Incredibly dating all the way back to circa 1900BC, the Pashupati Seal of the Indus Valley Civilisation depicts a figure sitting in meditation. The chances are that since this time, meditators have been dealing with the exact same dilemma. We try to sit in meditation. We focus on our breath, silence or a mantra. Then… our thoughts arise.
They’re seemingly endless too. Thoughts about: work, relationships, whether or not you’ve fed your dog, where your dog is right now.... No shh, you should be meditating. Thinking about whether or not this is meditation, why nothing is happening, and why you can’t for the life of you, stop your thoughts!?
Sound familiar? Good news: this is a shared, universal experience.
Our delicate, intelligent minds do not respond well to harshness, so attempts to squash our thoughts with force, never go well.
Meditative States and Thought
An absolute game changer arises when we come to recognise that meditation can continue, even when thoughts still exist in the mind. In other words, the mind doesn’t have to be completely still in order for you to experience the state of meditation.
Sometimes despite being deeply settled inside, thoughts will continue floating across your awareness. Other times, even as they slow down, a buzz of mental static might remain.
This doesn’t have to be a problem. A significant portion of meditation involves simply learning how to work with our thoughts, ultimately dissolving them into the subtler backdrop of the mind: that is, seating our thoughts in a spot where they don’t consume the whole space. This takes a combination of rigor and gentleness, understanding and (a lot of!) practice.
Going Backwards and Samskaras
Sometimes when we first start meditating, it appears as though the mind becomes even more frantic. It can be confronting to really acknowledge our inner dialogue and to recognise just how restless the mind usually is. Normally, with so much going on in our lives, the intensity of this dialogue tends to blend in and escape our notice.
Yet, as soon as we sit and do nothing else, it really does become glaringly apparent!
This is a major obstacle to meditation. Some beginners get the idea that meditating makes the mind more restless. This is understandable, but obviously not the case - it just seems that way because they’re now actually paying attention.
According to various schools of Indian philosophy, every intent and action you ever have, leaves a samskara; an impression or imprint in the deeper structure of the mind.
These are essentially mental and emotional patterns that we carry, repeating them so often that they leave grooves in our consciousness. When we meditate, these come flying to the forefront. Whichever way you look at it (Kundalini, meditative energy or introspective power), in meditation, they have the ability to be dissolved.
This is one of the subtle but hugely powerful benefits of meditating. You’ve likely watched the same various life scenarios, desires and plans replay like movies in your head. In meditation, these might arise over and over - but by training our minds to drop them, we slowly lessen the hold that they have on us.
"When you strengthen (the mind) by learning to hold your attention in one place for a while, instead of remaining trapped on the surface, you automatically strengthen your ability to hold subtle states in meditation and to find the inner pathways that lead you deeper."
– Sally Kempton
This subtle sense of ‘dropping’ or ‘letting-go’ is necessary in meditation. Plus eventually, the practice of catching thoughts and bringing them back will enter other areas of your life. Your mind will become stronger, and more resistant to boredom or emotional extremes.
Progress is Progress
Usually when one starts to practice meditation, bringing the mind back is the sole focus for a while. ‘Progress’ might appear slow, but don’t be dissuaded! Take note of any progress at all.
You might begin with your thoughts wandering away for twenty minutes before you realise. It might then shift to only fifteen minutes, then ten minutes, and so on. Avoid placing expectations on your meditation practice and (try to!) be patient. Treat your thoughts like a child who you love. At times it can be boring and extremely frustrating, but it is absolutely worth the reward.
Exercise: Breathing Out Thoughts
You can try this meditation exercise at home. Sit on a chair or on the floor, in a quiet place where you will be uninterrupted for the next ten minutes. Elongate your spine and close your eyes. Focus on your breath for a few moments. Then, start to notice the thoughts that arise. Whenever a thought, emotion, or desire arises – breathe it out. Breathe in, then breathe out the next thought.
If you’re a visual person you might like to imagine a physical representation of this, for example your thoughts being engulfed by a wave, then pulled out and dissolved in the ocean.
Continue this for 5-10 minutes and witness the process. Contemplate the effects and how you feel afterwards. Did you learn anything new about the trends of your thoughts? What was the effect of dropping your thoughts? How is your inner state now?
A great place to start or develop your meditation practice is TINT’s 30-day Yoga and Meditation Challenge with Matt Giordano. You can also find more tips on how to fuse meditation with your yoga practice in this article!
Sally Kempton, Meditation for the Love of it (Colorado: Sounds True, 2011)