The Most Helpful Piece of Meditation Advice I Know
I spend lots of my time doing one of two things: discussing meditation with the people in my life, or discussing life with the people in my meditation community. As a result, I know quite a bit about meditation, some things about life—and, sadly, almost nothing about sports. So you'll be relieved to learn that this article is about meditation.
This article presents the single piece of advice I think can be most helpful to anyone on the path of meditation.
This article presents the single piece of advice that I think can be most helpful for anyone on the path of meditation, and especially for newer meditators. It's the "lowest-hanging fruit" that is both simplest and most helpful to implement. Let's dive right in:
Don't Try to Stop Thinking
In meditation, we do not try to stop our thoughts.
Some of us have been instructed to try to stop thoughts during meditation, and many of us have simply assumed that "not thinking" is what meditation is all about. But that's not the case—and the internal conflict that arises from trying to shut off the natural flow of thoughts is a serious challenge for huge numbers of meditation practitioners.
Trying to stop our thoughts can look a few different ways:
- A battle mentality with thoughts: "Go away!" This can get to a point where it's quite claustrophobic and exhausting, like swatting at biting flies in the wilderness.
- Attempts at self-distraction anytime we think a thought is coming up: "Oh-no-there's-a-thought-stare-at-the-floor-stare-at-the-floor-stare-at-the-floor..." (Hint: that worried routine itself is also a thought. :) )
- Trying to settle ever-deeper into a state of such total trance that thoughts simply stop from a lack of energy—like reaching absolute zero. This means that any change or occurrence that carries energy (for example, switching from sitting to walking meditation, or a bell ending the session) is seen as threatening.
These approaches all lead to a fragile and threatened situation where we feel our meditation's "going well" only when we believe that absolutely nothing is arising in our minds. Based on this assumption, most people who try meditation simply conclude—after one or a few sessions—that they "can't meditate," and quit. That is tragic! Of course they can meditate: they've only realized that they can't do the impossible feat of extinguishing thought. Unfortunately, so many of us think that that's exactly what meditation asks of us.
Most people who try meditation simply conclude—after one or a few sessions—that they "can't meditate," and quit. That is tragic! Of course they can meditate: they've only realized that they can't do the impossible feat of extinguishing thought.
More committed meditators will stick with meditation practice, but as long as we're searching for total mental quietude, the world is a constantly jarring place. The next time someone asks us a question or tells us a joke, we'll feel confused, sad, or even resentful, because we'll think they're chasing away our meditative mind—which we believe is only maintainable in the total and complete absence of content.
We might notice the irony that the conclusion that we're either doing meditation "right" (when thoughts don't arise) or "failing at it" (when they do) is itself nothing but a castle of thoughts we're maintaining.
And, of course, we might also notice the irony that the entire conclusion that we're either doing meditation "right" (when thoughts don't arise) or "failing at it" (when they do) is itself nothing but a giant castle of thoughts—ideas, preconceptions, guidelines for success, self-critiques—that we're maintaining continually. So much for silence.
Why Trying to Stop Thinking Isn't a Good Idea
If the description above has convinced you, you can skip this section if you'd like. If not, an analogy might be helpful:
Imagine if we believed that the key to meditation was to not hear things. After all, sounds can be distracting, and they don't help us stay with the sensation of our breathing, which most basic meditation practices use as the main object of mindfulness. Maybe our Super-Serene Meditative Focus would be better off without them.
That approach to meditation would be really stressful, to say the least. The moment someone shifted or cleared her throat, or a door closed, or a car went by, we'd get totally discouraged: "There it is, another sound! I'll never be good at meditating." And goodness help us if there was a fan running in the room: "That session was a total and utter failure. There were sounds the whole time. I didn't have even a single moment of perfect silence."
Thoughts are a natural process in our awareness.
Like sounds, thoughts are a natural process in our awareness. If our ears work properly, we hear sounds, and if our mind is working properly, thoughts arise. And, indeed, sometimes there's a "fan on" in our minds: a steady buzz of hope, or sadness, or anger, or excitement, because of the particular circumstances of our lives. None of this is a problem, and none of it is something we should try to throw away in the name of having a "good" meditation practice.
Of course, thoughts can be very distracting and irritating, and certain kinds of thoughts and feelings are extremely painful—even overwhelmingly so. Many of us come to meditation because our painful thoughts seem like more than we know how to handle.
We wouldn't get very far in life without thoughts: our ability to experience thought is a crucial and healthy part of who we are.
But before we try to eliminate our thoughts, we might first take a moment to appreciate our ability to experience thought. Thoughts are what's allowing you to read this right now: these words, as you read them, arise in your awareness as thoughts, not as physical sounds. Thoughts are also what lets you eat a sandwich and wear a shirt—and not the other way around!
We wouldn't get very far in life without thoughts: our ability to experience thought is a healthy and crucial part of who we are. Fortunately, we can't turn thoughts off, even if we try—any more than we can keep our eyes open but turn off our sight. And so in meditation, making friends with our thoughts is both much more gentle and infinitely more practical than the "Make it stop!" approach.
In meditation, making friends with our thoughts is both much more gentle and infinitely more practical than the "Make it stop!" approach.
General Approaches for Working with Thoughts in Meditation
Okay, so we're not trying to stop our thoughts. What do we do instead? Below, I'll sketch out a number of approaches that have really helped me in my own meditation journey. If you'd like a common thread, note that these mostly center around the Facet of Openness, which is about the gentle, relaxed space that is the heart of meditation practice. More specifically, the common thread for many of the methods of relating with thoughts below is: connecting to the space in which thoughts occur.
The common thread for many of the methods of relating with thoughts below is: connecting to the space in which thoughts occur.
Just Letting Thoughts Be
One of the most amazing lessons in meditation is summarized in perhaps the most profound bumper sticker I've ever come across:
In other words, we can let thoughts come and go, without identifying with them. We don't need to pursue the stories they tell us, or take their content ("I'm so stupid" or "I'm so good at the accordion") to be who we really are. After all, our thoughts come and go, but we don't go anywhere. We must be something other than our thoughts—something larger than them, something that contains them.
We can let thoughts come and go, without identifying with them. We don't need to pursue the stories they tell us, or take their content to be who we really are.
At the practical level of a simple meditation practice, this just means allowing thoughts to come and go without "chasing," "following," or "engaging" with them. Good thought, bad thought, funny thought, horrifying thought—you can just let them come and go like clouds, all while attending to everything else in your awareness, such as the breath and your other sense perceptions.
Mind Training: Developing Love and Compassion
The meditation path doesn't ask us to stop having thoughts and feelings. Moreover, it doesn't ask us just to always politely ignore them, like a noisy radio in the next room—which might be how the approach we just discussed could work if taken to an extreme.
Instead, it gets a lot more intimate than that: the meditation path actually turns our thoughts toward kindness, generosity, and peace, with a number of very powerful love and compassion practices.
The meditation path doesn't ask us to stop having thoughts, or to politely ignore them. It gets a lot more intimate than that: the meditation path actually turns our thoughts toward kindness, generosity, and peace, with a number of very powerful love and compassion practices.
These practices work with self-love and self-care (often called maitri or metta); with compassion for others, including for people and groups we might at first be inclined to ignore or even despise; and, ultimately, with love as a raw energy not attached to any particular target.
It's an incredibly rich journey, and I can't do much more here than mention that it exists. However, I will try to offer one quick taste of the healing power of thought when it's turned toward love, from someone you may recognize:
Examining the Nature of Thoughts
This is a more advanced practice, and I wouldn't recommend you spend a lot of time on it if you're just starting out. But the whole topic of how to work with our thoughts does bring up a pretty interesting question that you might not have asked yourself before:
What are thoughts?
Seriously, what are they? Not scientifically (chemicals, electricity, or whatnot), but experientially: in your own direct, personal experience. Try asking "What is a thought?" the same way you might ask "What is an apple?" before grabbing and biting into one.
Pretty quickly you'll notice that a thought isn't something you can grab or bite into. It's got to be "made of" something—if it had no existence at all, you wouldn't experience it, and you do experience it—but what? Certainly nothing we can see with our eyes, or hold in our hands.
You might also find that it's less clear than you'd have expected exactly where thoughts come from—in other words, where was the thought "Parmesan!" five seconds before you read that?—or where they go to—in other words, where did all the word-thoughts in this paragraph go when you were done reading them?
It's all very mysterious, and I won't belabor that here. But I bring it up because looking directly into the nature of our thoughts as they arise can, at some point on the meditation journey, be a very helpful activity for connecting with the spaciousness described in the Facet of Openness.
Therapy: Best for Trauma and Mental Illness
In my experience, meditation alone is not always able to process trauma, or other serious issues like mental illness. It's fine to say "Let thoughts come and go," but if the thoughts are painful and destabilizing enough they can become overwhelming.
In my experience, meditation alone is not always able to process trauma, or other serious issues like mental illness.
A variety of conventional therapies—as well as prescription medications for conditions like schizophrenia or mood disorders—are by far the best-established methods for dealing with serious psychological conditions. Many conventional therapies can overlap with mindfulness practice—for example, the trauma-informed mindfulness movement. Whether you explore these avenues or more conventional ones, the suggestion is the same: if you're dealing with overwhelmingly painful psychological issues, don't try to tough it out with meditation alone.
If you're dealing with overwhelmingly painful psychological issues, don't try to tough it out with meditation alone.
As much pain as we may find they cause us, our thoughts are not something to throw away, or to run from. On a pragmatic level, we can't stop thinking, so we may as well not try. More importantly, on a heart level, we should recognize the richness of thoughts as a basic and crucial part of our makeup—and the potential power of our thoughts, properly related to, to be a source of immense love and healing for ourselves and others.
What we can do is develop a bit of space around the demand to be identified with—"what this thought is telling me really is who I am"—that thoughts often bring. As an approach to our meditation practice, this is very simple, and not "mystical" at all: we simply train in letting thoughts come and go, without either trying to make them leave or pursuing them further.
From that basis of increased space, we can start to work with the content of our thoughts—turning our way of thinking and being more toward universal love and acceptance—and, eventually, proceed to more advanced forms of working with the "surprisingly hard-to-find" nature of thoughts directly.
The Facet of Adaptiveness
Within the ThriVe system, this piece of advice corresponds to the Facet of Adaptiveness. Adaptiveness is all about analysis, problem-solving, and flexibility: finding what works in your practice and what doesn't, and understanding why. Here we discussed one less-than-ideal approach to our thoughts, based in a misunderstanding, and briefly sketched out a few alternatives—a very Adaptive thing to do.
One very interesting difference between meditation and many other disciplines (say, physics or chess), is that in meditation a highly analytical, problem-solving attitude is actually pretty limited in terms of how far it, alone, can get you. Meditation practices that focus too much on analyzing the world and one's own practice with some goal in mind start to feel impossibly difficult: like trying to perform surgery on your surgical scalpel itself. This is because the analytical mind is not what reveals the fundamental truths (again referring to the kind, relaxed spaciousness that is the topic of the Facet of Openness) that make meditation so powerful and rewarding. Those truths reveal themselves in an environment of relaxation, opening, and love, and—speaking very much from experience—it's difficult for your mind to relax and open into that environment if you're constantly putting it and everything in it under a microscope.
Nevertheless, Adaptiveness can be hugely useful in situations like the one we've described here: getting "what we're doing" right, and clearing up serious misunderstandings before they waste a lot of time or create a lot of aversion to meditation practice.