Recently I had the privilege to offer private meditation instruction to a family. At the beginning of the session, the mom had many questions about the goals and techniques of meditation. One of her question was if we should keep our mind completely empty and eliminate all the thoughts during meditation. I think I didn’t answer her question well enough that she again asked the same question, and reiterated that, according to her reading, if the mind isn’t kept completely empty during meditation, the person has failed.
The basis of mindfulness meditation is to be present. There are multiple techniques that one could use to train one’s mind to be present.
One technique is to focus on our breathing, and counting our breath. As you breathe in, you notice an in-breath. As you breathe out, you notice an out-breath, and you count one. Keep repeating it until you get to ten, and then start over at one.
Another technique is to repeat after a word. For example: you can use the word “Om” and say it out lout with each out-breath. Take a deep breath in. As you exhale, say the word “Om” out loud.
One technique is to meditate on a concept, such as the concept of gratefulness. Start repeating this phrase “Thank you ________ . I wish you well”. Fill in the space with whatever happens to jump to your mind with non-discrimination. Examples are: “Thank you son. I wish you well. Thank you sky. I wish you well. Thank you table. I wish you well. Thank you pain. I wish you well.”
There are other techniques as well, and some may work well with you while some may work better with others. If you are a beginner, I suggest you to pick one technique and try it. I personally teach “counting breath” technique. For myself, I use the “counting breath” technique and the “meditation on gratefulness” technique interchangeably.
All of these different techniques serve the same purpose. They help you to stay in the present.
During meditation, thoughts will come up. While you are on the count of three on your breath, for example, you may remember that you forget to put away the trash. Or, while you say “thank you Mike. I wish you well”, you may remember that Mike did something bad to you and maybe you shouldn’t thank him after all. 🙂 Or, while you are in the middle of meditation, you come up with an idea that you thought as so profound and you can’t wait to write it down or share it with others.
Even meditation practitioners who have practiced for many decades still have thoughts coming up during meditation. That is normal. When thought comes up, acknowledge it. You can say to yourself: “I realize a thought just come up. I can now let it go, and resume my practice”. Gently acknowledge it and then let it go. Do not follow the thought. Do not get up and put away the trash. Do no analyze why Mike did something bad and why you should forgive him or not forgive him. Do not stand up and write down the “profound” ideas. Another thing people do is that they get mad at the thought: Jeez… I’m trying to meditate and these thoughts keep creeping up. I can’t mediate. I’m not good enough. I will never focus on my breath long enough. I can’t keep my mind empty. This effort is ruined. The more you get mad at the thought, the longer it lingers, and the more you lose your concentration on the present moment. Let it go.
Buddhism taught the concept of impermanence. Everything in life is impermanent. Our breath is impermanent. Take a deep breath. Try holding it in. See how long you can hold it in. Eventually you must breathe out. An in-breath is impermanent. Once you breathe in, you must breathe out. An out-breath is impermanent. Once you breathe out, you must breathe in. Suffering is impermanent. Suffering comes and suffering goes. Think about a period of time in your life when you suffered tremendously and when you thought that the suffering would never end. Did the suffering event end? Do you feel better now? Happiness comes and goes. Think about an event that made you so happy. Does the happiness last forever?
The concept of impermanence also applies to meditation. You cannot maintain a state of “no thoughts” or “empty mind” forever. Thoughts will come while you are counting your breath. Thoughts will come while you try to concentrate. That is okay. When thoughts come, acknowledge it and let it go.
So, what’s the goal of meditation, you may ask? How do I suppose to feel after a meditation?
There are countless studies that state the benefits of meditation, such as how it alters certain areas of the brain that improves concentration, reduces anxiety, boosts the immune systems, etc. For me personally, meditation helps me find peace and calm. Meditation helps me quiet my noisy mind and listen to my heart. Meditation gives me clarity and helps me feel rejuvenated; as a result, enables me to do more and be more to other people in my life. When I went on multi-days meditation retreats, I always emerged feeling refreshed, more compassionate to things and people around me, and more appreciative to simple things in life. In the words of my family, I came out of mediation retreats a changed woman, a more lovable person that is. 🙂
I’d like to end with a story told by Jack Kornfield of an old Chinese Zen monk, who after years of meditation, realized he wasn’t really enlightened.
He went to the master and said, “Please, may I go find a hut at the top of the mountain and stay there until I finish this practice?” The master, knowing he was ripe, gave his permission. On the way up the mountain the monk met an old man walking down, carrying a big bundle. The old man asked, “Where are you going, monk?” The monk answered, “I’m going to the top of the mountain to sit and either get enlightened or die.” Since the old man looked very wise, the monk was moved to ask him, “Say, old man, do you know anything of this enlightenment?” The old man, who was really the Bodhisattva Manjusri—said to appear to people when they are ready for enlightenment—let go of his bundle, and it dropped to the ground. As in all good Zen stories, in that moment the monk was enlightened. “You mean it is that simple; just to let go and not grasp anything!” Then the newly enlightened monk looked back at the old man and asked, “So now what?” In answer, the old man reached down and picked up the bundle again and walked off toward town.
The concept of impermanence shows up in this story. Being enlightened means to be able to let go, to not grasp and attach to anything, and being enlightened means to be able to pick it up again and keep walking on one’s own journey.
Thoughts come and thoughts go. Events happen and events go. Breathing in and breathing out.
With loving heart,