Meditation, Personal Development

Meditation and Stimulation

When we meditate, we’re learning to be comfortable with a lower level of stimulation than we typically crave. We’re detoxing from stimulation.

The quest for stimulation fills our waking moments. We seek it in food, sex, work, movement, art, media, narrative, and the general business of living.

If you observe someone reclining in a chair, doing nothing, it might seem as if that person is not seeking stimulation. That’s where mind-wandering, brooding, daydreaming, and rumination enter the scene. When we sit still, the quest for stimulation is internalized. 

To think is stimulating. Worrying is a kind of thinking, and a highly stimulating kind. We hate worrying, but on some level, it excites us. Our craving for excitement is a reason we might keep worrying even after we notice that our worries are hurting us. People pay to see horror movies but when they realize they can catastrophize in their own minds for free, it can be hard to stop doing that.

Lessening our need for stimulation has several benefits. If it’s the need for stimulation that keeps us addicted to worry, then reducing that need might break the cycle of addiction.

Detoxing from stimulation might also provide some relief in the struggle with procrastination. Because what is procrastination? If we discard the element of guilt that fuels avoidance, what we’re left with is a craving for stimulation. We procrastinate because the thing we’re supposed to do is not stimulating, so we find ourselves constantly drawn to things that are more so. But when we engage in a distraction that’s highly stimulating, we’re feeding our addiction, we’re reinforcing our dependence on stimulation, making it even more painful to return to the unstimulating task. 

Meditation can help us reverse this trend. Through meditation, we can become comfortable with an even lower level of stimulation than the task we’re avoiding. After meditation, when we then engage in that same task, the task might seem stimulating enough. It’s relative. That’s not to say meditation is a quick fix to procrastination – but it can help.

To operationalize this insight, we might try an experiment. Let’s work on a difficult task, and when we feel the fidgety impulse to stop, let’s not resist it. We’ll embrace the compulsion to procrastinate. But instead of checking email or eating chips, we’ll take a meditation break. Let’s allow ourselves to procrastinate as much as we want as long as the avenue of procrastination is limited to a three-minute meditation break any time we want, no questions asked.

Is that really going to help? Like a lot of things, it all depends on how you do it – the details of execution are important – but it might.

Meditation, Personal Development

Meditation, Web Browsing, and Optimism

If I could write a letter to my younger self with one piece of life advice, I’d say this:

  • When something is positive or helpful, give it a little more attention than you otherwise might. Make a little more room for it in your mind.
  • When something is negative or hurtful, spend a bit less time thinking about it than you normally would. Don’t linger on it so long.
  • You might be thinking about a negative thing in order to make it better: to solve a problem, extract a lesson, or convert a failure into an opportunity. In this case, the negative thing needs your attention if it is going to be changed. But even here, you can let the positive possibility lift you up a bit more. Don’t bind yourself so tightly to the negative situation’s downward-dragging weight.

If these guidelines are indeed a path to being happier, why are they so hard to follow?

One reason why negative thoughts so often consume us is that we’re inclined to prioritize threats – not only real ones, but anything that seems like one. Chalk it up to the “survival instinct.”

A second reason why negative thoughts so often consume us is that they are more talkative. When something’s bad, it gives us a lot to say, but when something’s good we don’t always feel the same urge to verbalize about it. Negative thoughts occupy our attention because they create more chatter.

I once attended a class where the participants were asked to go around in a circle and speak about something nice that had happened recently. It went fast. Each person took a moment to think, said a few words, and we moved on. “Good weather today.” “Morning coffee smelled amazing.” “My dog came and licked my face.” “The Red Sox won.” “I got a raise.” And the circle was complete.

We were asked to go around the circle one more time, but now we had to mention something bad that had happened. It took much longer. Someone said their car broke down. “Battery went flat. But it had just been replaced last year. Mechanic needed a full hour to diagnose. What the heck was he doing? The bill was outrageous, had to argue. Finally got a discount but it took so long that I missed my son’s soccer game. Kid was so upset that he refused to do his homework and I had to have a call with the teacher…” And that was just the beginning of one person’s story.

If the first circle took a minute and felt a bit boring, the second circle took an animated twenty minutes and the instructor had to limit each participant’s time so the next person could get a chance.

Could it be that positive things are more pleasurable but negative things are more virally engaging, even when the scope of that virality is limited to the inside of a single mind?

Here’s a third reason why negative thoughts so often consume us: it’s simply that we lack control of our thoughts. Thoughts come into our mind and dominate us because we’ve never really learned the jujutsu to handle them. If we want to stop or redirect them we find that we can’t.

If you want to be happier, look on the bright side? Fine, but if it were easy to look on the bright side, you’d already be doing that.

Meditation can make it a little bit easier. Meditation can help us gain the kind of control over our thoughts that would allow us to follow the advice to “look on the bright side.”

Simply by learning to release our thoughts – to let them pass without attachment – to let them enter and leave our minds without our clinging to them or rushing to unpack them – we can develop the poise that might later help us take a positive perspective. Even if we practice the kind of meditation that seeks equanimity, calm, emptiness, an absence of thought – not the kind where we try to sustain our focus on a positive thing – the first kind will inevitably help with the second.

We can also notice the forces in our lives that steal our self-control, the routines that train us to be helpless pawns in the theater of own thoughts, and we can avoid those forces. 

For me, web browsing is such a force. For another person, it might be channel surfing with a TV remote. I find that web browsing is the opposite of meditating. It’s an uncannily precise opposite, as if you took meditation and simply reversed it.

Put me in front of a screen and I’ll click on links, scroll through social media feeds, check email, read news updates, all in search of some titillating nugget that will occupy my attention in a way that temporarily obscures my low-grade discontent. Since my discontent is never cured through this process, I’ll keep browsing, clicking, scrolling – growing ever more attached to the aimless pursuit. 

When I log off, the habit of browsing, clicking, scrolling, grasping for some elusive satisfaction… this habit is transferred to my thoughts themselves. I’ll entertain a thought, probably an anxious one, letting it suggest other anxious possibilities, which I then explore as if I were choosing the juiciest or most click-baity link on a website, following it to another “page” of thoughts that I’ll “scroll” through until one catches my attention. When I then try to take charge of my thoughts and focus on a topic of my choice, I’m not in shape for it. The muscle of concentration is weak. Maybe the topic is a positive one, maybe I’m trying to “look on the bright side,” but my ability to focus on any given thing, bright or dark, has been trained out of me. In spending so much time on the web, reading news and looking at people’s cat photos — harmless right? — it’s as if I’ve been rehearsing the process of anxious worry.

From this I conclude, if you want to be happier, look on the bright side. But if you want to be able to look on the bright side, spend more time meditating and less time browsing.

Meditation, Personal Development

How to feel better about mind-wandering during meditation: Part II

When my mind wanders as I’m trying to meditate, where is it going, precisely? Often it’s making anxious noise, thinking of an item on my task list, remembering a difficult conversation, fretting about something that could go wrong. Much of this is “useless” low-grade worry and it’s clear to me that I’d rather be rid of it. Meditation makes sense to me as a process of clearing my mind of something undesirable.

But mind-wandering can take a productive form too, or a pleasing form, and this can make meditation seem almost counter-productive in its effort to relinquish something “good.”

The other morning I was composing an email in my mind. It was an important email and I was making progress! Meditation was about not composing the email. I’d succeed at not composing it for a few moments, but then a few moments later – damn! – I’d realize I’d gone back to planning what I’d write, a sentence here, a sentence there.

The morning after that, I was reminiscing about the email I had sent, and how it had started a pleasant exchange with the person at the other end. Meditation was about letting go of the reminiscence, for the moment. But the reminiscence would come back and make me smile. I’d think of what I’d said, and what they had said, and how we’d connected and exchanged jokes, and I’d laugh again, until I remembered: meditation!

On these two mornings, if I’d been doing productive work in my mind, or if I’d been enjoying a pleasant memory, was there any value in letting go of these positive things, releasing them, returning to my breathing, seeking an empty mind? 

Yes, there’s value in practicing control — delaying the work or the pleasure for just a moment. To really learn what meditation can teach, we need to release our attachment to positive thoughts as well as negative ones.

On the third morning in this sequence, meditation seemed almost impossible. The anxious noise returned and I could not seem to keep my focus on breathing for more than moment. But the moment of awareness did occur, more than once — the moment when I noticed that my focus had strayed, the moment that gave me a chance to continue practicing.

I thought of it like this: today’s meditation session is a thing in my life that I’ve tried to do. It’s a thing in my life that I had high hopes for and that I aimed to do well, but it’s a thing that hasn’t turned out like I wanted. Now I’m ready to draw conclusions about how I’m bad at this thing and how it’s all gone wrong and I’ve wasted my time. Now I’m ready to say that I haven’t even been meditating at all.

But this is my chance to practice picking up the pieces. This is my chance to practice grit, resilience, stoicism, detachment, whatever you want to call it. Yes, I’ve utterly failed to keep my attention in one place for the better part of an hour, and I’m feeling more stressed out than when I first sat down, and I’m nearly convinced the effort has been counterproductive, but instead of focusing on these ideas, I’m going to focus on my next breath. I’m going to keep meditating.

And if it took an hour of mind-wandering – a stressful failure to focus – in order for me to now have one opportunity to practice recovering from that, one opportunity to habituate letting go of my attachment to a negative conclusion, one opportunity to build resilience in the safe and comfortable environment of my favorite chair at home, well, it was worth it.

We can’t always have a joyful practice where it feels like we’re making progress at every step. But we can always take whatever happens in practice and explore what the experience has to teach us.

When the pain of a failure is raw, especially when the failure occurs in the thick of chaotic life, it can be hard to take a positive perspective. But in meditation we’re just sitting in a chair breathing. Nothing so bad could have happened. So meditation is the perfect situation — a controlled, safe environment with low stakes — to take whatever happens and find the good in it.

See also: Part I

Meditation, Personal Development

Meditation is physical

I once heard someone say that meditation is for geeks and yoga is for jocks. That was supposed to be a joke but it reflects a common idea that meditation is a mental practice while yoga is physical one. But meditation is physical – why do we think of it otherwise?

Perhaps that’s because we sit still when we meditate. Exertion is minimal. And the goal we seek… if it’s a calm, clear mind, then that’s a mental goal. 

But how do we achieve that calm, clear mind? 

You could say we harness metacognition – our awareness of our own thinking – as a way of taming that thinking. It’s metacognition that lets us observe each thought, release it, and redirect our attention to a chosen point of focus. Described this way, meditation might still sound mental: it’s one kind of cognition quieting another.

But what’s key here is the chosen point of focus – the thing we return to instead of following our thoughts into more thinking. If the point of focus is breath, then we’re focusing on a physical process. We’re constantly discovering and rediscovering our physical selves inside, or underneath the attention-consuming tangle of images and ideas that fill our mental stage. We are choosing again and again to anchor our awareness in the sensory experience of inhale/exhale. We’re not simply calming our minds, we’re calming our minds by returning to our bodies.

If thinking is a vortex that leads to disembodimement – an obliviousness to our physical selves – then breath-focused meditation is about re-embodiment. It’s about becoming physical, again.

It’s misleading to say that meditation is for geeks and yoga is for jocks. It’d be more meaningful to say that meditation is about channeling one’s inner jock. The kinds of calm we get from meditation and playing a sport might be more similar than they seem – they both include the calm of embodiment. Meditation’s magic is that it can help us find that embodiment anywhere, without needing the structure of a game – a field, a ball, an opponent – to bring it about.

Meditation, Personal Development

On Breath

When we think of our lives we might think of significant events: graduations, weddings, reunions, trips, and transitions. But why not consider life from the vantage point of something more basic: breath? We are born. We take a series of breaths – probably less than a billion of them – and then we die. 

Life is several hundred million breaths. That’s what we get.

If this breath-centric perspective casts life a simple thing – oversimple, a caricature – what still can we learn from that simplicity?

As fledglings, you and I both began drawing air into our lungs and expelling it a few moments later, and we never stopped. Breathing is one activity that each of us has been doing continuously since we were born, no matter our personalities, nationalities, ages, hairstyles, heights and weights, gender identities, spiritual beliefs — any attribute large or small.

Breathing, of course, is not the only constant process in life. Our hearts have been beating since the womb, but look at how we talk about that. We don’t say we’ve been “beating our hearts.” That’s because while we can influence our hearts to speed up or slow down, we can’t control the duration and character of each beat. But it is we who have been breathing: even though breathing happens automatically when we’re not thinking about it, we can bring it under our control simply by thinking about it. Then we can govern almost everything about it – the pace, the depth, the muscles we emphasize, even the sound.

When we’re frazzled, they say we should take one step at a time, put one foot in front of another. But we could step sideways, trip, or walk backward. They say we should live one day at a time, but we might struggle to keep our minds from thinking of the next day or the one before. But we have no choice with breath – all we can do is take one after another. It’s impossible to take two at once, or go back to redo a past one, or skip ahead to one we’ll take tomorrow. Our breath is a sequence – in the truest sense of the word – starting from breath number one and progressing through breath number one thousand, and one million, and so on. Right now, each of us is situated at some point in that extended sequence, and all we can do is move forward in it, breath by breath.

Our breath sequence connects us to our past and to our future. As we take our current breath, we are mirroring our infant selves, doing the same thing now we were doing back then, and we are being like our elder selves – doing the same thing now we’ll be doing in that time ahead. We change as we keep breathing, year after year: our lungs change, our memories change, our thoughts about breathing itself might change… but the basic process of breathing is still inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – that doesn’t change at all.

You could say that whenever we take a breath we are progressing one closer to our last — sounds grim. But you could also note that every breath we’ve ever taken helped us. And every breath we’ll take from now on will help us too.

Barring a special context like singing or freediving, there’s no point in saving our breaths. And while a breath can be painful at times — when we’re sick, each inhale brings the annoying risk of a cough — the broader truth is that there’s nothing to regret or redo about our past breaths or to anticipate about our future ones. Every past breath gave us life and every future breath will do the same.

There are so many things we can do in life that admit multiple interpretations and that have simultaneous positive and negative consequences, but every breath is simply good.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in – no matter how fraught – we can remember that breathing carried us into the situation and breathing will carry us out.

If we think of our many breaths as a great long chain that supports us through life, we could write the links in that chain, the inhales and exhales, on paper as I and E, and a fragment would look like this:

…..I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E…

I’ve italicized a few sections to represent conscious breaths – the breaths we happen to notice, to feel, to hear, to tune into.

We can strive, in our lives, to have longer and more frequent stretches of conscious breath — to witness more of our breath chain. But even if we just have one moment to take one conscious breath before we return to the hustle bustle of it all, that one moment might be all we need. In one moment, we can behold the same enduring chain we’d behold if we had an hour or a day to concentrate — the same chain that supported us years ago and the same one that will support us tomorrow. Listen to your breath, once or a hundred times — that’s you — that was you — that will be you.

It seems too simple to say that life is just a sequence of breaths; but on the flipside, life, as we conceive it otherwise, often seems too complex. We can find simplicity in life, perhaps, in contemplating the simplicity of breath.

Meditation, Personal Development

On Stillness

If idleness is a state of lounging about, not doing much of anything, maybe resting, maybe killing time, then idleness can be active and stressful nonetheless.

When we’re “not doing anything” we’re usually doing something… daydreaming, browsing social media, watching TV. Relative to some more active, purposeful task, we may be idle now, but our idleness comes without that other, more elusive quality we may call stillness. What even is stillness? 

In 2005, the author and sound-recording expert Gordon Hempton asked a similar question about silence. What is silence? He defined it not as pure quiet, but as the sustained absence of anthropogenic or man-made sound – freedom from noise pollution – and he argued that silence is going extinct. We can travel deep into the wilderness inside a great national park or other vast protected space, but no matter how far we hike from the nearest road or trail, a jet will surely fly overhead, cancelling the silence for many miles around its path. Minutes later, another jet.

Likewise, if we search for stillness in our own inner landscapes – defining stillness as awareness without mental chatter – we may find that it exists… nowhere. As Hempton struggled to find “one square inch” of silence anywhere in the USA, we might struggle to identify any context when we’re truly still, awake but not thinking.

Even in those moments when we seek relaxation and refreshment –  a long, hot shower on a Saturday morning – our minds are still replaying past events and holding imagined conversations and beginning to write emails and trying to plan the day. Deep sleep is a time when our minds quiesce, but it comes without awareness, so we can’t remember the experience and learn from it.

We might think that to achieve conscious stillness, we’d need to go on vacation, travel to some far-away place and clear our calendar of appointments and obligations. But meditation shows us that stillness is in reach, no matter where we are or even how busy we are, as long as we can set a few minutes aside to breathe and – here is the hard part – to relinquish our attachment to whatever thoughts appear on our mental stage.

It might be that tomorrow, we’re leaving on a trip, or giving a high-stakes presentation at work, or attending a long-awaited reunion. We can still meditate now. Whatever is happening tomorrow only affects us now through the mechanism of thought. The trip, the presentation, the reunion cannot reach out from tomorrow into today and physically touch us in the present moment. The impact of future events on our present experience is realized only to the extent that we visualize these events, think about them, give them our attention. When we meditate, giving all our attention to our current breath instead of to the contents of “tomorrow,” those contents have no grip. Stillness is available if we practice accepting it, no matter what’s approaching on the calendar.

But we run away from stillness – our reflex is to avoid it – so the experience of stillness can be shocking when it happens. 

One time I was traveling in South India and I found myself in a home, a living room with eight members of an extended family, all waiting for a ceremony that was to happen a few hours later. As we sat together for what would be a good half-hour, I noticed that no one was talking, so I looked around, sure that someone would be reading a newspaper, someone would be using their phone, someone would be eating a snack. To my surprise everyone was sitting still, looking at the floor or out into the room, doing nothing whatsoever.

And no one seemed uncomfortable about it. No fidgeting, no attempts to break the silence? A group of people packed in a small space, letting time pass without words or distractions, and being OK with it? The closest experience I could remember might have been a dentist’s waiting room, but even there they’d be reading and checking their phones.

My host told me later, these moments are rare: to sit in silence is not really a norm for his family, nor is it a cultural norm he would identify. But when it does happen, he confirmed, his family doesn’t feel awkward about it or even give it a second thought. That’s what was new and interesting for me. In any group I’d ever been a part of — family, work, or social — if stillness like that had occurred, it would have been treated as an emergency like fire. Someone would have taken it as their responsibility to put it out.

So what is it like to achieve stillness?

Prior to 2020, the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Code (Title 27, Section 5.22) required that vodka should be distilled to such a level of purity “as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” By this definition, all of the fancy brands of vodka – Grey Goose, Ketel One – only tasted different because of their impurities. 

Stillness is similar to vodka in that if we ever achieved pure stillness it would have no distinctive character.  But we’re human, and as we progress toward stillness through meditation, there is usually some kind of “inflection” to the state we actually achieve.

In my own practice, I notice a difference between positively inflected and negatively inflected stillness.

Negatively inflected stillness is when we’ve slowed down our breathing and the pace of our thoughts and we’re feeling very calm in comparison to a typical waking moment, but within the calm there’s just a little edginess, a trace of dissatisfaction, a faint craving, an antsy feeling so subtle you might not notice it. But when you end the meditation session and get up from your chair, it comes as a relief to pick up your phone and start scrolling through the notifications. It comes as a relief for your attention to be captured by some external thing.

This is not to say that meditation was worthless or ineffective, just that on this particular occasion, it didn’t free you absolutely from little wants and cravings.

Positively inflected stillness feels almost the same as negatively inflected stillness, because the inflections we’re speaking about are so miniscule. But when stillness is positively inflected, it means you feel just a little bit good – not actively ecstatic – just calmly content. Breathing in and out feels ever so slightly pleasurable. Sitting in your chair feels just a little bit relaxing. And when you get up, mingling again with the many forces that would capture your attention, you don’t plunge into them as if to seek something you lack.

A positively inflected resting state – the experience of just sitting down, doing nothing but breathing — not thinking, not daydreaming – just being still, and feeling a little bit good: this is a remarkable situation. I’ve come to think of it as a foundation for living — the foundation we should cultivate — the foundation we need, but are never shown in school.

Meditation, Personal Development

When deep breathing doesn’t work

As soon as you get interested in mindfulness or general approaches to stress relief, it seems like there are throngs of people waiting to tell you you should practice deep breathing. What they don’t tell you is that it’s possible to try really hard at deep breathing and not feel very relaxed.

If you want to get the benefit of deep breathing, remember that breathing has two components: a physical one and mental one. Are you practicing both, or maybe only the physical one? Are you breathing with your mind and body, or just body?

What that looks like is, you’ve slowed down your inhale and exhale, you’ve deepened the inhale and you’re drawing it from the abdomen, everything about your technique seems “correct,” but mentally you’re somewhere else, thinking about your troubles – bills to pay, projects to complete – and you’re not actually practicing breath awareness. As your mind continues to buzz, you’re not listening to each breath, not noticing how it feels, not “tuning in” to the flow of it, not savoring the slow rhythm. Maybe you’re just waiting for the exercise to work, waiting to feel better as the self-help books guarantee.

Of course, you might feel better if you keep doing it, just like when you’re sullen but you go through the motion of smiling, it might actually brighten your mood. But it’s also true that when you’re really miserable, holding a smile for minutes on end while you keep thinking negative thoughts is unlikely to transform your condition. At some point, that smile veers into the territory we could call unnatural or inauthentic, even pointless.

Sometimes deep breathing itself can be artificial or “inauthentic,” in that we’re trying to manifest the breathing of some kind of glistening, blissful yogi at a time when we’re totally frazzled and distraught. We’re hoping the physical exercise is going to calm us down, but our attempted “breath attitude” is so far from our actual mental attitude that it just doesn’t click.

In these cases it can help to go the other way around, to start with the mental side of things, and let the physical do what it will. This means, practice breath awareness – just breath awareness. Try to listen and feel the way you’re breathing right now, without making any attempt to change it. As you pay more attention to your breath and really tune into what it’s doing, you might notice a subtle physical effect. Your breathing might naturally start to slow down and become calmer little by little, without any effort on your part to control it – as long as you keep tuning into it.

The challenge, of course, is that you might not find your breath very “interesting” as an object of attention. It might not be the kind of thing that you can easily stay focused on, especially if your breath is competing with worries in your mind, news updates, social media alerts, and the like. But through practice you can get better at “taking an interest” in how breathing feels. It helps to notice that while anxieties and emails and news items are ephemeral, you can actually feel your breath – it’s a group of physical sensations. What you’re trying to do is tune into sensation over thought. 

If you look at what people have written about breathwork, you’ll probably find the suggestion that you should begin a practice session with breath awareness, and then move into the more physically-oriented exercises. You might think you can skip the breath awareness part, the initial process of tuning in. You might think you don’t need or don’t have time for a warmup and you’d rather just get to the physical core of the practice. But that’s like skipping foreplay. You can. People do. But something’s lost, maybe the best part.

Meditation, Personal Development

How to feel better about mind-wandering during meditation

In my early experiences with meditation, I found it frustrating that my mind would wander. 

The “goal” of meditation, so I thought, was a calm, restful, empty mind; a wandering, busy mind was the opposite of what I hoped to achieve. 

It was no consolation to be told that mind-wandering was perfectly OK, natural, and par for the course. This reassurance seemed like putting a happy face on failure. And the idea that meditation should have no “goal” – that it’s not something you can fail or succeed at – didn’t help me either, because we live in a goal-oriented world. Why would I dedicate hours to doing something without expecting or wanting any specific benefit?

In the years since my first attempts, I have not relinquished all traces of linear, results-oriented thinking from my approach to meditation: I still have a goal in mind. The key has been to reframe the goal, and here’s the reframing that works for me:

When I meditate, I’m not trying to achieve perfect calm. I’m just trying to make my mind a little calmer than when I started. I’m trying to make a small difference. That’s the reframed goal.

And when you think of it, the ability to make a subtle, positive change in one’s own condition — without the aid of anything external to the self — is a remarkable ability. Take a person who’s full of worries and concerns and give them 20 minutes to sit alone in silence. It’s quite possible they’ll come away feeling worse, because the worries might echo and magnify in their mind throughout those 20 minutes. The skill of self-calming, even if it operates in small degrees, is a superpower. 

Start in an agitated state, take 20 minutes of silence, and emerge a little bit more relaxed? It is far from assured that this relaxation will occur. If you know how to coax it into occurring, that’s really useful.

The idea of meditation is if I’m having 10 anxious thoughts a minute and I can nudge that down to 9, I’m better off, so it’s good to practice the nudging. Ditto if I’m having 100 and I can nudge it down to 99. What matters is the direction I’m moving in. Am I becoming a little calmer relative to where I began? Success.

But what if I sit down to meditate, aiming to move my mind in a direction from active to calm, restless to restful, just a little bit – and even that little bit proves elusive? What if I don’t feel better at all — have I failed?

Of course, when I meditate, I’m practicing a skill. The true goal is to strengthen that skill rather than to achieve a specific outcome from that skill in my present attempt at using it. When we make a long-term investment in a skill we have to accept fluctuating outcomes as we apply the skill day to day. The most important thing is to maintain the investment.

Mind-wandering is only frustrating when you realize it has happened. As your mind is following tangents here and there, you might feel troubled by the content of a tangent, but you’re not troubled about mind-wandering because you’re not even aware that it’s happening. You’re oblivious. The frustration comes in the return to awareness, when you notice that your focus has strayed: “Oh! I’ve been thinking about bills for the past 5 minutes!” or “Oh! I’ve been imagining a conversation with the dentist!” 

But this realization – this “Oh!” — this meta-cognitive interrupt – is the very thing that allows you to keep practicing. This interrupt – this act of noticing that your mind has wandered – is the gift that allows you to return to your point of focus: your breathing or mantra.

You couldn’t meditate without these interrupts – mind-wandering would then be unstoppable. So these interrupts are precious – you want to cultivate them. It’s actually good to have some mind-wandering to work with, so you can practice experiencing and valuing these interrupts, or off-ramps, or escape hatches from endless thought.

If you feel frustrated when you notice that your mind has wandered, see if you can also feel thankful that you noticed the wandering: the digression was curtailed — lucky! You were given a path out of the wilderness; now you can return to the focal point.

At the moment of awareness, you might think “Oh! I’ve wasted 10 minutes. Meditation isn’t working for me.” But you can also think, “Oh! A chance to refocus. Good fortune! I’ll take it.”

Cultivating that thankful response to the interrupt – that’s meditation.

When you meditate, you can practice releasing your attachment to regret — starting with regret for mind-wandering and the time it consumes — and you can practice accepting every opportunity for recovery that comes your way.

When your mind wanders, your mind is revealing its power — the power to imagine, hypothesize, and reason. You can learn to acknowledge that power without letting it dominate you.

Meditation, Personal Development

When Meditation Feels Irresponsible

The popular image of meditation is that it’s a tranquil, virtuous activity, something monks and sages do, a path to wisdom, and not a thing that would ever be associated with risk or irresponsibility. 

But the feeling that you are being irresponsible is a sign that your practice of meditation might be growing deeper.

How can meditation trigger a feeling of irresponsibility? 

If you practice observing your thoughts and letting them pass, without clinging to them, or encouraging them, or following them down the paths they lead, you’ll find that some thoughts are like background noise, seemingly unimportant, and easy to let go of once you notice they’re occupying your attention. But other thoughts are unignorably urgent.

During meditation, you might remember you were supposed to call someone back yesterday but you forgot and they’re waiting and surely mad. Should you stop the session and call them right now?

You might remember a bill that you haven’t paid. Should you get up from your seat and mail the check before you forget again?

You might remember a medical test whose results are on the way. Should you see if they’ve arrived? Should you think through the possible outcomes so you can be prepared if your condition turns out to be serious?

In such cases, the thought or “interrupt” enters your mind and demands your immediate, absolute attention. Like someone shouting “Fire!” in a theater, it presents itself as an exception that you simply cannot ignore. The chance of fire is categorically more important the movie. The urgent thought seems categorically more important than the meditation.

While no one should ever ignore the word “Fire!” shouted in a theater, you can usually relinquish an urgent thought that occurs in the span of, say, a twenty-minute meditation session, trusting that if it’s really so important, you’ll be able to remember it and attend to it after the session ends.

When you do release the thought and bring your attention back to breathing, you might feel like you’re breaking an obligation or behaving in a reckless way.

Many of us are slaves to our thoughts – to one degree or another – and what perpetuates this enslavement is a feeling of responsibility. We take it as our duty to pursue troubling or urgent pathways of ideation in search of dangers that must be avoided, eventualities that must be prepared for, unfinished business that must be completed, and to never stop this pursuit lest we be caught unaware.

When you do stop paying heed to these mental exclamations of “Fire!,” even just for a moment, you might feel that you’re imprudently embracing danger. You’re being “bad” or foolhardy to pay no heed to such an urgent matter that’s presenting itself to your awareness right now – as if you were drunk or high and not in your right mind.

It’s true, when you meditate you learn to step out of your “right” mind – the mind where thoughts rule. And then a sense of obligation tries to bring you back. When you ignore the obligation, you feel irresponsible, but that’s good. It’s good because it’s a path out of servitude.