A simple framework for meditation is to place your attention on your breathing, allowing thoughts to enter and leave your mind without engaging them. It sounds easy but it can be hard if you don’t have a procedure or rubric to follow. You might sit down and try to concentrate on breathing, only to find that thoughts are intrusive and seemingly irresistible. What’s a procedure that might bring structure and clarity to this endeavor?

A procedure for meditation could begin with the simplifying idea that while we meditate, there are only two attentional states we can be in:

  1. There is a breathing state, where our attention is focused on the sensations of our breath – the sound, the feel, the pace. 

  2. There is a thinking state, where our attention is focused on our thoughts – ideas, worries, images, memories, hopes, dreams.

In practice, these states will not be pure and exclusive. We are still breathing when we’re in the thinking state, of course, but our inhales and exhales are happening automatically and our attention is elsewhere. And we might still have an occasional thought while we’re in the breathing state, of course, but thoughts are not dominant. We can usually decide which state we’re in through intuition, or by taking stock of where our attention has been recently.

To meditate – that is, to increase our time in the breathing state and reduce our time in the thinking state – we could follow a procedure like this, starting as soon as we sit down:

  1. If we’re breathing, and we notice that we’re breathing, we keep breathing.

  2. If we’re thinking, and we notice that we’re thinking, we recognize this situation non-judgmentally – “That’s thinking” – and then we go back to breathing.

A flowchart for this process would look like this: there’s a breathing circle, with an arrow leading back to itself, and there’s a thinking circle, with an arrow leading to the breathing circle. Each of the two arrows represents the act of noticing what we’re doing and then moving somewhere based on that observation

Of course, our simplified flowchart of meditation omits the reality of distraction. A more complete chart would also include an arrow from breathing to thinking. That’s a transition we don’t intend to take, but one that often occurs: we were concentrating on our breath, but at some point we lost focus and our mind began to race.

Sometime later, we’ll realize what happened. This act of noticing our current state – this moment of self-witness – is important enough to be represented as its own state, a third one in a more thorough diagram. 

We could call this third state an “interrupt” state since it’s what happens when the mind stops itself – suddenly breaking its focus on the thing at hand and turning to the question “What am I doing right now?” We might be thinking, thinking, thinking, and then wham! The sequence is halted by an observation like “Oh! I’ve gotten sidetracked!”

But there’s good reason to label this state in a different way, seeing it as an opportunity for escape. It’s a chance we’re being offered – a chance to break away from what we’ve been doing. Without such chances for escape, given to us by own our minds, we’d be locked into the same activity forever, never returning from the depths of the “rabbit hole.”

Here is the fuller diagram of meditation as we’ve just described it, now with three states instead of two. There is a “distraction” arrow from “breathing” to “thinking.” But both “breathing” and “thinking” can give way to a moment of “escape,” when we notice what we’re doing and now have the opportunity to change course. Every time we reach this moment of “escape,” we try to return to breathing, no matter where we came from.

The word “gratitude” is written on the arrow from “escape” to “breathing.” This represents a way that mediation can be less stressful and more enjoyable.

Stressful? Yes, meditation can be stressful if we feel upset every time we notice that we’ve gotten distracted. That is why guidelines for meditation often suggest a non-judgemental attitude. When we notice we’ve been thinking, we are supposed to say “It’s OK. No big deal,” and return to breathing.

But there is a fine line between being non-judgmental and merely concealing a judgement we’ve already made. If we sit down for an hour, keep getting distracted, and keep telling ourself “It’s fine, it’s not so bad,” we’re likely to feel worn out. All of these attempts to cover up our negative feeling about the many distractions we’ve experienced – all of them take a toll. 

The inner monologue might go, “Distraction is fine. It happens all the time. It’s not the end of the world. I’m not going to judge it. I’m not going to feel upset that I just wasted ten minutes on mind-wandering… er… it’s not a ‘waste’… there’s no good or bad here… I was just getting carried away by a whirlwind of stressful thoughts while I was trying to meditate… not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

We can have compassion for our distracted self, the self who got caught up in all that dizzying mental activity. He or she sat down to meditate, but thoughts are tricky and troublesome, and that person faced a difficult challenge in taming them. That person was – and still is – trying to do something good, trying to meditate so they could feel calmer and more aware, so they could be more present for themselves and for others in their life, and that’s commendable.

Surely, there’s a way to practice such self-compassion without hanging on the difficulty we faced, crossing a line into self-pity, where we again feel bad that we’ve gotten distracted – how frustrating, how unfair that these thoughts encroached on our precious meditation space! But there is an altogether different way to respond to the realization that we’ve gotten distracted, and it’s simpler. Instead of focusing on the downside of what happened, and the difficulties we’ve faced, we can concentrate on the upside, and magnify it. The upside is that we’ve been given the opportunity to escape. The “interrupt” that jolted us out of the cycle of thought – that’s a blessing.

Instead of saying “I’ve been thinking, but that’s not so bad,” we can say “I’ve been given a chance to break free from thinking and return to breathing, and that’s good!” Even if we expect that we’ll get distracted again, just a few moments from now, it’s still good that we’ve escaped from the rabbit hole, we’ve gained a few conscious breaths, we’ve gained a bit more time in the “breathing” state.

By cultivating gratitude for the repeated opportunity to escape our thoughts, we can begin to enjoy meditation, because now every distraction sets the stage for a reward, a positive feeling. If we sit down for an hour, keep getting distracted, and keep feeling good that we were able to recover, then by the end we’ll have a reason to be proud.

Meditation is not typically associated with pride – it’s a thing we might do to break free from the trappings of pride – but why not allow a little bit of pride to help us get into the flow? If we’re learning to take advantage of the interrupts we’re given, if we’re learning to appreciate and value each “escape opportunity” that comes our way, and if we’re doing this in service of the larger goal of clarity and calm, that’s one of the best things we could be doing.

Acknowledgements: The ideas in this post come partly from tradition, partly from things I’ve been taught, partly from things I’ve read, and partly from my personal experiments and experiences, in a proportion that’s not fully knowable. I want to mention that my personal journey in developing a meditation practice has been aided by a course I took with Peg Baim at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, and by an interaction with Thomas Deneuville. Basically, this post is about what has helped me and what I hope might help you as well.

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