Let’s begin with a little joke about the difficulties of meditating successfully.
A novice to meditation sits on a mat in her living room. She began her hour-long meditation focusing on her breath and the soft humming of the lights in the room. Her focus does not last very long.
So she closes her eyes and pictures a peaceful valley surrounded by rolling green mountains. She had seen it on a postcard somewhere and thought it was pretty. She tries to stay present in that idyllic scene, but cannot to manage to focus on that for very long either. Her focus flits from her breathing to forming mental pictures and back again.
As the minutes tick by she finds it harder and harder to control her breathing. She cannot help flicking one eye open to check on the time left in her prescribed hour of contemplation. She inhales and utters a quiet prayer:
“Come on inner peace. I don’t have all day.”
Meditation: What is is and what it isn’t.
There is a mistaken belief that meditation can only be done with a quiet mind. Meditation newbies imagine a wise old man sitting crossed legged on a stone. A fly could land on his nose and it wouldn’t phase him. A herd of deer could be loping about in the background and that wouldn’t phase him either. A meteor shower could rain celestial rocks down around him and this too would not phase him. Nothing can disturb his inner peace.
It is a cute picture, but it is completely inaccurate.
Meditation is not only for the practitioner who is already at peace. It is not the sole province of those who have mastered control over their emotions. It is for everyone. Everyone. It is important to note that just as one size does not fit all, so too there is no one method which is right for everyone.
In Buddhism, there is an idea that the mind is a chattering monkey or Xin yuan. It is loud. It is capricious and it is difficult to control. Taming your inner mind-monkey is no easy feat. It takes skill and practice. Success is not instant and it can take years for a novice to turn into a master.
In today’s world of fast results and instant gratification, ideas like time and practice aren’t much of a draw. People believe that the ability to concentrate on demand is something you have to be born with. Many who begin to learn how to meditate soon give up because of what they perceive as a failure to focus.
How did this idea of failure come about? What makes someone into a “good” meditator?
Let’s use two examples to answer these questions.
Meet George. George runs a small business. He shares an apartment with his spouse and their dog Pluto. George likes CrossFit and cosplay and pizza. And then more CrossFit so he doesn’t feel bad about eating the pizza. George has designated 20 minutes in the morning for meditation. Like many meditators, George begins his sessions by focusing on his breathing. And like many meditators, this lasts for about a minute. The next 19 minutes are spent bouncing between thoughts about work, thoughts about his spouse, thoughts about his dog, and thoughts about wanting to find a weekend to go camping with his buddies. All the while George is struggling to get back to his initial blank, clean mental slate. George has been doing this every day for two years.
And now let’s meet Martha. Martha is a teacher- fifth grade. When she finishes teaching she picks up her kids and takes them to their after school activities or back home. She makes supper and eats with her family. After dinner, she helps with homework and gets the lunches ready for the next day before collapsing exhausted on the sofa while her husband puts the kids to bed. At 9:30 pm a very tired Martha sits on the floor of her room and meditates or tries to. She finds that her attempts to detach her emotions from her thoughts are peppered with the day’s frustrations and mental reminders of what she needs to do tomorrow. About half of the time, she spends trying to unfocus is spent focused on anything but serene thoughts.
Now, which one of them succeeded at meditation? Both of them.They both are successful and will continue to succeed because they have devoted a portion of their days to training their minds to quiet themselves, to calming their individual chattering monkeys.
They both are successful and will continue to succeed because they have devoted a portion of their days to training their minds to quiet themselves, to calming their individual chattering monkeys. The practice of meditation is done to achieve mental clarity. No one gets it right their first time and very few will get it on their thousandth. Meditation is not an end unto itself. The desired result is clarity and meditation is the vehicle to help you achieve it.
Addressing the Difficulties in Meditation
How did the journey get mistaken for the destination?
What prevents a “successful” meditation? What distracts people who try?
The impediments can be classified into two groups: external and internal distractions.
Life is busy. Busy, busy, busy. People run from one place to another for their work, for their kids, for themselves. When they finally get a few minutes to sit and gain some perspective it can feel like they haven’t really stopped at all.
The most common external distraction to meditation is noise. Noise from children, noise from the television, noise from traffic; take your pick. Our lives are filled with noise. Discordant honking, sirens, shouting, crying, beeping and banging. All those wonderful sounds that signify a bustling, thriving world also make it so difficult to sit and focus on absolutely nothing.
E-6 Technical Sergeant J Rife is in the US Air Force. His lifestyle doesn’t allow him to allocate the same half hour every day for meditation. When he is working a shift there is no private place where he can sit in silence. I asked him what he does when he is on base or overseas. “Constant noise doesn’t disturb me but variant noise (does). Noise where the tone or intensity changes drastically – like sirens or engines starting. The key for me is unfocusing. I sit, focusing on one thing and then I just pull back.”
Kind of like looking at a Magic Eye picture where you begin by focusing on one spot. Everything around it is fuzzy and appears to be a jumble. Then as you pull back you can see the picture clearly.
A common distraction for parents is their kids. Ben is a new dad of a 7-month-old daughter. When he meditates he prefers to listen to the constant white noise but as the dad of a newborn that doesn’t always happen. His solution is a practical one: he puts on headphones and listens to the sound of a calming waterfall.
And it isn’t only parents who find little distractions are everywhere.
Garland’s grandchildren are early risers and when they visit he finds it difficult to focus. For over twenty years he has been meditating and he is a certified Tui Na practitioner. He was a student of Dr. Aihan Kuhn. “Nothing disrupts like a cute little person jabbing their finger into my arm while I am in the lotus position and repeating “’Papa? Papa? What are you doing Papa? Papa?’”
Garland practices Tai Chi every day. He exercises for one hour in the morning. Garland finds that focusing on every minute body movement and on his breathing help him to relax. He advocates this Eastern exercise as a form of moving meditation. And if the kids won’t leave him alone then they can just join in and copy his movements.
The modern era has given us new technologies and with it new distractions. Our iPhones iPads and other smart devices help us to connect to each other but prevent us from connecting with ourselves. Unhooking from stimulation will better help you to sit with yourself. There is no App for self-actualization. When you turn off your wifi and put your phone on silent for twenty minutes , you will be more successful at unwinding all the discordant noise that has settled in your brain.
There are some who recognize external distractions as tools which help them to become more self-aware. They feel that listening to background sounds are just what they need. To them, it is more about being present and less about being detached. Adelson is a Yoga instructor. Her approach to dealing with discordant noise is considered very zen. She says that distractions are great teachers. To her meditation is “a constant dance of awareness and practice of compassion to come back to my breath. The key being practice not (being) perfect.”
To be focused or to be unfocused? That is the question. Is it better to empty the mind of all traffic or to find one spot inside and put all your energy into examining it? This is a riddle that meditators have been wrestling with for centuries.
An internal distraction can be just as much of an impediment to successful meditation as an external one. The most common distraction reported by practitioners of meditation is their own thoughts.
Silver practices yoga and meditation on a daily basis. “ I think the main thing is this constant voice in my head telling me I am wasting my time. I’m quite a fast moving person and during my day I try to get as much done as possible and am aware of a long to-do list every day. So when I meditate I think of all the other things I could be doing at this moment and feel like I am being lazy or self-indulgent to just sit and breathe!”
Mr. Garland agrees. “Biggest distraction? My own thoughts. I consciously try to tame my monkey mind by focusing on my breathing.”
What does it mean to tame your “monkey mind?”
What can someone who has a clear mind accomplish?
The Girl who Loved Puzzles
I know a girl who loves puzzles. She especially loves those 1000 piece monstrosities. Photographs of jellybeans, floor mosaics; the more complicated the better. When I met her she was a 16-year-old high school student working on a 1000 piece puzzle of a daytime sky. On her left were the pieces spread out right side up and on her right was part of a formed puzzle. She would scan the pieces on her left, pick one out and put it down in its correct spot without any apparent difficulty.
A sky puzzle- just white clouds and blue sky.
Like most people I was gobsmacked by her ability. She is an intelligent young woman, but not a genius or a savant. I asked her how she could complete this puzzle with so little difficulty. She answered that she did it by keeping her mind clear. All her worries about school, her frustrations with her sibling or her parents- she just locked them all away and focused on her puzzle.
This is just one person working on a puzzle. Can you imagine what would be if everyone was able to put aside their baggage and focus on the moment they were in?
Think of how it would affect your daily tasks. Think of how it would affect you home life or your work life.
Think of what you could accomplish.
As mentioned before what works for one person will not necessarily work for another. While one person will swear by the power of mindfulness tapes, another will prefer to sit in complete silence and ponder. There were three methods that were mentioned repeatedly by many of the meditation practitioners I spoke with. Two of them are very similar in that they teach how to compartmentalize your negative thoughts and emotions to give you a clear space to contemplate.
The Worry Tree
Imagine a tree of any kind. Picture its long leafy boughs and the branches bending towards you. At the end of the branches picture a series of hooks. These hooks are for your worries. Whatever is bothering you, whatever concerns are preventing you from letting go and being in the moment, they each have a place on this tree. Take each concern, one at a time and hang them up. Overdue bills? Arguments with your spouse? Difficulties with a co-worker? Watch your hands take each one and hang them on the Worry Tree. This may take some time at first but after a while, you will find it easier to separate yourself from each worry. When you have finished hanging them all up, picture yourself as you turn your back to the tree and walk away. Whatever you have hung up is not going anywhere, but now you can. Find a place far enough away from that tree and begin your meditation.
The Thought Box
The Thought Box is similar to the Worry Tree, but with one notable difference.
Picture yourself in a room with a floor, four walls, and a roof. A circular room under a dome. You can choose the shape or the colors- whatever appeals to you. This is your room. Now picture yourself holding an open box. This box is for your negative thoughts and emotions. Every single one goes into this box. And like Mary Poppins’ magical carpet bag this box is bottomless, so however much you need to put in, you don’t have to worry about it getting filled up. When you have finished filling it, put the lid on and lock it. Nothing is getting out of that box until you are ready to let it out. In this technique, the box stays with you. That way those thoughts and emotions are reassured that they won’t be abandoned and they will be dealt with.
But not yet. Not now. Now is your time to find your inner quiet place.
Either of these methods can help you build a safe and quiet place inside yourself. Some people don’t benefit from building their own quiet room. Like Ms. Adelson said, sometimes the noise and the distractions are the tools needed to become a better meditator. If you are in the camp who feels that your meditations would benefit because of the challenges of distractions rather than in spite of them then the next technique may be right for you.
Self-affirmations were first made popular by French psychologist Emile Coué in the 1920s. They are touted by self-help gurus and cognitive psychologists. Despite their frequent use in the field of cognitive psychology, affirmations used to be on the receiving end of a lot of bad press. They were treated like a joke. Many believed that they were tools used by the weak minded to convince themselves that they were better, stronger, and braver people than they actually were.
The old Jack Handy affirmations skit from Saturday Night Live comes to mind. It made people feel as though saying “I am good enough Smart enough and gosh darn it, people like me” was a joke, rather than something that everyone should be saying to themselves.
It turns out that people who recite daily self-affirmations get the last laugh.
Research from the Psychology department at Carnegie Mellon University has provided evidence that daily self-affirmations can protect against the damaging effects of stress. Using the process of identifying and focusing on a person’s core values improves a stressed individuals’ abilities to think clearly and problem solve.
There is more research which has yielded pro-affirmation results. The work of David K. Sherman of the University of California and Geoffrey L. Cohen at Yale University suggests that everyone has a psychological immune system that works to protect the psyche when there is an imminent or impending threat. Repetitive positive self-affirmation successfully boosts that immune system and can help fight against mental illness.
Among the various cognitive strategies, repetitive self-affirmation is quite compatible with Eastern thought and meditation.
Use the noise around you. Acknowledge all of the sounds, each one individually. You can hear the birds on the window sill. You can hear the construction down the street. Identify each one aloud. And then say “I can hear all of the sounds of the environment. They can distract me or they can help me. If I choose, they can help me to go deeper within myself, to find places I never knew.”
Repeating these affirmations aloud will help you to become accustomed to the noises and to accept them as helpers rather than reject them as hindrances.
Now you have begun your journey to quiet your own personal chattering monkey. While you work to achieve your own kind of stillness and peace, remember that the journey will be difficult and many challenges lie ahead. With every victory, you will have increased your own awareness, your ability to focus and be completely in the present. You will find that both your creativity and productivity will improve with time. Don’t give up.
Take the first steps with me:
Breathe in, Breathe out.
That’s better already.