“I am unable to clear my mind. Doesn’t meditation help to relax? I’m not doing it right. This is not for me. ” Recognizable? Many people who start meditating, but also people who do it more often, sometimes have these thoughts. Thoughts of discomfort and anxiety that also give an unpleasant feeling.
In our life, we have thoughts, feelings, and emotions that we don’t like on a daily basis. Which causes us unrest. We want to change or ignore these as soon as possible. Pretend it’s not there. We try hard to think of it, we worry about it and it gives us stress. Our whole body and mind take part. In order not to have to feel, see, and think about what we don’t want. This costs us an incredible amount of energy every day. But it doesn’t lessen the stress we experience. In fact, it often only increases.
Any experience thought smell, taste, or physical sensation evokes a feeling that is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. During the day we have an average of about 60,000 thoughts. Can you see what goes on in us all day long? And how you can be preoccupied with all those thoughts and the feelings and emotions that can arise from them. That is a complete day job!
The practice of mindfulness (and the meditation exercises that go with it) helps you learn to deal with those unpleasant thoughts and feelings when they come. You learn to recognize them. And instead of fighting it, judging it, making it bigger, practice how to respond to it with mildness. Not to judge it. To experience it purely and alone. You give the thoughts and feelings the attention and space they need. You let them be there and you look at them. They are there and nothing else. In this way, you develop consciousness. You get to know your thought patterns, what happens in your body, and how you react to things. Practicing mindfulness allows you to choose at some point how you respond to a situation, rather than responding out of habit, as you are used to. You first take a step back. You become more observant, you learn to switch off your automatic pilot, which gives you more freedom of choice.
Suppose you are under stress because you have to meet a deadline. You are used to locking yourself in completely. Literally and figuratively. Your shoulders are pulled up to your ears and your thoughts are spinning in circles. “I have to meet that deadline, I cannot fail, this has to be finished now, oh, as long as it turns out okay.” And round and round and round. Often we are not even aware of all those grinding thoughts. They move like a background wallpaper in our brain.
Even if you don’t notice them immediately, these grinding thoughts have a big influence on how you feel. When you have a thought, it triggers a feeling, which triggers another thought, and so on. And then you can get lost in those feelings and thoughts without knowing why. And the stress is getting more and more. Yet, we are not our thoughts, we have thoughts. We are not our feelings, we have feelings. They come and go, like clouds passing by in the sky. You are used to jumping on all those thought clouds and going along with the thoughts. During a mindfulness exercise, you look at those clouds of thoughts sliding past, you only notice them, do not judge them and let them pass you by.
But how exactly do you do that, you might think. Mindfulness is about the process of, for example, staying with the breath, straying from it, noticing that our attention is no longer on the breath, and then returning to it. Without judging the drift or the thought itself. Noticing and returning to our meditation object is the mindfulness exercise. The more often you stray and come back, the more often you exercise your attention muscle. This makes us more aware of the daily life of our thoughts and the feelings and emotions that these thoughts can cause.
So the thoughts are there, but you don’t let them influence you. Many people think that following mindfulness training will help them clear their minds. And that as a result, they will finally feel the peace they need. Yet, an empty mind does not exist. Thoughts simply belong to us. They are part of our being human. Mindfulness also doesn’t mean learning to control your thoughts or replacing unpleasant feelings with positive ones. It stimulates you to allow those thoughts and the accompanying feelings of pain, sadness, disappointment, regret, or other feelings. To give space. To be there for what they are, without giving them judgment or value. Without wanting to think away from them very hard. And when you do that, you will notice that there is a breaking point in that great feeling, that the feeling softens and you are no longer dominated by it. That you will experience more peace.
You can have all kinds of thoughts during practice. Lots of thoughts. That is quite normal. This does not mean that you are not doing the exercise properly. On the contrary, it gives you material for practice. This is the practice. Nothing more and nothing less. You notice a thought or you name it: “Ha, thought, you’re there again.” You look at it with a smile, you give no further judgment about it and you go back to your object of attention.
You have a choice of how to deal with unpleasant situations, thoughts, and feelings. Imagine you feel the stress of that deadline. Then you can struggle with the feeling of stress, resist it, shrug your shoulders even higher and increase the stress. Or you take a breather.
You bring your attention completely to the present moment for 3 minutes. You notice that the thoughts of meeting that deadline tumble over each other in your head. “Ah, thoughts.” You feel the stress in your body, your hunched shoulders, the tension in your legs, your sweat droplets in your neck. Give this space. The attention it demands. You also notice that you feel a bit panicky. “Ah, panic, welcome, are you here too?” And you look at that. You don’t change anything, you look and feel and experience. For a minute. Then you shift your attention to your breathing. Where do you feel it, how does the breathing movement go, you do not change anything about it, you look at it and experience your breathing. In and out. In and out. Also a minute. Finally, you shift your attention to your body and the breathing you feel in it as a whole. You make it more spacious. You are here now and you feel and experience yourself here now. Just the way it is. Nothing more and nothing less.
By not participating in the struggle of the stress and everything that comes with it in feelings and thoughts in this way, you can look at those thoughts, feel the stress, not judge them, experience them and continue. As best as you can. And it gets milder and softer. And you meet your deadline.