I think that it’s fair to say that many people experience difficulties and challenges when first starting to meditate, especially if the technique or method that is being used is based on observing the thoughts, feelings and/or sensations.
We need to know that there’s nothing wrong with us if we find ourselves wanting to get up from our meditation practice and run away, get a cup of coffee, watch the TV…basically, do anything but meditate.
What are the biggest challenges in learning to meditate and what are solutions to these challenges?
In this four-part series, we’ll address the main challenges that people encounter while learning to meditate. While there are other challenges and obstacles, these four come up repeatedly for those who are learning to meditate and even for those who have been meditating for a while!
(Please note: some of this information has been shared and commented on in previous posts. I try to keep it different and fresh to inspire us all in thinking about these topics from different angles and points of view.)
Challenge Number One: Thoughts!
Because we’re not used to working with our mind, our first experience (or even our experience after years of meditating!) may be that as soon as we sit down to meditate, we encounter a torrential cascade of thoughts, one after another, seemingly without end. Our first impulse may be to feel hopeless in our attempts to learn meditation and we may decide that we are special in how busy our mind is, feeling hopelessly unsuccessful.
What is happening to us during these times is completely normal, completely natural. The nature of our mind it to create thoughts, that’s no surprise. What may surprise us is that our mind can create so many thoughts, endlessly.
While this may seem to be a problem, it’s not! If you’ve just started to learn to meditate, or even if you’ve been doing it for a while, and your thoughts seem to run rampant each time that you begin your practice, relax and know that you’re in good company.
Those who have practiced meditation for a while begin to notice that thoughts are fairly flimsy and impermanent, they come and go within our mind, independently of whether we try to generate them or not, and that given some space, without grasping onto them, they dissipate and disappear.
The problem is that we are so used to running after each thought, believing it to have some special meaning or existence, that we have no experience of just being with whatever arises, not focusing on our thoughts, not grasping onto a particular thought and then making it into a story.
For instance, if while sitting in a coffee shop, someone who I have great difficulty with walks in and sits at a table nearby, there are a number of things that I can do. My immediate reaction may be to go over in my mind all of the things that I don’t like about that person. This will undoubtedly lead me into more negative thinking and will prevent any sort of peace from existing within my mind.
Another thing that I could do would be to attempt to ignore the thoughts that I have about that person, working diligently to keep all of my negative thoughts out of my mind. Having tried this approach on many occasions, I know well that it never works. My mind inevitably ends up back on the negative thinking.
To solve our obsession with getting distracted or swept away by our thoughts, we begin by using our breath as an anchor of our attention and return to it whenever our thoughts have run away with our mind, whenever we’ve lost our mind…fullness!
Right now, as you’re reading this post, you’re breathing, naturally. Without having to think about it, we breathe, and because we’re always breathing, we can use our breath anytime and anywhere as an object of focus, bringing ourselves into the present moment, and calming the distracted mind.
To begin working with our breath, we use exercises that help us to bring our attention back to our breathing as the object of our focus and do so repeatedly until we’ve established some stability in our mindfulness.
After we become stable in returning our attention to the breath, we slowly realize that the phenomenon of thoughts, that had previously so captivated our attention, begins to loosen its grasp on our attention. When this happens, we find ourselves more at home and more at peace within our mind, and less troubled by the variety of thoughts that permeate our developing awareness of the mind.
Gradually, we come to see the thoughts that arise within our mind as no more important or permanent than waves that arise out of the ocean, rising for a moment, and then falling back into the vast expanse from which they came.
The following exercise is one that you can use to work with the breath; give it a try and let me know if it’s helpful.
Once you’ve gained some familiarity with the practice of working with the breath, please check out other posts on this site which address how to work with the breath and with thoughts:
Try using these techniques and the information that’s provided in the posts, and see if you can practice daily, even for a few minutes. Once you’ve gained some stability, see if it makes any difference in how often you get distracted by thoughts. Let me know how this works for you. Is there anything else that you need to know or that would be helpful? If so, please contact me.
In the next part of this series, we’ll work on Challenge Number Two: Sensations! Stay tuned….