What’s your biggest question about meditation? I bet I can guess.
After meditating for 20 years, I’ve learned a lot about mindfulness and meditation. But since I started writing about meditation a year ago, there’s one question that people ask me more than any other. At first it surprised me, but then I realized it’s a question that plagued me for many years as well.
And this question makes sense, because meditation (and mindfulness) has gone mainstream. We are flooded with new information about it daily. It’s the new weight-watchers diet for your mind. So a lot of us have ideas about what meditation is and what it should feel like. And that’s before we even try it. As a result, I’ve found there is still a lot of confusion about the basics of this ancient practice.
And beyond the hype, there are some damn good reasons why this particular question keeps coming up. And it’s why so many serious practitioners attend annual silent retreats for 1-3 week stretches.
So have you guessed the question yet? Here it is. How do you quiet your mind?
The Real Goal Of Meditation
I can’t tell you how often I am asked this question. And the answer is always the same.
The real goal of meditation is not to quiet your mind.
The goal of meditation is to be comfortable with the ruckus in your head. You want to get really good at ignoring the relentless stream of thought that runs like the Mississippi through your mind. And that’s a subtle art.
It’s true, you’re always doing the exact same thing, ignoring your mind, so how hard can it be? Right. But trust me, this is like no practice you’ve done before. Sometimes meditation is like being lost in a hall of mirrors. You can’t quite make out the edges of where you end and your thoughts begin.
Often, when you start out, it’s exasperating when your mind doesn’t cooperate and get quiet. I think many of us hope that meditation is going to be a tranquilizer to calm the beast with one simple technique. I wish it were that simple.
But let’s break this down a little. What’s so great about a quiet mind? And what is the difference between quieting your mind and ignoring your mind anyways?
What’s So Great About A Quiet Mind?
A quiet mind is a beautiful thing. You probably know that already. It’s like standing in the middle of a class 4 hurricane when the eye of the storm passes overhead.
Suddenly, the chaos just stops and the inner clouds part. Your whole being takes on a quality of deep silence. It can feel downright magical. Sounds are enhanced, everything appears vivid to your eyes, and it all smells fresh and new. Somehow, mysteriously, you’ve been touched in a deep place.
So no wonder we want our minds to go quiet. Because that’s what it’s like when your busy mind goes hush. And in our frantic day and age, it really is magical when that happens.
Why is that? Because we are compulsively engaged with the content of our thoughts. We spend so much time in our heads that we’re cut off from life in some very fundamental ways. It’s no one’s fault. That’s the basic condition of human life in the 21st century.
The Complex Human Condition
For the modern soul, our lives are not as simple as they were 100 or even 50 years ago. On the whole, we have grown psychologically complex. Over the last century, we’ve developed elaborate inner lives, thanks to the development of psychology and a slow rolling wave of cultural revolution.
And yet, our tools for navigating that interiority are still unrefined and relatively blunt. We spent the last three hundred years mastering the earth, sea, air, and space, but we’re still novices when it comes to inner space. So we often suffer from psychological contraction, isolation, doubt, you name it.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re a little like bulls in our own china shops crashing through some very subtle terrain. Again, I don’t think anyone is to blame here. We didn’t build the space shuttle over night. Understanding the human condition is a slow process that doesn’t mirror our rapid technological advance.
And when it comes to our inner lives, we used to have religion to help us manage it. For better and for worse, those mythic religious structures haven’t survived the onslaught of our hyper-rationale culture.
So that’s all to say that it’s a blessing when your mind goes quiet. And most of us think that’s what meditation is going to do for us. Make our minds go blessedly placid like a still blue pond.
Ignoring Your Mind vs Calming Your Mind
Unfortunately, it’s not in our control whether or not our minds go quiet. At least, that’s what I’ve found through my practice and this seems to be corroborated by most of the great meditation teachers, past and present. In truth, trying to quiet your mind is like herding cats. Everything gets out of control pretty fast and the herding tends to make things much worse.
But let’s get to the silver lining already, because there is one! Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for our minds to go quiet.
Meditation teaches you something much better in the end. In truth, practicing meditation helps you develop a cool disposition towards your own mind. It allows you to step back from the often raging torrent of your thoughts.
Meditation teaches you how to ignore your mind. And you can definitely argue that’s better than a quiet mind. Why? Because it’s in your control. Unlike waiting, hoping, and trying to force your mind to go quiet, you can just choose to ignore it.
Ahhh, can you feel the relief?
How Do You Ignore Your Own Mind?
I’m sure you’ve had experiences when something—a person, a noise, a smell—was really bothering you? But then you just made a decision to let it go and ignore it? Suddenly it stops bothering you. Why? Because you basically decided you don’t care about it for the moment. You’re not going to let that thing dominate your awareness.
Well it’s the same with meditation and your mind. You make a choice, over and over again, to stop paying attention to any of the objects that arise in your awareness. It takes practice, but like any good habit, you can cultivate it and refine it. Over time, you’ll get really good at ignoring the noise in your head.
It’s hard to do this perfectly. That’s why it’s helpful to spend long periods of time in meditation. In truth, when you spend time on a meditation retreat, your mind can go quiet. But that’s because you build up momentum ignoring everything in your head with little to no distraction.
When you strip your environment and your experience of constant stimulus and you meditate all the time, then yes, your mind can go quiet. In fact, all of you starts to settle into a state of deep silence. And I recommend that for anyone who is truly interested in meditation, because it will change your life.
But for those of us who don’t have the time to attend a meditation retreat in the near future, you can rest secure in the knowledge that ignoring your mind for a few minutes every day is a great start. It will help you discover a part of yourself that is forever untouched by the tumult of your mind.
And then, the more you practice, you’ll know that you never need to wait for your mind to go quiet ever again to experience real inner peace.