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Why Meditation Doesn’t Mean Switching Off Your Mind

This World Mindfulness Day, focus on practice, not perfection.
by Vincent Quantmeyer | Sep 12 2018

Meditation can sound temptingly simple. Find a comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and simply focus your attention on a physical sensation, such as the movement of the breath in your body. Yet, in spite of the seemingly trouble-free instructions, anyone who has ever given it a try will attest that, in practice, the last of these steps can be devilishly difficult.

Once you try to rest your attention on the breath, your mind will likely start bouncing around in a boundless world of thoughts, images, and ideas. No matter how hard you try to remain aware of your breath, it seems impossible to stop the ceaseless stream of mental chatter that makes the whole undertaking feel nearly impossible.

This is why after a few attempts people often conclude that, lamentably, their minds are unsuited for meditation and mindfulness simply does not work for them. However, the assumption that a certain amount or frequency of thoughts precludes us from practicing meditation and developing mindfulness rests on a fundamental misconception about the nature of thoughts themselves.

Luckily, some extraordinarily wise people have thought of helpful analogies that can illuminate this problem for us.

Imagine you are sitting on a park bench under the bright blue sky. You’re enjoying the warmth and sunlight when, without any warning, a cloud maneuvers itself into the space between you and the sun, and suddenly the experience is no longer as pleasant as it was a moment ago.

You may get frustrated or disappointed, but none of these reactions are conducive to moving the cloud back to the sky’s periphery. The cloud has arisen without any of your doing and its existence lies entirely outside of your control. Still, the good news is that you can rest completely assured that it will also, completely by itself, move away again.

Even better, the blue sky that was the source of your initial pleasant experience will still be where it was, completely unaffected by the temporary existence of the cloud. The sun will shine on.

So clouds come and go. They form and dissolve again. Sometimes they take on complex shapes or become very large. Occasionally, we might like their look, other times their colors seem threatening. Yet none of this denies the fact that clouds are fleeting, ephemeral appearances devoid of any substance or deeper meaning.

This idea that physical appearances like clouds arise and fall away due to certain causes and conditions and are therefore impermanent seems easy to grasp and live in accordance with. We may at times grumble about a thick blanket of clouds, though rarely in an earnest effort to actually alter any weather patterns. However, we often fail to translate this very understanding into the realm of mental phenomena such as thoughts. That is to say, when it comes to our own internal weather patterns we suddenly assume to possess the power to make the clouds disappear.

So when you sit down, close your eyes, and become aware of the breath entering and leaving the body, things may initially feel clear and calm. Yet, a moment later, an image pops up in the mind and pulls the attention away from the breath. The clarity seems gone, and suddenly the experience is clouded by incessant thoughts that leave you feeling restless.

Our response to this change in the weather pattern of our mind is crucial. We could get frustrated and jump onto another train of discursive thoughts about why we shouldn’t be thinking so much and, before we know it, our well-intended plans to maintain a regular meditation practice have dissolved in discouragement. Fortunately, though, there is an alternative response.

Having thoughts is a natural function of the human mind. Wanting to stop them is a move as tempting as it is ill-fated. Instead, when thoughts show up, whether during formal meditation practice or any other activity in life, we can try to simply let them be.

We can recognise that we didn’t choose for them to arise, that they are here only on a temporary basis, and that we can allow them to pass by without getting caught up in their content.

In meditation, we don’t need the sky to be permanently free of clouds. We are not trying to get tanned. In other words, we don’t need to conjure up some thought-free blissful state of mind. Instead, we can try to allow any weather pattern to arise, observe it, and let it pass again, before gently returning our attention back to the breath.

So before you move on, take a moment merely to observe the next breath as it enters your body, moves through your body, and then leaves again.

Just this one breath.

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