4 Simple Tips That Have Helped Me Let Go of Thoughts During Meditation
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
The number one challenge for most meditators, beginner or advanced, is stilling the mind. Even a minute of meditation will tell you the inevitability of being confronted with thoughts, not being able to focus, and getting frustrated for not being able to focus.
When I started on this journey, I thought meditation to have linear progress, like most things in life. You practice and you get better, right? When it comes to meditation, my answer would be, “Well, kind of.”
Meditation deals with the unique nature of our own being. This makes it almost impossible to give a timeline of sorts to the aspiring meditator. I wish there was a way to know by when the thoughts would stop arising and by when we’ll experience higher states of consciousness.
I wish there were clear prescriptions like — “In 5 years you should reach this state and in another 5 years, you should reach that state.” That would’ve made things simpler, surely.
But it isn’t how it works. Even after years of meditation, we may find ourselves dealing with challenges that we thought we’d overcome.
Stilling the mind is one such challenge that seems to never leave us alone. Yes, we get better at it in time. But one can’t be too sure. After 2 years of meditation, I’m much better at concentrating the mind. Yet, it isn’t like I hoped it would be — majorly because I had unrealistic expectations.
Anyway, no matter how experienced you are, you’re likely dealing with quietening the mind. So, here are some things that have helped me over the past couple of years in that regard.
For me, meditation was the only time when I sat doing nothing. Rest of the time, I was actively doing something — it was not always useful, but I was continuously occupied.
This meant that the moment my mind was free of activity, it started reminding me of the hundred different things on my plate. Add emotional thoughts to the mix and you have a recipe of restlessness.
Often during my meditation, I would remember that I have to call someone or follow up on a “very important task.” From the moment that thought entered my mind, I’d just be waiting to end my meditation to check that item off my list.
Not a good mental state to meditate, clearly. To remedy this, I became more organized to convince my mind that everything is taken care of. I do this with the help of “Brain Dumps” which is nothing but a way to vomit every little task or feeling in your mind.
Doing this left my mind with no excuse to make me restless and ruin my concentration. I could mentally relax knowing that I can meditate for 1–2 hours and the world will still be waiting for me, in the same place.
This technique, however, will not clear your mind. The monkey mind will always come up with thoughts and you can’t possibly write them all down.
Once a fellow student in a meditation class said that he used to keep a notepad on his side during meditation to jot down ideas or tasks that came to mind. Our teachers weren’t psyched about it — because if you keep writing down things every 2 minutes, you aren’t meditating.
So take this with a pinch of salt. Realize that it might help you to a certain extent but not more than that.
Since we’re highly identified with our bodies, even the slightest inconvenience triggers a slew of thoughts in the mind. So it’s important to relax the body and “park” it while meditation.
The body will toss and turn, move, urge you to scratch itches, and change postures a hundred times. We need to shut the engine down and park the body in one place — and then forget about it.
This isn’t an act of will as much as an act of relaxation. If you try hard to not move, all you will be thinking about is moving. Instead, focus on relaxing the body and letting go of stress. Gradually, it will come to a standstill.
Relaxing the body is extremely important. A quick way to do this is to squeeze and tense the whole body gradually until it vibrates with energy and then relax it. Tensing the body acts as a means to send energy to all body parts. It ensures that the flow of energy (prana or chi) is ubiquitous and removes any blockages. Repeat these 3–5 times.
You can’t fall asleep if you “try hard” to sleep. You need to let go and relax. Similarly, it’s important to emphasize relaxation before meditation. You’ll be amazed how the mind also relaxes once the body is still.
Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita says to Krishna in chapter 6 verse 34:
“The mind is very restless, turbulent, strong and obstinate. It appears to me that it is more difficult to control than the wind.”
Controlling the mind to bring it to focus, is indeed difficult, as Arjuna says. But he also says that it’s easy to control the “wind.” I wrote it in quotes because the wind here stands for the wind in our body — the breath.
Yogis have long preached the connection between the mind and the breath. When we calm either one of them, the other one also gets calm. You can notice this yourself.
Notice how you’re breathing when you’re totally engrossed in a movie — your breath slows down, and you’re only thinking about what’s happening on the screen. On the other hand, when you’re stressed, your breath is short and agitated.
So the way to concentrate the mind is to concentrate on the breath and calm it. As the breath slows down, the mind becomes calmer. And as the mind becomes calmer, the breath slows down even more. They both feed off of each other to carry the meditator into a deep inner silence.
Paramahansa Yogananda gave the technique of Hong-Sau to concentrate on the breath, which is what I use. You can choose to use this or something different.
Focusing on the breath gives the mind something to do instead of being tossed around by thoughts and emotions. When a thought comes you can say, “Yeah that’s fine, but I’m busy watching the breath.”
So take advantage of this mind-breath connection and you’ll find your mind becoming clearer over time.
Heartful Instead of Mindful
In modern times, there’s a lot of focus on being mindful — observing the present moment non-judgmentally and letting go. Yet, it can become an increasing mental activity if we don’t bring our hearts into the picture.
If we only focus on watching the thoughts, it can be an “unending adventure of the ego watching and trying to let go of itself”, says Bruce Davis, Ph.D. He adds,
“Instead of trying to get our grasping ego to let go of itself, there is a loving presence, the love of our natural awareness, inviting us deeper within. The hope and power of meditation is to widen the river of our mental world to the ocean of being that is who we really are.”
If we stop focusing so much on clearing the mind and instead embracing everything, we’re including our heart essence. We’re trying to feel the presence of love and compassion, underneath the surface.
This, more than concentration, is the purpose of meditation. If we don’t practice it with the love of the heart, it can become mechanical and frankly, boring.
No matter how many thoughts come or go, we’re only identifying with the feeling of stillness and inner vastness. We can gradually change our identification from thoughts and feelings and feel closer to the expansive peace in our hearts.
As our awareness of this inner silence grows, the mental chatter reduces. It changes the habit of continuous thinking and instead be heartfully present.
Davis puts it down beautifully —“More than needing to be mindful, let’s be heart full. More than finding a few centering words, we can receive directly the quietude inside which carries us. There are realms of complete acceptance, and intimacy of soul and spirit to discover in deeper meditation.”
Meditation is more about love, joy, and devotion than it is about concentration. We need to make sure that we don’t let those feelings of the heart go because that’s where the true magic of meditation begins.
If you’ve ever struggled with thoughts during meditation, as you most likely have, try all of these techniques really. They’re also written in a sequence that you can follow:
Start with a brain dump before you meditate → Relax the body → Concentrate the mind → And then expand the heart.
I hope they help to bring your mind to a standstill and experience the magic of that stillness.