Quieting Your Thoughts: Effortless Meditation Techniques For Busy People With Busy Minds
BY LIGHT WATKINS
Meditation For Busy People With Busy Minds
The key to succeeding in meditation is to treat all thoughts as a legitimate part of the meditating experience, regardless of the content. Say it with me: All thoughts matter. This is not hyperbole. The more we celebrate our thinking mind, the more transcendent and blissful our experiences will be in meditation and consequently, the richer and more spacious our experiences will become outside of mindfulness and meditation.
+ The first step in celebrating the mind is to get rid of the word “distracting” when describing our unrelated thoughts in meditation.
+ The next step is to liberate ourselves from the need to witness, let go of, or replace those previously unrelated thoughts with more focused or wholesome thoughts.
+ Third, we should absolve ourselves from the need to focus on any thoughts in particular or actively ignore them.
Instead of practicing exclusivity, we’re going to begin practicing the opposite—treating all meditation thoughts, sensations, emotions, desires, feelings, inspirations, or anything else we may be thinking about while meditating as 100 percent legitimate. To appreciate this novel approach, it helps to see the bigger picture of how the previously labeled distracting thoughts play a useful role in our meditation process.
The five zones of meditation are: focused thinking, random thinking, mixture of random thoughts and daydreams, dreams, and the settled mind. These five zones encapsulate all the mental experiences that you might have within a given meditation. The “random thinking” zone is a deliberate word choice and an effort to help you stop seeing random thoughts in meditation as distractions (obstacles) and start seeing them simply as any thoughts that are unrelated to the knowledge (awareness) that you’re meditating.
Focused thinking is thinking exclusively about the task at hand, which in the case of meditation may be thoughts related to the act of meditating:
“I’m sitting on my couch meditating . . .”
“My mind is very busy while I’m meditating . . .”
“This meditation feels long . . .”
Random thinking includes thoughts that are relevant to your life, but they are otherwise unrelated to the act of meditating:
“I want to have macaroni for dinner . . .”
“I forgot to call the dentist to make an appointment . . .”
“Why hasn’t my friend messaged me back . . . ?”
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Next we have a mixture of random thoughts and daydreams. Daydreams are thoughts that may make partial sense but are experienced as even more random and fragmented than normal unrelated thoughts, such as:
“I should go back to college to become a circus clown . . .”
“Maybe I’ll be a clown who entertains elephants . . .”
“But only if the elephants are from Cleveland . . .”
Then we have meditation thoughts that are interpretations of dreams. In other words, these are thoughts that either don’t make any sense or are predominantly related to sensations, emotions, or feelings, such as colored lights; feelings of floating, heaviness, or numbness (loss of feeling); or spontaneous fits of laughing, sadness, guilt, shock, or tiredness:
“That shade of blue is beautiful . . .”
“I can’t feel my hands . . .”
“I’m getting sleepy . . .”
And finally, we have the settled mind, where pure bliss is directly experienced—pure bliss being another name for the experience of samadhi (union with the divine) or nirvana (supreme inner peace and serenity).
To the novice, to calm the mind like this sounds like an impossibly mercurial experience that would take great effort or intense concentration to reach, but it’s quite normal and requires no more effort than having a dream while taking a nap. In the settled-mind zone, the pure bliss becomes so great that the thinking process spontaneously comes to a halt, without you having to try to quiet your thoughts. In terms of awareness, the settled state is the deepest state achievable through meditation. The irony is that the meditator is left with little to no awareness that they are achieving it in the moments when they are achieving it.
We’ll discuss later how you will know your mind was settled despite the fact that you won’t be aware of it in the moment. This may sound like you’ll “miss the bliss”—how can you know you were experiencing it if you didn’t realize it at the time? But you will know, mainly because of how you will show up outside of meditation.
The Correct Way to Meditate?
When I began dabbling in meditation, one of the instructions I heard repeated, mainly by my yoga teacher peers, was how there is no correct way to meditate—meaning there is no way to meditate that works best for everyone. Instead, the meditator should tap into how they are feeling in the moment and practice a simple meditation technique appropriate to how they feel.
I know about this shortcoming from direct experience with another learned skill that everyone seemed to know how to do but me: swimming. I didn’t learn how to swim properly until I was in my thirties. That’s not to say I never swam before that. In fact, when I was about ten years old I figured out how to doggy paddle. And then I learned how to tread water with the peanut butter-spreading arm motion when I was a teenager. So if I was just frolicking around in the pool, I would be fine, as long as I didn’t have to tread for too long. Much more than about a half a minute of treading water, however, and I would go into a full-blown panic.
Now, if you know how to swim, you might think that knowing how to doggy-paddle and tread water provided me with a good base to learn the rest. But I’m proof that truly swimming— moving your arms and legs in sync—is not as intuitive as it may appear, particularly if you didn’t put the movements together until you were an adult, like me. My inefficiencies in swimming were embarrassingly exposed while on vacation one summer in Hawaii.
I found myself in a once-in-a-lifetime dream situation, hiking with a buddy of mine (who happened to be an expert swimmer) and four beautiful women along the gorgeous coastline of Maui. We arrived at a volcanic rock overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and one of the women suggested that we strip down to our birthday suits and dive into the sea for a swim around the bend, which meant jumping off the jagged rock we were standing on into choppy ocean water, and navigating around to the other side—at least fifteen hundred feet of ocean swimming. Because the rock stood about ten feet above sea level, once I jumped in, there was no way to get back out. I would be committed. Obviously, I had a major dilemma.
Meanwhile, my buddy couldn’t get his clothes off fast enough, and within seconds everyone was diving into the ocean, leaving me behind, topless, shoulders slumped, visualizing the horror and embarrassment of needing to be rescued by one of the women while naked and drowning. As I watched them all swim like dolphins away from the rock, I yelled out over the thunderclap of the unforgiving waves that I would “stay back to watch our clothes.” Even though there was no one around for miles, this was the least emasculating excuse I could think of. Then I quietly vowed to never allow myself to be in that situation again. In fact, my buddy still teases me about it to this day: “Hey, Light, why don’t you stay back and, uh, watch our clothes?” The first thing I did upon returning home to Los Angeles was to go down to the local community pool and sign up for some basic swimming lessons.
Cut to me on my first day of swim class, surrounded in the West Hollywood city pool by children of all ages who were also learning to swim. The coach instructed me to swim the length of the pool to assess my abilities. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by needing her to jump in and save me on my first lesson, so I pleaded for her to just teach me under the assumption that I didn’t know anything at all. But she insisted.
Reluctantly I waded into the shallow end, held my breath, pushed off the wall, and started flapping my arms and legs in my best impression of a swimmer. I had no idea what I was doing. And after no more than ten meters, all of my energy was spent, I was taking in water, my chest was on fire, and my life began passing before my eyes.
In a panic, I clutched and clawed my way through what felt like an ocean over to the side of the pool and held on for dear life, as if I had just completed an Ironman competition in record time.
“Okay, good,” my new coach said with a reassuring smile, as if she’d just witnessed me cross the Ironman finish line. “Let’s start from the beginning.”
She got me out of the pool and started teaching me the fundamentals. She showed me how to elongate my body, how to kick my legs, how to twist from side to side so that I could breathe in the water properly. In short, she was teaching me the pieces I’d need to put together to swim freestyle. Then she drilled me over the next several lessons until each individual skill became second nature.
For me this course was revolutionary, and completely changed my relationship with water. Over the first month, I began to learn how to move in concert with the water instead of fighting it. I noticed that whenever I fought the water, it became my enemy, slowing me down and threatening to drown me. But when I practiced lengthening my body, extending my arms, breathing and moving with less effort, the water instantly became friendlier and would assist me as I glided across to the other side. If I stopped moving altogether, the water would support me gently while I caught my breath. If I fought, the water would turn and immediately begin to sink me.
Before long, I was able to swim effortlessly from one side of the pool to the other side. As I mastered the fundamentals, my decades-long panic around large bodies of water transformed into delight. After another month or so of practice, I was finally getting it—do less to accomplish more.
Swimming requires repetition more than anything else (just like calming the mind and achieving the benefits of meditation). There’s so much to remember initially, but after you swim a thousand laps, you get out of your head, stop analyzing everything, and start moving with maximum efficiency and effectiveness. I couldn’t believe it. Something that had eluded me my entire life now seemed as natural as breathing.
After my swimming training, I could go into a pool and swim a mile with relative ease. I could go into the ocean and swim with confidence. And if I’m in another position to go skinny-dipping off a volcanic rock in Hawaii, I’ll be the first one to dive in.
The point is, when it comes to thoughts during meditation, you are essentially learning how to navigate the thing that every new meditator is deathly afraid of—their thinking mind. Or their busy mind. Or their distracted mind. Or their monkey mind. Or whatever they want to call it. To the untrained meditator, their mind is as scary as that ocean was to me on that day I stood on that jagged rock, looking at the waves crashing, and imagining the worst possible outcome—humiliation, then death by drowning. But if you know how to swim, it doesn’t matter how much water is in front of you. If you know how to meditate, it doesn’t matter how busy your mind is.
Meditation is never about stopping your thoughts, in the same way that swimming is never about stopping the water. Rather, swimming is about learning how to move in concert with the water so you can glide through it and have fun. Likewise, the skill of meditation is about learning how to navigate the contours of the thinking mind so you can glide from the busy focused-thinking zone down into the blissful settled-mind zone.
Go E.A.S.Y On Your Mind
Any swimming style can get you from one side of the pool to the other. It could be the breaststroke, the backstroke, the butterfly stroke, or the freestyle stroke. The only question is, how hard do you want to work? If you ask any swimmer which of the four main techniques is the easiest to learn and practice for a beginner, most will agree that the freestyle technique is the one you always want to start with. Is the freestyle stroke the only “correct” way to swim? No. Is it the easiest for getting from one side of the pool to the other? Yes. And will it teach you the fundamentals (in this case, the hydrodynamics) for the other strokes? Absolutely.
In the same way, any mindfulness meditation technique can get you to bliss. But the question is the same: how hard do you want to work? What I’m going to show you is not the only meditation technique, nor is it the only “correct” technique, but in my extensive experience, it is by far the simplest meditation technique to begin with, and in practicing it, you will experience bliss (and learn the fundamentals of how to meditate in the process). It is the meditation equivalent of the freestyle swimming technique. And the key to practicing it is to keep everything easy. Do less to accomplish more. To help you remember how to be in meditation, I’ve created the E.A.S.Y. meditation approach—and now you’ll learn what each of those letters stands for.
How to Keep Meditation Feeling E.A.S.Y.
E.A.S.Y is an acronym for the four key principles of the meditation technique. You’re going to apply these principles to all meditation thoughts, noises, and sensations you experience—not just the positive ones but the negative ones, too. Each E.A.S.Y. principle will help you form an always-reliable foundation for your daily practice, making meditation feel easy and relaxing. That way you’ll reap its many benefits, especially those that occur outside of meditation itself. These principles don’t necessarily build upon one another, so don’t think of them as progressive. Instead, call to mind each of the four principles as you become aware of your mind wandering in meditation.
E = EMBRACE
Embrace means you want to practice allowing the existence of all of your thoughts and experiences. If you feel like you’re dreaming, embrace all of your dreams, embrace your sleepiness, all noises, or anything that you previously considered distracting in meditation. Embracing your experiences will help your meditations remain easy, go by very fast, and give you maximum benefit.
A = ACCEPTANCE
Now take embracing one step further: accept. Acceptance means that you want to cultivate an attitude that whatever is happening in your meditation is what should be happening. That includes happy thoughts, sad thoughts, negative thoughts, sleep, dreams, wondering about the time, and feeling antsy. No need to resist or reject any of those thoughts.
S = SURRENDER
Surrender is another directive that implies embracing and accepting, but it refers specifically to your expectations. In other words, be willing at all times to surrender your idea of how you feel your meditation should be progressing. You ideally don’t want to be locked into an agenda of “This is what I should be experiencing in meditation.” Instead, you want to practice surrendering to whatever meditation thoughts, sensations, noises, or distractions are happening in the moment.
Y = YIELD
Yield complements the principles of embrace, accept, and surrender. It’s so important to be open to whatever is happening in your meditation. As you’ll see, yielding is easier said than done. If you’ve tried and failed at quieting your thoughts in meditation, it’s likely because you’ve been conditioned to do the exact opposite of the E.A.S.Y. approach. Think about what we’ve been trained to believe it takes to be successful in most life endeavors: working hard, control, focus, diligence, remembering important information. That indoctrination will inevitably show up in your process and make your meditations feel hard and clunky. So whenever you catch yourself attempting to control your mind in meditation, remember to return to your E.A.S.Y. approach, and yield to whatever else is happening in your experiences.
By following these four principles, your meditation will go from this experience, where your mind feels trapped in the busy surface zone of focused thinking . . .
. . . to this experience, where your mind becomes progressively de-excited, until it becomes settled.
The E.A.S.Y. Meditation Technique
1. Sit comfortably.
2. Use an easy-to-see timing device, ideally not an alarm.
3. Calculate your finish time (ten to twenty minutes).
4. Close your eyes.
5. Passively think the sound “ah-hum.”
6. Let yourself simultaneously get lost in your thoughts.
7. When you remember that you’re meditating, passively begin thinking “ah-hum” again.
8. Peek freely and often at the time.
9. Once you’re done, wait a minute or two before opening your eyes.
10. Come out slowly.
Meditate once in the morning, upon awakening, for ten to twenty minutes. Sit up and make sure you have comfortable back support. Meditate again once in the afternoon or early evening for ten to twenty minutes. Do not exceed two meditations per day.
This article is excerpted with permission from Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying by Light Watkins. Copyright © 2018 by Light Watkins. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.
About The Author
Light Watkins has been practicing and teaching in the meditation space since 1998. He travels the world giving talks on happiness, mindfulness, and meditation, as well as leading trainings and retreats. To date, Watkins has shared his knowledge with thousands through his live courses, books, and online trainings. He contributes to wellness blogs and writes a popular email newsletter called Light’s Daily Dose of Inspiration. Watkins’s TEDx talk has garnered hundreds of thousands of views, and he is the founder of The Shine Movement, a global movement with a mission to inspire. Visit his website: lightwatkins.com.