During a mindfulness program developed at Google, I heard a key insight about meditation that makes it a lot less frustrating

Whack a mole carnival gameFlickr / MN State FairYou don’t have to play a game of Whack-a-Mole with your thoughts.

Over the past few years, I’ve had an on-again-and-off-again flirtation with meditation.

It’s on whenever I get jealous hearing someone talk about how their sitting practice has totally changed their life. I could do that, I think. And then I try sitting on my own for a few days and find it exhausting playing a 10-minute game of Whack-a-Mole with every thought and worry that pops up, and it’s off.

This, I learned recently, is not an especially helpful approach to meditation. I was at Search Inside Yourself, a mindfulness program developed at Google that’s now offered around the world through the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. One of the SIY teachers, Laurie Cameron, suggested a simple way of reframing your practice so that it’s both less stressful and easier to understand the benefits.

It’s a four-step cycle, and here’s how it breaks down:

1. Follow your breath.

2. A distraction pops up.

3. Notice the distraction.

4. Reorient your attention to the breath.

Cameron called this process a “mental rep,” similar to lifting weights, except the muscle you’re training isn’t your bicep but your attention. It’s like going to the mental gym.

In other words, getting distracted — by an itch, by thinking about what to make for dinner, by whatever — can be a positive thing because it’s a chance to practice bringing your attention back to the present. The more distractions that pop up and the more you guide your attention back to the breath, the stronger your mental muscles get.

So that, eventually, Cameron said, the spaces between those distractions will probably get longer.

Cameron reminded SIY participants to bring their attention back “gently,” meaning that you definitely don’t want to be silently yelling at yourself for getting distracted in the first place. Treat yourself with kindness and patience, the same way you would treat a little kid who hasn’t yet learned the rules of a game.

The number-one rule being, of course, that you don’t want to pounce on those distractions that pop up — either by thinking about them or by trying not to think about them. Here’s how my colleague Richard Feloni described mindfulness meditation: “Instead of exerting energy to try to block [thoughts], which often backfires and makes the mind more cluttered, continue to focus on your breath and let the ideas float by, acknowledging that they exist without engaging them.”

This process can be trying. But perhaps the greatest takeaway here is that it’s hard not to be “good” at something, at least not right away. Perhaps, beyond training your attention muscles, meditation is about learning to be ok with that struggle. So take a deep breath. You’re doing just fine.

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