.
It might help to imagine that you’re visiting your very own Museum of Breath. It’s like a contemporary art museum: You’re not exactly sure what you’re observing, but you’re pretty sure it’s worth observing anyway. Pretend that each breath is a work of art. Pause and pay attention to it: What did you first notice about this breath? What makes this breath different? Do you like this breath? Is it more of a Jeff Koons breath or a Damien Hirst breath?
God let’s hope it’s not a Damien Hirst breath. But hey, now that you’re thinking about Hirstian horrors, you can practice labeling your thoughts — “Nightmares are like this” — and then sending them downstream.
To summarize, meditate thusly:
- Focus on your breath by focusing on the breath’s physical sensation around your nose, chest, or belly.
- Recognize your thoughts by labeling them: “____ is like this.”
- Let go of your thoughts by envisioning them as clouds, bubbles, or leaves floating downstream.
- Return to the breath and try to observe each breath from a fresh perspective, as if you were in a Museum of Breath.
Try repeating these steps for one minute a day at first, and be patient with yourself as you get the hang of it. Build up to meditating for five minutes a day, then ten minutes, and then fifteen. Meditate daily for the rest of your life and, who knows, you might just relax a little.