My friend was specifically asking about meditation because she was having difficulties getting to sleep at night. She wasn’t looking for a formal meditation practice, just advice on how to stop her racing thoughts long enough to get to sleep. I shared with her one of my favorite techniques.
First of all, the thing not to do when you’re trying to stop intrusive thoughts is to try and force yourself to not think those thoughts. The typical example of this is if I tell you to not think about an elephant. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind? An elephant, of course. So telling yourself what not to think basically has the opposite effect to what you’re trying to accomplish.
What I have been taught is to let the thoughts come into your mind – because they’re going to anyway – but merely label them as thoughts, and then let them pass. One visualization that helps is to imagine your thoughts to be like leaves floating down a stream. You note the thought (leaf) as it passes by, but then you let it go, let it be carried away by the “stream,” just as easily and effortlessly as it came. When another thought comes along, do the same. Note it, label it as “that’s a thought,” and let it pass through without clinging to it or belaboring it.
In case you get seasick watching the water go by in the stream, the same effect can be had by visualizing your thoughts as clouds passing by in the sky. Notice them, and then let them pass.
For a more formalized practice of mindfulness meditation, you will want to set aside a time during the day when you can actually sit down in a relatively quiet location and remain alert. Mindfulness meditation is not about “zoning out.”
I found an online article called “How to do Mindfulness Meditation,” written by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche that is a pretty straightforward explanation of the process. The point of mindfulness meditation, as noted in the article is to “achieve a mind that is stable and calm.” Calmness is a “natural aspect of the mind” that we strengthen and cultivate through mindfulness so that eventually we are able to remain peaceful and feel content in our minds.
It is best to start out slowly when beginning a meditation practice, try maybe ten minutes at a time. Find a quiet, peaceful location where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Maintaining an erect posture is best. If you have a meditation cushion to sit on, great. A chair where you can sit upright works well, too. If sitting in a chair, put your feet flat on the floor and rest your hands in your lap.
The article by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche covers posture more precisely. It advises us to keep a “soft gaze,” eyes open but not staring, focusing downward. It suggests using our breath as an object of meditation, something to bring our awareness back to when our thoughts begin to intrude. Breathe naturally; do not force the breath. When we get lost in thought, we notice it nonjudgmentally, label it “thinking” and come back to the breath, kind of like I described above only without the water or the clouds. And it’s basically that simple.
The article concludes by stating that mindfulness meditation is very practical, and notes that “because we are working with the mind that experiences life directly, just by sitting and doing nothing, we are doing a tremendous amount.”
It can be challenging to watch our thoughts nonjudgmentally when we are in a depressed mood, and possibly even challenging to sit purposefully for ten minutes, but it’s called a meditation practice. With time and continued practice, it gets easier. I encourage you to read the full article if this is something you are interested in pursuing. There are numerous additional resources online that discuss mindfulness meditation. There are guided meditations that you can purchase on CDs or download.
Give it a try. Sitting and doing nothing never felt so good.