I don't know what they told you about meditation exactly, but it was never about cultivating an empty mind.
And it’s not really “about” coming back to your breath either.
Breath is central to the practice, yes. But breath isn't the practice, if you get what I mean.
Or at least, not for everyone. And it certainly doesn't have to be for you, either.
As a 20 year Western meditator watching the rest of the Western world catch up to this ancient treasure, I find myself attempting to correct these misconceptions a lot these days.
They’re usually uttered by people who’ve tried meditating before, but found themselves frustrated and giving up time and again due to reasons like:
- “I just can’t settle my thoughts”
- “My mind is always running”, or
- “I have ADHD I can’t meditate”.
Baby that's a good thing. It just means you need it more. Take it from my ADHD ass, and more than one of my clients' as well.
Anyway, I figured, here today, I’ll give a different take on meditation altogether.
One that busy-minded people might really find refreshing to hear.
Share it with your busy-minded friends, too, if you like it.
You ever played a video game in 1st person perspective? Like, you're viewing the game through the actual eyes of your avatar?
You can't see your character. And you can't see what's going on around you.
A lot of us feel blind playing from that perspective. It can create in-game anxiety, believe it or not. And a lot of frustration and confusion, too.
Well, that’s how we view our lives from day to day. From a first person perspective. And confused, anxiety, and frustration are a lot of what we feel from that point of view.
We walk around with so many blind spots I’ve made my entire career largely out of helping people catch theirs.
But there's another view.
Meditation is the practice of zooming out to a 3rd person perspective.
As in, now we've got a bird's eye view and can actually see ourselves, and we can see a lot more of what's going on around us. Less Call of Duty, more Mario Cart.
The point isn't to empty your mind. It's to observe it.
And we do that because shit looks way different from a bird’s eye point of view.
Now we're in a position to actually handle our shit. We can play the game completely differently from up here. We see the whole arena. We can chart different moves now.
If you ever wanted to know how your therapist sees you, throw on your compassion lens and zoom out. Observe your feelings, behaviors, beliefs, and thoughts as they come into your mind through the lens of compassion.
You may immediately start to notice things about yourself you never knew.
Things you like. Things you love.
Things that heal you.
If the view gets a little too intense, that's when you come back to focusing on your breath.
Not because of some random sentiment. But because it soothes your nervous system to focus on something safe and rhythmic - like breathing - when you're rustling around in your chaotic ass insides.
It centers you so can stay with yourself through the practice.
So yes, it's cool to take breaks and stay with your breath for a while, it really is calming.
It starts to feel like rest, and our minds don't get much waking rest these days. It starts feeling good to stay there when you get used to it.
Like laying your brain into a nice warm epsom salt bubble bath.
But even masters don't hang out there for longer than 5 minutes or so at a time before another thought comes up.
So if another thought or sensation or frustration comes up that won’t pass along easily, throw that compassion lens back on & zoom out again.
Like many of them would do.
Peer into what your subconscious mind what it’s trying to show you, and just… see.
You’ll be surprised how much you discover about yourself, looking at yourself from this point of view. Spending time with yourself this way.
If You Can't Tap Into Compassion...
If you find you’re not feeling compassion for what you’re seeing, chances are you have on a different lens.
Your mother, father, teacher, grandparent, sibling, teenage you, even.
Society's lens. A conditioned lens.
Fun fact? You can zoom out on that version of you, too. You can zoom out however many times you want to, for whichever versions of you come up.
That is, until you reach a state you might hear Buddhists refer to as "pure awareness".
Pure awareness isn’t all that woo either, really. It’s basically pure curiosity.
That is: curiosity without any agendas, preconceptions, biases, or judgments.
Observing without trying to change anything at all.
You’re present and paying attention and aware, while also being in a sort of friendly peace with what’s in front of you, no matter what it is.
This is the state of enlightenment everyone raves about. :)
This is way easier said than done, but even I've had moments of this. The moments get longer and more durable, the longer I practice.
It helps me show up and contribute in chaos, instead of drown in it.
But here’s what I can tell you.
The stuff about how you’re just supposed to sit and breathe? And when thoughts pop up just be like no big deal & be calm and Buddha-like?
The way they're telling you to just start there & let the rest work itself out...?
That stuff is a top down view of meditation. And it mostly appears to be affective for top-down thinkers.
But one of the little benefits of this neurodivergent mind is I’m more of a bottom’s up kind of human, myself. Hence my need to break down the nuance of everything to death.
I need to know how things work inside & out.
Kind of like someone with a long history of anxiety, and trauma.
The kind of person meditation can do wonders for.
Even the Buddha - who never said to "just breathe & let the rest work itself out" -was quick to admit that his way was only one way.
He encouraged us all to explore, experiment, and find our own way.
Just head to that same spot.
Peace of mind, body & spirit.
Credit to the West though.
Because it’s true that the more you practice over time, the easier it becomes to come back to your breath and just kick it there.
The issue is that, while modern teachers talk a lot about coming back to the breath and that happy outcome...
Little do they teach you of how to interact with the material that comes up when you're not focused on breath.
Like how when you work through your triggers and frustrations, of course you find it easier to be chill and let your thoughts go.
When you're over here heavy lifting trauma triggers that are anxiously jumping up to get attention, of course just breathing and letting it go is going to feel relaxing in comparison.
Like resting between reps at the gym. Duh.
But the doing the reps is, well, an important part, don’t you think?
So yes, meditation a practice of letting go. And, sometimes we have to find closure within ourselves before the letting go can be done. Sometimes it's big stuff. And that can take the work of patience & sitting with it until it works itself out.
Even when the closure is that itch on your ear that you’re not "supposed" to touch, the instruction for mindfulness meditation is to actually stop focusing on your breath for a couple of minutes and focus on the itch, instead.
Just observe it. Be with it. It’ll either go away in a minute, or you’ll find yourself leaning into it. Befriending it.
Either way, you'll stop suffering from the shit that's happening on, in & around your own body.
Then you realize that when an itch comes up, you don’t have to scratch it. You don't have to get frustrated when you can't scratch it. You have new tools now. Other stuff you can do. Including knowing when it's safe and okay to do nothing, which is just absolutely fucking beautiful to learn.
Meditation is a living metaphor for life.
You get to practice finding peace in the chaos of life by finding peace in the chaos of your own body.
That’s why it’s so helpful.
Anyway, How It Works In Full
So the logic is this:
- You sit down and start by focusing on the calmest thing you have. We'll use breath for this example.
- Thoughts start to come. And they’re supposed to. As any expected guests, we welcome them.
- You practice letting them go and coming back to your breath for as long as you can. This is how you know the stuff that’s no big deal and doesn’t have to distract you. You build a bit of a tolerance for this just practicing with the small stuff.
- It can help to label them. Label it “worry” or “thinking” or “desire” or "itch" or "pain" or whatever you want to describe it as. Same for body sensations and feelings that come up. Welcome it, label it, and let it go. Practice.
- When you start to get frustrated by something that won’t go away, even just a desire to get up off the cushion for no discernible reason, here’s your chance to really dig in!
- Quick! Zoom Out & move into 3rd person point of view!
- Throw on a compassion or child lens, look that frustrated part of yourself & get curious about it. What's this sweet little babe got so upset about in there, hm?
- If you need to, look this part of yourself in the eyes & say “hey what’s going on bb?”
- Sit with it and stay curious. Just get to know it and the emotions and sensations it’s bringing up. Remember, the discomfort will pass.
- If it gets intense, move back to your breath to regulate really quick. Remember your feet on the ground. Remember the safe environment you're in. Remember nothing's really happening. You're just hanging out with you right now. And you aren't here to hurt you. You're here to love you. You're safe, love.
- Even if you can only focus on 3 breaths before it comes back up, that quick break could help your nervous system enough to pay attention again without feeling activated.
- Stay with the thought for as long as it takes to feel some relief or feel “better”. Even if it's just marginally better. Feel noticeably better, then...
- Feel better? Congratulate yourself and get up now! Get up now! While you feel good!
Waiting until you feel good to get up is really important.
One of my meditation teachers taught me that and it was a game changer.
Now it’s like my mind loves to meditate more, because there’s no question that I always feel better when I do it.
So I get curious. About myself and what I find. And I get excited that whatever it is, I know I'm going to feel better afterward.
Anyway, that’s all. Great work.
Rooting for You,
P.S. I have a couple of spots coming open for clients. If you want one click here to book a call and see if we're a good fit.