You know the drill. Sit upright, quiet your mind, follow your breath, be in the now. Then it happens. Monkey mind. That persistent mental chatter that intrudes on your determined effort at stillness and quiet. What to do? We offer 4 ideas to assist you in surfing those persistent mental waves:
Realize that thoughts are natural and cannot be transformed by willpower alone.
Fighting the occurrence of thoughts is counter-productive. What we resist persists! While we don’t want to indulge the mind during meditation, getting into a tug-of-war with your mind won’t work in settling it down. Know that it is not a failure to have thoughts. Each time you catch thoughts, simply remind yourself that this happens to everyone and that the returning to the breath, the body or object of focus IS meditating. Each time you return to your point of concentration, you strengthen the left prefrontal cortex of the brain which is good for brain health and for building stress resilience. And similar to how exercise strengthens the body, meditation is building that mental muscle of focus.
Notice and label the thoughts as soon as you become aware of them.
A thought is an energetic, neurological brain wave. If you are a novice meditator, it’s important to understand that you are not trying to get rid of all thoughts but to create more spaciousness between the thoughts. We do want to set a strong intention to create a gap between the thoughts but not to consider thoughts as failure. When a thought arises, notice it, and label it “thoughts” or “later” or “not now.” This trains the mind, hence “mindfulness training.” Let the thought float by like a cloud, and return to your breath or other point of focus.
Utilize your breath, a mantra, a hand mudra, or a gentle focus between the eyes.
For ages, many traditions have utilized concentration points as a means to focus the mind away from mental chatter. Following the breath is an essential tool to increase attention to the present moment, and our breath is readily available. A mantra, which is simply a repetitive sound, such as the sound of “OM” or the word “calm” can also be used. This gives the brain a bone – something to chew on as you bridge into greater stillness. Some meditation teachers guide students to lightly draw their attention to the “third eye’” the space between the eyes (with eyes closed). The “third eye” is thought to be the seat of intuition. In the yogic tradition, hand mudras are utilized to cultivate various states such as the classic posture of open palms with the index finger of each hand touching the thumb (jnana). If you want to cultivate more calm, lightly bring the finger tips of both hands together (hakini).
Compassionately set your intention to be present, again and again.
One of the biggest blocks to change and creating a new habit is criticism. Compassion, on the other hand, is at the very heart of mindfulness. This means that when the mind strays from focus, simply take a compassionate approach to getting back on track. Part of the function of meditation is to train the mind (and body) to respond skillfully to life outside of the sanctuary of meditation. Cultivating compassion in meditation, even if you have persistent monkey mind, allows you to be less reactive and negative in everyday life. And compassion just feels better! In fact, research shows that when we engage in a compassionate act, the feel good “love hormone” oxytocin is released. How can you take a more compassionate, softer approach to yourself in meditation and in your life?
Culturally we find ourselves spinning so many proverbial plates, each with its own demands. In meditation, we begin to teach the frenetic, constantly-striving mind to slow down. Monkey mind is a natural internal response to the hectic pace of external life. So it is normal to find this distracted mind at play during meditation. As meditation students and teachers for many years, our advice is simple: relax, take a positive, but non-pressured approach, and enjoy the journey! I
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