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One of the most common questions about meditation is what do I do with those distracting thoughts that come up during meditation?
In truth, this question is as much about emotions as it is about thoughts. Thoughts and emotions are connected. They’re two sides of the same coin.
So the question is really what to do about distracting thoughts and emotions during meditation?
The answer lies in considering two things. The first is your intention. And the second is your experience.
If your intention is to empty your mind so you immediately enter into a glorious state of nirvana during which your head explodes with the light of a thousand suns, it’s going to be a long, frustrating, uphill slog.
But if your intention is to get to know yourself better, to examine what’s happening inside your heart and inside your mind, with compassion and kindness for yourself, then chances of success are very, very high.
So what’s your intention when you sit down to meditate? What do you want out of the meditation and why are you sitting? That’s the first thing to consider.
The second consideration is your experience.
How experienced a meditator are you? Did you just start meditating? Have you been meditating for weeks or months or years? Meditation is just like learning any new skill like a musical skill or athletic skill.
When we’re learning a new musical instrument we’re going to fumble about in the beginning stages and we might be in this mode for a while until we hit our stride. Until we master the basics and learn to play with joy. It might be frustrating until then if we allow ourselves to be frustrated. But once we become familiar with the basics, once we start creating a recognizable melody, we’re going to be able to take joy in our practice.
So how do we apply this to meditation?
There are some standard recommended strategies for dealing with unwanted or distracting thoughts during meditation.
Strategy number one is noting when a thought arises. Just note it. It’s a thought, let it sit there. Don’t push it away. Don’t judge it good or bad. Don’t judge yourself good or bad. Just let the thought sit there with you and return your awareness to whatever meditation you were doing.
This strategy is often also called open awareness. You’re just open to everything that’s happening to you and with you and in your mind and in your heart. You’re just aware of it. And you’re just noting it. You’re not trying to push it away or to corral it or to do anything with it. You’re just noting it.
The second strategy for dealing with unwanted thoughts is to distract yourself. What I mean by distract yourself is that instead of focusing on the thought and giving energy to that, you instead turn to something else you’ve chosen as a point of focus for yourself.
What types of things can you focus on? Well, you can focus more keenly on your breath, following it as you inhale through the nose, down your lungs, into your abdomen, and then back up your lungs and out through the nose as you exhale.
Or you can focus on counting either quietly or out loud, you could count the inhales or exhales, and you could do this with or without a mala.
Alternatively, you can chant a mantra to distract yourself. Again, either quietly or out loud. You can count the mantra as well with or without a mala. Most malas have 108 beads. So once you get back to the center bead, you know, you’ve done 108 repetitions of either your breath or the mantra you’ve chosen.
Another strategy is you could visualize something pleasant. It be a pleasant memory or a pleasant bit of scenery. Whatever is going to give you a deep feeling of connection. You can always return to this imagery as a way of centering yourself or anchoring yourself.
The third strategy for changing the focus from a distracting thought is journaling. This involves just stopping meditation and writing down all the thoughts zipping through your mind. I keep a journal near me whenever I meditate. And when a special thought comes up that I want to capture, I stop meditating and write it down and then return to meditating.
There was a time years ago during my beginning stages of meditation, I decided I was going to write down all the thoughts that came up during meditation, no matter what they were. And if it took a long time to do it, I was going to do it. And it often did take a long time to do it. Up to 45 minutes or an hour. And I was okay with that. Those meditation sits ended up being a combined meditation and journaling time. It worked to clear my meditation of thoughts.
Of course, the big drawback to this technique is that it requires time.
If you’ve only put aside 15 to 20 minutes to meditate, taking time out to write out thoughts is going to take up most of that time. So it may not be practical if you only have a short time available to you to meditate.
Now, I don’t journal during my meditation. I have dedicated meditation time and dedicated journaling time. I will, however, write down a sentence or two, if an interesting or important or possibly genius thought comes up during my meditation.
So to recap, the strategies you can use to deal with distracting thoughts during meditation are:
- Noting – just watching the thoughts that come up and noting them
- Distracting yourself – with counting or visualizing
- Journaling – writing down the thought to get it out of your mind onto paper
All of these strategies are wonderful and important and effective. I use them myself even after decades of practice.
But there’s another skill that can be of even bigger help.
Taking joy in small improvements.
This is the single most important skill to develop in learning anything and in learning everything.
If you can learn to take joy in small improvements, no matter what you’re learning, you will continue to practice and continue to improve and enjoy what you’re doing.
After all, that’s what the word enjoy means: to do with joy.
So the biggest tip in meditation success is to keep building that enjoy muscle in your practice.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean you have only joyful thoughts. In fact, most of the thoughts during meditation are really bland and boring and blasé. Sometimes they can be annoying. And sometimes they can be challenging and disturbing and upsetting.
And we have to be okay sitting with those thoughts. And it’s important to acknowledge there are times when, if meditation is too disturbing, then we may need to pull back and not meditate for a while.
It might be better to process our thoughts and our feelings in other ways.
So when I say taking joy in meditation, I don’t mean having only joyful thoughts.
The joy we’re looking for is in the ability to sit and watch thoughts without them annoying you. The joy is in your ability to just watch without judgment, to continue meditating without discouragement.
You don’t have to take joy in negative experiences. In fact, you shouldn’t take joy in negative experiences. But you can take joy in your ability to not succumb to negative experience, to not let them discourage you.
What are the small improvements you can take joy in? Are you able to enjoy a breath, a single breath? Are you able to sit for a minute, two minutes, ten minutes with thoughts and emotions going through you without judging them?
Taking joy in each minute you managed to sit down and practice is motivating and encouraging.
As a side note, I want to emphasize, it’s not about willpower. Trying to exert willpower is a sure path to discouraging yourself. It’s about being able to sit with thoughts and emotions and not demonizing them. And not beating yourself up for lacking the willpower to suppress them.
That’s the important thing. That’s the strategy to success.
Thoughts and emotions are an important part of us. They exist to guide us through life and the world. It’s just, there are times when we don’t need all our thoughts and all of our emotions.
For example, when we’re home from work, we don’t need work thoughts. Sure they’ll pop up now and then, but we know to let them be and focus on home life: family, friends, hobbies, housework.
It’s not that work thoughts are bad. They’re not. They’re good. We need them to make a living and to bring in income. And when we’re at work, we need to put aside home thoughts so we can focus at work.
Home thoughts aren’t bad. It’s just when we’re at work, we need to focus on work.
And when we’re out enjoying ourselves with friends and families, maybe at a nice dinner, maybe at a sporting event or a concert or out for a walk or on vacation, during these times we don’t need to consider work thoughts or home thoughts. We only need to consider entertainment thoughts. How can we best enjoy ourselves with our companions?
Thoughts aren’t bad and we’re not bad for having thoughts.
We just need to turn to the thoughts and emotions appropriate for the situation we’re in. This is the skill we need to build and developing this skill is the experience we need to handle the thoughts distracting or illuminating that arise during meditation.
The skill is to see thoughts in their proper context.
The skill is to enjoy every little bit of progress in our meditation.
Earlier, we talked about intention and experience. Our intention is not to experience some supernatural state of nirvana. Our intention is to get to know ourselves better. To be with our whole selves with compassion and love and understanding.
And as we gain experience and bringing our hearts and minds back to meditation, while we’re meditating, we will experience greater and greater lightness and joy, love and compassion during our meditation.