“I can’t meditate! My mind won’t stop, my thoughts are racing – it makes me want to give up!”
Meditation can feel like a thought-wrestling rodeo. But you’re not alone – intrusive thoughts are normal, even for experienced meditators.
I laughed out loud when I first encountered that truth. I was reading The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic meditation book from the 13th century because I was pretty sure I “wasn’t doing it right.” And I discovered that the writer – a venerable monk (or nun? It’s anonymous, after all!) who spent hours each day in meditation, over years of practice – was dealing with intrusive thoughts.
What a relief! It’s the same today. Father Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk who developed Centering Prayer, recognizes intrusive thoughts as a normal part of quieting our minds and hearts. He says “acknowledge the thoughts; then smile, and refocus”.
But how do you “refocus”? What exactly can you do when your mind is full of ideas and plans, thoughts or worries, and they just won’t quit?
5 Ways You Can Move Your Thoughts Into Deeper Meditation.
1. Get ready.
The first part of effective meditation is preparation. Spend 20 minutes writing your thoughts and worries before you start to meditate. Just get them down on paper – no fancy writing, no looking for answers, and no censorship from “what I should think”. Write down thoughts as they come, no matter how irrational and crazy they may sound. In fact, the crazy ones are especially helpful!
And then – wad it up and throw it away! Your right brain has released the thoughts, so they don’t need to circle any longer. Your left brain has processed the words, giving you some distance and a different perspective. Your brain knows what’s important, and will deal with it. The rest is irrelevant. Trash it.
Now your mind is ready to meditate.
2. Get friendly.
Even when you have prepared, thoughts will come. No worries – no fighting them off. When we fight with our intrusive thoughts, we end up focused on the very stuff we’re fighting. Welcome them, let them move on by, and notice what comes up next.
And smile. Remind yourself you are normal. Thoughts happen with meditation. It means you’re doing what you need to be doing. Good work!
3. Get intentional.
Notice your breathing. Become aware of where it happens, how it feels. Move into it. Be intentional with your breathing. Do 2 or 3 rounds of 4 x 4 breaths. Breathe in for 4 counts. Hold for 4 counts. Release for 4 counts. Rest for 4 counts. Notice how it feels. Then try a couple of rounds of 4-7-8 breathing. (link to 4-7-8 article) Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, release for 8. (Just don’t do too many of those, or you may find you’ve fallen asleep!) And just be.
4. Get spiritual.
Want to open your mind to more spiritual experience? You can lift up and release each thought to the mind of God, and deepen your meditation. As you notice a frustrating, frightening or distracting thought, lift it up. And as you do, offer your thought and yourself into a larger truth.
“I lift up my thought to your truth.”
“I open my mind to your wisdom.”
“I release my heart to your love.”
See how it unfolds. Meditation can take you deeper than you’ve ever been before.
5. Get support.
Guided imagery lets you relax into meditation with someone who will show you the way. As you learn to meditate, or any time your peace is disturbed, guided imagery helps to focus your thoughts and deepen your meditation. Try it. The experience may surprise you. And it will be different every time.
More and more, as you begin to refocus, you’ll see intrusive thoughts as a natural part of your meditation journey.
And you will move deeper into the home in your heart.
Meditation Tip: Meditating With a Chattering Head
It’s the first day of meditation class. The group is sitting in a circle, and people shuffle and twist in their seats as we prepare to turn out the lights. Finally, one person shares his fears. “What if I won’t be able to do this-what if I can’t make my thoughts stop?” Others look relieved that they’re not the only one. “I can’t calm my mind–I’m just too distracted!”
My students are not alone. Even the anonymous monk who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century classic on meditation, talks about dealing with intrusive thoughts. The monk (or maybe it was really a nun… I’ve always wondered…) was a meditation expert. He (or she) meditated every day, all day long. Even so, intrusive thoughts still happened.
Mind chatter. It just is. Our minds buzz and flit, even when we don’t want them to. It’s how we’re made.
But even though you know it will happen, you can still learn to calm your mind. You can learn some steps to help your thoughts quiet. Sure, there will be times when your mind is full of busyness. But it can get better. For a few moments, more and more each time you meditate, you can find a place to rest. You can find this in your own space. In your own peace.
Your body knows how. You just need to set it free.
Begin by noticing your breathing. When thoughts come, breathe into the muscles in your face. Let your breath gather up the tension, and then release. Notice how your breath feels in your sinuses. Let your breath move all the way up your nose and through your mind… gathering up thoughts and releasing them.
And then begin to notice your body.
Notice where you feel the warmth… and where you feel cool. Notice where you feel relaxed… and where any muscles feel tense. Breathe through the tense muscles, gathering up tension and releasing it… and notice how it feels now.
And now, just notice your thoughts going by… like leaves moving down a stream. Notice them from the grassy bank, where you are resting. Notice them moving past overhead, like the clouds moving by… some of them stormy… some soft and small… and notice any blue patches in between.
And begin to pay attention to the clear spaces too… They’re there. Small at first, and then longer-and you forget to notice them, and your thoughts drift, and you watch them go by… And now, you’re meditating.
This is one way, one path to quieting your thoughts. We’ll look at others, in other articles. But this path, of breathing, and releasing, noticing and noticing again-this will be useful to you all thorough your meditation.
Even when you’re as experienced as that anonymous monk! (Or nun…I really do wonder…)
Dr. Deborah Kukal is a licensed psychologist with a broad sense of her home in the world. She is Board Certified in Health Psychology, and she writes on health, sleep, spirituality and meditation, as well as life enrichment, travel, and current events.
Discover resources for healthy living, including guided meditation experiences to enrich your own life. They’re free and downloadable, at http://www.thehomeinyourheart.com.
The home in your heart. Where mind and body touch one another.
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