There is a wide misconception that meditation means that the mind is completely blank of thought. This is not true! The mind’s job is to make us aware of our thoughts. Before starting a yoga practice, most people flit around from task to task, spend a majority of their time in their head creating worlds and conversations and scenarios that hardly ever come to pass. My favorite quote about this comes from Mark Twain: “I have lived a most extraordinary life. 97% of which never occurred.” However, it is through these fanciful thoughts that great inventions are conceived and art is created. Thoughts are not bad or good, they just are. Nor do we have control over what types of thoughts arise. But, we do have control over our reactions to those thoughts!
The beginning of a mediation practice can be just a few minutes of sitting still. For some of us, we always move, always are busy with something so that we don’t have to watch our thoughts. If we can sit still, then we begin to just take notice of what arises naturally in the mind. It could be internal distractions such as to-do lists, preferences, opinions of people and events, the past or the future. Outside distractions such as the room temperature, noises, and pets can keep us from watching our thoughts.
Once we can sit still and notice our thoughts, we acknowledge them, then let them go. This means not engaging with them such as thinking they are right or wrong, wondering where they came from, or following them to the store and what we’ll make for dinner when we arrive back home. It’s just, “Oh, I’m hungry. Huh.” Then, “I have to go to the store. Huh.” Then, “What will I make for dinner? Huh.” Recognize and release. No engagement.
A tiny step beyond that is the focus our attention on something. It could be an object, the tip of our nose, the breath. Thoughts will still come. We redirect our awareness to what we’ve chosen to focus on. We do this when we read. We focus on the words on the page, we recognize that our mind has conjured the thought of what the room looks like based on the author’s words, but we don’t hang out in that room for the whole book. We turn the page and see what else there is.
The practice of mediation, of being still (to begin, and then eventually all of our doings is mediation in motion) and becoming aware of our thoughts, then focusing on a particular thing has many benefits. First, we get a chance to see what thoughts our mind conjures. We become “awake” and aware rather than sleeping through our lives. Second, it allows us to create a gap between a thought and reacting to that thought. Instead of having the thought that we’re hungry and immediately eating something, we can acknowledge the thought and respond, rather than thoughtless reaction, to the physical stimulus by choosing what sounds or looks good, which also means paying attention to what signals the body sends to the mind. Next, because we’ve practiced breathing and being, we can see what feeling arises and decide what to do, if anything. Instead of reaction, we have a space in which to feel bodily responses and how we’re going to act or what we’re going to say. When we have a regular meditation practice, we find that we’re okay having less drama, less angst, fewer frustrations, and we begin to handle crises in our lives a little differently. We see things and people and events spinning around us, and we can begin to choose if or how or when to engage with the stuff of life. This doesn’t mean that we ignore people or things, but rather we begin to understand what is ours to do and what belongs to another.
“Meditation means complete concentration with an unbroken stream of attention to the object. It completely occupies the mind without any distraction from within or without.” Amrit Desai.
Meditation can then be taken into actions. When we cut a banana for breakfast, our entire focus is on the banana, not the TV or the news or the dog barking outside or the current of air from the fan. Just the banana. We may recognize thoughts about all those distractions, but then we let them go and return to just the banana. This can be done while standing in line, waiting in traffic, having a conversation with a friend, engaging in a hobby, or an asana practice.
So, mediation isn’t about wiping the mind clean of thoughts. It’s about acknowledging them, releasing them, and having control over where the attention goes. Like training a puppy to sit and stay, training the mind to not run helter-skelter through the day, but instead to focus its concentration here, then here, then here. Meditation is teaching the mind to do what you want it to do, even if that is creating ideas for art or inventions. And it’s a practice because every day, every moment, we have the opportunity to focus our mind, or not.