Of all the things one could do to be healthier and happier, I consider meditation to rank among the top practices on the list.
We spend most of our lives thinking . . . judging, worrying, processing, planning, pondering, analyzing, and rehashing. Most thinking isn’t bad, per se, but it’s an unconscious, incessant habit. We rarely recognize that there’s a difference between consciousness and thinking. Our minds are constantly trying to grab our attention and monopolize our awareness, and usually we give it away freely.
What’s the problem? Well, although we have some necessary functional thoughts – e.g., “I’m almost out of gas and need to refill the tank” or “I need medical attention for this severed limb” – most of our thinking is less intentional, and it tends to distance us from the here-and-now. When thinking becomes our default state, it’s no longer a choice. It’s like defaulting to being on your phone whenever possible.
The mind is constantly saying, “I have something important / tragic / interesting / worrisome / outrageous / unfair / juicy, etc. Give me your awareness!” Over decades of doing so, we forget who/what we really are; we most strongly identify with a collection of thoughts, beliefs, and memories. Further, in letting our thoughts define us, we impose tremendous limitations on ourselves.
In my opinion there are two fundamental points of meditation: (1) to take a break from the habit of thinking and doing (2) to experience awareness itself and remember what we are beyond our thoughts. This is the opposite of what most of us do all day.
Can we have awareness without thinking? Of course. As a short exercise, rest your gaze on something in the room or out the window. See it and experience it without talking about it to yourself (or talking to yourself about something unrelated). As soon as you feel your mind about to break through with a thought, pick up your attention and put it on something else. Do this for a minute or so, then come back here.
How was it? What did you notice? Could you feel the squirminess of your mind itching to get back in the spotlight? It’s almost like the feeling of being deprived of a drug. Why should it be so uncomfortable just to experience reality without thinking? That alone should tell us something is out of order.
While there are innumerable meditation techniques, I think it’s always worth coming back to the basics. We’re taking this time to experience awareness without thinking. We’re not trying to manipulate ourselves into a spiritual state or make something mystical happen. We’re just giving the mind a rest and basking in the space that opens. Even the psyche can eventually experience it as a great relief.
This form of meditation is a bit like putting a child to bed. You’re sitting next to their bed and they sit up and say, “I forgot my water bottle on the playground!”
You lovingly rest your hand on their chest and say, “It’s ok. You can rest now.”
A few seconds later they sit up again. “Guess what happened at lunch?”
You lovingly rest your hand on their chest and say, “You can tell me later. For now, you can just rest.”
A few seconds later they sit up again. “What if Mason tries to take my money again?”
You lovingly rest your hand on their chest and say, “Later we’ll make a plan. But right now, you can rest.”
This is what you’ll do every time your mind brings up a thought. Gently and firmly say, “No, thanks,” or “You can rest now,” or “Take a break,” or “There’s nothing to attend to” or, more simply choose not to give it your attention. Even when the thought is something like, “I haven’t had a thought in like two minutes!” Every thought stream starts with you latching onto it. Unlatch.
Over time, you may notice that giving your attention to a thought takes you out of a state of peaceful stillness. Or it’s like profoundly shrinking your focal point from a vast openness to a tiny idea. With practice and repeated recognition, you’ll start to loosen the habit of thought-dominated-awareness. Your perspective will broaden – even when you’re not meditating. Thoughts will arise and instead of instantly running away with you, you’ll witness them in a context of inner space where there’s more choice about how to respond.
Please give it a try, even if it’s just for one minute. And feel free to share your experience in the comments section below.