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How to Meditate When You Can’t Shut Your Mind Off

Easy steps to keep at it when the world gets in the way

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I’ve been practicing techniques of raja yoga (royal union) meditation for a long time—48.5 years, to be exact. It’s an essential part of my life, and it’s helped me become more patient, kind, curious, happy, and fulfilled.

And every day, I realize I have more to learn. I often feel like I’m merrily stumbling my way along, tripping over what I thought I had already learned yesterday. I’ve come to accept this is the way the journey is—I’ll always be evolving, learning, and growing.

I practice meditation because I know there is inner fulfillment within me—the place described in every scripture throughout the existence of humankind. And I also know that it’s one of the most practical things anybody can do.

We are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual beings. We need to be in balance in all areas to have overall well-being. Hectic, drama-filled lives can debilitate us and create imbalance. Meditation helps brings us into equilibrium so that all parts of us work together harmoniously.

Here’s what has helped me:

1. Be thirsty

My journey into meditation started as a thought that there must be a life force in the universe. Something must be sustaining all this, something that can be experienced. I learned in high school chemistry that all matter is energy, some moving quickly, some moving very slowly—protons, neutrons, subatomic particles, quarks, always invisibly vibrating. I thought: Energy has to be within me, doesn’t it?

When I learned there was a way to go within and experience that energy, I wanted to know more. I was thirsty to know what was within me, sustaining me. That thirst was my motivation to learn to meditate, and it has been the main reason I have stuck with it.

It’s easy to forget that real, lasting satisfaction comes from inner connection, not from people, places, and things.

It’s like discovering a new restaurant serving up fantastic food — once you’ve been there, you want to go back because it was so good. It’s the same with meditation: Once we realize there is something there, we want to return to it, we want to have to more.

We lose our thirst when we lose our way. There have been times when I got caught up in putting more attention on things around me than within me. It’s easy to forget that real, lasting satisfaction comes from inner connection, not from people, places, and things.

I’ve learned over the years the key to staying thirsty is to practice regularly, remove drama from my life, and cultivate a curious mind.

2. Breathe properly

Martial arts, athletics, yoga, and meditation all share the importance of proper breathwork. In any meditation that involves the breath, deep and slow breathing through the nose helps the body to settle into a very still, quiet place. Breathing through the nose enables more control over your breathing and is healthier as the nose acts as a filter.

If you aren’t sure if your breathing is deep, here is an exercise that can help figure that out. Sit down. Place one hand over your navel and the other hand on your sternum. Now breathe normally. If the hand on your navel moves, you are breathing deeply. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. Deep breathing provides more oxygen to your lungs, and more oxygen is simply healthier for your body.

If the other one moves, you are breathing more shallowly. When we breathe like this, we get less oxygen, which is less healthy for our body and our brain. Watch a sleeping baby breathe. They breathe from their belly, filling up their little lungs with plenty of oxygen.

Notice your speaking voice. Is it coming from deep in your belly or your throat when you speak? If it’s from the throat, you’re breathing is likely more shallow. If you feel it coming from your stomach, you’re breathing deeply.

Another thing that helps focus on the breath is to listen to the sound the breath makes as your lungs fill slowly and your diaphragm rises. The sound yogis have used for thousands of years is So Hum. On the “in” breath, you hear what sounds like So. On the “out” breath through your nose, hear the sound Hum. If you like, you can silently repeat So Hum as a mantra.

Eventually, as you get more in-depth, you will forget repeating the mantra. Your lungs are filling slowly like a balloon and then emptying. Just observe, no need to judge your progress. There is nothing to do.

If you feel impatient with your progress, remember that just correct breathing alone has enormous health benefits.

The mind needs something to focus on for it to settle down. Our breath is available to us all the time. The mind can attach itself to the breath. With practice, our breathing will soften, and our focus will drift to a place behind the breath, and that is where the experience of our inner self begins.

Having a satisfying inner experience may take time if you are new to meditation. If you feel impatient with your progress, remember that just correct breathing alone has enormous health benefits. Journalist James Nestor says in his new book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, “Breathing properly can allow us to live longer and healthier lives. Breathing poorly, by contrast, can exacerbate and sometimes cause a laundry list of chronic diseases: asthma, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hypertension, and more.”

3. Get comfortable

Assuming you are in a quiet place, the first step in setting yourself up for a quality practice is to get comfortable. If you aren’t, it’s tough to concentrate, any aches and pains in the body can be real distractions. Yoga, developed over 4,000 years ago, was created to prepare the body for meditation. Getting into a position where you can forget about your body is essential. I’ve been doing Hatha yoga regularly for the past few years, and it has improved my ability to sit with ease considerably.

You want to be comfortable, but not so much that you fall asleep. If you do, just accept it — sleep. If you discover you have a bad case of head bobbing, you’re tired! Your body is telling you something. The best time to practice is when you are fully alert, whatever time of day that is for you.

I like to sit erect, spine straight. I close my eyes and bring my attention inside and on my breath. I am typically aware of my body as I begin my practice and that gradually fades. I feel my lungs filling with air, rising, and then falling.

My breath slows down, and my attention continues to be within, just observing and feeling the subtle energy that is there. Thoughts come and go. And if I wander off, I bring my awareness back to my breath. Before I know it, 15 or 20 minutes have passed. So, take care of your body, and get comfortable when you practice.

4. Manage resistance

If you wake up late one morning without enough time to do your 20-minute practice and only have five minutes, use that and/or do more later. The important thing is to keep at it and don’t let resistance build up.

There may be times when the thought of sitting down to meditate is unbearable. On the odd occasion when that happens to me, I try to let go of any negative self-judgment. I say a prayer of gratitude or set an intention for the day: I’m going to have a day filled with success, abundance, and kindness, or I fully accept and trust the universe in all that happens today.

Another challenge is an overactive mind, so much so it’s impossible to focus. Battling it is pointless. There is no value in trying to prove to yourself you can conquer the mind and bring it to stillness. Just accept what is happening. You’ve tried. It’s an opportunity to surrender and realize that you don’t have control over it and a poignant reminder that we aren’t in control of anything.

Regardless of what happens, I do my best to be aware of my breath throughout the day, taking advantage of sitting in a meeting, waiting in line, or walking.

If you find the resistance keeps coming back, tell yourself: I can find 10 minutes every day for me to be with myself, in silence, in meditation. Tony Robbins famously said, “If you don’t have 10 f–ing minutes for your life, you don’t have a life.”

5. Have an open heart

Having an inner experience of joy and fulfillment is a gift. When I open my eyes after practicing, I feel like I’m looking out from a sacred sanctuary where there is no conflict, no chaos, no hate, or selfishness. Here, I don’t have to be someone; I don’t have to perform; I don’t have to compete or struggle. I’m safe and accepted for who I am, with all my flaws, weaknesses, and gifts. No one is judging me here, and this is where I learn not to judge others.

This sanctuary is incredible. I can’t create it, I can’t summon it, I can’t govern it, nor do I own it. It appears when it so desires, blessing me with its wisdom.

I’m the receiver. It asks for very little from me. It merely says, just look within, approach me with an open heart and mind, make a small effort to let go and trust.

Psychologist Carol Dweck describes an open mind as a growth mindset in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Interestingly, the characteristics of a grown mindset support a meditation practice:

  • Embraces challenges
  • Persists in the face of setbacks
  • Sees effort as a path to mastery
  • Learns from criticism
  • Finds lessons and inspiration in the success of others

I approach my practice like I’m going on an adventure. I have no idea what will happen. I just need to show up and be ready to receive whatever comes.

Enjoy your journey, my friend.

First published on Medium

Mandala Painting by D.E. Johnson
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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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