The One Thing An Instructor Wishes You Knew About Meditation
“I’d love to meditate, but I can’t clear my mind enough for it to work!”
Since I started meditating a couple of years ago, I think I’ve heard a version of this statement from every single person I’ve talked to about it. I said it myself for a long time, so I totally get why they feel that way – pop culture has created a perception of meditation that’s as unattainable for regular folk as it is for the Dalai Lama. And why would anyone willingly participate in something that’s just going to wind up stressing them out more or make them feel like a failure?
The thing is, meditation isn’t about clearing your mind at all.
Misconceptions about meditation
“This misconception comes from confusing an outcome of meditation with the process,” Vedic meditation teacher Rory Kinsella tells me. “Having a clearer mind with fewer stresses, worries, fatigue and nagging doubts is something many people experience after beginning a meditation practice, but it’s easy to mix up the destination with the journey.”
So, if you’re not magically falling into a Zen-like state, having some kind of out-of-body experience, or entering another dimension with your mind, what exactly are you doing during meditation?
How should I meditate?
Kinsella says most types of meditation aren’t about clearing your mind at all, but rather focusing your attention on an “anchor” like the sensation of breathing or a mantra repeated gently inside your mind.
“Rather than fighting thoughts – spoiler alert: you’ll lose! – the process is to gently bring yourself back to the anchor whenever you realise you’re lost in thought. The game is not to see how consistently you can stick with the anchor, but instead how unfazed and nonchalant you can be when you realise you’re lost in thought – even if it’s for the 10th time in five minutes,” Kinsella explains.
Basically, you’ve got permission to let your brain do what it needs to do without judgement.
But despite this considerably looser approach to meditation, the practice does have a purpose.
The benefits of meditation
“There are many reasons to meditate – from reducing stress to improving sleep or focus – but the practice is more effective if you drop expectations about what will happen during the meditation itself. We spend a big chunk of our lives chasing goals and objectives and these [expectations] put pressure on [us] and add to our stress,” Kinsella explains, adding that success in meditation is ultimately counterintuitive because it’s most effective when you give up traditional notions of “success”. “It’s about temporarily letting go of the idea of goals and allowing yourself a well-earned break.”
It’s true that our minds sometimes feel overwhelmed by thoughts, worries, and regrets, even when they’re given a non-judgemental space to process everything that’s going on. And it’s easy to understand why we might baulk at being alone with our thoughts when times are tough. But Kinsella says it’s important to accept that thoughts are a natural part of the meditation process in those hard moments, and to try not to resist them.
“One way I describe it to my students is that the mind is like a web browser. Each morning when I fire up my brain, I have tabs left over from the things I was working on yesterday, plus all my to-do list items for the coming day. Each tab has its own set of worries or concerns which chew up my conscious processing capacity and distract me – like those old pop-up ads you’d get in the 2000s. When I meditate, my mind naturally cycles through each of these tabs. Whenever I remember I’m meditating, I return to my mantra and it’s like I’m closing that tab. I may only stay with my mantra a few seconds before I’m onto the next tab, but each time I close another tab, I’m left with a nice clean and emptier mental browser at the end,” Kinsella says, adding that the meditation itself may not be particularly relaxing when you’re processing lots of thoughts and worries, but that you’ll generally feel clearer or lighter after for having done it.
Who knew a metaphor about web browsers could be so... soothing? When it comes down to it, doing away with the misconceptions that meditation is about clearing your mind or that busy minds can’t reap the benefits of meditative practice is key. “Good” meditation is messy and often uncomfortable but creating that space for our minds to do the work of being human has the potential to be life-changing.
“The one thing I wish people knew about meditation is that no-one’s mind is too busy to meditate,” Kinsella says. “Once you understand how to approach it, you can’t actually have a ‘bad’ meditation. The only bad meditation is one you don’t do.”