Empty Your Mind.
I hear this phrase often in pop culture and in the media when describing meditation. Until I took the time to learn about meditation, I had a false sense of what I was supposed to do while meditating. I used to think that meditation meant clearing my mind and emptying it of the thoughts and emotions that raced through my head on a constant loop. I thought I was failing at meditation because I wasn’t clearing my mind.
I found as I began talking about meditation with others that I wasn’t alone in believing this myth of “empty your mind.” I hear from friends, family, and more, “I can’t meditate; I just can’t clear my mind. I can’t get my thoughts to stop…”
Perhaps, you’ve been buying into the myth of “empty your mind,” too, which is why you’re reading this right now.
Let’s debunk this myth today.
You are not your thoughts
As Hollywood writers continue to insist that meditation is all about clearing your mind and sitting blankly in a field (or near a waterfall…or a canyon…you get the point…), I am here to describe what meditation is.
Meditation offers an opportunity to train our minds and to learn how to focus on the breath instead of the thoughts that run around in our heads (meditation goes beyond training the brain, but for the sake of busting the “empty mind” myth, we won’t delve into all of that).
Pushing against our running stream of thoughts (or the “monkey mind” as it is often referred to) is not helpful or even practical during meditation. When we push away our thoughts, it often makes them stronger. If I told you not to think about a polka-dotted elephant playing volleyball on the beach, would that help you not to think about that particular pachyderm?
Instead, we acknowledge our thoughts and emotions. We recognize them for what they are, label them as “thinking” or “feeling,” and return our focus to the breath.
We also acknowledge and hopefully eventually realize that our thoughts do not have to represent us. A scolding thought may cross your mind if say you drop and break a glass. You are not “dumb” or “clumsy,” simply because the thought came to mind after dropping something. The thought can end as quickly as it arose if we don’t grip it so tightly.
For me, personally, knowing that my thoughts are not who I am is freeing. I don’t have to listen to the thoughts or get drawn into them. I don’t have to buy into a thought that I’m lonely. I can even turn to loving-kindness meditation and realize that I have connections with friends, family, strangers and the entire world.
Movies on a Loop
I tend to compare my thoughts and daydreams to a constant loop of movies playing on a screen. The movies will always be there playing on the big screen in my mind, but I don’t have to sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch them. I don’t have to be drawn into the illusion of the moving images on the screen. I can acknowledge the constant movies on a loop and then return my focus to the breath. The movies may be in the genres of comedy, tragedy, action, horror, sci-fi/fantasy or romance. They keep playing, but they also begin and eventually end, over and over again.
To take the film analogy a step further, think of your thoughts as an unreliable narrator who’s telling you a story about yourself. You don’t have to believe the story. There’s a freedom in that.
“You Are the Sky”
I want to share with you this observation from Pema Chodron:
“You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.”
Keep that beautiful piece of wisdom in mind when you meditate today.
Don’t Empty Your Mind. Focus!
Focus and pay attention. Don’t worry about emptying your mind or clearing your thoughts. Learn how to focus on the breath as you sit, kneel or lie down while you meditate.
The moment when your mind wanders, and it inevitably will (it happens to each of us), refocus your attention on the breath. That’s the golden moment. That is your light bulb going off above your head. That is priceless. And scientists continue to study how this mental training keeps our brains fit and young.
Your skills will continue to strengthen as you practice meditation each day. Some sessions will go better than others, but don’t judge them or compare them. Each session is beautiful. Each session is important. Each session we learn. Meditation has gotten me through dark hours and moments of high stress as a mom. It also helps me to celebrate the joys of each day (even the days that I used to think of as boring or pointless).
I’m teaching my mind to focus on what truly matters and to keep the thoughts where they belong.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Jennifer Mazzoni M.S. CCC-SLP, is a full-time mom, part-time Speech Language Pathologist, and she works part-time in a rehabilitation setting. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in the Chicago area. Follow her blog, Help Mama Meditate, and catch her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest!
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