(1) it’s okay to have thoughts during meditation, it’s the nature of the mind to think
(2) don’t try too hard, it’s a barrier to the natural settling down in meditation
(3) let go of expectations, they’ll limit your possibilities
(4) be kind to yourself, the way you treat yourself in meditation is the way you treat yourself as you live your life, and
(5) stick with it, don’t stop because you don’t think anything is happening, or you aren’t getting where you think you should go.
It’s also important to know this: the experiences you have in meditation have no bearing on whether or not your meditations are “working.”
1. It’s Okay to Have Thoughts
If you’re thinking, I probably can’t do thisprogrambecause I have too many thoughts, then you are not alone. Perhaps you’ve already tried to meditate for a few minutes once or twice, and it “didn’t work.” You sat down, closed your eyes, and tried to clear your mind but couldn’t. Then you gave up.
Students in my classes often tell me, “I can’t stop thinking.” My reply is, “That’s right, you can’t stop the thoughts.” I explain that you can’t stop thoughts by thinking about not thinking because the nature of the mind is to think, like the nature of your eyes are to see. If you try to stop thinking, your effort will make you frustrated and possibly give you a headache.
You don’t need to completely stop thinking during meditation. Instead, the meditation practices you will learn in this program naturally settle your mind and body, making it easier to experience the subtler levels of your thoughts and impulses. Sometimes the thought process even stops for a moment or two, and before another thought or sensation arises, you’ll have experienced the silence that is always present, underlying the thoughts, the silence of your soul. This stillness of mind is not created by you stopping your thoughts. Instead, it is a natural process that is always available to be experienced—it is merely revealed through meditating.
2. Don’t Try Too Hard
I once taught meditation to a heart surgeon and his wife on New Year’s Day (he had called and set up an appointment at 9 a.m., wanting to start the year off right). After they learned to meditate he asked how he could “get good at it.” I responded by asking him how he got to be “good” at surgery. Practice, right? Well, it’s the same with meditation.
At first, you may try to do it “right.” But you soon find that overly working at it, trying too hard, forcing it, or concentrating only creates more thoughts and bad habits. You can’t try to do anything without the mind getting involved. Instead of expending mental effort or trying to have a certain experience, you’ll learn to refocus your attention, gently. Contrary to what so many believe, you don’t get good at meditation by trying hard to do it. Instead, the practice requires ease and effortlessness.
With meditation, your mind and body will settle down naturally, and as with any natural process, too much effort can ruin the process. For example, trying to go to sleep, even if you’re tired, can make you miserable. Trying to come up with a new idea and force through a creative block is the same way—it rarely works. Trying to meditate is similar because meditation is an effortless pursuit. The only effort you put in is the effort to set aside the time and space for your regular practice. Some of us are in the habit of having to be doing something in order to feel a sense of satisfaction, and that includes “doing” meditation, trying hard at it. Instead, meditation trains you to get comfortable “being”, being yourself without effort.
3. Let Go of Expectations
You may have preconceived notions of what is supposed to be going on during meditation and how you should feel or what you should experience. Many of us have seen pictures of the monks in robes or yogis sitting cross-legged, some have heard stories about the wild experiences some meditators have, but I love to teach those who have no expectations about meditation. First timers come and sit with me for 15-20 minutes and then report that they felt great and that it was easy. I attribute this to “beginner’s mind.”
During meditation, you’ll have all kinds of experiences—some you like better than others, and some you’ll want to repeat in your next meditation. It’s important to treat each meditation as innocently as the first time you learned, and expect nothing. Let go of expectations or wanting your meditation to go a certain way. The body and mind are intelligent and will naturally do what they need to do to eliminate stress and to create a nourishing effect.
I’m often asked, How will I know I’m doing it right? My answer is that when you approach meditation without expectations, without trying “too hard” or attempting to control your experience, and with a sense of ease and welcome for whatever experiences arise, then you are doing it right.Instead of judging your meditations as good or bad based on the experiences you have in meditation, you’ll see if it’s working another way. Ultimately, most people notice they are doing it right because they notice changes in their lives: they’re happier, more relaxed, less stressed, more creative, more perceptive, and more appreciative of their lives.
4. Be Kind to Yourself
An essential key to meditating correctly is to be kind to yourself. This is one of the most important things I have learned through my years of practicing and teaching meditation. While it should go without saying, I still say it because many people have learned to be tough on themselves. Being tough on yourself does not help change your behavior; it’s simply a bad habit. Instead, be gentle towards yourself as you commit to transforming your life. Don’t get down on yourself in meditation if your mind wanders, or you get bored, or the experiences you have in meditation don’t fulfill your expectations. Be nice to yourself when you are not meditating too. Don’t compare your experience to others’. All is well.
5. Stick with It
Finally, meditation only works if you stick with it and don’t give up. During your meditation period, your mind may wander, you may feel restless, you’ll have a brilliant idea, or you think of something you simply must do (like check your email or write something down) and you may want to give up. But don’t. Simply begin again and return your awareness to the focus of your meditation. Have the discipline to do the practices and stick with the entire meditation period you committed to each day, whether it’s five minutes or half an hour, even if you’re antsy or bored.
By staying with the practice, you will create a new relationship with your mind. As you let the thoughts and impulses come and go, without taking action, you change your reactivity to a thought and become the witness to your mental activity. This will lead you to a deeper understanding of how your mind works. Often when you feel a fidgety or feel frustrated in meditation, it’s an indication that you’re releasing a lot of stress. If you stick with the practice, the stress will dissipate and you’ll experience a “meditator’s high”. Don’t quit before the bliss! Don’t quit the program either. Stay with it each day for eight weeks. Meditating every day will give you the benefits, but not meditating won’t. Even if you don’t think anything is happening in meditation, science shows dramatic changes in the minds and bodies of consistent meditators. And you’ll soon believe it once you see the benefits for yourself.
Now is a good time to ask yourself: What is my intention with meditation? How do I want to live my life? How do I want my life to transform? If you don’t discover the answers right away, be patient, eventually, the answers will come. Each meditation you engage in will reveal–or be inherently inspired by– your sincere intention.
This is an excerpt from the Introduction of SOUL-CENTERED: TRANSFORM YOUR LIFE IN 8 WEEKS WITH MEDITATION