The Point of Meditation Is Not to Rid Yourself of Thought
For many years, I had this idea of what meditation was — or what it was supposed to be.
It turns out I was completely wrong. But we’ll get to that.
I saw meditation as the way to emptiness, and for me, emptiness used to seem like peace. I reasoned that since it was my thoughts that were causing me so much turmoil, if I could just eliminate them, I’d be happier. I’d get a break. I imagined how peaceful it would be if I could just escape all that mental noise (preferably forever, but I’d take even a few minutes a day!)
I thought that if I practiced enough and disciplined myself enough, this magical day would come where I would sit down (or lay down) to meditate, and my mind would just be empty. I envisioned the bliss that would come from knowing I had achieved the impossible: a completely quiet, still mind, free of thoughts—and therefore free of problems.
But as with most things in life, having an idea of what something is versus experiencing it for yourself are two very different things. It wasn’t until I actually started meditating that I realized my error.
The goal of meditation isn’t to “get rid” of thoughts; it’s to practice allowance.
As mindfulness teacher Tamara Levitt says, “We can’t force our thoughts to disappear, because it’s the nature of the mind to think. Often when we stop to practice, the first thing we notice is our active monkey mind.”
She’s referring to the constant stream of thoughts that whizz in and out of the mind, sometimes faster than we can keep up with.
In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes her experience with meditation, and with the “monkey mind” in particular:
Like most humanoids, I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the “monkey mind” — the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl. From the distant past to the unknowable future, my mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined.
And in my own experience, this is exactly what it’s like! In any given 10-minute meditation session, my thoughts range from how my body feels to what’s going to happen tomorrow to what I should have for breakfast to something that happened when I was five.
There is just no controlling it! The mind is a wild animal, roaming where it will and jumping around at random. Sometimes the thoughts get so jumbled that I’m completely lost in the mind, like I’ve followed a trail into the wilderness and can’t remember how to get back out, so I just keep spinning in circles.
I used to think this was a problem.
I’d look around the room in a yoga class at all the other women sitting so still and looking so peaceful and immediately start comparing myself to them. I bet their minds aren’t racing, I’d think. I bet they are completely focused and connected and accepting, with empty minds and full hearts. I’d make it a problem that my mind was not still, believing it meant I was doing something wrong.
But through The Work of Byron Katie, I began to realize that my experience was actually the norm. There was nothing wrong with me; I was right at home. The mind’s job is to think, and that’s what it does all day long.
Levitt says the goal of meditation is simply to observe what’s happening, not to judge it.
When there are thoughts, you’re not doing anything wrong. All it means is you’re human. Simply come back as soon as you notice you’ve been pulled away, and return with patience and self-compassion. When we take this approach, over time, we strengthen patience and non-judgement. So if there are thoughts, great! Let it be okay that there are thoughts. Let there be mental activity. Let there be discomfort. Let there be sound. Let there be emotion. Let everything be.
— Tamara Levitt
I continually have to remind myself that my prior belief about meditation was not only false, but it was also completely unrealistic. Nobody goes through their daily life without thought; it’s just not the human condition.
We all have thoughts all day long, and instead of trying to vanquish them (an impossible feat), all we need to do is observe.
When we learn to observe our experience, without making it right or wrong, that’s when we’re mastering practice.
— Tamara Levitt
Learning for myself the real purpose of meditation has actually been a huge relief for me. I no longer have to punish myself, put myself in a straightjacket, or compare myself to others all in the name of “perfecting my practice.”
The truth is, trying to control your thoughts is a losing game. It’s always an uphill battle, and you never end up reaching the mountaintop.
The good news is, there is a much gentler path available. You can still get to that place you seek, where you live in harmony and feel peaceful as you go about your day. But it doesn’t come from a lack of thoughts; it comes from practicing patience and non-judgement with the thoughts that arise.
When you’re meditating and a thought rushes in, interrupting your stillness, it’s an opportunity to practice. All you have to do is notice that it’s happening, and choose to re-focus on your breath. That’s it! Don’t berate yourself for having a thought, don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect, and don’t start judging yourself for the quality of that thought. Just return to your breath.
“The ocean doesn’t complain about the dance of ten million waves; so don’t be concerned with the rise and fall of thoughts.”
Thoughts are a part of life for every human being, but they don’t have to be the enemy.
If we let them, our thoughts can be one of the best teachers we’ll ever have.