‘Thoughts are not facts, even the ones that say they are.’
Segal, Williams and Teasdale
A young woman dressed in a white outfit sits cross-legged, on grass or near water, a calm expression on her face. We imagine she has cleared her mind of thoughts, and is resting somewhere between bliss and enlightenment. If you google ‘meditation’ on google images, this is the photo which will come up for most of the first page. It is one of the most enduring images of meditation in our culture, and it is misleading. First of all, she is not sitting in a good meditation posture. Her legs are crossed, but her knees are up in the air, and anyone who has tried to sit in this position for more than two minutes quickly finds it is very uncomfortable on the back. That’s why experienced meditators usually sit on a firm meditation cushion, or use a chair or meditation bench.
The other misconception is that meditation is about clearing your mind of thoughts. Over many years of running mindfulness workshops, I have heard this again and again,
‘I tried meditation ten years ago. I sat down on the bed and tried to clear my thoughts but couldn’t do it. Obviously meditation is not for me.’
Even in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, where we emphasis from the first night that meditation is not about trying to stop your thoughts, participants often come back week after week, frustrated they still have thoughts going through their mind.
My meditation teacher, Geoff Dawson, said in the first workshop I did with him,
‘Your heart is for beating, your mind is for thinking.’
Meditation is not about stopping our thoughts, but developing a different relationship to them. After meditating for a while, we become less entangled in our thoughts, more aware of what’s going on in the present rather than being caught up purely in our heads. Our thinking mind is precious, as is our intelligence, but in our society we tend to place too much emphasis on thoughts, and not enough on our physical, emotional and sensory experiences.
When someone begins a regular meditation practice, they often find that their mind seems busier than ever, as they become more aware of the endless stream of thoughts pulling them away from present moment experience. This can be a little disconcerting at first. Over time, with an ongoing meditation practice, thoughts do lose some of their pulling power, and they become less intrusive, more in balance with the rest of our lives. Yet they don’t disappear, or perhaps only for a few moments at a time.
Thoughts by themselves are not the problem – it’s the exaggerated importance we ascribe to them which can get us into difficulty. Even the act of trying to make them disappear, of wanting our mind to be clear of them, gives them more power than they deserve. Thoughts are fleeting, heavily influenced by our environment and life experience, and often wrong. They have their place, but so do emotions, sensory experiences, interpersonal interactions, and mindfulness.
Weekly practice idea:
Whenever your mind is racing, overly busy with thoughts, imagine you’re standing behind a waterfall, and your thoughts are the water tumbling down in front of you. You can do this during formal meditation, and also during the day.