Before we dive in let us first clear up a common misconception about what it means to meditate. Many people are still under the impression that meditation means sitting with your legs crossed in lotus position and not having any thoughts for extended periods of time. Of course, for those people, meditation seems impossible – so why bother? The truth is that meditation is not about being without thoughts, it is about learning how to become a detached observer of the thoughts that will inevitably pass through one’s mind during meditation. The key is to remember that we are not our thoughts, we are just the witness of them. We are also not our emotions, we are just the witness of them.
When we meditate, we make a commitment to sit still with ourselves for a period of time and to stay present for whatever arises. In the case of meditation, we understand stillness not as a lack of activity in the mind, but as a lack of conflict in the mind. For example, when a thought comes up: “I just remembered I need to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer,” I acknowledge it as a thought and let it pass through my conscious, almost as if I’m watching the thought float across my line of sight like a feather. Then I gently bring my attention back to the breath. This is being a witness to the activity of the thought passing through.
On the other hand, if I were to have that same thought, but instead chose to follow it, it could lead me to another thought “This entire apartment needs to be cleaned” and another thought “Where will I find the time? There aren’t enough hours in the day!” and another thought “Wait, I’m supposed to be meditating. Stop thinking about cleaning!!!” Here, we notice conflict arises in the mind. Rather than noticing it and letting the thought pass through, I have followed it and it has led me to a feeling of anxiety around cleaning, and now I’m combating the thoughts about cleaning in an attempt to disrupt the train I’m on.
In the same way, we can use the practice of being detached observers to notice our thinking throughout the day, even when we are on the move. Self-doubt thoughts are conflict in the mind.
For me, I began to notice how many thoughts I wasted each day second guessing my every decision. I began my morning errands by driving to the grocery store and noticed my thinking: “Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the grocery store first, maybe instead I should have gone on a run first.” This is a waste of thought. The truth is I am already en route and it doesn’t matter which one I do first, all of it is good and necessary. Then, I began to notice how often I would do it with bigger decisions. I was offered an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and take a solo trip to India, and my first thought – my instinct – is an excited “Hell yes!”. However, that thought is followed by another thought: “What if I can’t?” And if I am not paying attention, before I know it I am hooked into all kinds of self-doubt thoughts swirling in my mind resulting in a great deal of internal conflict.
Instead, I notice “What if I can’t?” as just activity of the mind and I gently steer away from fear thoughts and redirect my attention to the initial excitement. Instead, I observe “What if I can’t?” floating across my line of sight and I direct my attention to the facts: the facts are I have a passport, I can earn the funds, and if I drop down into my heart and observe its rapid beating I can tell that my body is excited and my spirit is eager for adventure.
This practice in meditation of observing thought and continuously bringing our attention back to the breath and body affords us the opportunity use this discipline in our day-to-day lives. Studies show we have something around 60,000 thoughts per day. Our thoughts can be precious and infinitely more useful if we pay attention to them in whatever we are doing; if we redirect them in a more positive and productive direction when we notice them diving off the deep end into internal conflict. Meditation is a practice of learning to trust your heart more than your head and because of what it has taught me I got to follow my heart right to India. Pause, take a few deep breaths in and out, and listen for what your heart is trying to tell you today. Can you trust it?