Meditation is like noticing the world around you, except you’re noticing the world within you.
The traditional view of meditation is that it’s sitting cross-legged, emptying your mind, and possibly chanting a mantra for an uncomfortable length of time.
I’ll start by saying I’m no guru or meditation expert. I’m just a guy that’s been doing it since 2008, when I first picked up a book on the topic.
- Sitting is comfortable, but not required. Same for crossing your legs in some kind of impossible Yoga pose, or holding your fingers a certain way. If it works for you, great. If not, no biggie. I meditate on the couch, in a recliner, or even sitting at my desk. There’s even “walking meditation.” I’ve done it while exercising on my elliptical. Grab a bench at the beach. Whatever works for you.
- No chanting or mantra required. Something to focus on — most commonly your breath — is all you need. If that’s a chant or mantra, great. If not, well, again, whatever works for you.
- “Emptying” your mind is impossible. Instead, pay attention to your thoughts. Be mindful of where your mind goes. Be curious. Watch. Then bring your thoughts back to your choice of focus. That’s all.
- Meditate for however long makes sense to you. One minute can be enough. 10 minutes is what I try to do daily. Once again, pay attention to what works for you.
What I’ve come to realize is that the third point — just paying attention to your thoughts — is the heart of meditation. Noticing when they wander is a skill. Returning to your focus is another. Meditation is the practice of strengthening those skills.
Some think of meditation as “thinking about thinking”.
In a sense, that’s true. You focus your thoughts on something for a while, but inevitably, your mind will wander. This is normal, and I’d say part of the goal. This allows you to notice that wander, to notice your mind has strayed.
Noticing your thoughts and being mindful of your mind is a skill with value at all times, meditating or not.
Again, meditation is the practice of strengthening those skills. It’s a way to develop and exercise those pathways in your brain. When you meditate regularly, you become better at noticing your own thoughts throughout the day when you’re not meditating.
I think of it as one of the most important, and yet often unstated, goals of meditation. To reiterate, having your mind stray during meditation is not only normal, but required, in order to develop this skill.
Once you notice what you’re thinking, or you notice your thoughts have strayed, you can then take action.
What’s the action? While meditating, it’s simply letting the thoughts go, without judgement (which is another thought), and returning to your focus — breathing or whatever. The ability to let a thought go is yet another skill you develop and strengthen during meditation that you can then use throughout the day — often without thinking (so to speak).
People often refer to meditation as a “practice”. I take that literally. You are practicing paying attention, and you are practicing letting go. Both are skills, and both get stronger the more you practice.
Paying attention? Mindfulness? Nothing more than another form of “noticing” what’s going on — this time, in your head.