Meditation is a wellness tool that can benefit anyone with a human mind. As part of a regular wellness routine, it can help us do things like stress less, sleep better, maintain focus, and build stronger relationships with ourselves and others. (Check out my previous blog post, Meditation – It’s for Every Mind!, to learn more.) For many new meditators, though, establishing the habit can feel challenging at the beginning. This is the second in a series of posts addressing some of the most common obstacles experienced by new meditators. In the first installment in the series, we examined the misconception that, in order for meditation to be beneficial, a person must meditate for long periods of time. We learned that, on the contrary, even short bursts of meditation can deliver powerful benefits, and I laid out a plan to help you start small, with 3-minute mini-meditations.
Today I’d like to talk about another concern commonly voiced by people who are learning to meditate for the first time: “I can’t keep my mind quiet.” This concern stems from a misunderstanding about the purpose of meditation and the mistaken notion that only certain individuals are cut out for it. To be clear, in many forms of meditation, it is neither the purpose nor the goal to empty the mind. In fact, this is nearly impossible to do. The basic nature of the mind is to observe and comment on our inner and outer experience, generating an ongoing flow of thoughts and attempts at problem-solving. Putting it more succinctly, mental chatter is normal! It can also be a useful target of the meditation practice itself. One of the primary benefits of meditation is the ability to notice thoughts non-judgmentally and with curiosity, without attaching to them, and then let them go. The presence of mental chatter is a necessary part of practicing this skill. Otherwise, how could we learn to change our relationship with it?
Even so, there are tools and techniques that help minimize mind-wandering and calm the busy mind. Here are several for you to try:
- If possible, engage in some type of exercise or physical activity right before your meditation session, to release energy from the body. A relaxed body helps to promote a relaxed mind.
- Situate yourself in a quiet, orderly environment with minimal distractions, where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Assume a comfortable position.
- Help the mind transition by slowing down the breath, allowing it to be relaxed, easy, and natural. Notice the sensations of breathing as you count through 5 breath cycles.
- Continue transitioning by gently scanning the body from head to toe, making note of any areas of tension or tightness and inviting those areas to soften and release.
- When we are thinking in words or “hearing” thoughts in our mind, the tongue makes tiny micro-movements as if it is saying the words. To quiet the mind and reduce internal processing, relax the tongue, allowing it to rest gently in the lower palate.
- Adopt an attitude of surrender. New meditators often feel like they have failed when their mind isn’t silent during their practice. Attempting to quiet the mind by pushing out thoughts, however, tends to have a rebound effect, strengthening inner chatter. Let go and practice allowing thoughts to arise without engaging with them.
- Utilize a visualization to produce a feeling of spaciousness and peace, as in this short, 5-minute guided practice, Behind the Eyelids: Quiet Mind.
Remember, meditation is a lifelong skill, a form of mental training that takes work. Similar to developing a yoga practice or learning how to play the piano, the real rewards are contained in the journey itself, which is never really over but will continually evolve and enrich your life in new and interesting ways. Be patient. Allow yourself time to develop stability of mind, trying to remain curious rather than judging the quality of the practice. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” meditation session. It is simply practice. Whatever happens and however the mind behaves, this is simply information. Just becoming aware that the mind is very busy is important. Take heart in knowing that you are training your brain to pay attention and be less distracted. Over time, with regular practice, the neurological pathways involved in sustaining focus will become more well-developed and efficient.
By Stephanie Best, PhD – Licensed Clinical Psychologist