There is no problem to have thoughts going through your mind during a meditation session. The thing is not to follow after them. Just let them come and fade away. Our habit is when a thought comes, we pay attention to it, and get into it. We follow it through to see where it is going. This is what we are aiming to change in meditation. It’s not about stopping our thoughts but about changing our habit in relation to them.
There is nothing like sitting down to meditate to make you realise how busy your mind is. People often tell me that they are not very good at meditation because they can’t stop their thoughts. First of all, it is a misconception to think that meditation is about stopping thoughts. It is not. It is a way of seeing thoughts for what they are and developing a different relationship with them.
A helpful image is of the sky and the clouds. Our minds are like the sky—spacious, vast, sparkling. Our thoughts and emotions are like clouds—sometimes light and fluffy, sometimes dark and looming. Whichever they are, they don’t stay and moreover, they do not stain the sky. When they pass away the sky is still as spacious and limitless as before.
It is because our minds have this sky-like quality that we notice when we get distracted. The more we notice our thoughts, the better we get at working with them. If we let thoughts come and go without grasping at them, then we can use the thoughts themselves as a way of waking up our awareness.
So, we could imagine sitting on our meditation seat and a thought comes into our mind, Oh I need to buy vegetables. We can just notice the thought—we can even label it ‘thinking’, or ‘thought’ if it helps. Then we place our attention back on the method. That way, each time a thought, or feeling carries our attention away, we use it to strengthen our meditation by bringing our attention back.
2. You get sleepy
It’s very natural to get sleepy. Generally, we are so busy and doing all kinds of things all the time. We actually take so little time to rest and just simply be. In meditation we get to sit and relax, so it is not so surprising that drowsiness sometimes overcomes us.
One thing you can try is to raise your gaze. I always recommend meditating with your eyes open. If you feel sleepy, just look up a little. Keep your gaze soft and not too highly focused.
Just stay with your meditation method and if you fall asleep, just wake up again and continue. The thing is not to get anxious or frustrated about it. Just feel that you had a couple of moments of deep rest. If it continues for several weeks – make sure to do your session in the morning, rather than in the evening when you are more tired.
3. You are bored
This can get us in two ways. Firstly, the fear of being bored can stop us getting to the meditation seat at all. We like to stay entertained and engaged and the thought of sitting quietly by oneself can seem daunting. In fact, there is even research that shows that people will even give themselves electric shocks rather than sit alone in silence. College students were asked to sit for 15 minutes alone in a plain room, with nothing to entertain them. Most people reported feeling uncomfortable and distracted. In a follow up experiment, 67% of the men and 24% of the women opted to give themselves electric shocks.
In meditation we do not have anything outside of ourselves to entertainus, and sometimes this can feel confronting. We might feel some excitement at beginning with meditation, but we quickly become used to the method and then we can feel restless and bored. It’s not unusual to have stretches of memories, and things that worry you come up. Then we notice we are lost in thoughts and remember to come back to the method and try to settle.
The more we do this, the more we do settle. Then we may begin to find our stories slightly boring and not as compelling we previously thought. This is the beginning of the process of coming to know ourselves fully through meditation.
4. You are uncomfortable
People often complain of back pain, knee pain, stiffness and pins and needles. We are not used to sitting still in a particular posture, so it is inevitable that some discomfort will arise. The thing is not to worry about and not to pay it too much attention.
If you feel slightly uncomfortable, then shift your posture slightly. If you feel very uncomfortable, stand up and stretch. Whatever you do to ease your discomfort, do it as part of your meditation—with mindfulness and awareness. Just pay attention to the discomfort lightly without reacting to it and making it into a big deal.
A traditional example
Often meditation teachers compare the early stages of learning to meditate as being like a waterfall. All our thoughts and emotions come crashing in with lots of noise and fuss. If we stay with it, this begins to settle, and the meditation becomes more like a mountain stream—active and bubbly but less chaotic. Eventually our meditation can become like a broad river flowing towards the sea—calm and serene.
This example goes to show that this is all natural, recognisable and simply part of learning to meditate.
What to take forward from all this
Getting used to meditation is so important for us. Most people do not have a habit of sitting still and being with their minds. It’s no wonder that all kinds of stuff come up. We just need to relax—it’s all fine. My meditation teacher always used to say to us that there is no such thing as a bad meditation. It’s all just meditation.
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For some time scientific research has been making the case for being kind at work. Now, increasingly work-based studies are also encouraging making kindness a conscious part of any workplace culture.
The science shows that being kind can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamilton explains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised. Anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. In his ground-breaking book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks documented the good feeling that you get from helping others and which is now referred to as the Helpers’ High.
Being kind at work builds on all these health benefits but goes further. Because kindness nurtures our instinct to connect, it helps to build better relationships and produce more effective teamwork. Whereas negativity tends to limit our scope and bring us down, kindness inspires and elevates us. It is also a key to successful innovation because people feel heard and valued and less afraid to suggest new and interesting ideas.
So why is kindness not part of every training programme and top of every staff development initiative? The answer is that although all the evidence points to its effectiveness, we still feel that being actively kind at work will leave us over-exposed and vulnerable.
A personal story
Last week I had to go along for my quarterly check-up with the rheumatology consultant. Over the years, I have had a series of doctors helping me. This was my second appointment with this new doctor and the extraordinary thing was that I came away feeling better than when I went in. There had not been any break-through, or outstanding good news but I felt heard, respected, seen and understood. The doctor had been alert, well-informed, and fully aware—and she had been kind. Her kindness was empathic but not sticky; practical but warm and most of all, she saw me as another human being.
It got me thinking about why we are so cautious about being kind at work. I came up with five reasons.
We are not always present and aware
In my story with the doctor I mentioned that she was alert and fully aware. In my experience, when people are operating from a sense of awareness, they see themselves and other people, as well as the situation they find themselves with more clarity. This gives a sense of confidence which makes showing kindness easier.
The thing is that we are not always present and aware. Research carried out at Harvard University in 2010 shows that for almost 47% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. Our tendency for our minds to wander away undermines our ability to be fully present and tends to muddy our view of what we are doing, and how we are doing it.
Meditation is one of the most effective ways of working with our minds and increasing our awareness.
Stress narrows our focus
Although our brains are hard-wired for kindness, these impulses can get blocked when we are over-focused on ourselves. The pressure of the daily round at work can increase our stress levels and make this tendency worse.
When we are stressed and overwhelmed at work, then we tend to operate on survival mode. This means that we focus on managing what we need to do to get through each day. Our focus narrows and we are not inspired to reach out to others, or to try and see things from a different perspective.
It is very hard to inspire a culture of kindness in a workplace where people are overwhelmed and burnt-out.
There is often insufficient leadership culture to support kindness
It would be hard to over-state the importance of a leadership in building a culture of kindness in a workplace. Jonathan Haidt has researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. Elevation happens when we see someone being kind to someone else—we do not even need to be involved ourselves. When a leader is fair, supportive and interested in his/her team then his/her employees experienced an increase in wellbeing. Remember that the actions of a leader are magnified by all the people they are responsible for. Their every action takes on additional importance. An ethical and people-focused boss who takes time to get to know people and their concerns will instil a greater sense of loyalty and commitment in the people they manage. In addition, people will be more likely to be kind and supportive of others. The knock-on effect is powerful.
We think we don’t have time for kindness
We can think that being kind at work is going to take extra time and effort and that there is not enough space for it at work.
A study carried out at Princeton Theological Seminary tells an interesting story. A group of divinity students were told they were going to deliver a practice sermon. Half the students were given the topic of the Good Samaritan and the other were given random topics. One by one they were told to go and deliver their sermon—some were told to hurry, others were told they were late, a third group was allowed to go at their own pace. As they went from one building to another they passed a person (an actor) lying on the floor in distress and calling for help. More than 60% of the students failed to stop and help—whether they were going to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan or not. The deciding factor in whether someone offered to help or not was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. Only 10% of those advised to rush stopped to help, whereas 63% of those who thought they had time stopped to help.
We are afraid that kindness will make us vulnerable
All too often we assume a more public persona when we go to work. We keep our ‘private self’ for when we are at home, and with people who care about us. Somehow we worry that kindness will undermine this shield we throw up around our deeper feelings and interests. If we appear vulnerable we are afraid that will leave us exposed. Author and researcher Brené Brown gave one of the most successful TED talks of all time on the Power of Vulnerability.
Judging from the millions of people who have viewed her talk, she touched on something very deep and vital for our wellbeing.
She believes that the ability to be vulnerable is the key to authenticity and to what she calls, wholehearted living. Certainly is a workplace setting, vulnerability is a key to fostering innovation because it helps to create an environment where people feel safe to challenge set ways of thinking and bring in new ideas. It can also improve motivation, teamwork and positive identification with leadership.
Some strategies we can try out straight away
Meditation helps us to calm down and settle, however busy we are. It brings us back in touch with ourselves and enables us to be more aware of ourselves and other people. From that place, kindness comes naturally.
Here’s a simple meditation that I often use in workshops:
Sit comfortably—relaxed and yet alert
Check in with your body and ease any tight spots
Check in with your mood—how are you feeling?
—Don’t judge, just notice
Become aware of your breathing
—stay with where the sensation is most vivid for you