Today I want to share some ideas for those of you who feel stuck or frustrated in your meditation practice. Please know this is quite common and can be shifted with a few small tweaks to your perspective and expectations.
First let me say, I have been where you are. Here’s a scenario I used to struggle with regularly. I would sit to meditate, take a few deep breaths, and feel my body systems begin to calm. Suddenly I’d remember something I forgot to do and a familiar panic set in. I’d remind myself to let this thought pass and refocus on my breath. Almost as soon as I’d done so, my thoughts began to wander. There’s so much to do…refocus…I’m so tired… breathe…How will I make it through the day? Before I knew it, I was perseverating on something someone said to me 20 years ago... all the while berating myself about how terrible I was at meditating. Honestly, I often gave up and walked away with more pain and anxiety than before I started.
Having been in many meditation trainings I know this is a common scenario. The premise of mindfulness meditation is the intentional quieting of thoughts and bringing full awareness to the present moment. Thoughts will inevitably arise and the goal is to let them pass without judgement by refocusing on the breath. It was the without judgement piece I struggled with the most. For years this held me back from establishing regular daily practice. I was definitely stuck.
Over the past 6 months I have learned a few things that helped me work through this impasse. Positively reframing my view of mind wandering during practice has been the most important change. There is a misconception that meditation is about completely emptying your mind. In actuality it is physiologically impossible to think of nothing. It is our brain’s job to think and process the world. This is what makes us human. My fellow perfectionists may need to hear that it is more than okay to be human. In mindfulness meditation we are encouraging our brain to focus on aspects of the present moment such as breathing, somatic experiences, or peaceful sounds. However, mind wandering is a completely natural process for everyone, and it’s going to happen. Accepting this has helped ease the self judgement that was impeding my practice.
It has also greatly helped me to think of mind wandering as an opportunity to retrain my brain. Our brains have a tremendous capacity to heal from unhealthy patterns due to neuroplasticity. Thus, each and every time anxious thoughts during meditation, and you refocus on the breath, you are laying new healthier neuropathways and healing the stress response system. So even if this happens a hundred times in ten minutes it’s a good thing. The more you practice the stronger (and calmer) your brain becomes. Ajahn Brahm, an Australian Buddhist monk and author explained it nicely when he stated, “Meditation is like a gym in which you develop the powerful mental muscles of calm and insight.”
Shifting my perspective in this manner has helped me feel much more accepting of the journey as it unfolds. With time, patience, and persistence I have slowly built my capacity to remain calm and peaceful during meditation and daily life. I don’t float around all day on a cloud of peace. I am human after all with a long history of anxiety and illness. I am, however, better able to self-regulate when difficult emotions arise. With time, practice, patience and most of all self-compassion I know you can get there too.
With Love and Peace,