I am not able to concentrate during meditation
I can’t keep my mind still and calm
Thoughts keep running through my mind and I can’t focus
I am unable to STOP thoughts
Expecting your thoughts to stop: This is inarguably the biggest mistake people make when they start their meditation practice. The bad news is: you can’t stop your thoughts. The good news is: you don’t have to stop your thoughts 🙂
What? Is meditation not about stopping thoughts, or being in a state of thoughtlessness?
Not really. It is true that the intensity of the thoughts comes down as you advance in practice but that happens on its own (you can’t control it).
So, what do we do then in meditation?
Let’s understand the basics which are quite simple and easy. For most of us, our attention is almost always trapped in the chatter of the mind. When we bring our focus on any of the anchors like breath, body, sound, or mantra, we (our attention) temporarily become free from this constant stream of thoughts about the past and future. This disidentification, getting out of thoughts is like waking up from a dream. This is the present moment. This is the moment of mindfulness. There is a different kind of aliveness in this moment of mindfulness.
Explain to me more
When we sit for a meditation practice, we usually take the help of an anchor like body, breath, sound, or mantra. We bring our non-judgmental attention to this anchor. Our attention will keep wandering away in thoughts and that is absolutely normal. The mind’s job is to think and analyze. It will keep doing its job. It is futile to expect the mind to stop producing thoughts. We don’t have to shoo away the thoughts. Whenever we realize that we have wandered away in thoughts, we gently acknowledge it without getting irritated and bring our attention back to the anchor. It is that simple.
What is the use of an anchor?
Let’s do a very quick experiment. For the next 30 seconds or so (no need to put an alarm), bring your entire attention to your breathing or the big toe of your right leg.
You may have noticed that your thoughts stopped or reduced for a brief period when you put your attention on your breath or your body, before getting lost again in the thoughts. When you are NOT lost in your thoughts, you are present, alive, conscious, and calm. Just a few conscious breaths are deeply relaxing and cut you off from the burden of this chatter. Anchor frees our attention from our thoughts and brings us back to the present moment.
I could not stay with my breathing even for 3 breaths
That is fine. Absolutely fine and normal. Start with just 1 breath. It does not matter whether you stay with your breathing for 1 breath or 10 breaths, stay with your body for 1 second of 10 seconds, the key is to keep coming back to the anchor when you realize that you are lost in your thoughts. That moment is very important. That is the moment of mindfulness. You will notice that these mindful moments of waking up keep on increasing as you practice
Should we not try to extend the gaps between the thoughts with hard concentration?
Look closely. The sheer act of trying too hard, desiring to be thoughtless is a thought in itself. You are not present at that moment. It is just one part of the mind (now a meditative mind: no pun intended!) trying to control another part of the mind. Try to stop thinking about mangoes and you will start thinking about them. When you get lost, you don’t know when you got lost. However, there is a sudden realization that you got lost in your thoughts. When that realization happens, acknowledge it and gently come back to the anchor
Does that mean my mind will keep racing at its will?
There are brief moments of thoughtlessness when we focus our attention on the anchor. These moments of thoughtlessness, presence and pure awareness will increase on their own as we practice. We should not try to achieve this state of thoughtlessness and we should not yearn for it. The very act of desiring this state is a thought itself, is living in the future, is another romantic dream of bliss but it is still a dream, it is still the future, and it is still a thought. Just acknowledge your thoughts with kind and non-judgmental attention and keep coming to your anchor whenever you realize that you have wandered in your thoughts. You will find that your presence and awareness have grown with the deepening of your practice.
Just to conclude, meditation is not about becoming thoughtless. The intensity and volume of your thoughts will automatically decrease on their own when you practice it correctly (so don’t worry about it). Just practice with a sense of sincerity, kindness, curiosity, and non-judgmental awareness without worrying about results. Gently and softly come back to the anchor without getting irritated when you realize you are again lost in your thoughts. It is actually that simple.