I was speaking to a close friend last week about her anxiety and feeling out of control with her thoughts, and when I asked if she had tried meditation, she simply replied, “I just don’t get it. How do you observe your thoughts?”
This is such a fair question, and it’s one I had myself for a LONG time. The concept didn’t make any sense to me until I started reading Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” His story is pretty remarkable, as he was suicidal until it dawned on him that he is not his thoughts. And they’re actually the source of all of his pain. Once he was able to detach from them and observe them for what they are, simply thoughts, then he was back in control. The real him was in control (the observer) rather than the mind chatter, or the monkey brain. Reading his story finally made the concept of being able to observe our own thoughts click for me, because it demonstrated its plausibility.
Being open to the idea of not being our thoughts is the first step. If we’re resistant to this idea, then meditating, journaling, or practicing self-awareness throughout our days is going to prove fruitless. Once we’re open to the concept, we can then begin the practice of meditation and do some experimentation to find what works best for each of us.
Currently, I really enjoy purely silent meditation, where I begin by focusing on my breath, and as I notice my thoughts, I bring my awareness back to my breath. Note that my mind can wander for quite some time before I catch this, but that’s not the important part. The important part is that I observe this and then bring awareness back to what I (the observer) want to focus on, not the monkey brain.
Below is a simple practice you can do anywhere, and I often come back to this breathing pattern throughout my day when I’m feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
- Set a timer for 5-20 minutes, depending on how much time you have.
- Start by sitting in a comfortable seat, either in a chair or on the ground. Sitting on a pillow can help maintain upright posture. Place the palms of your hands on your knees, facing up or down. Your back should be straight but not too tight, and be mindful of releasing tension in your jaw and neck.
- Through your nose, inhale for three seconds, hold for two seconds, exhale for three seconds, hold the exhale for one second. Continue this pattern for the remainder of the time while bringing your awareness back to your breath whenever you notice your mind has wandered.
- It’s normal and expected to be uncomfortable while sitting in stillness without any distractions, and this discomfort isn’t just physical. We’re conditioned to be constantly stimulated, so it can be helpful to expect mental discomfort to arise. Show yourself some grace and really commit to sitting in this practice for the entire duration. It will become easier with consistency.
Another great option is guided meditation, and there are several apps on the market now with different tones and styles. I prefer the more simplistic ones with minimal talking, so “1 Giant Mind” is my current favorite, but other popular options are “Headspace” and “Calm.” Try a few of them and find what works best for you. Many of these apps have challenges to encourage consistency, especially when just starting, which brings me to my final thoughts.
Consistency and showing ourselves grace via limited expectations throughout this process is extremely important. I recommend committing to consistent practice every day for at least one month before deciding meditation is not for you. In addition to an open mind, a lack of expectations is also important. You can’t expect to reach Nirvana and be like Buddha within a lifetime, let alone one month, without being sorely disappointed and frustrated. Similar to any other healthy habit, it takes time to see notice the changes and requires some stick-to-it-iveness to really reap the benefits.
Be sure to let me know what comes up for you as you commit to this practice!