Meditation and getting past zero

If you’re anything like me, you’ve maybe tried meditation and gotten nowhere. Some of us suffer more from that incessant mind chatter than others; the inability to stop thinking seems impossible because your mind has functioned on a sort of non-stop auto-pilot as long as you can remember. Even when I’m sleeping I’m still thinking, my mind conjuring up all sorts of scenarios from weird dreams to scary nightmares – my mind seems to have a thinking switch that is jammed to the “ON” position and I’ve never been able to turn it off.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Meditation is the ideal practice for the over-thinkers, especially for those who tend to think about the past or the future and never the present, as meditation brings attention and awareness back to the present moment (which is all we really have). I attempted my first meditation session with the belief I might manage about five minutes of zero thinking, focussed attention and present moment awareness. But I didn’t even manage one second, let alone 300! Every time I tried to focus on my breath, my attention was immediately pulled away to some random thought; words and images repeatedly distracting me from the Now. It became quite ridiculous when I realised I was thinking about thinking and thinking I should stop thinking about thinking!

Many many attempts later I became very frustrated and my practices became fewer and fewer because they seemed pointless. I had followed the advice and guidance of several meditation gurus, but came to the conclusion I’m clearly just not a meditator. But then, I asked myself, “if it’s too big a step to go from thinking too much to thinking nothing at all, is there something I could do that’s in between?” I needed something to distract my mind from drifting away from my breath, something to occupy it at least and keep it involved in the meditation. If I could master that, then maybe I could finally reach the first rung of the meditation ladder.

So I tried adapting my meditation sessions in a way that gave my mind something to do, to essentially play a part instead of being bored on the side-lines. Instead of sitting and trying to focus completely on the present moment, I would instead encourage my mind to focus on my breath and body, describing it in detail. My thoughts might go something like this: “so inhale, slowly slowly, filling my lungs, feeling the air pass through my nose, listen to how it sounds, I’ve filled my lungs with a deep breath, hold that until you want to let it out, and exhale, feel the air pass out my mouth, it feels warm over my lips, it sounds different from the inhale, I feel more relaxed, I feel my shoulders drop slightly, my breath has reached an end-point but I’m not ready to breath back in yet, let’s just wait until I’m ready, now inhale again, more slowly this time, I feel my ribs expanding, I prefer my eyes closed now…” In addition to speaking these words in my mind, I would allow it to form images of the air moving into my lungs, my lungs expanding, etc. Before I knew it, I had been in the present moment, without the usual thoughts and random mind-chatter for over 2 minutes. I’d managed more in those 2 minutes than I had over weeks of trying to stop thinking altogether. For now, my mind has been given the job of meditation instructor, but it is very much a temporary contract – it will be made redundant one day.

While of course this technique is not the end-goal, as there is so much more ground to cover, it has served as a helpful stepping stone for getting my “meditation ball” rolling. I sometimes use the same technique along with other exercise, such as yoga, general stretching, or even on my spin bike. Asking my mind to describe every little detail not only keeps it occupied, but it allows me to focus on every detail of the present moment. In addition to my breath, I encourage my mind to describe how my muscles and joints feel as they stretch and move, how my heart feels as it beats, and the wonder of how the body works and how fortunate I am to enjoy the privilege of health, movement and energy. I know that, in time, I will need my mind’s verbal narration less and less and eventually, hopefully, not at all.

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