Disclaimer: The world of meditation is vast and complex, just like you and me and all human beings. Different lineages, schools of thought, religions and traditions have different approaches. Feel free to to form your own opinions, get curious about what I say, disagree with me, and discover your own path. What follows is an expression of my own views, experience and learning.
Hopefully by now your meditation practice is beginning to take shape. If you’ve read the previous posts, you will likely be aware of what meditation is meant to be like, and why you want to meditate (part I). You may also have a sense of the when and the how of your meditation (part II). Recap these if you need to. In this post we are going deeper into the how portion: what actually happens inside you when you enter into a meditative experience? What to do with thoughts, emotions, sensations and all the other jazz of the inner life? Read on for some helpful tips and framing.
6. Welcome your whole self
In meditation we encounter the vast inner world that is usually hidden to us in daily life. Usually the first few minutes of meditation are busy, wild, uncomfortable and can even be painful, as everything we’ve kept at bay comes up to the surface of our awareness. As we settle in, we may meet tiredness and fatigue, achy muscles and frayed nerves; perhaps some heavy feelings of sadness, the gnawing of anxiety or the heat of shame in our belly; our deep longings for rest, peace and quiet; and probably a list of things we have forgotten about and need to get on to (aka the to-do list). All of this is totally normal and totally welcome.
When we meditate we are opening the door and inviting our inner life to come in and speak to us, no matter what form it takes or what it wants to say. Entering meditation is like broadcasting an ‘all clear’, ‘it’s safe’, ‘everything is welcome’ signal to yourself. Your brain and body will naturally respond by laying out everything you’ve missed that’s been happening in the background as you went about your day. Just let it happen and don’t worry about it. Don’t push it away and don’t rush towards your chosen doorway (object) of meditation either.
These early moments are difficult, especially if you’ve been running on autopilot, highly stressed, lacking in downtime or just generally have a lot going on. It’s a bit like the energy hangover you get when you’re exhausted from lack of rest, but too wired to actually fall asleep. The easiest and best way to deal with this is to give yourself a few minutes (1-5 minutes, depending on the length of the total meditation period) to let the whole thing unwind on its own. Be generous with yourself and all the things that are knocking on your door, wanting your attention. Cultivate the skill of tolerating the intensity and the buzz as it comes down. There is no hurry, and there will be plenty of time to relax and unwind once you get through these first few moments. Allow yourself to slowly cruise your way into meditation, giving each arising experience enough time to present itself and fade away by itself. If you can get through just a few minutes of intensity, you will find yourself naturally drifting through your doorway and into the deliciousness of deep meditation.
7. Go on an adventure (it’s a journey)
After those first few minutes, you may find yourself naturally drifting through your doorway into the deeper layers of meditative experience. This first moment of connection with your ‘object’—be it breath, mantra, music, sensation, energy, or whatever else—is utterly delightful. It is your homecoming, something to savour deeply. Let yourself sink into it, become immersed in it, soak it in…Give yourself over to the joy of being with what you love.
As you continue, you may find yourself drifting in and out of touch with your object. In some traditions this is called (usually perjoratively) ‘mind wandering’ or ‘the monkey mind’. The idea is that these distracting intruders (thoughts, feelings, imagination, memories, physical sensations etc.) are taking you away from your object. Your job is to disengage from distraction, staying still and connected to your object for as long as possible in a focused and concentrated way. In this manner, you will build your skill and go deeper into meditation. Having practiced this way for close to a decade, I will say that this approach has its benefits and may suit some people.
Historically speaking, this framing of meditation is derived from religious instruction given to celibate monks and nuns who have renounced the world for the sake of spiritual pursuit. However, this is by no means the only way to meditate, and may not even be the best way for the vast majority of regular people like you and me. After all, not all of us need to develop concentration beyond certain normal and widely achievable limits, because what’s the point? Many people can focus just fine for the needs of their life, and desire something more from meditation than the development of single-pointed attention. It comes back to your why: why do you want to meditate? what are you seeking from it?
Let me offer some alternative approaches to what I’ve just described. See which of these metaphors resonates with you:
- Rather than thinking of meditation as a static state in which to remain, why not think of it as a dynamic process through which you journey? When you meditate, give yourself permission to travel your inner landscape. Meditation is not stillness, but movement: you go through your doorway, then away on a detour, back through the doorway, then off-road into the wildnerness, resting here, exploring there…over and over, on repeat.
- Meditation is an adventure, a heroic journey: we heed the call to meditate, set out on an inner journey, meet inner allies and mentors, encounter shadowy terrors and dark enemies, and retrieve treasures to bring back into our lives.
- Instead of mind wandering, we could frame it as ‘mind wondering’: as in, what are you wondering? where is your heart journeying? What are you drawn to? What aspect of life are you exploring and seeking? These questions are part of being human, and of being alive. Mind wondering can be celebrated rather than denied or suppressed.
- Meditation is your inner playground where all sorts of wild, intense games can be played out healthily. A safe zone where you can see what entices you, what you are wrestling with, what you are imagining and rehearsing. Somewhere you can be yourself without worrying about the consequences, because it’s not real life.
- Meditation is like a stage play, where your inner cast of characters enter and exit the scene while acting out a drama. You are the actors, the stage set, the director, and the audience all at once. You write the story, you act it out, you watch it, and you learn from it, all at the same time.
Which of these approaches appeals to you? Which metaphor suits your personality and your needs? This is a way of re-framing your meditative experience to be more healthy and appropriate, so that you don’t have to fight yourself, or struggle with it every step of the way. Meditation is meant to be liberating and delightful, remember? I will put it another way, as this is often the hardest message to get, especially for those who have been meditating for a while. Encountering thoughts, emotions, sensations etc. while meditating is not only normal, but actually essential. In a way it is the whole point: to give ourselves space and time to experience, hold and integrate these experiences, and thereby move towards more freedom, more wisdom, more love, etc.
So what’s the best thing to actually do when, as they say, “things come up”? You are lying there, delighting in the flow of your breathing, or savouring the landscape of sounds all around you—and then suddenly you flashback to that uncomfortable conversation you had yesterday, or you start feeling sad, or your back starts aching, or you realise you forgot to buy milk. What to do? Basically, it’s up to you. You have a choice from the following two options:
- If you want to, you could let yourself be with whatever you’re thinking, feeling, imagining. Take a carefree approach and allow it unfold within you in its own time. You may spend a few minutes internally hashing out all the things you could have said and want to say now. You might take a few breaths feeling the tenderness in your chest as it ebbs and flows. You may decide that your achy back wants you to stretch and move and wriggle around a bit. You might reach over to your notepad, or to your voice recorder, and make a note to buy milk. Whatever you do, as long as you are welcoming, accommodating, open, that thing will dissolve and disappear on its own, and when the time is right you will naturally be drawn back through your meditative doorway.
- If you do not feel able, or don’t wish to be with whatever arises, you have the choice to set it aside and return to your doorway.
The most important thing is that you have the choice. You do not have to follow either #1 or #2 all the time. You can choose, and you can trust the choice you make.
Meditation is a radical act of trust. Learning to trust the movement of your attention, that it will go where it is needed and show you what is needed. Learning to trust yourself as you navigate these internal dimensions. The hardest part is not to rush, and not to force. Don’t feel you need to let go and hurry back to your doorway. There’s no problem with lingering a while, wherever you are. Over time you will come to a rhythm and a flow with your experience that feels totally effortless and natural to you. More on this in the next post.