A Beautiful Mind (And How to Tame It!)

Sally KemptonTwo questions come up in every meditation workshop I've ever taught. The first is "What do I do when my knees hurt?" and the second is "How can I get my mind to shut up?" Your knees and your thoughts—they stand like gatekeepers to the world of meditation, and every one of us has to find a strategy for working with them.

The knees are relatively easy. Knees just need support. Sit in a chair, or sit on several blankets to raise your hips higher than your knees. Or roll up two small towels and put one under each calf so the knees aren't left hanging out there on their own. Knees are easy.

The mind—well, that's the big one. Ever since the first spiritual adventurers tuned into the inner world, human beings have been wrestling with thoughts in meditation. You sit for meditation; you focus on the breath or some other focal point. And the thoughts come. Thick and fast, or slow and swampy. Thoughts about breakfast. Speculations about the stock market. A morsel of gossip you heard at the office. Thoughts about meditation itself—"Am I doing this right?" "Is it okay to change positions?" Sometimes it seems as if just sitting down and closing your eyes is enough to start an absolute storm of thinking. I know people who swear that their mind is perfectly quiet until they sit for meditation, when it starts going a mile a minute.

The truth is, of course, that our minds are hardly ever quiet. It's just that when our attention is outgoing, we don't notice how much we're thinking. We need to turn inside, as we do when we meditate, to realize the sheer power and persistence of our own mentalogue. This, by the way, is true for anyone who has ever tried to meditate. We're talking here about the human condition. You may think that a ‘real' meditator just sits down and drifts easily into vast fields of peace. Actually, even great meditators have to struggle with thoughts. The Buddha himself must have spent many meditative sessions thinking about one thing or another, wondering why his mind wouldn't get quiet—and in the process, learning how to move through these thoughts and into meditation.

And that's the key, of course. The learning. What you learn as you slide in and out of thinking turns out to be a big part of the meditator's art. You learn how to work with thoughts—and how to let them dissolve, rather than trying to fight them.

Obviously, you can't deal with thoughts by forcibly kicking them out. The delicate fabric of your inner consciousness doesn't respond well to harshness. That's because your mind is not a thing. Nor is it a substance. Your mind is a field of energy—a denser form of the pure awareness that is the goal of your practice. It's inherently and powerfully creative. If you sit and watch your mind for a few minutes, you'll see that it generates thoughts and images automatically. The thoughts rise up out of the very fabric of consciousness itself. In other words, the mind is constantly creating something. That's what it does. So, working with the mind is not so much about trying to make it quiet, as it is about learning how to harness this power of thought, how to turn its powerful creativity in a useful—in this case, an inward—direction.

The Monarch on the Throne
Indian tradition compares the mind to a king or queen who has not been given a proper seat. When a king isn't given a throne to sit on, he becomes restless and irritable. Once he is seated, the analogy goes, he naturally becomes calm and judicious. The mind's proper seat, then, is the Self, the abode of pure consciousness. But it will settle for the breath, or the mantra, if you make those focal points attractive enough. How do you do this? You might allure the mind by bringing it gently to the breath, and then by feeling how the breath touches your inner body, letting the touch of the breath be a caress, or by letting yourself sense the touch of a mantra as you drop it into the heart. Remember, the mind is restless because it's searching for a seat that is both beautiful and comfortable. Your first job in meditation is to find a way of focusing that the mind likes, and then to keep it pointed in the right direction. As you direct the mind again and again toward its seat, it begins to settle down.

Focus
Of course, seating the mind takes some vigilance, not to mention attention and intention. When you begin your practice, and often for a while afterward, you'll probably spend most of the time bringing your mind back to the object of focus. A thousand times your mind will replay the conversation you had with your girlfriend, or poke away at the errand you forgot to do, or plan your trip to Yosemite. You'll bring your attention back—gently, softly, without straining. This can be frustrating and boring (there's a reason they call meditation a ‘practice'). But there is a reward. As you keep stopping the mind, bringing it back to your breath or your mantra, it will eventually go only half the distance before you have to catch it. Eventually, it will wander just a few yards away. And a time will come when the mind is actually at rest.