The “Right” Way to Meditate

Practice – the mental gym – is what matters in meditation

Posted Jul 04, 2016

Throughout the years, I have had many patients talk about how their thoughts race, how their brains jump from topic to topic without their consent, how they are filled with anxiety or relentless thoughts day in and out. Or, how they feel paralyzed, drained, unable to get going. They are exhausted by these unwanted feelings and don't understand why the barrage continues. All they know is they want to find a way to make it stop. Now.

When I tell people the only method I know of to quiet the brain and take control is meditation, they typically respond in one of a few ways:

1) “Oh, yeah, I tried that – it doesn’t work”

2) “I wish I could meditate – I just can’t do it right”

3) “I don’t have enough time to meditate”

-or-

4) “Isn’t there a drug I can take instead?”

Let’s tackle #4 first. Although I can prescribe medications, I try not to whenever possible with mild-moderate anxiety and depression because medications more often than not end up being a Band-Aid, not a solution.*

(*Note: There definitely are situations where medications are needed as a first line approach, such as in severe depression/anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia or when suicidal thoughts are present.)

It’s not to say that medications don’t work – they do. The problem is with some of the side effects and/or when you try to come off them. If you do nothing while taking medication, such as go to therapy or meditate, then when the drug is stopped, the symptoms often recur. This is especially true when a person has had 2+ episodes of depression or recurrent bouts of anxiety in his or her life. There certainly are situations where this does not happen, but by and large, the rampant thoughts, the unending stream of worries and the “shoulds,” come rushing back.

For long-term change that is sustainable without a drug – something that literally changes the brain pathways in positive ways – meditation is an excellent option. Excellent, but not easy or fast.

Unlike habitually taking a pill every morning without much thought, meditation requires you to consciously put in effort every day, even when you do not feel like it. While that might seem trivial when your brain is behaving, when you are exhausted from anxiety or lacking motivation from depression, this can seem insurmountable. When you then heap on top of those feelings the concept that there is a “right” way to meditate, that moderate sized hill becomes Mt. Everest in your mind.

So what is a person to do?  First, don't be so hard on yourself.  Second, understand that meditation is a process and that there is no one way to do it.  Sure, certain traditions or teachers may tell you to approach meditation this way or that way, but the reality is your goal – from a clinical perspective, not a spiritual one – is to learn how to focus your attention on what matters to you, not what your brain thinks is important in this moment or the next.  We talked about this concept extensively in our book You Are Not Your Brain.  

The way I explain it to patients is this: think of meditation, at least at the beginning, as a mental gym for attention.  Right now, your brain is jumping from topic to topic, worry to fear, without you having any control.  When this happens unmitigated, the brain pathways associated with those thoughts get stronger – and you feel more out of control.  If instead of allowing the brain to run you, you learn how to focus your attention on things of importance to you, you will begin to break those unhealthy brain pathways. You begin to craft a brain that works for you, rather than against you.

This is especially important because we cannot “decide” which thoughts to have or not have – the brain does this on its own without any input from us. What we have control over is where we focus our attention after that initial thought arises.

So, just as you go to the gym to strengthen your muscles or enhance your cardio endurance, meditation allows you to strengthen your ability to focus your attention where you want it and to learn how to dismiss errant brain-based thoughts that are meaningless. It’s all about practice. It’s about sitting in meditation, even when your thoughts are all over the place, and catching whatever thoughts you can. Noticing them and then bringing your attention back to your anchor (which for most people is their breath).

What do I mean?  Listen to this free guided meditation from one of my first meditation teachers, Diana Winston, at UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, where she instructs people on how to notice thoughts and return to your anchor (in this case, breath):  http://marc.ucla.edu/mpeg/03_Complete_Meditation_Instructions.mp3

When you begin to realize that the clinical goal of meditation is to learn how to recognize thoughts & feelings without getting ensnared in them, but rather to dismiss them without giving them power, it becomes clear that practice is the key.

Just as there is no “right” way to strengthen a quad muscle, there is no “right” way to train the mind to focus attention. And, much like maintaining cardio endurance or muscle strength requires working out in some way on a continual basis (i.e., you lose muscle mass or endurance if you stop exercising), learning to focus your attention is an ongoing process – you need to continue to meditate to sharpen your ability to direct your attention. 

The key is to understand that there will be easier and more difficult days when you meditate. Sometimes your brain will be rather cooperative and you will find that you can focus your attention on your anchor most of the time. Other days, your brain will be scattered and it will feel like you are in a snowstorm on Everest. Just remember that both of those experiences – a walk-in-the-park meditation and an incredibly challenging one – both get you toward your aim. Neither is better than the other and neither of them indicate whether you can meditate “successfully” or not.

The truth is, whether you are able to be mindful of your anchor for 1 minute or 15 minutes out of a 30 minute session, is immaterial – especially at the beginning. You succeed simply when you try, when you put forth the effort by sitting on the cushion and attempting to focus on your anchor.

Of course, with ongoing practice, you will reach a point where you are able to recognize unwanted thoughts, dismiss them and move your attention to whatever matters to you with ease. Again, it is not easy or fast, but it brings a level of freedom to your mind and life that is unparalleled. Try it and see what happens.