I started practicing mindfulness meditation five years ago, when I was an English teacher living in Seoul, South Korea.
I’d sit cross-legged and try to concentrate on my breath like the books told me to.
Then something frustrating would happen: Rather than resting in tranquility, I’d be thinking — about lunch, about the classes I’d teach that day, about the fight I’d had with my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.
Those thoughts would trigger further thoughts, like, Why the hell can’t I stop thinking? and, This meditation stuff is stupid and will never work because my mind is more out of control than I ever imagined.
Then I read a book that would change the way I thought about thoughts for the rest of my life: “Zen Action: Zen Person” by T.P. Kasulis, a cross-cultural philosopher at Ohio State University.
The book is the best introduction to Zen Buddhism I’ve come across.
In it, Kasulis makes the point that meditation isn’t about ridding the mind of every thought. Rather, it’s about changing the way we relate to thoughts.
The mechanics are pretty simple: When sitting in a meditative posture, I’d focus my attention on the sensations generated by my breath. Then, when I inevitably got lost in the chatter of thoughts, I’d label that as “thinking” and go back to concentrating on my breath.
Slowly, a big change started to happen.
Instead of seeing my thoughts as something to run from or capture, they could be something I simply observed. And if I observed them long enough, even the most tantalising or infuriating of thoughts — a pretty face, a debt owed — would float away.
And my mind, lo and behold, would become stable, even tranquil.
Put into psychological language, that sort of mindfulness practice is an exercise in “metacognition,” or an awareness of what you’re thinking about.
Now that I write about business for a living, I’m delighted to see that mindfulness is becoming a part of more people’s working lives.
As he told his biographer Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs went though a similar process:
If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is … If you try to calm it, it only makes things worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things — that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.”
When I was sitting on the cushion five years ago getting frustrated with myself for thinking, I was making what I came to realise was a very basic — and perhaps very common — assumption about how mindfulness meditation is supposed to work. Since then, my mindfulness practice has come up a lot in conversation, and I’ve heard from a lot of people that they “can’t meditate” because they can’t stop themselves from thinking.
The key is not to stop the thoughts, but to acknowledge them. They will float away on their own.
And then the many benefits of mindfulness practice — from reduced anxiety and heart rate to increased memory and awareness — can start to follow.
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