In this age of anxiety, multitasking, and myriad distractions, it’s easy to overindulge in too much thinking … even when you don’t want to. We dwell on the past, worry about the future, second-guess ourselves—sometimes endlessly. Against this epidemic of stinking thinking, meditation is a crucial skill for mental health—not to mention a good night’s sleep.
Once I spent a couple years in ashrams and monasteries. When I came back to the States, I taught adult meditation classes and served as meditation minister at a New Thought church, where I facilitated a how-to class and a 10-week survey course entitled ”Styles of Meditation,” where we received a weekly presentation from purveyors of different styles of meditation—including Transcendental, Buddhist, Christian, electronically-assisted, Japanese Tea Ceremony and others.
In my how-to class, I taught an ancient but simple mindfulness-of-breathing technique—a method that does not require any particular beliefs, visualizations of wrathful deities, or special rituals. We learned to do mindfulness exercises in line at the bank or during a traffic jam. One year we used the book “The Three Minute Meditator” as class text.
As my teacher, Ayya Khema, used to say, meditation is just a matter of being present. As long as you are grounded in an awareness of the present moment, you are meditating. Considering that our ego dwells on the future or past, a meditation experience—even a short one—is a sort of ‘vacation’ (as in the vacating the ego).
Fairly often, students would tell me “I just can’t meditate; no matter what I do, I can’t put a stop to the thoughts.” This is an understandable complaint, but based on a misunderstanding about the very nature of meditation. I would explain that thoughts almost never come to a halt. After all, they arise of their own accord even when you don’t want them! If so, how can the thoughts that arise be your thoughts? If you don’t want them around, if you did not invite them, but they arise in your mind anyway, what makes them yours?
Thoughts arise uninvited and they always will. It is impossible to stop them from coming and that is not what meditation is really about. It’s about changing how we relate to thoughts that arise. Do we identify with them—as in “my thoughts?” Do we invest in them by thinking about them? Of course we do!
The skill of meditation is not about shutting out thoughts or shutting down the mind. Rather, it’s about divesting ourselves of thoughts that arise when we need to get away from thinking. This is a practice of noticing the thoughts that arise and then letting them pass by turning your attention to an object like your breathing or some mantra. It doesn’t really matter what object of concentration you use.
I suspect that like me, you are fairly addicted to thinking. All the more reason we need to turn it off sometimes! As long as you remember the distinction between thoughts arising and thinking about them, anyone—even you—can let go of the ego’s urge to think about things when they pop up. Practice noticing thoughts arising and intervene by letting them go before you react, lest the ‘stinking thinking’ of regrets and worries ruins your ability to enjoy your life.