The number one complaint from those who struggle to meditate is that they can’t stop thinking.
Jay Michaelson, teacher and editor at Ten Percent Happier and author of six books on contemplative practice, has heard it all before. However, according to Michaelson, all this talk about thinking and meditating is just a myth: “You don’t need to stop your thoughts in order to meditate,” and in fact, “some of the most valuable parts of meditation come precisely when you notice that you’ve been distracted”.
It goes a little something like this…
Your brain is designed to think, and think is what it does best. The brain is an expert at spotting threats, avoiding discomfort, recognizing desires, and conceiving of ways to fulfil those desires. It is a talented multi-tasker—a “thinking, feeling, dreaming” machine.
When you sit down to meditate, the brain continues to do its daily work. It is not made “to rest peacefully on a single set of perceptions (like the breath) to the exclusion of all others.” And it usually takes only about ten seconds for it to return to its usual habits, avoiding pain and seeking out pleasure.
This process of attention and distraction is perfectly normal, just “the brain doing what it does”.
When this occurs, instead of giving up, throwing in the towel as soon the mind wanders over to daily worries, self-criticisms, or what to cook for dinner tomorrow night, all you have to do is calmly bring yourself back to your breath.
For Michaelson, “the point of mindfulness meditation isn’t to stop thinking. It’s to relate differently to thinking,” that is, “to relate to what’s going on with a clear, calm, and perhaps loving attitude.” The best thing you can do is notice you’re gone and then come back.
This approach to distraction seems reasonable enough, but what many of us would be surprised to learn is that distraction is actually the best part—”the meditation goldmine.”
Whenever you notice that you’re thinking, you’re engaging in what neuroscientists call “meta-cognition,” meaning that you are aware of your mind, bearing witness to thoughts and emotions, “rather than simply thinking or feeling them”.
It is this opportunity to stop and recognize thoughts that build mental muscle and retrains the mind for real-life challenges. For instance, if someone were to say something hurtful, meditation teaches the mind to register feelings and consider thoughts before simply reacting. It allows the mind to better manage moments of stress and anxiety, coaching it to recognize those feelings for what they are, instead of indulging them headlong at length.
Of course, there may be times when the mind really does slow down, when it reaches what Michaelson calls a “flow state,” in which thoughts are quiet; colours, flavours, and feelings are more vivid; and the mind feels restful, totally at ease. Most of us have experienced this at some point, if not in meditation, then in reading a book or reaching the end of a long run.
As rejuvenating as these moments can be, you can’t will yourself into a flow state. The best you can do is “focus on the activity itself, to the exclusion of everything else; the rest is up to the brain”. And remember, struggling to make these states happen is, unfortunately, the best way of preventing them!
The key is to stay with meditation, calmly and self-compassionately, letting go of self-judgment, and releasing thoughts and feelings as they pass. In the end, “this slow process of retraining the mind…is how meditation leads to happiness.”
Michaelson, Jay. “I Can’t Stop My Thoughts!” Ten Percent Weekly, no. 178, 6 Dec 2020.
Gelles, David. “How to Meditate.” The New York Times.
Ten Percent Happier: Mindfulness and Meditation Resources