You are in great company: Buddha, Gandhi, and Jesus were all lousy meditators. They had something in common with you: they were human. When they sat down to meditate, their minds wandered. Again, they were human. The people that follow Buddha labeled this wandering-mind condition as “the monkey mind.” It’s easy to picture. You sit down to meditate, and your mind starts making monkey noises, “oh-oh” and “ah-ah.” The longer you sit, the more you crave a banana. Or ice cream. Or perhaps both.
Welcome to the world, human. I’m going to make the next sentence bold because it’s essential. Meditation isn’t stopping your thoughts; it is watching your thoughts. You can do a lot of things with that sentence. You can make a mantra of it, repeating it a thousand times while hiking up the Himalayas. Or, you can be like Bart Simpson and write it a hundred times on the chalkboard. Or, pause and consider it.
Thoughts don’t stop in meditation
Unless you are dead, your thoughts don’t stop in meditation. You’re still alive. Congratulations, I think. The key or trick of meditation is watching your thoughts versus following them. There’s a slight difference. Let’s do an example. You could notice that you want ice cream. Fine. Or, you could think about ice cream and plan your trip to the store to pick up Ben & Jerry’s latest flavor. While you’re at the store, you should pick up some chocolate syrup and sprinkles to go with the ice cream. Of course, you’ll need to balance this out with something healthy, so you’ll need to remember to grab some frozen broccoli and a bag of apples. Oh, and don’t you need to schedule your haircut, too?
That’s not bad, either. The practice of meditation (did you noticed the word “practice” there?) includes awareness of your thoughts and bring your attention to the present. This practice involves compassion, and we will get there in a moment.
Throw your stick into the stream
Nature walks are soothing and provide today’s perfect metaphor. I wish this were a TV show because then I would put up a nifty graphic with a guy in a booming voice saying, “perfect metaphor!” But this isn’t television, so we’ll improvise:
Okay, the metaphor is that you are walking in the woods, and you come across a stream. You pick up a stick and toss it into the water. You watch the stick float downstream. You don’t move with the stick; you don’t hold onto the stick. You watch it. In meditation, the stick is your thoughts. Your thoughts come, and they float past you. Yes, some of the bigger thoughts could knock you into the stream, where you float along with the thought. If that happens, pull yourself up wherever you find yourself, and begin again. And again.
Show yourself compassion
Meditation is a practice. You will find words together like “meditation practice” or “mindful meditation.” As you would in any new habit, you don’t start perfectly. And in meditation, there is no perfect. There is no judgment. Your thoughts are “bad” or “evil,” neither are they “good” or “pure.” They’re just thoughts. They aren’t real. They don’t define who you are as a person.
Watch your thoughts. If you find yourself labeling your thoughts, let the label, along with the thought, continue to flow downstream. If you catch yourself sliding along with your mind’s activities, compassionately remind yourself that this is okay. Remind yourself that this is a natural process and pick up watching wherever you currently sit. Don’t chase, watch.