Frequently when I talk about inner silence and meditation, I run into someone who says, “Don’t talk to me about meditation. I can’t meditate.” So I know that this is a real problem for a significant number of people. (For the purpose of this blog, the term “meditation” refers to the process of focusing on a single thing, such as the breath, a mantra, or a mandala.)
Since I have identified inner silence as one of the superpowers that’s available to everyone, I want to help, so I’ve regularly asked these people what they mean. I think that the problem is a misunderstanding, and that’s my fault and the fault of others who study and teach various forms of meditation.
This blog will identify some of the basic misunderstandings that might contribute to a person saying, “I can’t meditate.”
“I Can’t Meditate Because My Mind Keeps Drifting”
One of my friends told me something similar to the following, “I can’t meditate more than a couple of seconds. I try focusing on my breath, but before you know it, I’m thinking about something else. I don’t have the focus for meditation.”
Whether you focus on a mantra (a meditation word like “Om”) or on your breath, the act of focusing takes a lot of energy at the very beginning, and then the activity quickly becomes habitual. This is particularly the case with breathing, which is already a habit. When you’re repeating a mantra, you might notice that your inner voice keeps saying the mantra, even after you’ve started thinking about something a little more exciting.
In other words, the act of meditation quickly becomes a habit. Meditation is actually designed to become a habit, so this is not really a problem. It’s a feature.
The normal thing that happens when we create a habit is that it no longer takes a lot of energy to keep it going. So breathing or repeating a word no longer takes much energy and we go on to thinking about something else. This is as normal as planning your day while you drive or watching TV while you eat. The habit takes so little time that we pay no attention to it at all.
If your mind wanders while you meditate, it’s just normal. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed at meditation.
Why Do Our Minds Wander?
Most meditation teachers will tell you that when your mind wanders, you just gently bring it back to the meditation. Some of them will tell you things like, “Notice your thoughts, accept them, and then return to your breath.” Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t tell you why this process proves that you’re succeeding.
All of our minds are built to focus on the highest priorities at any moment. So we start the car, pull out on the road, and then kick our minds into automatic so that we can solve problems that are more important to us than driving the car, which is such a habit that it takes no thought. Or we start to repeat a mantra, say it a couple of times, then kick our minds into automatic so that we can solve important problems or plan for important goals. That’s how we’re built.
So let’s create an imaginary energy scale to describe what’s happening. Meditation is important, so let’s imagine that it has a score of 100 on this energy scale.
This is just a metaphor. When you’re meditating, you don’t actually think of units of energy. I’m using this metaphor to describe what’s happening subconsciously as you meditate.
As we repeat a mantra or focus on the breath, it becomes a habit, so it no longer requires 100 units of energy. It only requires 98 units of energy—then 97 units of energy, and so on. That’s what habits do—they reduce the amount of energy we need to continue doing them.
At the same time as you’re starting to meditate, you also have an important project on your mind—that is so important that it requires 98 units of energy. So when meditation becomes such a habit that it only requires 97 units, your mind is going to automatically switch over to the important project which requires more mind energy units. Your mind wanders when meditating becomes such a habit that your projects and problems require a greater level of energy for you than meditation.
When you make a conscious choice to return to meditating, it’s like saying to yourself, “No, I’m not going to think about the project now. I’ll think about it later. I’m going to temporarily assign it an importance of 75 units. Even at 97 units of energy, the meditation is more important because of this decision. So I’m going back to the meditation.”
When you continue meditating using 97 units of energy, it becomes even more habitual. Now it’s down to 96 units of energy. Then 95 units. But suddenly, another thought appears. Perhaps you have a problem with 96 units of anxiety energy. When the meditation habit drops down to 95 units, your mind will automatically switch over to the problem because it requires more energy units from you.
But then, once again, you make the conscious choice to return to meditation. Once again, you tell yourself, “No, I’ll solve that problem later. For now, it’s temporarily got 80 units of energy.” That decision allows you to keep meditating.
Cultivating the Habit of Letting Go
Every single time you make the conscious choice to return to the meditation, you are temporarily assigning your thoughts about projects and problems a lower and lower level of energy. If you started meditating with twenty problems and projects that all had more than 90 units of energy, at the end of a meditation session, you’ve temporarily assigned all of them a lower level of energy.
This is why meditation relieves stress. You’ve learned to let go of those energy requirements that clutching anxiously onto those problems and projects requires. This is why meditation increases sports performance. Meditation teaches you that you can let go of all of the tension that interferes with your athletic focus. This is why meditation allows people to get in touch with more subtle parts of their consciousness, such as chi energy, intuition, and even telepathic impressions. You’ve learned to let go of all of those things that keep you enthralled by the material world.
It’s powerful to learn to temporarily let go by intention, rather than by distraction.
Every single time that you meditate, you practice temporarily letting go of high energy or high anxiety priorities. You’re not drowning them out with TV or other distractions. You’re consciously letting them go, which is entirely different than watching TV. You’re teaching yourself to let go of topics that your mind traditionally holds onto very tightly. Most of us don’t even know that we’re capable of loosening our grip on these topics.
Meditation teaches us that we have choice. We don’t have to hang on so tightly to our worries and projects. We can let go and rest our minds. We can allow the problem to incubate. We can walk away from our projects and come back with a fresh perspective! We’re in control!
Your Wandering Mind Is a Sign of Meditation Success!
Imagine a person who knows how to meditate without letting her mind wander. She repeats the mantra or focuses on her breath for periods of 30 minutes a day, but she’s so focused that she never is distracted by her problems and projects.
Somehow, this person has learned to focus without learning to let go of problems and projects. She takes a break to meditate, but when she goes back to her life, she’s just as enslaved to her fears and passions as if she had never meditated. For her, meditation is not about letting go. It’s just a discipline, and that’s all it is.
Such a person gets no value from meditation, because her mind does not wander. Since her mind doesn’t wander, she never practices letting go. Since she never practices letting go, she is just as attached to her issues as someone who never meditates. She’s just as enslaved.
Be grateful that your mind wanders. Your wandering mind proves that you’re getting the important benefits that meditation provides. Without a wandering mind, you might as well not bother.