Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Think you need a quiet mind to meditate? You don't!

(Or, how watching your busy mind can help to calm it)

One of the comments I hear most often when I talk to people and tell them that I teach meditation is some variation of; “I've always wanted to learn how to meditate but I can’t do it (…I've tried!…), I can’t quiet my mind… it’s too busy” Well, therein lies the rub… we want some peace in our mind but think we can’t get there because our mind isn’t quiet enough. While there is an aspect of paradox in this supposed dilemma (and you may wish to read my last post, which discusses more about paradox in mindfulness,) in essence, mindfulness meditation doesn’t require a ‘calm’ mind. 

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, works with whatever is present in the mind; whether it is agitated and out of control, happy or sad, or distracted (yes, even those of you with ADD/ADHD can do mindfulness meditation, and can experience it’s benefits.) As a matter of fact, the first insight that most everyone experiences when starting a mindfulness practice is that their mind is out of control! Bhante Gunaratana, the author of Mindfulness in Plain English (here's a link to a free online published version) a book which is generally considered one of the most clear and helpful about mindfulness practice, describes this realization: 

“Somewhere in this process you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday.”

Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness practices do not require anyone to start out with a calm or quiet mind. They will likely help to access more quiet states of mind, but it isn’t necessary, or even the end goal of this practice. 

Mindfulness and Concentration: Two Different Kinds of Practice 

(and how you can meditate with a 'busy' mind...)

There are basically two types of meditation, ‘insight’ practices and ‘concentration’ practices. Concentration practices are those that fix the attention with ‘one-pointedness’.  Concentration practices include reciting mantras and visualizations; Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a concentration practice, for example.  Concentration practices on their own can provide a temporary feeling of calm or relaxation, and they can be beneficial in cultivating access to a calm state. But for those who have difficulty focusing their attention or suffer from attention deficit conditions, these practices may be more difficult to access right out of the box.  

The other kind of meditation, insight practice, is the practice of mindfulness. Insight, or mindfulness, is a practice which enables seeing what is really happening moment-to-moment. It does not require a perfectly-fixed attention, in fact, if concentration is too narrowly focused insight will be inaccessible. However, the process of mindfulness meditation does involve training the mind in an aspect of concentration too; it can actually help to bring about a certain level of concentration, and therefore, especially for those who have difficulty with accessing a calm mind, it can provide a doorway to that as well. More importantly, it cultivates equanimity in the dynamic experiences of day to day life; not only in a particular meditative state. 

Mindfulness meditation usually begins with the attention on the sensations of breathing (sensations like expansion, contraction, coolness, warmth, etc.) in one selected location in the body where the meditator finds sensations are most predominant: generally focusing attention on the tip of the nostrils, or the chest, or at the abdomen (picking only one location and sticking with it.) But wait, you say, … isn’t focusing attention the way you described concentration practice?Since the breath itself as the ‘object of attention’ is not static (the sensations of the breath are ever-changing), having such a dynamic object ensures it will function as an insight practice rather than a strictly concentration-type practice. While the process of training mindfulness does involve keeping the focus on the breath, because it is challenging to maintain focus on the dynamic and changing sensations involved with the breath, the process involves returning over and over again to this object of attention. The mind ‘does its thing’ and constantly wanders away from this object, so the practice of mindfulness begins with bringing attention back to the present moment experience of the breath every time it wanders away. It's actually the failure to keep the mind solidly on the object that helps to inform and train the mind. Through this process we begin to see the nature of our mind, the nature of sensations, and as a result, begin to recognize subtle patterns in our experience that we have not previously noticed. 

This process is the cultivation of mindfulness. As one cultivates mindfulness, the ability to stay focused on the breath (which is always in the present) for longer periods of time develops, and, as such, an element of concentration develops as well, right along with the mindfulness; they begin to work together. The element of concentration provides the benefit creating stability of mind and calming it, and this calm and stability provides access to a greater, more subtle, level of mindfulness. Concentration can eventually be developed to a degree which enables a more subtle awareness and mindfulness, and an equanimity with whatever is happening. 

Mindfulness practices are accessible for most people!

Many people feel intimidated by meditation and don’t think it’s accessible to them. Along with the belief that they 'just can't do it', many also view it as some kind of obscure, religious, unattainable ‘experience’. But meditation is a skill that can be learned by almost anyone.  It’s a mind training, and the skill can be cultivated just as much as any physical exercise.  To say I can’t meditate because my mind is ‘too busy’ is akin to saying I can’t go to the gym because I'm out of shape. (Although some might say that too…)

There are no special requirements to begin a meditation practice, no special ‘lifestyle’ (aside from making time to do the practice), no need to be or feel ‘spiritual’. And mindfulness meditation, in particular, is very much oriented to our grounded, bodily experience; it is not esoteric. This understanding, and the demonstrated efficacy of mindfulness through hundreds of research outcomes over the last years make a strong argument that the practice of mindfulness meditation is quite accessible, and can be of great benefit to most people in the many aspects of their lives. 

Learning how to meditate is one of the most worthwhile skills anyone can learn; even (and especially!) for all of us with ‘busy’ minds. 

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