What Meditation Isn’t


At the weekend I was at a party and, as often seems to be the case, the subject of mindfulness came up. I asked the person I was talking to if they’d ever tried it. They said they’d attempted to meditate a few times and found that they couldn’t. I asked what they meant by that and they said they couldn’t stop their thoughts. This is something that a few people have said to me. People also say, frustratedly,  after I’ve led a meditation, that they ‘couldn’t do it today’.

With meditation, one of the few things that you can do wrong is think you’re doing it wrong. Meditation isn’t about sitting down and getting your mind into the state that you think it should be in. It’s about just noticing what’s happening. If your mind is busy, you just notice that it’s busy. If you’re being distracted by thoughts every three seconds, just be aware of that.

As soon as you try to stop thoughts or want your mind to be doing something other than what it is doing, you create tension in your mind. You’re wrestling with your thoughts. Imagine you’re looking after a toddler, and every time it walks off you grab it by the arm, yank it back to your side and shout ‘stop walking off!’ at it. Sounds mean, doesn’t it? You imagine the toddler would get quite distressed. Well so does your mind if you’re not gentle with it.

ffccdb6f432c4fef2985e558f04412e3The other thing you’re not doing though, is observing a thought and then allowing it to lead to another thought and another, until you’ve gone down a rabbit-warren that’s taken you far away from the present moment. You don’t run off after the toddler and follow it everywhere it goes. If you did that, you’d never get to where you wanted to go. Instead, you gently bring the young fugitive back to your side. In meditation, you choose an anchor, such as the sensation of breathing, and when you can’t feel your breath anymore, you know you’ve drifted off.Then when you observe a thought that has arisen, for example ‘I wish I’d drunk less and been less embarrassing at that party’, you acknowledge it, maybe even label it ‘guilt’ (this helps you notice your thought patterns), and bring your attention back to your breathing.

In this simple process of noticing yourself being distracted and then returning your attention to your breathing, several things are happening. You are:

  • Slowing down tour breathing, and therefore relaxing your body
  • Training your attention span so that you can focus for longer
  • Developing your self-awareness, by noticing the thoughts that are most on your mind
  • Stepping in to prevent negative thoughts from going round and round in your mind

Each time you notice that you’ve been distracted, that is a moment of awareness. It’s like doing a mental press up that strengthens your ability to focus. Therefore the more times you notice you get distracted, the better. Even if it happens a thousand times a minute.

Practising this on a daily basis has resulted in me being better at sticking to the same task for a prolonged period, rather than continually flicking back to my emails or Facebook. I’m much better able to focus when reading a book and paying attention to what someone’s saying. I also find that at parties I’m more content with staying with what’s happening where I am, rather than continually seeking to improve my experience: looking to change the music, get another drink or find someone else to talk to.

In conclusion, whatever your mind is doing, don’t beat yourself up about it, just notice what’s happening. It is transformational.