For several years, I taught a 4-week Introduction to Mindfulness course at a local studio. One cohort would end, and a new one would start the following week. Over these years, I heard from people about what it was like to start a meditation practice from scratch.
One of the first practices we teach beginners is Mindfulness of Breathing (Anapanasati). This is referred to as a placement meditation. We place our attention on the breath to concentrate the mind on a single point of focus. Practically, the method is to keep your mind there and exclude other inputs such as sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, and emotions.
Of course, distractions arise, so we are instructed to bring our attention back to the breath as soon as we realize that we are “off task,” as my teacher often says.
Sounds simple enough. But week after week of sharing this method with beginners, I noticed a common theme emerge. Without exception, someone from each cohort would share that they felt like it was really, really hard to “turn off the thoughts,” “to get rid of thoughts,” or “my mind is too wild.” Often left unsaid was, “I’m not cut out of this,” or “I’m just not good at meditating.”
But here’s one big myth about meditating. This challenge isn’t reserved for beginners. Experienced meditators still have moments when the mind just will not settle.
Because I teach meditation, the resulting inner chatter can be a little meaner than when I was just starting out. Maybe this is familiar: “What? You still can’t do this? After all these years? And you call yourself a meditation teacher.”
I’m not alone.
Once in a retreat dyad, my partner and I were discussing our experience with the meditation from a few moments ago. He shared that he opened his eyes at one point and saw everyone else in the meditation hall sitting serenely. He had this idea that everyone in the room — all 60 or so people — were full of ease. Completely relaxed. In other words, everyone else was “doing it,” and he was sure he was the only one having trouble. And my heart broke open because, on the whole, I felt the exact same way.
Let me share a secret. If I were to make a list of the times I had a “good sit” alongside all the times I felt like it was a struggle, the struggle side would win out. It wouldn’t even be close.
I want to bust another myth. Although the “goal” of Mindfulness of Breathing is to maintain a continuity of awareness, in a way, that’s not actually the practice. If it was easy to stay with the breath, we wouldn’t need to train ourselves in this way.
I like this word training because we have a sense that training for something isn’t going to be easy. Training for a marathon is tough work. It takes effort, strength of will, determination, and some patience too. So, we can go into our meditation sessions understanding that the experience is unlikely to be transcendental. Instead, it’s going to be a bit of work. Thankfully, not all sessions are a slog in the same way that not all marathon training sessions are awful. We want to set aside this idea that we can just settle onto our cushion, close our eyes, and blissful states easily and spontaneously arise.
I want to you know that none of us are really good at this. There isn’t anything to be good at. It’s training. And what do we know about training? It’s something you have to maintain. We don’t ever cross to some other side where we have achieved calm abiding, and we never have to practice again. If you stop jogging, you will lose the cardio strength to run a marathon. If you stop practicing piano, you won’t be able to play. So, let’s reset our expectations about what this is all about.
Let’s look more closely at those moments during meditation when the mind is all over the place. Maybe we catch the inhale, but by the time we exhale, we’re off somewhere else. This is what evokes this sense that “my mind is too wild. I can’t do this.”
We don’t always appreciate is that the moment we realize the mind is all over the place, that’s part of the training.
If we were to score our meditation practice with a point system, we don’t actually get points for being “on task.” We get half our points for realizing when the conditioned mind has taken over. This is the moment you catch yourself in the dream state. When that occurs, you’re already pulling yourself out of it. This is step one, and you’re halfway there.
So, every single time you catch yourself wandering, you’re actually “doing it.” The more you break the habitual mind-wandering pattern, the easier it will be the next time and the time after that.
Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls this step “Stopping.” When you stop, you interrupt the suffering of the wandering mind.
When you realize you’re off task, you now have a choice, which is the juiciest part of this practice. The choice is whether you dive back into the stream of unconsciousness or return to the breath and the present moment. I think this is the hardest part. It’s not so hard to catch ourselves checking out. Parts of us know what we’re “supposed” to be doing, and they’re not shy about telling us.
But the allure of the dream state cannot be understated. Spiritual teacher Adyashanti describes the dream state as having its own gravitational pull. Even our darkest thoughts are, in many ways, more captivating than the really un-stimulating breath. We also have cultural pressures working against us. Our attention span has been commoditized, focus-grouped, and so we are very unused to getting still and quiet.
Coming back to Thich Nhat Hanh, he calls this step “Returning.” I love this because returning to the present moment, as expressed in the breath, is our natural state. Thich Nhat Hanh also describes that as “coming home.” Following the meanderings of the conditioned mind is not where we’re meant to be.
So, I want you to know that you are not doing it wrong when you aren’t able to stabilize your attention for all of the sit. You aren’t doing it wrong if you can’t stabilize on the breath for most of the sit. The practice is about Stopping and Returning over and over, as many times as it takes. Every time you do that, you’re pulling yourselves more and more out of the conditioned mind state.
The good news is that, like any training regimen, you will experience the fruits of this effort. You will spend more and more time with the breath. And the inner voices that think we’re bad meditators and frauds also tend to quiet down as well. Just like training for a marathon, when you put in the work, it pays off.
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook, Instagram, or www.sati.yoga. I also co-host Skillful Means Podcast, which covers spirituality and yoga.