I often hear people say that they can’t meditate because they are unable to clear their minds or stop from thinking. It makes me so grateful for the wonderful teachers that have helped me understand meditation in an altogether different way.
The teachings of Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, have been instrumental in my understanding of meditation. In her instructions on breath meditation, a common form of meditation in which the attention is placed on the breath, she makes it clear that the “magic moment” of the practice is the one when you notice that your mind has become distracted from the breath. That moment, she says, is when you have the chance to be really different by kindly and gently bringing your attention back to the breath.
Rather than being harsh with yourself or feeling like a failure, you can be thankful for the awareness displayed by realizing your mind has become distracted, and you can begin again. And you can do this every time you notice you’re distracted. Even if this occurs hundreds of times in a short seated meditation, or only one time when the timer rings to indicate the end of your session, you didn't have a “bad” practice.
At a weekend workshop I attended at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Durham, instructor Lodro Rinzler told an entertaining story that Pema Chodron had relayed to him about this topic. She had given a talk about meditation to a group in Texas, and she explained about being gentle with yourself when you make the mental note of “thinking” and return to the breath. One of the participants later told her that he had been having trouble with this, with the notation of “thinking” turning into something severe and scolding in his mind. The solution that he found was to say to himself “thinking, good buddy,” which for him connoted the desired nonjudgmental attitude.
Another way of noting I learned somewhere and sometimes use is “oh well.” It’s not very colorful, but somehow I find it a helpful reassurance that getting distracted is not a big deal or a sign of failure. I think this particular noting phrase might be especially useful for recovering perfectionists like me!
A gentle, nonjudgmental attitude in meditation can translate into daily life in extremely helpful ways. The idea that when I notice I am off course in some way, I have the option of noting it without beating myself up, and then beginning again, is very powerful.
If I eat a pint of almond milk ice cream instead of a nutritious dinner (it happens), gently noting that I made an unwholesome choice and that I can let it go and make a healthier choice with my next meal is so much better than berating myself, which may lead to thoughts like “I totally screwed up—I might as well eat junk food for the next several days!” Or, if I realize I've been stubborn or grumpy with my husband, I can apologize and change my attitude to a kinder, more loving one.
Training in watching my thoughts and feelings without acting on them, as I do when practicing meditation, also has the advantage of helping me learn to pause when agitated and choose my words and actions more carefully, reducing the incidence of these situations.
Learning self-compassion and that I can always begin again are two of the most helpful lessons I've gained from my meditation practice, which is a “practice” after all. I would encourage everyone to give it a chance!
There are many excellent resources available online for learning and practicing meditation. A few great options include AudioDharma, UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, Headspace, and Insight Timer.