Have you ever sat down to meditate or unwind and find that you suddenly have one thousand important thoughts? Or maybe you're just trying to fall asleep and your mind is stuck in a continual playback loop of your entire day or your to-do list for the days to come. It's easy to allow the mind to run away on all sorts of unhelpful tangents and it becomes especially noticeable right when you're trying to control it.
I recently received this meditation blog post suggestion from my friend, Sarah Speer Kaminski. (Sarah is an amazing wellness coach, business mentor and mama. You can find TONS of inspiration from her here!)
Sarah said: "I need meditation help! It is so hard for me to turn my mind down."
"Turning the mind down" is such a common struggle. I hear you and I hear it all the time from those who are new to the practice as well as long-time practitioners. So Sarah, you're most certainly not alone! I'd like to share some of my favorite tips and common obstacles that trip people up about their meditation practice. Let's start with a definition!
What exactly is meditation?
One of the main things I like to share about starting a meditation practice, is the widely accepted definition vs the actual definition of meditation. There are lots of different types and styles of meditation, but in our culture, there is this idea that meditation is a practice that we turn to in order to magically calm down, relax and 'empty' the mind. We're told to practice it when we feel stressed so that we can chill out and get centered, right?
Meditation is not actually what we're practicing when we're trying to calm the thoughts and slow down the mind. What most of us are actually practicing is dharana, which is the noble pursuit of concentration TOWARDS meditation. Dharana simply means that we're focusing the mind toward one goal, object or idea. This process of controlling the thoughts, slowing down the mind and centering is not meditation, but dharana.
Dhyana is true meditation. Meditation is a continuous, uninterrupted flow of consciousness and awareness. Dhyana exists only in the present moment. Awareness of any separation between your mind and the object of your meditation practice is not meditation, but concentration.
"People frequently confuse dharana with dhyana. In concentration, there is a subject and an object. You, the subject, are concentrating on a candle, or an image, or the tip of your nose. These are objects of concentration. In meditation, the object disappears. The subject disappears. All becomes one. Rather than focusing on a mantra, you and the mantra become one. In meditation, all borders, boundaries, and separation between ourselves and the universe begin to disappear." - Source
That said, dharana is still great and many of us just want to reach a useful stage of concentration with less interruption. Concentrating and teaching the mind to behave is so useful and grounding, even if we only ever achieve seconds of dhyana. I like to refer to dharana as mindfulness. As we concentrate and notice our thoughts, we're beginning to become mindful about what they are and what we're thinking about.
Great news: 'emptying your mind' is not possible and that's not the goal of concentration or mindfulness meditation.
Our brain is meant to think and have thoughts. Without thoughts, concentration would not be possible. One of the most helpful tips I share for practicing toward meditation is to visualize each passing thought as if it were a cloud in the sky. So we're just briefly noticing each one, one at a time, we're not trying to control them in any way and we just allow them to pass by and move on. Through this persistent process, we start to find that sense of peace: mindfulness.
If your mindfulness practice feels stressful or creates anxiety, do something else instead.
Practicing dharana during times of anxiety is not usually useful. Concentration amplifies our thoughts, mood and energy. So trying to meditate on stress usually just creates more stress because we're then hyper-aware of all of our different varieties of stress! If you have a ton on your mind and are looking to wind down, it's usually helpful to move your body, write a brain-dump journal entry, maybe do something creative such as coloring and then check back in with some mindfulness if you want.
"But I still have so many thoughts!"
One of my students felt continual frustration with her meditation practice because she was hoping her mind would just become empty. But it doesn't happen after 3 tries. I think a lot of times when you're new to meditation, it just feels like you have so many thoughts because you're noticing each one for the very first time.
I like to remind myself and my students that each and every time you're able to notice your mind straying or you notice a thought coming in, you are succeeding and being mindful. It certainly takes practice to harness the type of awareness that will result in a calm state of mind, but it's also certainly worth it. Many of us spend far too much time dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Learning how to focus your thoughts and experience the self-control of mindfulness will leave you feeling refreshed and centered.