"Hey, you! Meet you!" Your meditation practice can help you make friends with yourself. Here are my thoughts on how this can happen, to coincide with Conscious 2's One Month Meditation Challenge.
One thing I hear often, from those who like the idea of having a meditation practice but feel it might not be for them, is, “But I can’t clear my mind!” They have tried sitting down in a quiet place, hoping to find some peace, and instead they’re overwhelmed by a honking barrage of thoughts—or a trail of anxious inner whispers, or whatever particular inner soundtrack tends to pop up for them.
To which I say, it’s okay. You don’t need to clear your mind to have a good, healthy practice. To me, that’s not what it’s about. In my understanding and experience, it’s about becoming a friend to yourself. It’s about being able to stay with the shouts and yelps and laughs and sighs of your own inner experience; and then integrate that patience and kindness into your whole being, so it starts to come naturally in your day to day life.
To get a little technical, in traditional yogic terms what most of us are doing when we’re sitting on the cushion is practicing dharana, which means "concentration" in Sanskrit. We are bringing our mind to a single point, like the breath or a mantra. Only once we’ve merged our consciousness with the object of our concentration are we in actual meditation, dhyana, which takes us to a fully awakened yogic state, samadhi—bliss.
As nice as it sounds, very few of us are going to be able to magically be whisked off to samadhi just like that, and it takes a lot of dedicated practice to even come close to softening into dhyana. The advertising images we see of attractive young women sitting on beaches in lotus pose suggest otherwise, though, which is where I think the mind-clearing myth comes from. The mind absolutely can be clear—is clear, when we let it be. But trying to stop our thoughts from coming is about as effective as trying to push rain back up into a cloud; it’s the way that we relate to these thoughts and feelings that lets the storm pass.
Concentration can sound like a hard, strict word—but it’s totally your ally in your meditation practice. Concentration when we’re sitting is simply about bringing your awareness to a single point, like the breath. The Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Saltzberg talks about “resting your awareness on the breath.” I love this idea of resting our awareness, because it does away with that flinty, unyielding notion of concentration (“Do it this way, or else!”).
So, you rest your awareness on your breath. And your thoughts will come, and your awareness will wander off your breath and want to follow your thoughts. The key is just to notice when this happens, and bring your attention back to your breath. Then you might start to observe how you’re bringing your attention back. Are you berating yourself? Telling yourself you’re stupid, or that this is a ridiculous idea, or it’ll never work? Are you neutral? Disinterested? Or maybe you’re really gentle about it.
For me, the absolute jewel of my years of meditation practice has been to discover that I can bring my awareness back to the breath with kindness, patience and compassion. “Let’s come on back now.” “There we go.” “Ah.” “How about now? What’s actually happening now?”
Over time, and in increments as tiny as the speed at which hair grows, I have become less impatient and frustrated with myself. I have become softer, and at the same time more courageous and strong, because I haven’t shooed away hard thoughts quite so much. I am more able to sit with who I am, most of the time. And this has moved into my everyday life. I have begun to see that I can be kind to myself anywhere.
I will say that it’s 100% an ongoing process. I still make myself squirm often. I still have a tendency to fan the flames of anxiety, get stuck in sad, doom-y thought patterns, or go off on a skip down daydream lane. But I catch myself more often, and more gently these days.
In the end, whichever tradition you’re approaching a meditation practice from, my feeling is that it really just comes down to love. When we quiet down and stop running our internal monologues, we get to hear and see the world in such a deep way; that’s when I start to feel a current of quiet joy running through me, and the sense dawns that maybe, yes, love really is our true nature.
“I will, I will take care of you”
To everything that is