It seems one cannot meditate without confronting one’s mind, thoughts, and experience. This may be sad news for some. Once, after asking visitors to my beginning meditation class to share what they hoped to get out meditation, one young woman looked away from all of us, and said in a low, urgent voice, “I want to stop thinking!”
I suspect that few of us would want to enter a thought-free state for all time, but the notion that meditation might offer a temporary refuge from thought, or at least, certain types of thought, is certainly appealing. So, naturally, we tell ourselves stories about how meditation will accomplish this for us: how sitting still, being quiet, and following the breath, will create a zone of mental peace and quiet.
Eventually, if we continue as meditators, stories seem less necessary. We meditate and we experience peace and quiet. The connection is made, reenforced, and we grow confident in it.
Of course, there are other times when peace and quiet seem quite beyond reach. Thoughts and feelings boil, run in circles, turn dark. Frustrated, I find myself looking for a mental “button” or “lever” that I can push to shut these thoughts off, but where are the controls located?
Interested in the views of a medical neurologist on the big questions of Mind and Consciousness? Check out, “When Neurology Becomes Theology: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Research into Consciousness” by Robert Burton, Nautilus, 15 June 2017.
One approach that has worked for me at times like these has been to take a slow, deep breath, and return to a meditation structure that I can use without too much effort. For example, I might try to focus on sound; this requires almost no effort on my part and it doesn’t activate any part of my body (very good if my body feels agitated). Another example, I might try counting individual breaths; this too requires very little effort and it gives me a very light mental task to occupy myself with.
When troubling thoughts have appeared during group meditation I have found it helpful to share them with an experienced teacher [one-on-one “interviews” are routine at many meditation centers]. The teacher doesn’t judge me and doesn’t say I have been “doing it wrong.” He or she just hears me out, and then (most of the time) assures me that things are really alright, and that the thoughts and emotions I am experiencing are made from the same transitory fluff as everything else I think and feel. This is usually followed by a brief suggestion for how to continue (see previous paragraph), and I return to my chair with a lighter heart.
It may be the teacher’s advice, but I suspect that what really helps me most are the teacher’s presence: the smile, the greeting, the listening ear, and my realization that we can work on this together. I am not alone.