Meditation Struggle: I Can't Get My Thoughts to Stop!
So for anyone who's come across my Facebook or Instagram pages, you might notice that I post videos from time to time of different meditations. Many of these meditations are there as exercises to explore the nervous system or balance within the skeletal structures or posture. However, there's a basic one that I've posted about a simple sitting meditation and how to approach it. (https://www.facebook.com/eastbaycraniosacral/videos/516695542798759)
When I ask people if they meditate, the most common response I hear is "I've tried, but I can't get my thoughts to stop" or "I can't get my mind to stop moving."
So here's the catch: Your thoughts aren't supposed to just stop coming. Expecting that to happen within the first few weeks or month of practice is naive and unrealistic. You might be seeing this as an uphill battle against a lifetime of processes that have shaped your mind over the years. That type of thinking is a dead end. And even if you've had a steady meditation practice for years, even decades, thoughts aren't going to just step aside every single time you meditate. Well, maybe if you're a disciplined monk, but most of us have chosen a different path in life.
What you CAN do, however, is observe your thoughts and allow them to flow without giving them any attention. The renown monk from Vietnam Thich Naht Han uses the analogy that the mind is a river and thoughts are the debris that flow through it without any interference on the part of the observer, you. In other words, accept that thoughts will come and go, but don't explore them or contemplate them. Osteopath/Craniosacral Therapist Hugh Milne wrote "Allow your thoughts to pass, but don't invite them over for tea."
Making a concerted effort to stop thinking is in fact, self-defeating. You see, if you're attempting to control your mind, that actually requires thought. It also brings frustration and self-criticism when the thoughts continue to arrive, often stronger if you attempt to repress them while sitting silently. These things are obviously not conducive to clearing one's head or receiving any sort of benefit from meditation. While we're not exactly aiming to let the mind wander, we're not looking to lock it in a cage either.
Accepting yourself as a cognitive human being who thinks quite a bit and has flaws, is a pretty good first step before you even begin to meditate. Once you become okay with the speed of your thoughts, which will inevitably come forth, there's a greater chance that the thoughts will eventually slow down. Again, accepting that they come and go, is not the same as giving them any attention or "inviting them over for tea."
If a triggering or provocative thought does grab your attention, which is also inevitable, bring your attention, or better yet, observation, to your breathing. This will free that thought to flow down the river of your mind and that, is how we meditate with acceptance, self-compassion, and tranquility.
Your thoughts will always come, it's how you respond to them that determines the shape of your meditation session. Some days the thoughts will be slower than others, and because it's a practice, there's no gold medal or reward. If nothing else, this is an opportunity to sit with yourself for five to twenty minutes a day (I recommend twenty if you have it) and get a better perspective on how your mind works.
If you're one of those people who's given up on meditation because of the speed at which your thoughts arrive or your inability to make them dissipate, perhaps try it from this perspective and then move forward. If nothing else, meditation is an opportunity to get to know yourself a little better and the manner in which your mind processes thoughts when left without a "mission." There's many more steps to deepening a meditation practice, but this, I believe, is a very good launch-pad.
There are many different ways to practice meditation, but this is what I learned mostly from studying Anapanasiti with multiple teachers. Meditations of other practices have different structures or practices in this regard and I hope they suit the practitioners of them. I've personally found this to be the most supportive of my process and the most realistic to incorporate into modern life. I hope whoever reads this finds this supportive to maintaining a meditation practice.