If there’s a piece of advice you’ll hear time and time again when trying to figure your life out, it will be to try meditating. Yet when you finally decide to do so, something annoying happens. From the weird look your colleague gave you this morning to the laundry you need to do, thoughts from the past and worries about the future come flooding into your mind – just when you need them to go away.
So, what gives? Why can you spend 90 minutes completely engrossed in a movie, yet just 10 minutes of meditation seems impossible? The truth is that you can meditate – even if your mind is incredibly active – you just need to adjust your approach. Start with these tips and techniques on how to meditate when you can’t stop thinking.
How to start meditating
Many different types of meditation exist, from mantra meditation (in which you silently repeat a word or phrase) to mindfulness meditation (in which you observe your thoughts, feelings and/or bodily sensations without judgement) and body scan meditation (in which you bring your attention to every single part of your body, one after another).
Regardless of the type of meditation you do, the goal is pretty much the same: to create distance between you and your normal thoughts, helping to bring about calm and heighten your awareness of yourself and the world around you. This can be achieved in two ways: focusing your attention on an object (literal or metaphorical) or monitoring your experience of the present moment without judging the experience.
If you’re brand new to meditation, the easiest way to get started is to keep things simple. Forget about sitting in uncomfortable positions – like crossed-legged on the floor with your hands in gyan mudra (the classic yogi pose in which you rest the back of your hands on your knees with the tips of your thumbs and index finger touching). Instead, sit anywhere that’s comfortable, so long as it’s safe and you’re in an upright position. Upright is important when you first start meditating because you’re more likely to fall asleep if you meditate lying down. And while sleeping is great, it’s not the same as meditating because you lose awareness when you’re asleep, and meditation is all about cultivating awareness.
The next distraction to do away with is noise. Yes, the goal of meditation is to be able to go inward and find peace no matter how crazy your external environment is, but just as it’s easier to learn to swim in a shallow body of water (instead of in the middle of a choppy ocean), you’ll have more luck getting to grips with meditation if you start in a place that’s free of loud noises.
The last distraction to eliminate is excess time. Don’t try to do long meditations when you’re getting started – you’re likely to get frustrated. And if you’re white-knuckling your way through your meditation, you’re missing the point of it. Start small with just five minutes, get comfortable with that, and then add a couple of extra minutes each day or week until you build up to a length that leaves you feeling like you’ve achieved what you needed to by the end of the meditation. For some this is 20 minutes, for others, it’s two hours – do what works for you.
What should you focus on during meditation
Ok, so now that we’ve eliminated the potential distractions that can mess up your meditations, let’s explore how to meditate when you can’t stop thinking.
Step one is to do away with the idea that you should have no thoughts during meditation – that’s a myth.
Humans think ALL the time – it’s a side effect of being alive. You’re simply more aware of your thoughts when you’re meditating because you’re not distracted by anything else. (FYI: research suggests that humans have around 6,000 thoughts a day.)
The goal of meditation isn’t to stop thinking, it’s to be unattached to your thoughts in the same way you relate to a TV that’s on while you’re doing something else. The noise happens, but it goes over your head because your attention is elsewhere. This is exactly how to approach meditation, and you can do this by following step two of the process: choose an engaging ‘object’ to focus on throughout your meditation.
The ‘object’ you choose to focus on should come down to what you prefer. Some people find it easiest to repeat a mantra over and over again and make this the object of their focus. Others like to focus on the sound or feeling of their breath moving in and out of their body. More tactile people can find it helpful to put their hand on their pulse, heart or abdomen, and feel that body part move with each heartbeat or each breath.
Try the different methods and see which works best for you.
Once you’ve found an ‘object’ of focus you like, keep your attention on it throughout your meditation, but keep this light. If you find yourself breathing in and out in a forced manner, shouting a mantra or repeating it frantically internally, or pressing down on a body part instead of lightly touching it, you’re trying too hard.
And if you find yourself so relaxed you forget to repeat your mantra or watch your breath, try grasping the object a little tighter. This is the best way to stop your mind from wandering during meditation that we’ve found so far.
How to get the most out of meditation
The final step to successfully meditating when you can’t stop thinking is to manage your expectations.
Firstly, remember that meditation is called a practice for a reason – it takes time and work. Some days it will feel effortless and you’ll soar into a zen zone with no problem, but on most days you’ll spend the whole session drifting into thoughts and reminding yourself to focus on your ‘object’. The key here is to be nonchalant about the whole thing instead of beating yourself up for not doing better.
Remember: you aren’t meditating to become amazing at meditating, you’re meditating to improve your life experience – whether that’s feeling calmer, happier or clear-minded. As long as you start to notice positive changes in these areas over time (and they will be small changes that add up over time) you’re good. You don’t need to be able to be detached from your thoughts for 5, 10 or 30 minutes straight every time you meditate. Many experienced meditators still only enjoy a few seconds of true stillness at a time during their meditation sessions.
But take care to not take things to the other extreme. To get the most out of meditation, you’ll need to exercise some discipline. This means making it a daily practice (no excuses) and doing it properly (it’s a bit like brushing your teeth – you need to do it thoroughly and often to get the full benefits). So, yes, you want to be easy-going about your meditation sessions, but that doesn’t mean letting them turn into a daydreaming or ruminating session – which they will if you sit back and let the thoughts run riot. Instead, stay relaxed but focused. If you find yourself attaching to thoughts and letting them suck you in, acknowledge it by saying ‘thinking’ and return your focus on your ‘object’.