The art of Meditation is an ancient practice of observing the mind and absorbing awareness into a single point of focus. Sounds simple right? Well, it is and it isn’t. But you can’t fail, and here’s why.
This practice has gained a huge amount of popularity and attention as a tool to help balance the chaotic tendencies of your mind and balance out the constant busyness and stress of everyday life. However if you have ever tried it before, you might have found ‘stilling’ the mind is easier said than done. You might have even thought that you are ‘bad at meditating’ or you just can’t quite find that inner steadiness or zen that is so often promised.
Firstly – you are not alone. For years I thought I was ‘bad at meditation’, until I studied under Dr Lorin Roche, a teacher who has spent the last 50 years researching the science of meditation. He confirmed that the experience we all have of the ‘mind wondering’ when we are trying to concentrate in our meditation is not a failure but alternatively an incredibly intelligent function the brain cycles through when we sit and settle ourselves.
When you sit down and approach your meditation, typically it involves you becoming still and relaxing into a state of calm. When your body begins to relax the mind naturally releases points of tension and stress – not just physically but mentally too. The overstimulating nature of modern life and the complexity of modern day social dynamics means that there are a lot of experiences and emotions that the mind needs to review in order to release them and settle itself towards stillness. This practice of reviewing everything the mind hasn’t had time to pause and ‘file away’ is how we grow and stimulate the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain that applies rational thinking and allows logic to strengthen, allowing us to gain emotional intelligence and control.
The part of our brain that is responsible for our immediate emotional responses, especially the automated emotions and reactions that we arise when we feel threatened or fearful is known as the amygdala. This is a more ‘primitive’ function of the brain and still has the wiring to label anything out of the ordinary or different in our environment as threatening because back when we were living in tribal cave environments – anything that was abnormal was a little more life threatening, a strange rustling could be a predator, even strangers that are unfamiliar register to the mind as a questionable threat. This part of our brain is responsible for the fight or flight response of our nervous system and that acts accordingly to your mental state hasn’t evolved as fast as our modern lifestyles which means that there is a constant stream of information that has been flagged to be reviewed when you have some time to reflect.
This is why when you sit down to meditate you begin to think of things and not, well.. nothing. This is not because your mind is failing to be still or focused but an important step to helping clear the excess twirling of thoughts through your mind and allow the nervous system to re-calibrate itself into a state of calm and ease.
‘The Amygdala hijack refers to a personal, emotional response that is immediate, overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.’Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
So if meditation is not a pass or fail subject how do you succeed at meditating?
The cultivation of mindfulness is one of the greatest rewards in the practice of meditation. You learn to observe these cycles of the mind we just outlined (relaxing, releasing stress and reviewing those stresses) and in knowing that your job is not to stop the thoughts from arising, you can focus on becoming the observer that watches those thoughts into your meditation technique. From there the success is actually the process of catching yourself when you notice the mind has wandered or gotten caught up in the stories of your thoughts and anchoring yourself back into the observer, focusing back onto the technique. Now every time you do this you strengthen the areas of the brain that govern not only focus and concentration but learning and memory. Your mind is like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
The more you meditate and practice strengthening the director of the mind and higher intelligence within – the part of you that can watch your thoughts and observe yourself – the more you are able to utilise the benefits of meditation as you move through your day. The mindfulness that you continue to establish allows you to approach stressful situations with more ration and reason due to the rewiring of your automated response from the emotional fear based part of the mind into the logical prefrontal cortex which has shown to enhance its brain matter through meditation practice. This mindfulness then allows you to notice when you are getting distracted in your studies and calls your mind back into focus enabling you to harness your productivity and learnings. This development of your stress responses and concentration can also help you sleep more easily and peacefully at night and allow you to move through your day with a greater sense of ease and grace.
So even if you feel like you’ve failed at meditation before or maybe you think your mind is just too busy or too full, try and set aside a few minutes each day to allow yourself to clear the mind and observe what the thoughts that need to be released are. Perhaps start to observe the way that you talk to yourself. Consciously practice having more compassion for yourself and others. Remember, it’s our mind’s job to move, to think and have ideas and memories and forecasts. But if you are able to observe those thoughts there must be an inner intelligence and a steadiness beyond all the fluctuations of these thoughts that it will strengthen.