By Kiel Hemenway
For years I drifted from one meditation practice to another, with long periods of non-practice between. No practice seemed to “click” for me, but I felt compelled to keep trying because I had a sense of how great the benefits of meditation could be. But no matter which method I tried, I’d always end up doing battle with my mind. I’d catch myself in the middle of a train of thought and feel like a failure because I believed the point was to have an “empty” mind free of thoughts. Or I’d feel ashamed by the nature of the thoughts, which were usually petty, endlessly anxious and compulsive, or even hateful. And they kept circling around and around the same topics. Meditation seemed to prove to me how messed up I was, and I kept abandoning it.
But then I met a teacher who explained her form of meditation practice in a way I’d never quite heard before. Or maybe I was just finally ready to hear it. In any case, it’s made a huge difference for me and I want to share it with you. Even if you don’t meditate, understanding your mind in this way can help you make peace with your inner world and give you a tool for staying more centered and present in your life. And isn’t that what we’re all really looking for?
She said what a number of other meditation teachers had said before: You’re not going to stop your thoughts or even control them. They’re just going to keep spinning along. The trick is not to get involved with those thoughts. Don’t latch onto them as real or true, don’t fight with them or try to change them, and don’t mistake your thoughts for who you really are. (Remember your “Essence” from your STAR experience? That’s different from the thoughts that run through your head all day long.)
Another teacher put it a different way. He talked of the mind as being like a pasta factory, churning out spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, ravioli just like your mind churns out different thoughts—that’s just what it does.
We’re talking here of our conditioned minds or everyday minds. The minds that chatter on and on. Through meditation practice we can cultivate a different aspect of mind—a mind of equanimity that allows these habitual thoughts to come and go without getting involved in them. As one pithy Zen meditation teacher once put it, “You just don’t get on the bus.” This is part of a meditation practice called “calm abiding.”
But even if you don’t meditate or don’t practice this particular method, there’s an aspect of this practice that can be very helpful in daily life. It simply involves checking in with your mind periodically throughout the day. In my practice, we ask ourselves “What is the state of my mind?” Regardless of how you phrase it, the point is just to take a moment to see what your mind is doing.
When I do this, I usually find that I’m zoned out while engaged in some activity, or I’m fretting and compulsively seeking some activity to distract me from that fretting and make me feel useful, or I’m engaged in some imaginary discourse, or I’m stewing over some past or anticipated slight. You may recognize some of these patterns within your own mind, or you may have other patterns that lead you around by the nose when you’re unaware.
But here’s the key that really unlocked this practice for me: It doesn’t matter what I’m thinking. Remember, the point is not to get caught up in the mind activity or try to change it, but to see it clearly for what it is: the habitual churning of the thought factory. In that moment, you’re free! The very act of mentally stepping back and taking stock automatically pulls you out of the habitual mental activity, whatever it may be. This act requires you to be clear, present, and discerning—even if just for a moment. String enough of those moments together, and you start being a lot more clear and present in your life overall. It’s a way of training your mind, using baby steps.
Of course in these moments of mindfulness, once you’ve become aware of where your thoughts have been headed by habit, you might well decide to redirect your mind to something more constructive or meaningful. Maybe thinking up a witty and scathing comeback to that guy who cut you off in traffic isn’t the best use of your mental energies. You’ll also start to learn a lot about the ruts your mind tends to runs in. And if you continue this practice, over time you may find that you catch yourself more quickly before falling into those ruts—or that you’re not falling into them at all anymore.
There’s a whole context to this practice. Formal meditation is a very important part of it. And both in and out of meditation we examine the nature of our minds and the nature of reality. We also work on cultivating wisdom and compassion. But just this simple moment-to-moment check-in throughout the day goes a long way toward nudging us out of unconscious patterns. It’s a tool to help us live more consciously and authentically—in alignment with our Essence.
[STAR was] better than I could have ever imagined.
I feel as though I have tools to cope with emotions as they come up.
[I have] so much more awareness of how and why I do the things I do.
Graduate, STAR January, 2011