A lot of people think that if they can’t calm their minds during meditation, it means they’re doing something wrong, or they’re “no good at meditating.”
They may wonder, “Is the only goal of meditation to calm my mind? What if I can’t do that?”
If that’s been on your mind, I have some good news: Meditation is a practice that includescalming your mind, but it is much more than that. And if you’re having trouble calming your mind, if your mind is really busy and will not quieten down, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re “bad at meditating” or that you should give up the practice.
Before we address the specific goals of meditation, and why we’re meditating in the first place, let’s take a step back and ask a broader question.
What exactly do we mean, when we talk about mindfulness?
Mindfulness, or sati, can be defined in many ways, but let’s use the following as a working definition:
Mindful awareness is an engaged contact with our experience, in which we bring kindness, care and curiosity to what is here. That means here in our minds, hearts, bodies, and worlds.
We are consistently turning to truth when we engage in mindful awareness. The mind, heart, body, and world – these are the arenas in which our lives happen.
Strong emotions, particularly painful emotions, are part of that truth for all of us. We all recognise that we feel emotional or physical pain. We instinctively and habitually – and often blindly and unconsciously – turn from pain to avoid feeling it.
We may practice “retail therapy,” we might go unconscious on Facebook, we might turn to food and eat chocolate or ice cream, or we might have an alcoholic drink. It’s different for each of us. What is common here is that these are strategies we use (often unconsciously) to avoid staying with the painful feelings.
If these ways of avoiding pain are unconscious, habitual, compulsive, addictive, and automatic, then mostly likely, they are not healthy strategies. These avoidances are not really serving the well-being of our psychophysical systems. For example, binge eating or getting drunk don’t serve our physical health. Going numb by staring at our social media newsfeeds doesn’t serve our spiritual health. Buying stuff we don’t need for the temporary dopamine hit “retail therapy” gives us doesn’t serve our financial well-being.
When we practice mindfulness, we don’t turn away from those strong emotions. Instead, we turn back to them with our awareness, and we simply notice what’s going on.
Then to take it a step further, we also notice how we notice. One of my teachers says that when we practice mindfulness, we pay attention to how we interpret our experiences. Mindfulness is not just paying to what’s happening in the moment, but paying attention to the way we’re paying attention to what’s happening. You can notice the quality of your attention, and what that brings up in you.
Notice that the goal of mindfulness is not to “let go of” (a.k.a push away) these emotions and have a special meditative experience of “calm”. Instead, we are simply paying attention to what is happening within and around us, in an engaged and conscious way.
Calm is a quality that we cultivate or develop through meditation practice. There are meditation teachers who teach meditation purely as a calming technique, but to approach meditation only looking for calm actually robs you of some of the other benefits of mindfulness practice.
Having a feeling of calm is very pleasant and we all need it, but calm is not going to be the predominant quality of your life if you are interested in meditation. At least not in the beginning. Because if you are interested in meditating, it’s likely that something isn’t working, and that there’s some “edge” in your life that you are working with.
You may have tried other things to help calm your mind, like retail therapy, overseas holidays, eating chocolate and ice cream, intoxicating yourself drugs or drink. If you are interested in meditation, it’s likely those other things haven’t worked very well for you.
If you truly felt at peace, if you felt quite calm in the midst of the challenges we all face in work and family life, I doubt you’d be reading this – and you probably wouldn’t interested in meditation and mindfulness.
It’s perfectly natural for the mind to become caught up in stories. Researchers call this the “default mode network.”
When we practice sitting down, being still and feeling breathing, sooner or later thoughts shift from being in the background of attention to being in the foreground of attention. Our attention locks on to a sound, image or thought, and we lose touch with our breath. Our mind becomes caught up in the content of our thoughts.
We’re all going to experience this – it’s part of being human! So meditation practice isn’t just about spending a few minutes being calm, to counteract the stress of the rest of our day. It is about training our attention in certain ways.
We train our attention to unhook from those looping, repetitive, familiar, habitual, old stories, and to come back to what’s actually happening in the present moment with an embodied and receptive interest. When we do this, we learn to see more deeply, and to act more freely, because we are no longer confined by our old stories. We become increasingly free to be more fully ourselves.
With receptive and caring awareness, we learn to embrace our life as it is right now, allowing things (including ourselves) to be exactly as they are.
As we’re practicing meditation, and as we are embracing what is happening now, we will sometimes experience a calming feeling. We feel breathing as sensation – and when we feel our breathing, we will sometimes notice that our thoughts and our thinking mind fade into the background. There is a natural kind of settling that occurs, and we experience spaciousness and calm.
When this happens, our thoughts haven’t stopped, but they are in the periphery, so they don’t disturb us. Our attention is not being compelled by thoughts, but our attention is being given to the immediacy of our living breathing experience in our body.
We are not striving and trying hard to experience spaciousness. Instead, we find ourselves simply experiencing spaciousness, without trying. This happens when we sit still and feel our breathing. Think of that calm feeling as a side benefit of mindfulness, rather than the main goal of practicing meditation.
Trying to feel spaciousness, trying to feel peaceful is inherently not spacious, is inherently not peaceful. So intention and attitude are important in meditation.
Even if calming your mind was your only goal in meditation, you won’t be able to achieve that sense of calm every time you sit – so when you don’t achieve calm, you will frustrated. You’re more likely to blame yourself or assume you’re doing it wrong, and feel like you don’t want to do meditate anymore. But if instead you invite an interest in finding out what is happening, letting simply sitting still and experiencing your breath be a way of learning what goes on in your mind, body and heart, you are more likely to stick with the practice, whether or not you actually calm your mind.
Rather than practicing meditation merely to calm our minds, we can practice to become intimate with our immediate and embodied experience, moment to moment. From that practice, calm or spaciousness naturally arises without our trying, and we can be in the heart and the body of our living experience.
This intimacy with our lives, and with our immediate experiences, is a gift – and a gift that continues to give us insight, peace, compassion, wisdom, joy, and love. Meditation is an exercise in attention – but we could just as easily call it an exercise in love.
Mindfulness brings calm, by getting close to your experience and becoming intimate with your experience in your body in real time. It opens up mindful awareness, and natural and loving quality of awareness that supports clear seeing, and the possibility of not blindly giving authority to old beliefs. It gives you the freedom to make fresh, creative, different, new choices – and to live life with more creative possibility and more love.
With more love, there can be real care, compassion, wisdom, and ease. Calm is just part of the picture – and we can also open to joy, love, intimacy with yourself as we dare to live and to be, exactly as we are.