Probably the number one misunderstanding about meditation is that it means getting rid of all of your thoughts. Many beginning meditators feel that thoughts are bad, and that a good meditation is all about eliminating one’s thoughts. They imagine meditation as a blank state of mind, devoid of thought or emotion. In over twenty years as a meditation instructor, this is the single greatest source of frustration and discouragement. Common examples of things beginners say include: “I am a horrible meditator, I just cannot stop thinking.” “If only I could stop my thoughts, then I would be able to meditate.” “I knew I couldn’t meditate, I cannot control my mind.” We then try to spank our thoughts out of existence and end up spanking ourselves. We get hard on ourselves and give up.
This kind of thinking has no benefit and does not help you get the results you want. Do not ruin your meditation with these ideas. Meditation is not about getting rid of your thoughts. What meditation is about is becoming familiar with your thoughts, and then establishing a healthy relationship with them. This distinction cannot be overemphasized. Thoughts are not a problem. Thinking is exactly what the mind does. Thoughts will always be part of your mind, just as waves are part of the ocean. You might slow thoughts down or stop them temporarily, but you will never be able to force thoughts out of your mind forever. Attempting to do this will only cause you to be miserable.
Thoughts only become a problem if we feed them with our attention, or let them distract us from the richness of the present moment. It is natural for thoughts to pop up in our mind, and unnatural to let them occupy our mind. Thoughts have a strong tendency to string together – one thought leads to the next thought, then the next one, often with no gaps between them. This is a runaway mind and mindless. Instead of indulging or suppressing thoughts and emotions, the point is to view them with acceptance and openness.
Thoughts are like chatter. In meditation, do not listen to them. Let them chat away, and do not pay any attention to them.
Meditation should be oriented towards making friends with our thoughts, and not with making them our enemy. If we feel that thoughts are bad, they become the enemy and our mind becomes a battleground. We end up fighting with ourselves in a war that we will always lose. The mind has an endless supply of thoughts to send to the front lines of consciousness, and you will never keep them out or beat them away. The point is to love your mind, just the way it is, and not try to defeat it.
I sometimes have insomnia, and it used to drive me crazy. I would wake up in the middle of the night and do everything I could to force myself back to sleep. My attempting to get rid of my thoughts only made it worse. The more I tried, the more they seemed to multiply and make me even more stressed. Finally one night I tried something new. I replaced my fighting attitude with an accepting and loving one. Instead of fighting with my thoughts I began embracing them. I starting using a mantra: “love your mind, love your mind.” It worked! I gradually relaxed and dropped back into sleep. Being kind to your thoughts, and to yourself, also works with meditation.
The best way to understand the heart of meditation is to relate to your thoughts the same way a caring parent relates to their children. Thoughts are the children of your mind. Relate to them with unconditional love. Our thoughts, like our kids, manifest in countless ways. They can be nice in one moment and nasty a moment later. If we embrace them all just as they are, we will remove a great deal of unnecessary stress – in meditation and in life.
We can handle our children’s behaviors because we love and accept our children and we care about their welfare. We know the tantrum won’t last, the pouting spell will evaporate, and the rebellious attitude is temporary. We realize that there is more to their behavior than meets the eye. We love them unconditionally because they are a natural part of us. We do not get swept up in their actions. We look deeper into their goodness, and let the outbursts dissolve on their own. Unless you are emotionally or mentally disturbed, you don’t consider killing your kids or locking them away. If you love them, you have figured out how to relate to them.
The same thing is true with your mind. A good analogy is that meditation is a form of inner re-parenting. Accept your thoughts without indulging or spanking them. Get to know them, love them, and never try to get rid of them. If you are ever in doubt about what to do, in meditation or life, default into love and acceptance.