When I was 22 I started practicing mindfulness meditation. I also got a job at a food co-op and none of the employees, me included, really liked our boss. I remember meditating each night and being so irritated about work that I told a friend, “my boss is making it impossible for me to meditate!”
Today, as a therapist, I often hear my clients say, “I just can’t meditate.” They think having a busy mind is a personal problem or a fault. Maybe you feel the same, that if you were meditating right, you would be able to empty your mind of thoughts and feel calm and peaceful. But when you sit down and try to focus on your breath, all you can think about is how many different kinds of sandwiches you will be able to make with your new Panini press. Or maybe it’s regrets or an endless to do list that dog you.
A calm mind feels good, but it does not mean that you are meditating correctly any more than a busy mind means you are doing it wrong. When you meditate you may feel concentrated and happy or distracted and dull, just as when you leave your house each day, you may step out into sunshine or a cold rain. Your mind has weather too. Whatever weather you find is less important than how you relate to it.
I once heard the psychologist, Marsha Linehan, say that our minds are like a cluttered room and mindfulness is like turning on the lights so you can step around the furniture and stuff on the floor. By turning that light on every day, I have gotten to know my mind a little bit better and that allows me to navigate my life with a little more skill.
Here’s one example. The other day at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes I scored one of the last seats left in the theater. But to my dismay I soon realized that it was right next to two very chatty and fidgety little boys. They talked non-stop. A few minutes into the movie it was clear that their parents were not going to try to settle them down. I started to get angry and judgments started flying. I wondered what kind of parents bring young children to a violent movie like this. Didn’t they realize they were ruining the movie for the rest of us? Didn’t they care?
Then something far more interesting than the movie happened. As if someone pulled a stopper inside my mind, I felt the anger and indignation drain right out of me. I wondered how I would handle this if those kids were family, maybe my nephews. I took a breath and realized I’d be a lot more patient. I’d remember how hard it is to sit still and be quiet at their age. I’d realize that they are just trying to have a good time too and that maybe they are really bored. Maybe their parents are exhausted and this is their only break from childcare today. Then I would consider what I should say to them.
I relaxed and realized that I could watch the movie despite the circumstances. I could even enjoy the fact that those kids got to see a movie too. Let me assure you this is not how my mind usually works. Normally, I would have just gotten angrier. After all, weren’t they supposed to be quiet? Wasn’t I in the right? But meditation is changing me. There was a kind of flexibility in how I was thinking and feeling about what was happening. I didn’t have to just sit there and get angrier. Moments like this make me feel more in the driver’s seat and less taken for a ride by life, and my instincts tell me that this is meditation doing its invisible work.
It takes a little faith to practice mindfulness meditation without constantly monitoring our progress and without the immediate results we have come to expect in other parts of life. Not faith in meditation, but faith in ourselves. In a book entitled Faith, the meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, describes faith as, “Trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”
If you feel you need a gauge of some kind, consider using your daily life. As you go through your day, are you becoming more aware of what’s really going on with you? Can you relate to your experience with a little more kindness? Can you take your thoughts a little less seriously than you used to? Do you feel any freer or more flexible?
Moments of tranquility while meditating feel wonderful. They can be a great source of insight. But so can moments of anger, fear, and even distraction. Our job while meditating is to try to be aware and open to whatever is showing up. We watch the parade of thoughts, feelings, and all the rest without jumping in. It’s such a relief to practice this way. To let go of expectations, focus on the process, and let the outcome take care of itself.