Beginning again (and again)
Updated: Feb 18, 2019
The heart of skillful meditation is the ability to let go and begin again, over and over again. Even if you have to do that thousands of times during a session, it does not matter. There is no distance to traverse in recollecting our attention; as soon as we realize we have been lost in discursive thought, or have lost touch with our chosen contemplation, right in that very moment we can being again. Nothing has been ruined, and there is no such thing as failing. There is nowhere the attention can wander to, and no duration of distraction, from which we cannot completely let go, in a moment, and being again.
Sharon Salzberg: Loving-Kindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness
The first attempts at meditation may be quite a revelation. Until this moment in our lives we may have believed that we have been in control of our thoughts, and then as we try to direct our focus toward the object of our meditation, we come to realize that the mind has "a mind of its own".
What the mind really has is habitual momentum. Thoughts arise in a seemingly endless and continuous process. The interior voice fills any void that might appear. The mind, always searching for something to do, entertains itself with ideas, commentary, judgments and so forth. Then, when we try to do just one simple thing, like watching the breath, the mind quickly tires of the exercise and returns to its wandering habits.
We focus on the breath and before long, a thought arises. "Oops, I'm thinking," we say to ourselves. And what follows is a comedy act of mental proliferation: "Oops, thinking again...Come on, I can do this! Just quit thinking! Is it thinking when you're thinking about NOT thinking? Okay, I think I thought again. Stop it! I'll just stop thinking now. 'Now'.... I wonder what time it is right now.... I wonder why we say 'right now' instead of just saying 'now'. Oh, was that thinking again? This isn't going well. How long I've been meditating? It can't have been too long, but it seems like an eternity. Quit thinking! Back to the breath...But now I'm hungry! What should I have to eat when this meditation is over?"
For all the good intentions we may have when we first sit in meditation, the power of the mind to generate a fusillade of thoughts can overwhelm our plan to experience inner silence. Even two breaths without thought can be quite a challenge, so it's understandable that many people would try meditating once and then just give up.
I can't count the number of people who have told me that they "just can't meditate", and I always smile because it tells me that they too have had the realization of "monkey mind" - that experience of seeing one thought lead to another and then to another, like a monkey running through a forest grabbing at every passing branch. Now, if generations of people have a phrase to describe this shared experience, can you really be the ONLY one who can't meditate? Everyone experiences "monkey mind".
In other words, this overwhelming introduction to the chattering mind is a predicable part of the practice.
What are we to do? How do we stop this conveyor belt of thoughts?
The instruction is that we gently begin again. And then we gently begin again. And again.
After a while the mind will settle a bit. And then it will probably run off in a torrent of words once more.
When it does, we just take our attention back to the object. And again. And, yes, again.
I've never met anyone who didn't find this initial phase frustrating and surprising. "Really?" they ask. "I can't keep my mind focused on the breath for even ONE minute?"
Welcome to the early stage of the Path. I wanted to write this to encourage you to keep going. I hope that you'll be one of those who choose to continue. Try not to get discouraged by the initial resistance of the mind. It hasn't been tested like this before and it probably doesn't like it very much. Like a little child who has been corrected by a parent, it is finding out if you're serious about this new practice. Do you really mean it? That's what it wants to know. So you don't have to make too much of this resistance. Certainly you don't need to get mad at your own mind as it grapples with this new thing you're doing. Just accept what's going on. And, when the mind wonders away, awareness will let you know that your focus has lost itself in the ever cascading progression of thoughts. When you remember that you intended to meditate when you sat down, just return your focus to the object of the meditation.
It's as simple, and as enormous a challenge, as that.