Have you ever found meditation difficult?
You were told to focus on your breathing, but distractions and worries keep taking your focus away.
You get frustrated, throw in the tale and tell yourself that meditation isn’t for you.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
But according to The Dalai Lama, this reaction could be the very reason we’re getting meditation wrong.
In his book, The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama says that meditation is about bringing your “natural state of consciousness” to the fore.
The key to achieving this state of mind?
He says that it’s all about observing the mind.
Check out his words of wisdom:
The Dalai Lama explains how to practice meditation properly
“Generally speaking, our mind is predominantly directed towards external objects. Our attention follows after the sense experiences. It remains at a predominantly sensory and conceptual level. In other words, normally our awareness is directed towards physical sensory experiences and mental concepts. But in this exercise, what you should do is to withdraw your mind inward; don’t let it chase after or pay attention to sensory objects. At the same time, don’t allow it to be so totally withdrawn that there is a kind of dullness or lack of mindfulness. You should maintain a very full state of alertness and mindfulness, and then try to see the natural state of your consciousness—a state in which your consciousness is not afflicted by thoughts of the past, the things that have happened, your memories and remembrances; nor is it afflicted by thoughts of the future, like your future plans, anticipations, fears, and hopes. But rather, try to remain in a natural and neutral state.”
Wise words from The Dalai Lama.
But you might be wondering:
What practical actions can you take to achieve a “natural state of consciousness”?
The Dalai Lama says that the key is found in observing your mind, which you can do by viewing your mind like a river that is flowing quite strongly:
“This is a bit like a river that is flowing quite strongly, in which you cannot see the riverbed very clearly. If, however, there was some way you could stop the flow in both directions, from where the water is coming and to where the water is flowing, then you could keep the water still. That would allow you to see the base of the river quite clearly. Similarly, when you are able to stop your mind from chasing sensory objects and thinking about the past and future and so on, and when you can free your mind from being totally ‘blanked out’ as well, then you will begin to see underneath this turbulence of the thought processes. There is an underlying stillness, an underlying clarity of the mind. You should try to observe or experience this …”
While this is great advice from The Dalai Lama, I think you’ll agree with me when I say it’s not easy to implement practically.
Even though I know intellectually what The Dalai Lama is talking about, my mind gets distracted during meditation to the point that I’m no longer “observing the mind”.
This is where advice from spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle comes in.
In the video below, a gentleman asks Eckhart Tolle how you can strike a balance between letting go of your thoughts in the mind without getting annoyed when the thoughts come back in the mind.
I think Eckhart’s response is helpful and clarifies what to do when your mind is distracted (which it inevitably will be at some point when you’re a beginner to meditation).
(To dive deep into how to practice meditation, check out my guide to meditation here)
Eckhart Tolle explains how to quiet the mind
Here’s a step-by-step process of Eckhart Tolle’s advice for what to do when you can’t stop thinking:
1) Avoid seeking too much input from your mind. Focus on observing, rather than actively thinking. 2) Focus on feeling your body.
3) One strategy to do this is to be aware of the energy you feel in your hands. Try to feel the energy in your feet, as well.
4) Feel the aliveness in your body.
5) This helps you become more aware of your body and your senses, as opposed to your thoughts.
I think this is an excellent strategy and it’s something that we can all do.
In fact, there’s a scientific reason focusing on your senses helps you to stop overthinking.
A 2007 study by professor Normal Farb at the University of Toronto found that humans have two different sets of networks in the brain for dealing with reality.
The first network is called the default network. This network is activated when you’re thinking. It’s the network central for planning, daydreaming, and ruminating. It holds our narrative about the world.
The second network is called “direct experience network”. This is active when you’re not thinking about the past or future, other people, or even yourself.
Instead, it’s activated when you are experiencing information coming into your senses. For example, when you’re in the shower, this network is activated when you notice the warmth of the water hitting the body.
What’s remarkable is that these networks are inversely correlated.
If one network is active, the other network isn’t as active.
If you’re lost in your daydreams, you won’t notice your senses as much.
But when you intentionally focus on your senses, you’re reducing activation of the narrative circuitry.
This is why meditation breathing exercises are a tried and true meditation technique as you’re focusing on the sensory experience of your breathe.
So the next time you’re practicing meditation, remember to observe the mind in a non-judgmental fashion, accept any thoughts that bubble up, and proceed to focus on your senses.