“How can I meditate? My mind won’t stop, my thoughts race – it makes me want to give up!” It’s a familiar problem. Meditation sometimes feels like a thought-wrestling rodeo. But you’re not alone – intrusive thoughts are normal.
I laughed out loud when I first encountered that truth. I was a new meditator, reading a classic meditation book, The Cloud of Unknowing to try to learn more, because I was pretty sure I “wasn’t doing it right.” And here was a monk (or maybe a nun? It’s anonymous, after all) who spent hours each day in meditation, over years of practice – writing about intrusive thoughts.
What a relief!
It’s no different today. Father Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk who developed Centering Prayer, sees intrusive thoughts as a normal part of the process of quieting our minds and hearts. He says “acknowledge the thoughts, then smile, and refocus”.
But how do you “refocus”? What exactly can you do when your mind is full of ideas and plans, thoughts or worries, and they just won’t quit? Here are 5 ways you can move beneath those thoughts into deeper meditation.
1. Get ready.
The first part of effective meditation is preparation. Spend 20 minutes writing your thoughts and worries before you start to meditate. Just get them down on paper – no fancy writing, no looking for answers, and no censorship from “what I should think”. Write down thoughts as they come, no matter how irrational and crazy they may sound. In fact, the crazy ones are especially helpful! And then – wad it up and throw it away! Your right brain has released the thoughts, so they don’t need to circle any longer. Your left brain has processed the words, giving you some distance and a different perspective. Your brain knows what’s important, and will deal with it. The rest is irrelevant. Trash it.
Now your mind is ready to meditate.
2. Get friendly.
Even when you have prepared, thoughts will come. No worries – no fighting them off. When we fight with our intrusive thoughts, we end up focused on the very stuff we’re fighting. Welcome them, let them move on by, and notice what comes up next.
And smile. Remind yourself you are normal. Thoughts happen with meditation. It means you’re doing what you need to be doing. Good work!
3. Get intentional.
Notice your breathing. Become aware of where it happens, how it feels. Move into it. Be intentional with your breathing. Do 2 or 3 rounds of 4 x 4 breaths. Breathe in for 4 counts. Hold for 4 counts. Release for 4 counts. Rest for 4 counts. Notice how it feels. Then try a couple of rounds of 4-7-8 breathing. Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, release for 8. (Just don’t do too many of those, or you may find you’ve fallen asleep!) And just be.
4. Get spiritual.
Want to open your mind to a more spiritual experience? You can lift up and release each thought to the mind of God, and deepen your meditation. As you notice a frustrating, frightening or distracting thought, lift it up. And as you do, offer your thought and yourself into a larger truth.
“I lift up my thought to your truth.”
“I open my mind to your wisdom.”
“I release my heart to your love.”
See how it unfolds. Meditation can take you deeper than you’ve ever been before.
5. Get support.
Guided imagery lets you relax into meditation with someone who will show you the way. As you learn to meditate, or any time your peace is disturbed, guided imagery helps to focus your thoughts and deepen your meditation. Try it. The experience may surprise you. And it will be different every time.
More and more, as you become comfortable and learn to refocus, you’ll see intrusive thoughts as a natural part of your meditation journey.
And you can move deeper into the home in your heart.