Why Meditation Is Not About Clearing The Mind
It’s actually quite the opposite.
I grew up with meditation, but used to find it silly. As a child, my father practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM), a method made famous in the West by The Beatles, twice daily. It was embarrassing to bring friends to my house at times, as we’d have to tiptoe past his meditation chair. He’d be sitting in that black La-Z-Boy, upright and with his eyes closed, breathing deeply but not asleep. My friends would quietly chuckle, while I would turn a shade of red and roll my eyes.
That was in the 80’s and 90’s, when things like meditation and yoga still had a woo-woo veneer for many in the mainstream, including my precocious younger self. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I eventually began exploring yoga and meditation in my late teens, to help cope with ongoing stress and depression. The benefits were profound. Fast forward to today: One of my life vocations includes teaching yoga and meditation to those looking for “relief” amidst the fast-faced, technologically-wired world in which we live, while also working as a media and marketing professional within this world myself.
When it comes to meditation, I often hear people say they should do it — perhaps they’ve even tried it once or twice — but it’s just not for them.
“I can’t sit still and make my mind blank.”
“It’s too hard to clear the mind.”
“How does sitting with the eyes close clear the mind?”
“Screw that, I have too much to think about.”
I get it. When I’d tiptoe past my father when I was younger, I’d think these same things. Then when I finally started exploring meditation as a way to improve my mental-emotional health at a time when it was slipping, I thought there was something “wrong” with me because I couldn’t clear my mind.
I just … couldn’t … clear … my mind. It was frustrating.
If only someone had told me then what I know now. As a meditation teacher, I find this once-upon-a-time frustration for me to be the biggest misconception that I run into with students: that meditation is about clearing the mind.
Meditation is not about clearing the mind. Instead, meditation is about giving your mind something to focus on.
A recent video by a Buddhist monk illuminated this point in a funny way by comparing our mind to a monkey. It’s a living thing that is always active, always chattering, always scampering about. Meditation gives our scampering “monkey mind” a job, which comes in the form of a point of focus, something to pay attention to. Through a regular practice with this point of focus, we train the monkey mind to calm the f*&# down. Stress levels drop, awareness increases and, dare I say it, overall happiness can climb. This all benefits not only us, but others: We become better people to be around.
So instead of approaching meditation as an act of “clearing the mind” — because that’s certainly a lot to ask — give your monkey-mind a different sort of banana to peel: a focus point.
Carve out 10 minutes in your day and find a chair, a pillow cushion — or perhaps a black La-Z-Boy, just like my father’s — and give it a try. When you notice that your mind is wandering or fixating on something, such as a memory or an errand list or a daydream, gently nudge it back to your focus point.
Here are some focus points with which to experiment.
We breathe to survive. It’s instinct. But we rarely pay attention to the some 20,000 breaths we take each day. Use your meditation time to focus on each breath, and savor it. With the eyes closed, become super mindful of each inhale and each exhale, following the natural rhythm of your breath as it loops from inhale to exhale, inhale to exhale. When the mind begins to wander, direct the focus back to the breath. This sounds so simple, but ten minutes of this can do wonders by slowing down the breath and the chitter-chatter inside of our heads.
A mantra is a sound, a word or a group of words that have personal significance. It needn’t be anything fancy when it comes to meditation. Choose a word that has meaning to you — something that you wish to bring more of into your life. It could be love, compassion, play, whatever speaks to you in the moment. While seated, breathe in this word and silently repeat it on your inhale; on the exhale, send that word out into the world, silently. Continue with this to the rhythm of your own breath cycle for five to ten minutes each day. The word may change with each day. Another option is to integrate the word “Let” with the inhale and “Go” with the exhale. As in, “Let Go.”
The flickering of the flame, either real or artificial, can be a fantastic visual focus. Instead of closing the eyes, it gives you something tangible upon which to focus. Place the flame in front of you and focus on the area where the wick meets the flame. Allow your eyes and mind to stay fixed on this area, nowhere else. Breathe.
The “In-Between” Moments
As referenced in the video above, you may have days where you either cannot nor will not sit down for ten minutes. No judgment here, as I plead guilty to this myself. During these times, try to find the “in between” moments of life to sneak it some “mini-meditation.” Like when you’re on the train to work. Or about to start the engine of your car. Or waiting for colleagues in a conference room ahead of a meeting. Or at lunch. Find these pockets of time, and breathe deeply, using your breath or a mantra as a point of focus.
Like most everything else in life, the benefits of meditation come with a consistent practice and over time. It’s akin to playing the piano: You cannot sit down at a baby grand as a novice and play a Beethoven sonata on your first try. It takes practice. Some days you’ll feel off; other days you’ll feel on. And that’s OK. Eventually that sonata becomes second nature.
In the end, your monkey mind will thank you for this simple investment of time — just ten minutes each day. And so will friends, family and colleagues.