5 practical tips from a meditation teacher

by Angela Swanson

What to do when you have too many thoughts in meditation

I first learned to meditate in 2011 and fell in love with it. Meditation has been a life-changing practice for me. So much so... I became a Certified Meditation Teacher in 2013 and taught people from all walks of life how to meditate for over 8 years.

The number one question my students would ask me? "What do I do with all these thoughts?"

You see... when you slow down and approach stillness (which is what meditation is all about) you discover what's really going on inside your head. It can be surprising what you encounter (especially if you're a new meditator) because most of us have a misinformed expectation that meditation is about quieting the mind.

In reality, the mind is anything but quiet during meditation. For most people it's pretty noisy!

Even for me. I’ve meditated for more than 100,000 minutes. Guess how many thoughts I’ve had during my practice? A LOT.

The point of meditation is not quieting the mind but learning how to observe the mind and choosing whether or not to engage with it.

Yes… it's easier said than done but it does get easier with practice. 

If you're wondering what to do with all those thoughts during meditation, here’s what I taught my students and what you can do, too:

1. Be really kind to yourself.

I know it can feel frustrating to be taking time to meditate and be inundated with rambling, incessant thoughts. The point of meditation is to “quiet the mind” right? Well… that’s not exactly true. Many people have the misconception that we shouldn’t have thoughts during meditation. The truth is that it’s the nature of the mind to think and no amount of trying to stop your thoughts will ever work. You can’t stop thinking by thinking about it. So be kind to yourself when you have thoughts during meditation. Don’t judge yourself or be harsh, just notice what’s happening with an innocent curiosity. And then make a choice....

2. Choose to come back to your focus.

Maybe your focus is the breath, come back to that. Maybe it’s your mantra. Come back to that. Maybe you were in the middle of a body scan when thoughts about that meeting you need to prepare for swept you away to planning-land. It’s ok. Come back to your body and begin again. You can always begin again. When your attention wanders away, gently guide it back like you would a toddler or a puppy. With deliberate but gentle kindness. Not with force. Never with force.

3. Don’t try to stop the thoughts.

Again, it’s the nature of the mind to think so having thoughts during meditation is completely normal. The mind will not quiet down because of any effort you’re making through resistance or some kind of mind-control. That is an exercise in frustration. The skill we’re cultivating during meditation is to be aware of the thoughts instead of engaging the thoughts. When you’re aware of thoughts you’re automatically not lost in them, you’re observing them. This is often referred to as “cultivating the witness.” All of us get lost in thoughts sometimes and it’s ok. As a meditator, you have a powerful skill to be aware of what you’re doing and then choose to do something else.

4. Change up your focus.

Sometimes my mind hurls so many ideas at me that it feels like my mantra is being drowned out in a cacophony of noise. Instead of fighting this, I change things up and simply listen to myself breathing. That will help, but if the mind is still really distracting, try switching it up again. Pull your awareness way back, opening it like an aperture on a camera and do an open awareness practice. Open awareness is when you become aware of everything that enters the field of the mind: thoughts, sounds, sensations, images, etc. Allow it all, resist nothing and watch all the activity like it’s a movie on a big screen and you’re sitting in the audience. I don’t normally advise switching up your focus during meditation but if it helps, then do it. I’d much rather have you continue meditating than give up in frustration. 

5. Acknowledge yourself for what you’re doing.

Give yourself tons of credit for having a meditation practice. Meditation is a radical act of self-love. It’s not always going to be quiet or deep or interesting but the point of meditation isn’t what happens during meditation, it’s what happens in your life. That’s why sticking with your practice is essential. Meditation helps you live a wonderful life.

Till next time,

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