Among the long list of benefits associated with regular meditation, many practitioners report an improvement in their mental clarity and ability to maintain focus. Unfortunately, lots of people struggle to get into meditation and enjoy these and other benefits due to resistance, which can arise from many sources.

One of the main arguments I hear from people who have tried meditating just a handful of times before deciding not to pursue it further is “I just can’t seem to switch my mind off”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that exact phrase, word for word!

There are a couple of flaws in this thinking that I’d like to explore – one is the idea that being able to disengage the mind at will is a prerequisite for success in meditation. The second is the notion that meditation is even about ceasing mental activity in the first place. These erroneous beliefs have stopped countless people from embarking on the potentially helpful and health-giving path of meditation, so I believe it’s worth taking a moment to address them.

Can I just stop my thoughts if I want to?

Meditation takes a number of forms and it can be used to achieve many different aims. For some, it can simply mean deep contemplation of an important subject or an issue that’s arisen in their life. For others it can be part of a spiritual or religious practice, and many use it to improve their physical and mental well-being or to develop skills such as focus, concentration and clear thinking. I’ve never come across a method of meditation that claims to help the meditator switch off their mind completely though.

Don’t get me wrong, meditating can help when it comes to identifying and filtering out unhelpful thought patterns, and it’s even possible to reach a momentary state of bliss where all thoughts and attachment to this reality seem to evaporate – and if you meditate regularly enough over a prolonged period, you might be able to make these moments last more than just a few seconds. But the point is, these states aren’t achieved by simply sitting down and deciding not to think. This takes a lot of dedicated and focused practice to achieve.

Isn’t meditation all about switching off the mind?

A key premise of most forms of meditation is to bring focused awareness to any thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise in the body – not to escape or get away from these. Unpleasant ideas and feelings may come up, which can then be acknowledged, embraced, contemplated and transcended with enough practice. The idea that we should start meditating without experiencing any of these things is harmful, incorrect and when you think about it, pretty silly. Someone who’s meditating for the first time is about to take time out of their busy life and sit still with no stimuli other than what’s going on in their own mind – how can they be expected to just sit there thinking about nothing? Meditation makes the space for thoughts to arise that we may be avoiding in our daily lives.

I feel that a key aspect of any meditation is focus, and it’s certainly a skill that’s needed for meditating and that can be developed through the practice. I believe that our attention is always on something – whether that’s the task we’re working on at the time, our breath or other chosen point of focus during a meditation, or distracting thoughts that seek to keep us from either. We can choose which of these we focus our attention on, but we can’t just switch it off at will. That’s where meditating comes in – by focusing our awareness on one single item, and bringing it back to that thing whenever we notice our mind wandering, we can get closer to a state of having no thoughts. However, that state is not one of passive mindlessness, but rather of focused awareness.

What’s the point, then?

Successful meditation takes dedication, time and lots of practice. You’re not going to get it right the first time, and arguably there is no wrong or right anyway – it’s a journey of self discovery where you’ll find over time what works for you and put that into practice. Don’t be put off if it seems strange or difficult to begin with – the benefits will start to emerge right from the beginning as you develop that skill of focus, and the more you do it, the more you’ll get out of it.

Sam Down
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