In order to be able to investigate and get curious about our thoughts and emotions, we must feel a sense of safety. In my last post I discussed two resource anchors (grounding and self-compassion) that help us to feel safe in the body. In this post I want to talk about another challenge to befriending our anxiety and emotions. This is the challenge of the monkey mind. The monkey mind is a mind that jumps all over the place. If you are having a conversation with a friend and your mind is constantly distracted with thoughts about checking your text messages or the pain in your neck or when the food is coming to the table, you are not going to be learning very much about your friend. You are not going to be present enough to connect with how they actually are in the moment. The same is true with making friends with our emotions. If we want to get to know what anxiety actually feels like in the body and get curious about it, it’s going to be pretty hard if our mind is constantly jumping into thinking or jumping to be aware of pain or sensations of itching in the knee. These are all useful interesting things to be aware of, but they don’t allow us to truly get to know the anxiety that we wanted to investigate.
Simple mindfulness practices such as following the breath can help us tame our monkey mind so that when we are anxious and we choose to turn towards the anxiety and get curious about it, our mind is less likely to wander away. It will still wander, of course, that’s just what the mind does, but over time we can train ourselves to focus the mind on any object and stay with the object. The simplest and most frequently taught meditation object for improving this ability to concentrate over time is the breath.
Meditation on the breath:
To meditate on the breath start by finding a comfortable posture. Usually sitting is the easiest posture because you don’t have to worry about falling asleep, but you can do this meditation lying down or standing as well. I actually like to mix it up throughout the day and try all of the different postures. Next, you can bring your attention to the breath at the nostrils or at the abdomen. Choose wherever you can notice the sensations of the breath the easiest. Just notice the breath as it flows in and out. Your mind may have a lot of images of breathing and thoughts about breathing, but try to get curious about the actual felt sensations of breathing at the nostril for example. What does the inflow and outflow of air actually feel like?
You may also notice that there is a bit of a pause after the breath comes in and after it goes out. You can get curious about that pause as well. There is no need to fix your awareness super tightly on the object of meditation-in this case the breath. Just let sounds and body sensations and thoughts be there as you maintain a focus on the breath.
Of course, the monkey mind will take over at some point (probably very soon) and you will be lost in thought or lost feeling other body sensations. This is not a problem. It’s just what the mind does. Furthermore, it gives you an opportunity to notice the magic moment of becoming aware that you are lost in thought and away from the breath. Once you notice this, you can gently bring your attention back to the sensations of the breath flowing in and out. And that’s it. So simple yet a lifelong practice.
This practice is all about just investigating and getting curious. When the mind wanders and you notice that it has wandered, you can simply return to the breath. If you spend your entire meditation session with the mind wandering and you notice right at the end that you were lost in thought, that’s also not a problem. This is actually a beautiful moment when we have returned to awareness.
Meditation has had a massive impact on my life and I was fortunate enough to get some really helpful support with it that has kept me from falling into some of the common pitfalls that keep people from practicing. We all have so many stories about how things should be and how we should be. Below are a few of the stories and judgments around meditation that I hear from people that keep them from practicing regularly.
“My mind is constantly wandering. I can’t meditate.”
This is probably the most common misconception about meditation. Built into this statement is the unhelpful and untrue view that there is something wrong with a mind that wanders away from the meditation object. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, it’s not just your mind that wanders. Everyone’s mind does. That’s really just the nature of the mind. The beauty of meditation is that we can train ourselves to catch ourselves when we notice that the mind has wandered, be aware of any judgments we may have about the wandering, and bring our attention back to our meditation object. Over time with more practice the mind may start to wander less. We may find that we spend more time with the meditation object and less time lost in thought. However, just like anything else meditation is a practice. You don’t learn anything overnight and you can’t know how you will benefit or enjoy something if you don’t give it a fair chance. So there is nothing wrong with a wandering mind. “My mind is constantly wandering” is simply a judgment about a natural process of the mind. The beauty here is that you know your mind is wandering!
“I am not good at meditation”
One thing that really helped me to maintain a consistent meditation practice was to make the only goal of meditation to just sit and meditate. I told myself that whatever actually happened in my mind and body during the session was a bonus and something that I could learn from. A good meditation is one we actually do. This means that if we sit for ten minutes and we are lost in thought the entire time, we had a “good” session because we followed through with the intention to sit.
“Meditation is dry and unpleasant and honestly pretty boring”
It doesn’t have to be! I remember one of the things I most struggled with when I first started to meditate was the fear that meditation would make life boring and colorless. On top of that, I thought that any attempt to make mediation feel good was actually hurting the practice in some way. However, after the initial honeymoon period with meditation wore off, I found it a bit difficult to maintain a daily practice. We do things because they feel good in the moment or we understand their benefits over time. When we are just beginning meditation we probably don’t have the verified faith yet that it can have a positive impact on our lives, and it may feel pretty boring in the moment to just follow the breath. Having practiced meditation for many years now I have the verified faith that keeps me practicing every day. I know the benefits in my bones so meditation is not really something that I think about doing anymore. It’s just something I do because I know the benefits. Additionally, and especially recently, it actually feels good a lot of the time now.
However, in the early stages when I was having trouble maintaining a daily practice I got some advice from a mentor that really helped me to commit to a daily practice. He offered me a number of practices that I could use at the beginning of meditation to lighten things up and make things more pleasant and interesting. One way to do this might be to use one of the compassion practices that I talked about in my previous blog post on resourcing. Another way to bring some lightness and good vibes into your meditation practice is to think of something you’re grateful for or a moment of wonder and awe. Do this at the beginning of the practice and notice what happens in your body. How does this change your experience with the breath? Is it easier to follow? Less boring and dry?
If you feel drawn to it, try the basic breath meditation and just notice what judgments your mind comes up with regarding how you are doing with the meditation. You can just notice these judgments and return to the breath. Try playing with compassion, gratitude, wonder and awe as ways to make your practice a bit more interesting and pleasant. Leave a comment in the comments section about your experience and with any questions !